Tag Archives: bus rides


Going about your business in Cambridge is difficult at the best of times; even cycling has its problems, particularly finding anywhere to leave your bike during term time, due to the sheer number of students attempting to attend lectures. A recent improvement has been the new Cambridge North station, which has provided direct access from the Science Park to the national rail network. There is also local agitation to reopen the lines from Haverhill and Wisbech into Cambridge, although both these campaigns appear to be stuck in the mire of local authority approval and finance. The guided busway that was built on the old railway line westwards to St Ives has been controversial; during construction the cost more than doubled, and there have been problems with the noisy track. It is above all the centre of the town that is the real problem; a high density of historic buildings makes the building of an overground light railway or even a tram system impossible.

Before the railway arrived bringing trains from London in 1845, the only way of transporting heavy materials into Cambridge was up the river Cam. The stone that built the colleges was all carried in this way. The nearest quarry was at Barnack (near Stamford), and it is from this stone that much of the architecture of Cambridge is constructed. Although the best Barnack ragstone was exhausted by the middle of the fifteenth century, the demolition of the Fenland monasteries after the Reformation released more material for continued construction in Cambridge. Although the river Cam is now connected to the Inland Waterways of England, the Fenland drains that today provide access for powered river craft were not suitable for horse-drawn barges; they have no towpaths, and the high banks made sailing impossible. Canal narrowboats may now venture up the Cam as far a Jesus Lock near the centre of town, but historically the Fenland rivers formed an independent network of waterways. These extended to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Thetford in Norfolk, and via Bishops Lynn (Kings Lynn) to the Wash. The Isle of Ely was the watery hub of this system.

As for air transport, Cambridge International Airport to the east of the town (commonly known as Marshall’s) has been the base for military and civilian aircraft contracts since it was built in 1938. It has never had a regular passenger business, although periodic attempts are made to fly to destinations in this country; I am at a loss to explain its ‘International’ moniker. The airport was to have been relocated to Mildenhall when the USAF base there closes in 2024, releasing a large amount of land there for thousands of much-needed new homes, but this plan has fallen through and the airport will remain in its original location near the Newmarket Road.

There is nothing new about providing a transport infrastructure in Cambridge; a horse-drawn tramway was opened as long ago as 1880, and ran for 34 years until competition from the Ortona Bus Service eventually caused its closure in February 1914. A tramcar of the Cambridge Street Tramcar Co. remains and has been acquired by the Ipswich Transport Museum, where it is currently undergoing restoration. Today there is a proposal to build an underground transit system through the centre of Cambridge. This would not be a tracked system, but would use modern technology to allow the trains to run along a dedicated roadway.  The vehicles would use rubber tyres thus removing the expense of providing rails, and they would be battery-powered. Once outside the town centre the route could emerge as an overground system, but still using a dedicated route. Also, like the Dockland Light Railway in London, it would be driverless; all these features would reduce the cost of construction and operation substantially. On current projections the overground section could be up and running in as little as three years time, while the whole system could be completed by 2025. Something certainly needs to be done before the whole urban area grinds to a halt.

A Cambridge horse-drawn tram and an Ortona motor omnibus






It is never too late to learn, and I am still learning things about my schooldays. Yes, as long ago as that! I have known for a long time that it was a pretty rigorous education that I got at the school that I attended, but what I am now realising is how relatively unengaged with their pupils’ development most schools are. This not because they are bad schools, or that they employ bad teachers, but their involvement with the day’s activities ends mid-afternoon; then the young rascals are free to engage in every kind of mischief, or else do nothing at all. This leaves the parents with a heavy responsibility, and one that they cannot even begin to undertake if they are themselves working.  I have been hearing people’s tales of adolescence, and how they wasted countless opportunities through natural teenage ennui. The difficulty for most young people is not committing vandalism or general devilry, it is merely getting them to get off their backsides.

My life was not like that. There is no doubt that the extra mile that my school went with its scholars was because it was a boarding school. Virtually every second of my waking day, from rising in the morning to going to sleep at night, was organised for me. As a result I had no chance whatever of vegetating. I was immersed in all kinds of activities from making my bed and polishing my shoes in the morning to cleaning my teeth at night. I wonder how I fitted it all in. I played games on most days, read novels, went sailing, target shooting, played in the school orchestra, painted pictures, took part in the debating society and acted in numerous plays. I wasn’t particularly good at many of these things (especially games) – although I was literary editor of the school magazine – but that was not the point. Doing things – anything- was. When I went home I was equally showered with great choices by my dear father – working an Adana printing press, railway modelling, dance lessons, canoeing, photography and gardening, to name but a few. Growing up was an endless round of opportunities.  I could decide whatever I wanted to do, but doing nothing was not an option; doing things was expected of me. In this I was so lucky compared to most adolescents, as I am only now realising.

