Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

SMJ Railway by John Evans

To call the dear old SMJ railway ‘enigmatic’ would be rather excelling its virtues. It was created in 1908 from a jumble of lines that linked Olney, a small market town in Buckinghamshire, with Stratford-upon-Avon, a total length of just 79 miles. Its full name was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a word you’ll notice, for every ten miles of its track. To say it ran from nowhere to nowhere might be stretching things a little, but you can get the measure of the operation by knowing that one of the components of this amalgamation in 1908 was called the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, whose rails somehow failed to reach either of these towns. Ambitiously, much of the SMJ was engineered for double track, but the huge twin-arched bridges were destined to see just one line, and a rather rusty one at that, pass beneath them.

Last Rites 1 The huge bridge built to carry the M1 motorway over the SMJ near Roade. It was a waste of money as trains never ran beneath it. 29 April 1966. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

Primarily it was built as part of a series of lines to transport high quality iron ore from the East Midlands to South Wales for smelting. But it was only ever a bit player in this business and the line’s historian, J.M. Dunn, once described the SMJ as a ‘poor and struggling railway' with ‘an unprosperous history.’ He added, with a nice turn of phrase, that it was a case of ‘the survival of the unfit.’

To locals, it was known as the ‘Slow and Muddle Junction’ and regarded with some affection. After it became part of the mighty London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923, things carried on as normal. One coach trains rumbled through delightful countryside with a handful of passengers. But the line was much more important for freight, some of them using the route to make a rather circuitous journey from Bristol to London. Of course, it couldn’t last. When British Railways was created as a new nationalised industry in 1948, someone clearly found a piece of paper at the bottom of a filing cabinet saying a bizarre little network of lines through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire existed, and decided to take a look.

Last Rites 2 Blisworth SMJ station on 5 April 1966, with some very nice looking Northamptonshire ironstone from Blisworth quarry awaiting movement. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

No doubt he was impressed by the relaxed way of life on the line (trains sometimes stopped so the engine crew could shoot rabbits to take home for dinner); but the fact that there were hardly any passengers may not have been quite so comforting. In 1951 and 1952 all passenger trains were withdrawn, years before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. This could have been the beginning of the end, but it was then agreed to divert some heavy freight trains along the western section of the route, and the SMJ enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Alas, it was not to last. The freight trains were sent elsewhere, the little ironstone quarries that provided business for the route closed and by the end of the sixties, the SMJ was but a fast-fading memory.

Today you see its scar across the countryside, but as bridges are removed, farmers get to work ploughing and towns and villages undergo development the trail of the SMJ is looking very thin indeed. Just old goods shed here and there – an odd bridge appearing to stand in a field and some neat little houses in Blisworth labelled ‘SMJ’ (built for local employees) are among the more significant remains.

Last Rites 3 Kineton Ministry of Defence depot on 23 June 1966, scene of our arrest while walking the SMJ. Who said being a railway enthusiast was boring? A small mishap is being cleared up. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

Its memory is treasured, however, in lots of ways. For a start there is a society devoted to it. There are also lots of photographs. A friend, Bryan Jeyes, and myself, added to the stock of pictures in the mid-1960s when we walked the whole of the route, taking colour photos. (We also managed to get arrested at Kineton Ministry of Defence camp, which backs on to the railway, a story related in my Amberley book, Last Rites).  But apart from this bit of fun, we can proudly claim to be the last people to travel over the whole of the SMJ, even if it was on foot and not as the line’s founders intended.

Much more exciting is the news that Towcester Museum, situated in a Northamptonshire town that was a major junction on the route, is to hold an exhibition for six months starting in late August. They have gathered together old signs, artefacts, photos, memorabilia and other reminders of the line, to mark 150 years since the first section, from Blisworth to Towcester, opened. There are many new folk living in the town whom will no doubt discover for the first time that their community once boasted a rather impressive railway station, right where Tesco now have a supermarket.

To those of us who are old enough to recall the SMJ in action, the most significant – and apposite – survivor is the old station at Stoke Bruerne. True to form, this is nowhere near the village it purported to serve. It was opened in December 1892, one of two massively-built stations on the section from Towcester to Olney. Business wasn’t good, however, and just four months later the passenger service was withdrawn, never to be restored. Some trains had no passengers at all.

Still, it has made a very fine house for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

9781445655024 9781445654980

John Evans books Workhorses of the Big Four and Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard and available for purchase now.