It must have been quite a moment in the mid 19th century for the local population of the Rhee valley when the railway navvies arrived and started to lay out a new railway line from Royston towards Cambridge.The environmental impact was considerable as the ground was cleared, embankments were laid and culverts built over the numerous streams and drains in this low-lying river basin.
The economic impact on the valley was equally significant, both directly in terms of the creation of local jobs at the stations and crossings, but also as a stimulus to the creation of new local industries as the railway provided quick freight transport to London and other markets.
The history of the railway line in the Rhee valley, running from Royston to Cambridge is not straightforward. It’s an excellent example of the way in which private enterprise and speculation were the driving forces behind the development of our early railway system. This lead to a good deal of competition over the establishment of lines, which could lead to delay and obtstruction as different companies vied for control of what might be considered profitable routes. On the continent in France and other countries there was a greater degree of state control and planning.
In 1848 the Great Northern Railway (GNR) recieved parliamentary approval for plans to extend a branch line towards Cambridge. The GNR had already held a lease on the Royston and Hitchen Railway. This double tracked line of 13 miles was completed on the 21st October, 1850.
In order to block the GNR the the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) had plans in place for a railway from Cambridge to Bedford, passing through Shepreth, sanctioned in parliament in 1847. The plans were approved but not acted upon due to ECR’s lack of funds. However The effect of these plans was to obstruct the building of an alternative direct line from London to Cambridge via Hitchin in competition with the ECR’s established Liverpool St. route.
Yet in 1848 the Royston & Hitchin Railway was granted powers to extend from Royston as far as the junction with the intended ECR station at Shepreth. The Royston-Shepreth extension was opened on 1st August 1851. Shepreth was at that time a terminus. Onward travel for passengers to Cambridge was provided for a short while by a four horse omnibus service five times a day to Trinity Street in Cambridge. The combined journey time was 130 minutes. Through ticketing was provided at the railway company’s offices in Trinity Street and fares were lower than the ECR route but the venture did not make a profit.
Under an agreement between the ECR and GNR the former abandoned plans for a cross country line to Bedford via Shepreth and built a single line from Shelford to Shepreth with an end-on junction. This was opened in April 1852 with other local stations at Harston, Foxton and Meldreth. The ECR took a 14 year lease on the Royston and Hitchin Railway, receiving all the branch revenue and 60% of revenue deriving from south of Hitchen. Under this agreement the ECR ran three then four daily services (two on Sunday) between Cambridge and Hitchen.
Meanwhile the GNR was still considering plans for a direct route from Kings X to Cambridge, even going so far as to consider a separate line from Shepreth to Cambridge. One proposal was to make use of a section of the Cambridge-Bedford line, opened in 1862, taking a route from Shepreth through Barrington and Haslingfield and connecting to the Cambridge-Bedford line one and a half miles on the Cambridge side of Lord’s Bridge station. Presumably this line would have crossed the river Rhee before the confluence with the Granta and skirted the side of Chapel Hill. Another proposal was to make use of the ECR line from Shepreth but with a separate terminus in central Cambridge. All such plans were oppsed by the Great Eastern (ECR Holding company)
In the end a compromise was established, under an Act in 1864, conceding to the GNR full running powers from Shepreth to the existing Cambridge station, with facilities and a separate platform. Under this agreement the ECR were to lay a double track from Cambridge to Shepreth, allowing the running of express services. This was due to be completed on the last day of the ECR’s lease (31.3.1866) but was delayed until the following year. However on April 1st, 1866 the Great Northern began a through service between Cambridge and King’s Cross, notwithstanding the 5 miles of single track.
The ECR’s financial position was weak and the track and facilities had not been well maintained. On the 3rd July 1866 rotten sleepers contributed to a train derailment near Royston in which two locomotive men were killed and nine passengers injured.
From 1 April 1866 the GNR introduced an express service between Kings X and Cambridge, with a running time of 95 minutes. By 1883 a journey time of 85 minutes had been established.
From 1932 five daily ‘Cambridge Buffet Expresses’ ran, eventually reducing the time from Cambridge to Kings X to 72 minutes. This service was restored after the war in 1948 and has remained a popular route ever since. Harston station was closed on 17 June 1963 under the Beeching Proposals.
(Main sources: The Regional History of the Railways in Great Britain, vol 5, The Eastern Counties; M.R. Bonavia, The Cambridge Line, 1995. Railways to Cambridge. Actual and Proposed, R.B.Fellows, 1948, reprint 1976. Potters Bar to Cambridge, V. Mitchell and Allan Mott, 2006).
Local trade and London markets
Shepreth station was open to goods traffic until 1965 and the sidings and related buildings can still be seen, now the site for local offices and parking.
Licenses to dig coprolites were granted in Shepreth in 1870 and 1885 and at other times in neighbouring parishes. This material was shipped in bulk from local stations including Meldreth and Shepreth.
In the late 19th century the existence of the railway stimulated the development of cement works and quarries extracting local gravel and chalk. By 1890 the Rhee Valley Portland Cement Co. was established on the Barrington Road not far from Shepreth station, with sidings at the station. The works of the East Anglian Cement Co. (est. 1891) were sited just outside Shepreth station by the down line to Cambridge, with connecting sidings. There was also a tramline connecting the station with a small quarry near the Shepreth-Barrington bridge.
Sanctioned by a Light Railway Order of 1920, a branch freight line was also built connecting the Barrington cement works with the railway at Foxton station. Work on the cement works started in 1913 but was delayed due to the outbreak of war in 1914 and financial problems thereafter. The Barrington Light Railway was incoporated in 1924 and production finally began in 1927 under Eastwoods Cement Ltd. The railway was one and a half miles long with three road crossings. The Rugby Portland Cement Co took over the works in 1962. Large amounts of coal, petroleum coke and gypsum were delivered to the site by railway. This branch line was still in use in the early 1990s. There was also a narrow gauge railway on site between the quarry and the works until the mid 1970s. (For more information see ‘Potters Bar To Cambridge’, Mitchell and Mott, cited above.)
At Meldreth the Atlas Stone Company (now Eternit) built a tramline in 1901 to transport asbestos products to Meldreth station for onward delivery. (See Meldreth Local History website for more details).
In c.1891 water cress beds of about 100 acres were laid down near the springs rising from Black Peak, at Fowlmere, and produce was transported by horse and cart to Shepreth railway staion for onward distribution to the markets of London, Manchester and other cities. This trade was ceased in the mid 1960s.
The valley of the Rhee was well known for its fruit orchards and it is likely that the harvested produce was sent on to Cambridge, London and elsewere from local stations. The Chivers Jam factory was established near Cambridge. A large influx of fruit pickers from London travelled up to South Cambridgehsire during the harvest season, no doubt using the third class carriages on the railway.
All the stations between Royston and Cambridge had goods yards in operation until the mid 1960s.
Any comments, with further information or corrections greatfully received!