Aged twelve I am sitting one from the left; Summer 1961 .


From the age of ten it was boarding school for me. Terror is not too strong a word to describe the feeling of dread that descended on me as the fateful hour approached when I was to be abandoned; to what disasters I knew not. The prospect of leaving home at such a tender age was appalling, but the reality was positively wonderful. After my initial misgivings I soon settled into school life. Of course I looked forward to the holidays, but the journey back at the end of the break was no longer at time of apprehension. The school was single sex during my time, although it is now fully coeducational. There are virtually no boys’ schools left – Eton and Harrow, and maybe a few others – but I have no regrets about my education having no feminine influence. I may have had a few problems relating to the female sex once I left school, but these soon passed. As an adult I have in fact had more female friends than male ones. However the male friends that I made all those years ago have remained friends ever since. I may not see them very often, but even those who live far away in distant lands can now contact me easily by email.

I know that the possibility of attending such an excellent boarding school is not an option for most people, but if they did not exist the life of the nation would be the poorer. County Scholarships were a great leveler in this respect. These enabled those from poorer backgrounds to go to a really good school. The abolition of this excellent system of State Scholarships by the Labour Government in the 1970s, along with the closure of most grammar schools, has only increased social segregation massively. This has been a terrible and regressive thing. The  importance of going to a boarding school was the key; the local day-boys, who attended on scholarships that were provided from the school’s own financial resources, didn’t do anything like so well. The day-boys went home mid afternoon, when they were free to engage in every kind of mischief, or else do nothing at all.






You must understand that this wasn’t a brush with Billy Graham in the flesh; it was merely with his image on a large screen in Norwich Cattle Market. He was definitely in the UK, but not actually in Norfolk. Even fifty years ago the technology existed to relay him preaching live across the country. This was in 1966, and the Chaplain at my school had organised a group of us to attend one of Billy Graham’s addresses which was being broadcast to Norwich. The Cattle Market had moved to Hall Road in 1960, and the market had a large corn hall where we could watch the screen. The Chaplain had merely intended us to experience the spectacle, not expecting any of us actually to be born-again; he no doubt felt that we were already faithful adherents of the church under his tutelage. The Revd Douglas Argyle (our Chaplain) did not think we needed to be born again, having been attending his services in the school chapel for years.

He had not however reckoned with me. I was deeply moved by Billy Graham despite his presence being only on in black and white on a large screen. I found myself leaving my seat and going up to the stage with a number of other converts, though none of them were colleagues from my school. We were each assigned an earnest leader to guide us to the light. All was going well in my conversation with my mentor until he queried me on my future course of action: “Have you,” he asked, “Any particular church you would like to join?”  “Yes,” I replied, “I would like to become a Roman Catholic.”

Now you must understand that Billy Graham, although moderate by the standards of many Southern Baptists, came firmly from the Protestant tradition. I was very young and naive at the time.  You might think the whole affair was just me making mischief, but I was completely serious. I had been researching the Catholic Church for several months, though without contacting any actual Catholics. It was all done through reading the book ‘Teach Yourself Roman Catholicism”. After my announcement you could have heard a pin drop, even in Norwich Cattle Market. “I don’t think that is a very good idea,” I was told. I had very different ideas from Billy Graham after all, and the interview rather ground to a halt. I returned to my seat and my school-friends un-reborn, but rather bemused.

I had plenty to think about on the coach going back to my boarding school that evening. As I said, I was young and naive. I was studying history after all, and was well aware of the historic antagonism between Catholic and Protestant, but I cannot have realised how deep the difference still ran in the Bible Belt. I don’t know if this is still so, but I suspect it is. As far as the C of E goes, in several crucial respects the division between the Church of Rome and the Church of England is deeper now than it was when I was a teenager. Female priests and female bishops are now accepted without a murmur in the Anglican Communion, but no movement in this direction has occurred in the Vatican. This, it seems to me, makes any thought of closer union an ever more distant prospect.

