Breakthrough on the Nene Valley line and find some perfect pints in Peterborough
Added: Tuesday, October 15th 2013
The Nene Valley Railway has featured in two James Bond films (Octopussy and Golden Eye), a remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express as well as the video for Breakthru by rock legends Queen. It seems curious that blockbuster film producers, shooting scenes set in Germany and Russia, would keep choosing the same preserved line that runs through calm and pleasant Cambridgeshire country side, but the reasoning makes sense if we trace back through the railway’s origins.
It began in 1845 when the London and Birmingham railway connected to Peterborough, creating an important link between Northampton, Peterborough, Cambridge and Norwich. The line was a double track secondary mainline, running large engines such as Black 5s and B1s, but nevertheless Dr Richard Beeching had the line closed to passengers by 1966 and finally for freight in 1972.
In 1968 the Reverend Richard Paten purchased the locomotive 73050, unnamed at the time but subsequently christened City of Peterborough. His original intention was to house it outside Peterborough Technology College, but it was in such good condition people suggested it should be put back into operation. This led to the formation of the Peterborough Railway Society and the decision to restore the Nene Valley Railway.
The only other engines in the societies’ collection were small shunters that wouldn’t be able to handle the line and hardly any other engines that hadn’t been scrapped or weren’t in the possession of other railways could be found. A member of the society asked if his Swedish engine (pictured below) could be kept as a static display, as the loading gauge of continental engines such as his was larger than a British railway could take. But on further inspection only one bridge would need to be demolished as well as adjustments to the platforms widths to allow this engine to run on the line. Suddenly the line’s engine problem was solved: trains that were built anywhere in Europe could be used, which brings us back to why British film makers depicting the Orient Express or James Bond traveling through Russia would choose this line. It now runs a mixture of engines and stock, predominantly from Britain but also from France, Denmark and Sweden, with French Orient Express carriages on view at Wansford.
We begin our journey at Peterborough, the home of the largest beer festival in Britain outside London and a number of excellent pubs, as well as the stunning Norman cathedral that rarely leaves the periphery of your vision. The city has a large central station, easily reached via East Coast inter city services from London and the north east. Just a few minutes’ walk from the main station is the Brewery Tap (01733 358500 80 Westgate), one of the largest brew pubs in Europe and the showcase for Oakham Ales. It’s housed in a 1930s labour exchange (pictured above) and features a plethora of brewery artefacts but is very modern in design. At any one time up to 12 ales will be available, mostly from Oakham such as Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, Citra, Inferno, Bishops Farewell, plus guest beers. Authentic Thai food is available. The main Oakham brewery has moved to Woodston but a small plant remains in the Brewery Tap and produces short-run and one-off brews.
Other recommended pubs in Peterborough include the Palmerston Arms, 82 Oundle Road, Woodston, a Bateman’s pub that serves Castle Rock and Oakham beers as well as its own range; Charters, Town Bridge, a converted Dutch barn on the River Nene (below) that serves Oakham beers and has an Oriental restaurant; Coalheavers Arms, 5 Park Street, Woodston, a Milton Brewery pub serving Bomber Drop, Justinian, Sparta and guest beers; and the Ostrich, 17 North Street, another Oakham pub decorated with old brewery posters and artefacts.
Suitably refreshed, we can head towards the River Nene, a river we will become more familiar with as the day goes by. It’s not the easiest piece of navigation and the station for the preserved line isn’t well sign-posted, so make sure you’ve looked carefully at a map beforehand.
The station for the Nene Valley Railway sits beside the river and is just a few minutes’ walk from Charters Bar and the Palmerston Arms. Adjacent to the station is Railworld, a visitor attraction housing several well-crafted model railways in a variety of gauges including a garden railway and nature walk. It’s something an avid rail enthusiast wouldn’t dream of missing.
After leaving the station, the train soon arrives at Orton Mere, a good place to watch boats sailing down the Nene. Next down the line is Ferry Meadows, a sleepy country station with only one platform, where passengers can alight for the Ferry Meadows country park, a beautiful space dotted with lakes, meadows and woods, complete with a visitor centre and a miniature railway. Beyond this station we enter the rural stretch of the line, a long segment with no stations, just the train, its track and the Nene Valley. The Cambridgeshire country side is flat and allows for views that stretch to the distant horizons, creating an enormous sky that engulfs the land. If you're feeling thirsty on the train you can enjoy a bottle of Nene Valley Railway Ale, a hoppy golden beer brewed for the railway by Hobson's.
As we drift slowly into Wansford the river is crossed via an impressive stone bridge before traversing the road with aide of a traditional level crossing with traditional white wooden gates, stone cottages beside the road and a clear view of Wansford station building, moved to this site from Barnwell in typical London and North West Railway wooden design. This is the principle station on the route with a large booking office, shop and café, as well as a large turntable and the home of most of the lines’ stock, including many interesting additions from beyond our shores.
A brisk 20 minute walk is necessary to reach the village of Wansford but it’s well worth the trip if you’re after a decent pint or a fine meal. (If you can’t manage the walk, then book a cab from the station.) The Paper Mills on London road prides itself on the quality of food and is open for lunch everyday between 12 noon and 2.30. The high standard of dining doesn’t detract from the pub experience either. The building is an inviting stone cottage, with overhanging bay windows and quaint shutters. From the bar you can grab local ales from Digfield and Oakham as well as Fuller’s London Pride.
Before embarking on the return journey the train goes through Yarwell Tunnel, which forms the opening scene of Queen’s Breakthru video, where the Miracle Express bursts through a wall obstructing the exit. Once through the tunnel, the train reaches the newly-built Yarwell station, built to allow passengers to stroll through the countryside or walk to the villages of Yarwell and Nassington.
*For information about timetables and special events go to: www.nvr.org.uk.