Bradshaw back pocket
Our very own Michael Portillo arms himself with an 1863 Bradshaw and tackles the Cotswold Line, from Oxford to Worcester
I fancy myself a mini Michael Portillo. OK, I don’t have the garish pink jacket, green trouser combo preferred by the erstwhile politician cum TV travelogue host, but
I do have an 1863 Bradshaw (that’s the tatty railway guide that Mr P. consults, that lays out a town’s credentials and gives him clues re. where to stay). I’ve decided to tackle the Cotswold Line, not the whole of it, but the bit between Oxford and Worcester, and I’m going to let my Bradshaw be my guide. If you wished, you could carry on through the Malverns to Hereford, but I’ll leave that for another journey.
First, a tiny bit of history. The line betwixt Oxford and Worcester came about by virtue of an Act of Parliament of 1845 and opened six years later in 1851 as the ‘Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway’ (yes, it had industrial pretensions in those days). Railway company acronyms (OW&WR in this case) often gave the wags food for thought, and for this one they came up with the ‘Old Worse & Worse’. Then, a dozen years after the opening of the line came my Bradshaw. I’d like to say it’s a battered original like Mike’s but it’s actually a facsimile, as my budget doesn’t run to such extravagances. *note to editor*
I promised myself that I wouldn’t throw in any ‘dreaming spires’ clichés when eulogising about Oxford but I see that I did already in an oblique manner. So, in 1863 Oxford had a modest population of 27,560 (155,000 today). The station is a mile from the city centre, and I should stay at the Clarendon, Mitre or Roebuck. The Clarendon is an interesting one for it was a coaching inn for 400-odd years (The Star), changing its name to the Clarendon in, wait for it, 1863. My
Bradshaw did well to capture that. The hotel was demolished in 1954 to make way for Woolworths and the site is now the Clarendon Centre (shopping). The Mitre was another coaching inn that ceased trading in 1969 whilst the Roebuck, yet another coaching inn, was closed in 1924, and although largely demolished the year after, much of the façade has been retained for today’s Boots. I’m already thinking that my Bradshaw is a snapshot on a departed world, but maybe I’ll have more luck when I set off down the line. It’s time for undulating hills, pleasing church spires (spires again) and that essential Cotswold Stone. Bring it on.
Hanborough (today’s spelling) was Handborough (of 1853) in my Bradshaw, which mentions Blenheim Park and the ½ million quid that was ‘expended’ in Queen Anne’s reign to build magnificent Blenheim Palace for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill. There was a library of 17,000 volumes (a few more than I have) and a costly collection of paintings, well, until ‘recently’ (1861) as a fire a couple of years prior to my guide had carried much of that off. The park extended to some 2,700 acres. Bradshaw
wasn’t to know that Hanborough had fame awaiting it just over a century later when it was the destination for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train (January 1965), it being the nearest station to his resting place at Bladon. The station lost its ‘d’ in 1992.
My guide now moves on to Charlbury, ignoring the fact that there are two ‘stops’ before that at Combe & Finstock, except that your train probably won’t stop at either. The reason Bradshaw omitted them is their much later opening, Combe in 1935 and Finstock the year before (as ‘Finstock Halt’). Both stations are basic, single-platform affairs, with just one train in each direction a day (none at the weekend). Combe has a little shelter down below at road level, whilst Finstock has one on the platform. As railway stations go, they’re not grand, but they’ve survived, unlike one rather famous one that we’ll come to later on this journey. There’s also another that closed, then re-opened.
‘At Moreton-in-marsh, Bradshaw urges me to stay at either the Unicorn or the White Hart’
Meanwhile, back in my Bradshaw, the Bell is recommended at Charlbury and
I’ve scored. It’s a ‘beautiful 18th century Cotswold stone building’ located at the heart of town. I’m disappointed Bradshaw doesn’t expand on Charlbury, which I know has a population of a little under 3,000 today, an old church, St. Mary’s, that has 12th-century ‘bits’ and Saxon antecedents, and a rather nice Jacobean drinking fountain (1897) that was erected to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria. The railway station itself (1853) is a ‘beaut’ as it has its original Grade II Listed wooden chalet-style structure, which is very ‘Brunellian Italianate’. Bradshaw seems more interested in the surrounding area, for example, Ditchley (two miles distant), which he points out was the birthplace of the ‘notorious Lord Rochester’ (this would be John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl, 1647-80, who was known for his ‘rakish’ lifestyle and his ‘bawdy’ poetry). I say. Bradshaw also mentions Wychwood Forest, which I’m coming to.