I know that most people neither know nor care what is meant by ‘apostolic succession’ (and I don’t intend to go into it here), and just see bishops as a slightly quaint and irrelevant echo of the past; perhaps that it what they are. Certainly the Evangelical Protestants like Billy Graham do not have bishops at all, male or female. The only reason the non-believing members of the press delight in female bishops is that they are seen as progressive; this, rather than any interest in their message, accounts for their popularity among the secular media.

What is my conviction today after all these years? It is merely this; no atheist or Buddhist or any adherent of any other religion could produce anything as moving as Mozart’s Requiem. Make of that what you will. I never became a Baptist or a Catholic, nor even a confirmed member of the Church of England, although I occasionally attend their services. The sense of community is important to me. I am intrigued by Dr Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the Bible, but he says he never goes to church. As for all the theological details, I am prepared to leave them to others better equipped than I to understand them. I will just go on enjoying Songs of Praise on Sunday afternoon.



The first tram to operate in Ipswich was a 3ft 6in gauge horse-drawn vehicle which ran for about ¾ mile between Cornhill and the mainline railway station. It opened in 1880. In 1884 an extension was opened from Cornhill to Derby Road railway station, also in Ipswich, but on the Felixstowe line. This completed the system; by then it was being operated by a fleet of tram cars. The earliest ones were single deckers, drawn by one horse, but later double deckers were introduced with two draught horses. The provision of rails made the friction was less than with a horse-drawn omnibus, and this enabled a greater number of passengers to be carried. By 1900 it was becoming increasingly old fashioned however; unlike modern motive power, horses had to groomed, fed and stabled, and in the early years of the 20th century it was resolved to convert the horse-drawn tramway to an electric system. The town Corporation purchased the horse tramway but it lost money and was abandoned to allow the electric infrastructure to be installed.

The electric trams did not last any longer than the horse-drawn trams: introduced in 1903, they were replaced by trolleybuses from 1923, and in 1926 the last tram ran on the streets of Ipswich. The trolleybus lasted a bit longer than its predecessors, and I remember the final years of them; my sister had taken her first job in the town in 1959, and from the aged of ten I made many visits to Ipswich. The trolleybuses survived until 1963, by which time my sister had left Suffolk for a new post in the Channel Islands. Thereafter I no longer frequented the town.

1933 Ipswich Trolleybus: Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies

The first indication that we had reached a strange new world where the buses were powered by electric wires was by the railway bridge on the Norwich Road. There a circle in the overhead catenary was where the buses had to turn around and begin their journey back to Ipswich town centre. At one time the system had gone further to Whitton, but by 1959 the railway bridge was the limit of its northern extent. The Corporation bought its first motor buses as late as 1950 to serve the outskirts. At the time, and for many years thereafter, the bridge had the large sign FERODO painted on it in red. I will always associate these brake pads with Ipswich.

Coming by car I had no reason to use the trolleybuses, but going by train I surely would have done so; my sister had no car at this time. An indication of how normal they were in Ipswich in those days is that  I have no memory of riding on a trolleybus, although I must have used them. This is a pity, but I have plenty of memories of seeing them making their silent progress through the town. Once you were inside the effect could not have very different from a normal motor bus; all the unusual features were outside. If they met an obstruction in the road they could only take limited avoiding action, or the poles would come detached from the catenary wires. This meant the driver or conductor getting out and re-attaching them with a long stick. There was definitely no overtaking allowed with a trolleybus.

Unlike trams, trolleybuses have not made a return to the streets in the UK, and there are no remaining systems in place here. This seems strange, as the infrastructure is much simpler and cheaper for trolleybuses, and they are similar environmental benefits. There is bad quality air in nearly all major cities, where diesel buses are almost the only vehicles still (just about) tolerated. This would disappear if trolleybuses were still in operation. If you are cyclist who has travelled over tram lines you will appreciate that  bikes and trams don’t mix – you will fall off immediately if your wheel gets stuck in the groove of a tram line. This quality of not antagonising cyclists is another advantage of the trolleybus. In other parts of the world these systems still exist.





A Cambridge bound train near Cringleford in years gone by.

