Castlethorpe has no special claim to railway distinction. Today it does not even possess a station, although four busy lines do run close by the village. When Robert Stephenson completed the London and Birmingham Railway in 1838, Castlethorpe was considered too
insignificant to be given a station. However, there was a change of heart and in 1882 one was built, and remained open until 1964. In that time the village produced not only its railway characters but a great deal of milk as well! If you have not heard of Castlethorpe Milk Train or Ben Sawbridge or Farmer Amos, it is time the story was told.
Castlethorpe is still a pleasant village with a variety of attractive brick built buildings which blend well with the older stone houses and thatched cottages. A couple of shops, one pub (now closed) a small church in a dominant position, together with a higgledy-piggledy array of houses, all clustered to the side of the railway. Four lines pass through from Euston to the far north, but Castlethorpe no longer benefits since the trains have ceased to stop there. Even their familiar rhythmic clatter has changed since electrification and the introduction of the long welded rail.
The station was conveniently near the village. The Station Master’s house, built of mixture of Staffordshire blue and local brick, stood on the east bank close to the platforms. The high signal box, a village landmark for many years, has now been demolished. It stood so near the road bridge it was said the signal man could shake hands with passers-by. Other important features for enginemen in the days of steam were, of course, the water troughs which lay about a quarter of a mile south of the station. Although these have long been removed, the dilapidated water-softening tanks remain and the water reservoir on the opposite side of the railway, always attractively camouflaged by trees and bushes, is now well overgrown.
The former station sidings are now an unkempt area; it once comprised two roads, a cattledock, a shunting neck leading from the slow lines, and held timber, cattle, sugar beet, and the local coalmen’s wagons. Daily the wagons were shunted by the station’s best remembered train the castlethorpe Milk.
In the early hours of the morning, before and during World War II, an LNWR Cauliflower would creep from Bletchley Loco Shed, and depart at 5.50am with wagons for Castlethorpe
Six miles north a few wagons would be detached for Wolverton yard and an empty van would then be placed in the Newport bay to be attached to the motor train for Newport Pagnell milk. Northward again for about three miles and Castlethorpe was reached; the end of the journey. The two roads were shunted, wagons placed for traders and the milk loaded. With the engine now facing south, a dip at the troughs would fill the tender tank, and then there was the stop at Wolverton to attach the Newport Pagnell milk van before the journey could be resumed.
On the return trip the train would be backed inside Loughton’s single siding for more milk to be loaded. A blast on the whistle whilst reversing often made late arrivals flick the reins to make their horses trot the last few yards down the slope towards the milk stage. This rural spot is now the site of the new station of Central Milton Keynes, the heart of the New City.
Arrival at Bletchley saw the milk vans joined with others from Oxford, Banbury and Cambridge branch lines. These formed the London train; soon the milk would be on the tables of those living in the metropolis.
I remember my first association with the Castlethorpe Milk. I was a young fireman, and the time was 2.00am on a winter’s morning during World War II: ‘Little 18 inch’ was the name the Bletchley engineman gave the Webb Cauliflower. The coalman had diligently over filled the tender and the coal had rolled down to cover the footplate. Heavy snow weighed down the middle of the blackout sheet so far that it actually touched the coal on the footplate. The only way I was able to enter the cab was on hands and knees; then by raising on all fours I lifted the sodden sheet with my back and off-loaded the snow into the tender. I managed to improve conditions further by shovelling coal straight from the floor into the firebox until I was finally able to see the footplate.
The arrival of my driver did not herald tidings of great joy. He was an old top-link driver with a heavy moustache and three inch pipe in his mouth which was seldom alight despite his apparent unlimited supply of matches; his greeting was little more than a grunt. I oiled the underneath motion of the engine as we prepared for the day’s work. Soon the driver reached his usual disposition of silence, punctuated by grunts to intimate his wishes. The trip was made tender first; amid open snow covered fields, we had to face an ice cold blast all the way to Castlethorpe. The return trip, engine first seemed a comparative joy-ride.
I revisited Castlethorpe on a pleasant spring day in 1978. It was pleasing to have such memories then, but I was soon distracted. I noticed a stained glass window in the church. In the high window, numerous small lead panes symbolised the history of Castlethorpe. The main coloured figures were of a military man in armour, with a sword, matched with two pious gentlemen who carried swords. Between them stood the wooden castle, which gave the village its name. Beneath three stonemasons also played a part in the scene.
Below the large figures, in separate small panes of glass, were two easily recognisable scenes of Castlethorpe. One depicted a ploughman with two shire horses turning the soil and in the distance, a spire, probably that of nearby Hanslope Church: the other portrayed a LNWR 0-6-0 coal tank engine No. 973, with the two enginemen clearly performing their everyday task.
My curiosity, to see the window from the interior of the church, was thwarted by a locked door, but a gardener opposite the church helpfully suggested I should ‘See Ben Sawbridge at the Post Office just ‘round the corner there’.
The well stocked general store was doing a steady weekend trade but whilst Mrs. Sawbridge was serving postal orders and vegetables, Ben in his relaxed country clothes and water boots, regarded my request with enthusiasm. Within minutes we were in his Morris 1000 to drive the few hundred yards, through the church gateway and into the quite churchyard.
He was no ordinary member of the community; for there was more life than just the Post Office and the general store. Ben was the village postman, parish councillor, school governor, churchwarden and perhaps most demanding of all, he was village undertaker with some good cheap rates to offer. He could quote several long distance jobs to prove he was very competitive!
To have become such a central figure in the village Ben first learned his trade of carpentry in the Railway Carriage Works at Wolverton, but with a desire to be his own boss, he left the works to become a porter at Castlethorpe Station; well situated to build up his own business interests until he could leave railway service.
While I talked to Ben I remembered a Sunday evening in 1964 when I was at Castlethorpe with several others to witness the last passenger train to stop there. The prospective MP and his followers were also there to give rousing speeches on the village green about the closures. This was followed by a token protest by some who, for a while sat in front of the train before it finally departed carrying a contingent who proposed to hand a petition to the Minister of Transport. Among those left behind on the slow line platform was Farmer Amos.
Farmer Amos, true to his Christian name, was a local farmer and he well remembered seeing the arrival and departure of the first passenger train at Castlethorpe Station during August 1882. Now he stood quietly watching the last.
Farmer Amos and Friends
I asked Ben if Farmer Amos was still alive. ‘Oh I boxed him up and buried him over there, with his hob-nailed boots on, at the age of 96’. Ben indicated a weathered stone near the church side gate, adding that Farmer Amos had especially requested that he should be buried with his boots, and that he should be carried in the hearse to the church by a curious route via Cosgrove to be met there by his sons. Ben had carried out his wished and Farmer Amos now rested in Castlethorpe churchyard with other long departed members of his family.
Across the fields and coming into view the new city spreads and pushes its way towards Castlethorpe, quiet as ever and slow to change. Will it be subjected to Town Planning, and forced to take the doubtful advantages of modern suburbia? To me Castlethorpe will always be synonymous with milk and the little Cauliflower engine that regularly disturbed the morning calm as it met the early milk carts that trundled through the village from the farms