Pictures from the past: The building of Leighton railway line

Print by J. C. Bourne
Print by J. C. Bourne

The picture of the building of the railway at Leighton/Linslade more than 150 years ago was in a collection of archives at the 1st Leighton Buzzard Scouts HQ in Grovebury Road which I visited recently, writes Peter Sutherst.

It was painted in October 1837 (four years before photography was invented) by railway artist J C Bourne.

He called it “Blasting rocks, Linslade, Buckinghamshire, October 1837”.

The Grand Union Canal is to the right and what may be Bluebell Wood is on the left.

If so, the artist was on the hillside above the Leighton Tunnel and the pathway we see running left to right could now be Stoke Road with a bridge over the railway.

What it also shows is the way explosives were used to blast the rocks to smithereens with smoke and noise and danger. It is a salutary example of what will happen if and when the HS2 line gets built.

The earth moved that day! But the onlookers don’t seem too concerned and there’s not a hard hat in sight!

The Euston to Birmingham line was opened on April 9, 1838 just six months after the painting was made.

Extra tunnels and lines were added to the structure much later.

The following quote came from one of the artist’s books on the work he did for the railway companies:

“Immediately after leaving the Leighton Station the train enters the Linslade Tunnel, which is cut through the blue clay and iron sand: it is 284 yards in length, and curves rather to the left, and is ventilated by one shaft: at the end there is a deep cutting through the iron sand rock, which stands in steep yellow walls, 40ft high at each side of the line.

“Just afterwards a bridge crosses the line, over which is the road from Leighton to Stoke Hammond; and then we may obtain, on the right a momentary glimpse of a scene the most striking of any on the line; it consists of a valley bordered by hills and cliffs of the yellow sand rock, round the side of which winds the canal; at the bottom is a streamlet bordered by willows; the whole well wooded, and the distant hill tops crowned by a dark heath.

“The bright appearance of the sand rock has a peculiar effect, and gives the whole scene a panoramic appearance that cannot but attract attention.”

Osborne’s London & Birmingham Railway Guide, E.C. and W. Osborne (1840).