Since Sunday 21 May 2017 there has been a brand new railway station to serve Cambridge Science Park; Cambridge North in the Chesterton area of town. Now we need a similar station to serve Norwich Science Park, and a village just south of Norwich -Cringleford- is the perfect place for it. It is on the Cambridge line, and only a short bike ride from the Science Park. There is a level crossing on Low Road at Cringleford, and that means that if a station were built there it would have no need for an (expensive) footbridge; just a couple of platforms (not three as at Cambridge North). It would not need an expensive station building either.  There looks to be plenty of space nearby for a car park/cycle park, and a bus service could connect the station with the hospital/science park/university. It could continue to the city cente. The station would be roughly half way between Wymondham and Norwich stations.

A short distance up the track is another level crossing on Intwood Road. A station here would be slightly less convenient for Cringleford villagers, but the station would not really be intended for them. It has even more space for a car park, and this could be closer to the railway too. Either site would be much cheaper to develop than Cambridge North, although knowing the way new projects like to splash the cash it probably would not done as inexpensively as I like to think. Perhaps now is little soon to start building such a station, but if the Science Park at Colney grows as we all hope it will, it is not too soon to start thinking about it. It has more in favour of it than the proposed station in Thorpe for the Broadland Business Park; at least it is on a line between two major business hubs (Norwich and  Cambridge), unlike the Bittern Line where the Broadland Business Park station would be, which only runs to the seaside at Sheringham.

A new station for Broadland Business Park would cost £6.5 million we are told, which is not a great sum of money as such things go. Cambridge North, which was projected to cost £44m, has in fact cost £50m. My scheme at Cringleford could be done for far less. Nor, unlike the Broadland scheme, do I foresee a requirement to increase the number of trains on the line just to service the new station; with the increased demand for transport links with Stansted Airport and Cambridge I anticipate a more frequent service on the Breckland line anyway, once the Ely junction has been upgraded. However we must think of a better name for the new station. Nobody has a clue where Cringleford is; how about UEA International anyone?  They like impressive titles in Norwich (look at the ‘international’ airport). Perhaps Norwich Science Parkway would be more appropriate. I would of course support both Broadland Business Park and Norwich Science Park stations, whatever they are called.

I don’t expect such an improvement to be built in my lifetime; I would be happy merely to see the reopening of Soham station, which everybody is talking about but nobody is doing anything to advance. The reopening of the Wisbech branch, that still has the track in place – some of it even using modern concrete sleepers, though overgrown with weeds-  would cost no more than Cambridge North Station, £50m. I won’t even mention the promised link from Bedford to Cambridge which would cost hundreds of millions. Opening up the old Varsity line providing the possibility of through trains from Norwich to Oxford is a tantalising prospect. Such enhancements to the railway network are long overdue, but they are long-term projects, so I should be glad the new station in Cambridge is now open. I don’t suppose I will ever use it (not being much of a scientist), but I may see it from the train. It is a small step, but a welcome one.






Before the days of the internal combustion engine it was natural to walk. Especially if you lived in the country, you had to walk miles to do anything. If you were rich enough to own a horse you would ride; otherwise it wasn’t a quadruped, only shanks’s pony. When motor cars first appeared on the roads the maximum speed was limited to 4 mph. In 1894 the speed was raised to 14 mph, and so the man walking in front with a red flag, which was the previous requirement, had to be dispensed with. The powers that be did not expect him to sprint! It was still pretty safe for pedestrians to walk just about anywhere, because even at fourteen miles per hour you had enough time to get out the way of the traffic. After 1903 the speed limit was raised to 20 mph. This made the roads much less safe for walkers, and in any case speed limit was doubtlessly frequently ignored by the increasing fast motor cars.

The growth of the motor bus soon followed, and the habit of walking more than a few hundred yards was soon lost. By the 1950s walking down country lanes was still relatively common, but the main roads were places where you never saw anyone on foot. People would not have lasted long if they had tried to walk. As nobody but the fairly affluent could afford a car, it meant ‘get on your bike’ or ‘wait for the bus’ were the only choices for most people.

This was a huge change in the way the public got around. In about a generation the age-old habit of walking disappeared. Now everyone aspired to owning their own form of motor transport. Before the Second World War a motor car was still out of the question for the vast majority, but a motor cycle wasn’t. All types of folk, from the upper middle class of T. E. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh to the rising working class like my father and my father-in-law travelled round on motorbikes. Unlike today, when a secondhand Superbike can cost considerably more than a new car, a motorbike was a genuinely cheap way to join the motor age. A motorbike was the ideal conveyance for one, but it wasn’t meant as family transport; nevertheless my father-in-law took his entire family on a camping holiday to Devon with his motor cycle and sidecar. His wife rode pillion, and their three little children (and the luggage) squeezed into the sidecar.


