The bike I had used throughout my teenage years was stolen during my first year at university. I wasn’t too distressed at this theft, because by then I had my little car, a Fiat 500. When I moved out of college into digs I was able to drive in the City. This included the centre of Oxford, where all the streets were open to traffic! Strange as it may seem, it was still possible in 1970 to drive past Martyrs Memorial, down the Cornmarket, past the buses at Carfax and into Queen Street. One could even park by the roadside, if you were lucky enough to find a space. There were no parking meters outside London, so most parking was free. These roads in central Oxford have been closed to traffic for decades, and even pedestrians have a struggle to pass the crowds of tourists as they walk the major thoroughfares. To drive anywhere in Oxford is not advisable today, although ten years ago the delivering of my son to his college for his first term required this feat; it was not without its problems.
As a student I was not supposed to have a car in the City without the express permission of the Proctors (i.e. the University authorities), which I omitted to obtain; I would not have been granted leave to have a car, even if I had asked. In fact, because it was quite hard to park in Oxford even in those distant days, I mostly travelled into the centre from Summertown (where I was living) by bus. I found the car most useful for driving out into the surrounding countryside, to visit my friend Bill. He was studying for an English degree at Buckland House, in what is now Oxfordshire but was then part of Berkshire. I also drove out to such places Coventry. We went to the village of Long Compton to see the Rollright Stones. This Neolithic stone circle should not be confused with the Rolling Stones who were very popular at the time. These trips I did with a fellow Oxford undergraduate and not with Bill.
For travelling to Cowley a bike was quite useful, but I didn’t often venture into this industrial quarter. All the colleges were within walking distance, and I could go from reading in the Radcliffe Camera to a seminar at All Souls and then to the covered market for a sandwich, all within the area of a cricket ground. Consequently all of my travels round central Oxford were done on foot; even before my bike was stolen it did not make sense to use it. There were no cycle racks to spoil the view outside the Bodleian Library, and to walk from the nearest available one was almost as far as to walk from college.
For travel home during my first year I took the train up to London. The other rail station in Oxford had closed im 1951- it would be over half a century before Oxford was again to have a second station. The one remaining station was a desolate place, built of wood; this old building would soon be replaced, and it was not worth repainting the peeling exterior.
These years saw the nadir of train travel in Britain, and branch lines were being axed in all areas; even mainlines like the Varsity Line from Oxford to Cambridge were closed. The Varsity Line had just been extensive improved as a major freight route, before freight itself was largely removed from the rail network. The line was severed, and the section between Bedford and Cambridge was built over.
Steam engines had been replaced by Diesels on British Rail; the last one had run only a few months before I went up to Oxford. This modernisation of the railway’s motive power went hand in hand with the rationalisation of the railway network. Consequently branch lines that were equipped with brand new DMUs were then closed only a few years later; this happened time after time all over the country, and it was sheer madness! Could not the virtually pristine steam engines that had been built less than ten years earlier, in the 1950s, have operated the branches that were due for closure anyway? Why would you introduce all this new equipment on a doomed line? This utter lack of joined up thinking was hugely damaging for the railways, and for the country as a whole. Today, with record numbers of rail passengers on a reduced network, we are still paying the cost of so many line closures.
How we could do with many of these lines now! Not least the Varsity Line; there are firm plans to reopen this as far as Bedford, but that will take years and many millions of pounds. Even the newly opened link of the first part of the Varsity Line to London’s Marylebone terminus, which only required a few metres of new track to connect it at Bicester, was hailed as a major undertaking. Who knows when or even if the new Varsity Line will finally reach Cambridge again? I won’t happen in my lifetime I think, but the prospect of through trains from Norwich to Oxford is a tantalising one.
Elsewhere in Cambridgeshire thee seven miles of branch line from March to Wisbech, which would put a substantial market town back on the rail network, is still only a pipe dream. The prospect is as distant as that of Jeremy Corbyn (a supporter of the scheme) becoming Prime Minister. Of course it would not be a new railway, as even the track is still in place; though after years of shameful neglect and dereliction it would all need renewing. The demand for rail transport is buoyant, but the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure we once had is prohibitive. The most we can expect is years of planning committees examining the case for funding. The Victorians managed it, but we appear to seized by inertia. The Scots do things rather better, if the reopened of the thirty miles of line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank can be taken as an example, although that too is a reopened line. If only these lines had not been closed in the first place!