OM Memories – The Marlborough Special Train and other reminiscences

George Long (B1 1960-64)

Like most Marlburians, my name will never be emblazoned on the Chapel walls, and that invitation to sherry at the Master’s Lodge after the Sunday morning service has not yet appeared. But perhaps I can claim to have been present at one mildly significant occasion: the final journey of the Marlborough College Special train from Paddington in 1964.

We must presume that there was an exchange of letters between the College and the Great Western Railway around the 1920s when arrangements were made for a special train to be run six times each year between Paddington and Marlborough at the beginning and end of each term.

So it was that I appeared at Paddington in September 1960. On the departure board near one of the platforms could be seen a notice bearing the words MARLBOROUGH COLLEGIANS ONLY. The usual commuters were no doubt somewhat discomfited to find a platform alteration, but we quickly boarded the train. Far away at the other end was a steam locomotive preparing for departure. No, I did not make a note of the name or number of our motive power but it was probably a Hall or even a Castle class.

The journey proceeded along the expected route through Reading, which was then known as Reading General. After Newbury as we looked to our left we could clearly see the remains of the old Kennet and Avon Canal, with dips in the ground indicating where locks had been situated long ago. Lock gates hung on, at crazy angles as a thin trickle of water flowed feebly through the gaps. Of one thing we were quite certain: never again would any pleasure or commercial craft go through those locks or along any stretch of the decrepit waterway.

We flashed through Bedwyn and then the train began to slow down as we approached Savernake (Low Level). We halted briefly at Savernake Station and then set out on the final leg of our journey, the five miles to Marlborough. On arrival we looked hopefully for a fleet of coaches to take us to our final destination – but in vain. It was a case of “Take up your overnight bag and walk”. And walk we did: heading down the hill and then left into George Lane. Like a tropical beast shedding its skins, the Marlburian “crocodile” lost first those heading for the Priory, then the various in-houses, Preshute, Barton Hill, Littlefield and Cotton House and finally a few stragglers (of whom I was one) arrived at Upcot. Upcot was variously described as “the last western outpost of the Marlburian Empire” or “half way to Avebury”. If you accuse me of hyperbole, O reader, I invite you to try the walk yourself.

Waiting to greet us was our Housemaster, Mr ED Smith and his wife, and a Jeeves-like figure was in attendance. This was Mr Munday, resplendent in a white jacket, but whether the jacket had gold buttons or not is sadly lost to memory. Our Marlburian career had begun.

Later that term, the Master announced to us that the Western Region of British Railways had informed the College that, for operational reasons, the Special train would have to leave Marlborough Station at the unfriendly hour of 6.58am. So the long walk to the station we had made the previous September was repeated in the opposite direction. As we walked along the pavements gleaming with frost the buildings along our route were patches of dark blotting out the starry sky.

When we arrived at the station, the scene was like something out of Anna Karenina. At the front of the train the steam locomotive crew were nursing the fire into life, and the empty carriages awaited us. The heating in the train was powered by the steam from the locomotive and worked superbly – by the time we reached Ealing Broadway.

The end of term train took a different route, heading northwards towards Swindon. We cleared the frost from the train windows and could dimly discern stations such as “Ogbourne” or “Chiseldon Camp Halt”. We passed without stopping through Swindon Town and then gained the main line which took us by way of Didcot and Tilehurst back to join our outward route at Reading General. In the summer of 1961 the Marlborough-Swindon route was closed and the track lifted. Road improvements at Ogbourne and – later – the construction of the M4 motorway mean that sections of the old railway are now obliterated. But I am one of the now dwindling number of those who actually travelled along it. After this, the end of term special took the Savernake-Newbury route.

Some other memories of Marlborough in the early 1960s:

• A visit by none other than John Betjeman. The rumour abounded that after his severe criticisms of the College in “Summoned by Bells” describing his Marlburian years, the poet had been informed that he would not be welcome. Perhaps both parties to the dispute realised that a “spat” was most distasteful and that, in the long term, we were all on the same side.
• The joyous day in late October 1962 when the Master informed us that the Russian ships bearing missiles to Cuba had turned back and that the Cuba missile crisis was over. In the previous weeks we had imagined that a catastrophic nuclear war was a distinct possibility,.
• A much grimmer day a year later, Saturday 23rd November 1963 when we were digesting the appalling news that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, aged 46. As we surveyed the gloomy sight of the half mast Union Flag flapping listlessly against the C House flagpole it was perhaps just as well that Merlin, who knew all about the future, could not emerge from his burial place in the Mound to tell is that, six decades on, both candidates for US Presidency would be well into their 70s.
• The visit of an itinerant preacher outside the Chapel with an alternative view of the New Testament, that the Good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two silver coins (Luke ch 10 v 35) proved without a doubt that the world would end in the year 2000. The Chaplain, Rev EJ Whiteley, saw this interloper as a threat to the authority of the Church of England and walked briskly out of the College gates to confront him. Needless to say, the Chaplain’s greater learning and experience soon saw off the unwelcome visitor, who disappeared, never to be seen again.

And then, in the summer term of 1964, it was all over and the Marlborough Special train left Paddington for the last time. By this time, British Railways had possibly skimped on track maintenance between Savernake and Marlborough, and there were a few alarming clunks and whining flanges as we progressed gingerly along. No doubt the train crew were extremely relieved when the empty train returned to the main line at Savernake. Shortly after this, the route from Savernake to Marlborough was abandoned and the track lifted. Travelling home by coach in July 1964 seemed very prosaic after so many journeys by special train.

But we may reflect what an opportunity was missed! Surely some Marlburian could have found employment in the Department of Transport and persuaded his or her political bosses to improve, double and electrify the old Southampton to the Midlands line, particularly with the growth of container traffic. Imagine lengthy trains gliding through Marlborough station at 100mph on their way to the industrial heartlands of the nation! In 1958 a traveller could board a train at Marlborough Station at 8.46 and (after a beautiful but somewhat leisurely journey through Wiltshire and Gloucestershire) arrive at Cheltenham at 10.49. But, sadly, those days have not returned.

So the parts of the old railway line that were not converted to road improvements, cycle tracks or long distance footpaths returned to the welcome embrace of Mother Nature. A final thought – that sign we saw at Paddington Station, “Marlburian Collegians only” – has it found its way to the College Archives or is it deteriorating in a store somewhere in West London?