In the sixties the nature of the two-wheeled motorist changed from the adventurous but respectable members of society to the immature young  Mods and Rockers. The motor scooter made its appearance; the small wheeled Lambretta was invented to take advantage of all the undercarriages left over from the planes of WW2.

Meanwhile the middle-aged members of society were busy buying their first secondhand car. For most this mean four wheels, but there was a dedicated minority who preferred three.  The principal attraction of the three-wheeler to many was the fact that it attracted a lower rate of road fund tax. The main disadvantage was the undoubted lack of stability that attended only three points of contact with the road. The Reliant and the Bond Minicar were attractive to the working class motorist; the Morgan three-wheeler, which unlike the other two had its third wheel at the back, was the preserve of the upper classes. You can see that class was still very important in the early days of mass motoring.

But what about walking home? I did walk the four miles from Norwich to my home in Poringland once, but it was an uncomfortable experience. To walk on the road would have been suicidal, so this meant walking on the verge. There was no footpath, so this meant trudging over the grups and gullies that periodically punctuated my progress. Some years later, when I had moved to the other side of Norwich, I walked a similar distance home. This time I didn’t have to navigate the long grass of the verge because there was a pavement all the way. The presence of a footpath meant that it was theoretically possible for people to walk to work, although none did. A couple of hundred years ago it was not remarkable for a young man to walk from Bury St Edmunds to Norwich in pursuit of a job. This distance puts Poringland to Norwich in the shade, but even the four mile journey is a long walk by todays standards. The athletic young might occasionally run such a distance, but nowadays people have completely lost the habit of walking.





The red “Rumble-Thump” – my father’s name for the bus, from its diesel engine.

A 1950s double-decker

I did most of my travelling by bus when I was really young; from the age of five until I was ten I went to school eleven miles away every day. It is true that often I was taken there in the morning by my father in his car before he went to work, but I came home by bus. Sometimes my mother came to travel home with me (especially when I was five), but mostly I travelled alone (with some school friends). I may be wrong, but I cannot imagine a six-year-old being expected to make his way home alone by bus today. Even an eight-year-old would be shepherded home by his mother, even if it was only a street or two away. Yet we saw nothing unusual about this unaccompanied travel in 1955; youngsters were not regarded as being in constant danger from ill-intentioned adults or natural disasters. How things have completely changed in couple of generations, and not wholly for the better. From the age of ten I was at boarding school, so the business of getting to school did not apply; I was already at school when I woke up in the morning.

My next experience of using the bus was as a student at university. In less than a decade the nature of bus travel had changed completely to more or less its modern version. The old kind of buses, as shown the illusration above, had gone; no longer were there bus conductors – only in London, where the Routemaster held sway for decades, were they still employed. Everywhere else, by the end of the 1960s, the front entry  bus allowed the driver to take your fare, so there was no need for a conductor. Also, the entrance was now controlled by a door, which went some way to making winter journeys a warmer experience. On the other hand the corresponding lack of fresh air made coughs and sneezes (those other features of winter journeys ) more infectious.

Apart from these two periods of my life I have done most of my travelling by other means. Once I could ride one, a bicycle was my main means of transport when I was a teenager. After that I was a car driver – railway travel hardly featured; it was not that I did not like trains, but by then they did not go where I was going. All the branch lines that I would have used had closed.

Bus tickets are not cheap, and I feel sorry for those young people (who on account of their youth do not qualify for the minimum wage) who have to spend so much of their meagre pay on the daily commute to work. With the free bus pass it is another matter; it opens up the world to the nation’s old folk. They have to make their way to the bus stop it is true, and they have wait for the bus, but then they can relax. There is no hurry to get to work for the retired, and nothing to pay.  Free bus passes are in fact nothing of the sort; it is just that the ticket is paid for by the local authority rather than by the traveller. It is the bus companies who really benefit; instead of running buses throughout the day nearly empty, they are now filled with pensioners using their bus passes. It was a brilliant idea by somebody, a way of getting something in return for subsiding the bus companies. Few people appreciate that it is these commercial concerns who get the money, not the pensioners. They merely take advantage of off-peak transport. Politicians, who ought to know better, purse their lips at all the wealthy pensioners who are swanning about at other people’s expense. Would they prefer that these bus routes were simply scrapped, or that the subsidies were paid directly to the bus companies with no pensioners benefiting? For they are the only two other alternatives for uneconomic bus routes.