Wychwood, or Wychwood Forest, is
a 1,240 acre SSSI north of Witney. Bradshaw describes it as ‘a fine wooded track of much sylvan beauty’. A hunting lodge was built here for Henry VII and most of the Tudor monarchs stayed here whilst hunting in the forest, including that piggy-eyed, bad-tempered, ultimately gout-ridden porky named Henry VIII. Bradshaw dismisses Ascott station, another one of 1853 (Ascottunder-wychwood from 1880) merely stating that we pass it before arriving at Shipton. Ascott and Shipton are two of three ‘under-wychwoods’, the other being Milton. Bradshaw is more effusive at Shipton (also 1853), although he says nothing about Shipton itself, preferring to extol the virtues of Burford, four miles south, and ramble on about a dustup of 752 AD, the so-called ‘Battle of Burford’, fought between the rival Anglo-saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.
I’ve arrived at Kingham, which Bradshaw doesn’t mention (as such). It opened as ‘Chipping Norton Junction’ in 1855 when the branch to ‘the ancient town’ opened and my guide eulogises about the place, peppering his description with not only ‘ancient’ but ‘venerable’. In 1862, a further branch opened to Bourton-on-the-water, ‘a small village on the side of a Roman Foss-way’. C.N. Jcn. must have been busy, but it’s a junction no more, as the branches (of the Banbury & Cheltenham Direct Railway) were closed in the 1960s. The station had been renamed Kingham in 1909. Adlestrop is a closed station on the mainline, immortalised by an Edward Thomas poem, as is Stow Road, as the name suggests, the nearest station for Stow-on-the-wold. Both are mentioned in my Bradshaw.
At Moreton-in-marsh, Bradshaw urges me to stay at either the Unicorn or the White Hart. The Grade II Listed Unicorn has been recently refurbished and now offers bookable, serviced suites, whilst the White Hart Royal is a 17th-century coaching inn that had Charles I stay a couple of times and is Moreton’s most centrally-placed hotel. Bradshaw describes the Market House and gets another mention in of the ‘Foss Way’ before we head on our way again through the closed stations of Blockley and Campden, arriving at Honeybourne, which was the junction for the Stratford-on-avon Branch, so off Bradshaw goes to ‘Bard’s-ville’. Honeybourne (1853) closed in 1969 but reopened in 1981 and now awaits the arrival of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway.
My guide and I have arrived at Evesham, where I grew up. The station is a ¼ mile from the town and I’m urged to stay at the Crown, which is in Bridge Street, but no longer a hotel. Evesham, population 4,680 (c.24,500 today) was (and is) ‘engaged chiefly in agriculture’ with ‘a little stocking and ribbon manufacture’ and ‘remarkable for the mitred Abbey’. I have some Evesham asparagus growing in my garden. We pass through Fladbury (closed) to arrive at Pershore, where the station is inconveniently two miles from the town, so we would have needed a conveyance to get us to the Angel, which continues to operate in the High Street. The ‘staple manufacture here is stockings’ and Pershore’s abbey also gets an airing. John Betjeman contributed a poem about the station. Worcestershire Parkway is the newest station on the route, having only opened in February 2020. It provides a split-level interchange between our Cotswold Line and the Cross Country Bristol-birmingham route. I like to think Bradshaw would have been impressed.
And so, we sidle into Worcester Shrub Hill and the end of our journey. This is the city of my birth, the ‘Faithful’ or ‘Loyal’ city due to Worcester’s steadfast support for the Royal party in the English Civil War. Bradshaw offers lots of options for accommodation (five), as you’d expect in a city of 31,227 (c.100,000 today). The station’s most notable feature is its Victorian Grade II* Listed former ladies’ waiting room on Platform 2B. I exit the station, with my facsimile Bradshaw in my hand, and head into the city for some diversionary activity.
Bradshaw’s Handbook, 1863 (facsimile copy, 2012). Oxford Mail (www.oxfordmail.co.uk) Oxford History (www.oxfordhistory.org. uk) The Bell Inn, Charlbury (www. thebellinncharlbury.com) Charlbury Church (www.charlburychurch. co.uk) White Hart, Moreton (www. whitehartroyal.co.uk) Worcester News (www.worcesternews.co.uk)