What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.
It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.
If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.
Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.
Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.
There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.
The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…
PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.
Costa may not be everyone’s cup of tea – or coffee – but we were pleased when the recently closed Crown pub in Chalfont St Giles became a Costa in 2014. In the months before lockdown Owen, 12, enjoyed meeting his friends there for a frappuccino.
However, the branch has become a victim of coronavirus, closing permanently. The familiar Costa signs are gone, and the interior stripped bare.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Since the branch opened, Costa opened a bigger cafe in neighbouring Chalfont St Peter. If it has to be Costa, you can visit branches in nearby Gerrards Cross, Amersham and Beaconsfield. Since getting a Nespresso machine for Christmas, I’ve made my own latte and flat white rather then popping into Costa before my day’s work begins. Even better, we have the thriving Deli in St Giles, which has flourished despite Costa’s arrival. It does ‘proper’ food, rather than Costa’s microwaved panini. In recent months, we’ve enjoyed the Deli’s excellent Friday takeaway dinners.
There’s a history to the building. It starred as Captain Mainwaring’s bank in the 1971 film version of Dad’s Army, the comedy about the Home Guard in the second world war. We had lunch here in the Crown pub the Sunday after the September 11 terrorist atrocities, still in shock at those appalling events. Later, we enjoyed birthday and anniversary dinners at the Crown.
I’ll end on a poignant note. Just after Costa opened in St Giles, we bumped into Owen’s grandmother Aline there – you can see they were delighted to see each other. Sadly, Aline died just five months later. Some losses are much greater than the closure of a coffee shop or pub.
At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.
The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.
I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.
The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.
I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.
To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.
HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.
The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.
I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.
As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.
This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.
Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.
Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.
I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.
I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.
We really miss The Crown, as it was a favourite venue for birthday and anniversary dinners. We celebrated our fifth anniversary there on a beautiful summer evening in 2008 – our first night out since Owen arrived some eight weeks before.
Sign of the times
The owners have applied for permission to turn it into a cafe, and locals are hoping for a Costa. It won’t be the same, but as a Costa fan I’d much rather that than the sad sight of a closed pub.
Our village went red, wet and blue today as it celebrated the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The centre of the village was one big party, and children played Jenga on the zebra crossing.
It’s a familiar pattern: the Golden Jubilee was well marked here as well.
My mind went back to Britain’s only previous diamond jubilee: Queen Victoria’s in 1897. The world is a totally different place today, yet I have a personal link to that far-off celebration. My late grandmother, born in 1891, told me how her brother had climbed a tree to see a procession go by during the queen empress’s jubilee. I wish I’d asked her for more details when I had the chance. I assume it must have been an event in her hometown, Cardiff rather than the imperial procession in London.
More than 11 decades later, our son Owen had a similarly joyous time at another diamond jubilee.