MICKEY: the car we had when I was born.

‘MICKEY’: the car we had when I was born.

There were a million cars on the road in the UK in 1950, and today there are 30 million; I heard this recently on the radio and I have no reason to doubt it. This period neatly encompasses my lifetime. I was fortunate to belong to one of those families that possessed a car in 1950. I was very much in the minority then. It was four years after the war and new cars were almost unobtainable; if you were lucky enough to get one they were incredibly expensive. Our car wasn’t a new one therefor; it was a pre-war Morris Minor illustrated to the right.

In 1950 most people did not travel so far as they do today, and when they did it was by public transport. The draughty old double-decker buses had a platform at the back that was open to the elements. There was no heating in the winter, although in the summer you could open a narrow pane at the top of the window and let the breeze waft in.

For those who were fortunate enough to have a railway station nearby there was always the train. The railway network was almost at its maximum extent in 1950, although a very few branch lines (like that to Hadleigh in Suffolk) had already lost their passenger service before the war. Remote settlements like Hindolveston and North Elmham had passenger trains; however these trains although regular were not frequent.

East Norfolk's railways

East Norfolk railways map  in 1923 when they at their greatest .

By contrast with the buses all passenger trains were provided with heating by 1950. The heat came from copious amounts of steam; the engine could easily spare a little from its boiler to pass along the train. It made railway travel much more commodious than most other forms of transport; air liners were still in their infancy. Ocean liners.were well appointed but the sea could be rough which made travel uncomfortable. Even cars were not fitted with heating 70 years ago, although the hot engine was only inches away from the passenger cabin. About 1955 we had bought a small heater which did hardly anything to melt the ice on the inside of the windows; it was powered by the 12 volt car battery, so it couldn’t do much without running it down.

As you can tell, there wasn’t much traffic on the roads in 1950. Even ten years later they were nearly deserted. As you walked the country lanes the occasional car would pass by, but when it did it could be doing a high speed. Although 65 mph was about the maximum you could get out of a normal 1960 car, there was no national speed limit. If you could wind your motor up to 80 mph you could legally drive at that speed. Only where a 30 mph limit existed was this not allowed, and these limits were only applied in built-up areas. Otherwise it was only the relative feebleness of the engine which prevented more accidents.

The road network was all covered with tarmacadam by 1950, but its narrow twists and turns were still as they had been when the horse and cart was the fastest mode of transport. Country road junctions had no right of way; there was little need to give way as you swung round the corner as there was seldom another car in vicinity. The junctions were not protected by white lines. In the city the narrow streets seemed to be full of traffic, but this was because there were few parking restrictions and no pedestrianised roads; traffic lights were few but Belisha beacons were relatively common. Such  developments as dual carriageways and roundabouts were almost unknown. About the only stretch of dual carriageway I can remember in Norfolk was Prince of Wales Road in Norwich. This arrangement was not to separate the lines of traffic but to allow a fine avenue of pleached lime trees to grow down the middle of the street; of course these have long been felled, victims of the motor car.

Granddad at the wheel of a Bullnose Morris; it was all for show. He could not drive at the time, although later he learned.

The Kybird family on an outing c 1930

Road widening and the straightening of dangerous bends did not get underway until the 1960s. It was the 1970s before any towns were bypassed. There were no Motorways in Great Britain until 1959, and there are still none in Norfolk. Kings Lynn was one of first to have a new road to relieve traffic in the town centre. It was single carriageway but had three lanes. This deadly arrangement allowed cars travelling in opposite directions to pull out simultaneously with fatal results. Even now much could be done to make the road network fit for purpose in the 21st century. Far too many of the roads are still much as they were in the 18th or even in the 16th century.

I am rather dubious about the self driving cars they blithely say are soon coming to our streets. They might be fine for the modern highways of North America, or even for the car parks of Milton Keynes; but the roads of rural England are another matter. When you meet a car coming the other way on a narrow lane in North Norfolk one of you has got to drive up the muddy bank for you to pass. Choosing just where to go requires a fine sense of the car’s adhesion and the depth of the mud on the verge. I don’t think Google are anywhere near that yet.





This unusual view of Blackwells in Broad Street was taken from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre. The block cottages to the left, which appear to be ancient, had recently been completely rebuilt.

Broad Street, Oxford, 1970

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.

Oliver Cromwell in storage at March sheds ! January 1964

Steam in Cambridgeshire, before the Varsity Line was closed

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!





scalesI have done a post on old money (pounds shillings and pence) and the Imperial units of measurement were even more complicated than the old monetary units; and whereas £sd has completely disappeared, some Imperial units remain in official use.

There were so many divisions to remember; in weight you went from ounces to pounds and thence to stones, hundredweights and tons. Sixteen ounces made a pound, and fourteen pounds made a stone. There was a long and a short hundredweight; the long hundredweight had become the norm by the time I was learning my measurements. There were 112 pounds to a long hundredweight and that equates to eight stones. A hundredweight had however got its name from the short hundredweight of 100 lbs.  The hundredweight was abbreviated to cwt, which is itself a mixture of Latin and English (‘c’ for centum, a hundred, plus ‘wt’ for weight).  Following on there were 20 cwt to the ton; long or short tons, depending on the number of pounds to the hundredweight.

Then there were the smaller units of weight, 16 drams to the ounce and almost (but not exactly) 44 grains to the ounce. A pound is represented by the abbreviation lb which stands for the Latin word libra or librum in the singular. An ounce is abbreviated to oz, but how did the zed get there? Feet were abbreviated to ‘, and inches to “. A bushel was normally a measure of dry volume, but it equated to the liquid measure of 8 gallons.

It was a complicated system, but things are now even more complicated; we are officially on the metric system, but stones are still commonly used for body weights (particularly among the older generation who ‘put on a stone or two’) and babies are normally announced to the world as weighing so may pound, rather than kilos. When I go to hospital my height and weight are given in metric measurements, but otherwise I stick to the old terminology. I can understand what it is to be six feet tall, but I am still rather puzzled by a height of 182.88 cms. A one foot ruler is no longer used in school, but a 30 cm one has taken its place, which it the same length to all intents and purposes.

The widths of domestic water pipes are still measured in inches, and the threads are still the old tpi (threads per inch); if we went over to metric we would have to replace the entire country’s water supply. We still measure speeds in miles per hour, not in kilometres. Even road signs still announce the miles from London to Cambridge. In measuring length kilometres now ought to follow on from centimetres and metres, but for some reason they don’t. In Great Britain MPG (miles per gallon) is still a commonly used term, although it ought to be KPL (kilometres per litre) exclusively. When I go into a pub I still buy a pint of beer, although I may well get a half litre of lager at the supermarket; a 440 ml can is a common size, and that equates nearly exactly to a pint.  Milk is sold in pints or litres without any apparent rhyme or reason. On the other hand it is illegal to sell a pound of apples, and at one time shopkeepers were actually prosecuted for doing so. I feel sorry for the youth of today who are only taught the metric system at school. When they enter the real world the must attempt to learn elements of the old Imperial system too.

The metric system was invented by the French at the time of the Revolution. Out went all the old measurements in favour of the new, based on the number ten. There was an attempt to unify all measurements, so that (for example) a litre of water weighed a kilogramme, only they didn’t get their calculations quite right. They even tried to introduce the metric system to the measurement of time; however the ten day week proved to be an innovation a step too far and the Revolutionary calendar lasted under twenty years. I do not remember what was proposed for minutes and seconds, but the metric system did not stick and the sixty minute hour and the 24 hour day remain universal.

Acres have been replaced by hectares as a system of area measurement, but the basic unit of an ‘are’ is completely unknown, although it exists in theory. There are 10,000 square metres to a hectare; square metres are the normal measure of area for smaller units.

The Americans still use the old units in most circumstances, but in many cases this differs from the Imperial system. Feet and inches are the same, but the US gallon is significantly smaller than the Imperial gallon, and the pint (which is 1/8th of a gallon in both systems) is also smaller in America. This retention of the old system by America (arguably the most important nation on earth) has its odd moments. There was that occasion when a space programme went wrong because the Americans were using feet and inches while their European comrades were using millimetres and metres. That most modern piece of equipment, the computer, will have its screen size stated in old-fashioned inches. Although the metric system is not widely used in the US, the American spelling of meter rather than metre is becoming increasingly common in this country.

Is considering all these measurements making your head spin yet? Mine is, so I will stop.