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Walkin’ down the line

It will only have escaped your notice if you have been unfortunately confined to bed for the past three months that it has been rather damp outside. For those of us fortunate to live in the countryside, rain is not usually a thing we bother about but sometimes it gets so much that even the dog refuses to go out. And when you get out, the fields are a sea of mud. 

Thank goodness then, in our neck of the woods, for the linear park Brampton Valley Way. Its firm pathway and good drainage makes it a delight to walk, knowing that the need for a full hose down on returning home is diminished. The path runs along the track bed of the former Northampton to Market Harborough railway which closed in 1981. The 13 mile section that runs through the Northamptonshire countryside is now owned by Northamptonshire County Council, who also manage the remaining 1 mile section in Leicestershire on the approach to Market Harborough.

The Way is well used on all its sections by local walkers, runners, horse riders, and by cyclists for whom it is an off-road section of the Sustrans National Cycle Network Route 6. There are car parks at stopping points along the route that provide easy access, many of which correspond to the original stations, though some are not that near the villages they served.

At the southern end, the path shares the track bed with the Lamport and Northampton Railway, a steam and heritage diesel tourist railway. It has approximately a mile and half of running track and operates on Sundays between March and October.

Walking this path several times a week over the past few months has proven interesting and gives a lot of delight. It has been fascinating watching the streams and rivers that are criss-crossed by the Way, as they rise and fall with the deluges and downpours and the all too brief periods of drying out . Fields get covered overnight, rivers burst their banks and improvised ponds pop up. On the stretch between Merry Tom and Brampton Halt much of the land has been submerged at one time or another, which cannot be good news for the farmers but is seemingly good for the plover that have camped out there intermittently since Christmas, and herons. One morning I photographed three standing, pondering a patch of water, only to get home to find there were in fact four. I don’t know if any fish had migrated to this impromptu lake, let alone enough to keep four herons going.

Herons are common along the Way, often seen on the stretch between Brixworth Station and Hanging Houghton. Red kite are also common, as are the buzzards often seen perched on a fence post or halfway up a tree, scanning the area before taking off in a style that suggests “Oh well, I suppose I ought to make an effort and go and look as if I am doing something”. Over the winter months several redwing and fieldfare chatter about in the fields, crossing the line in flurries before settling again to comb the ground for worms and invertebrates.

All very calm and something to enjoy. But scratch a bit and you will find something else bubbling beneath the surface. As the impending change in local government moves on, the West Northamptonshire Joint Planning Unit (WNJPU) are looking at how the current three authorities of Daventry, South Northants and Northampton Borough can come together as one. Part of this process is the development of the Strategic Plan for the new authority and the first stage, the Issues Consultation, took place between August and October 2019. This consultation looked at a number of priorities important for the growth of the area including a New Strategic Transport Infrastructure. Within this, two potential projects were put forward: the North Northampton Orbital Road and North-South Rail.

North-South Rail refers to the re-opening of the Market Harborough to Northampton railway line. The idea behind this proposal is that the links with Leicester and on to Nottingham, Derby etc, as well as south to Milton Keynes, Watford and London, will create “a new set of efficient economic and social connections” that “should have significant positive impacts nationally and for west Northamptonshire”. It was also noted that this would complement the East-West rail proposals that are part of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc development.

On October 24th last year, Andrew Lewer, MP for Northampton South, asked the Transport Minister, Grant Schapps if he would elaborate on these plans and “the benefits that it will bring to the local economy, especially around Northampton?”. The Minister noted that the re-opening was in the formative stage but that he was “very supportive of it”. But, will it go ahead? And if so, what will happen to the linear park?

The Harborough Mail said that Steve Jones, the chair of Harborough Rail Users thought the proposal “exciting” and innovative and at the group’s AGM in November they included the ‘Northampton Line’ as one of their priorities for the year ahead. However there does seem to be little support for the scheme overall. For one thing, reconnecting at Northampton and at Market Harborough to their respective main lines would be difficult and costly, the northern end being covered by a number of houses. 

There is also the cost of renovating the engineering works along the way, particularly the two tunnels, at Kelmarsh and at Oxendon. In the late 1960s the line was considered for development having seemingly escaped Dr Beeching’s axe, and two bridges running over the line were rebuilt to facilitate the provision of electrification of the railway. That was about as far as they got with that and it is doubtful if the tunnels have sufficient height to allow for overhead cables.

But, if there is a will, then there is a way. However there will also be a lot of people not very happy at having their footpath/cycle path/bridleway moved, or reduced, or even closed altogether. But (again) nothing happens until it does. And in this case there was an election in the offing when the Minister started making positive noises regarding the possible re-opening of some railway lines. In January this year, the press reported on the plans to re-open the Fleetwood line in Lancashire and the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line in Northumberland as part of the Minister’s wish to restore railways to their “former glory”. No mention was made of Northampton to Market Harborough.

So, possible but not necessarily probable or practical for the North-South Rail, a feeling that is echoed by Graham Peacock at the Northampton & Lamport Railway. The heritage railway has been making slow but sure progress in terms of lengthening its track with the hope of opening the extension to a new platform at the Boughton end, by the Windhover pub. As Graham says, the outcome of the consultation regarding the proposed reopening of the line is not guaranteed so NLR will be carrying on as normal.

Towards the end of January this year, I went for a stroll along the section from Maidwell up to the Kelmarsh tunnel with Colin Rabjohn. Colin, like so many BVW users, has been following this proposal quite closely yet the more he has looked into it, the more he became convinced that the scheme will not get off the ground – which I realise is not really a good metaphor for the subject, but that’s all you’re getting. It was Colin who pointed out the potential cost for bringing the tunnels  back to a suitable standard to allow trains through. He also wants to know, who would use the line? Clearly the idea of a full re-instatement, with small stations serving the villages, will not be part of the plan. On a practical level, some of the ‘stations’ are some distance from the villages they serve and so people will drive to the station to catch the train. The A508 into Northampton will have to be pretty static for much of its time for anyone from Brixworth to want to drive half way to Spratton or Creaton to catch a train.

No, the purpose of the proposal is to reopen the link between Northampton and Leicester and beyond. Or is it? There is a rather large elephant in the room but it has been spotted by a few with keen eyes. The elephant is the need for urban growth. Since those heady days of the Blair/Brown government, the country has been given an amount of houses to be built in order to combat the housing shortage. In Northamptonshire, that allocation was distributed across all the district and borough councils but come unification there will be larger numbers and not necessarily the need to squeeze them into small areas. Suddenly it becomes clear that the allocation can be distributed in new areas, to include, according to the Strategic Plan, New Settlements and Corridor based growth. Corridor based growth is identified as having the potential to focus growth along key transport corridors, either existing or proposed.

Andrew Lainton, Town Planning and Regeneration Consultant wrote on his blog site Decisions, Decisions, Decisions that there are only “two potential strategic growth locations” on BVW: Brixworth and where the restored line would cross the A14 near Kelmarsh, north of Maidwell. It is the Kelmarsh idea that is causing consternation and concern to Colin Rabjohn and a growing group of residents, not just in Kelmarsh and Maidwell but wider afield as well. What purpose will such a development fill? Lainton suggests that the land is large enough to take 20-30,000 houses and a major redistribution centre, all built around the A14 junction and the relative proximity therefore of the M1 and the A43. 

And the railway proposal? This becomes important in adding to the notion of sustainability to the plan for the Kelmarsh/Maidwell development. All planning proposals need to prove ‘sustainability’ these days and what is more sustainable than having a ‘new’ railway running through the new large village? Perhaps there will be a station but will it stop people travelling by car north or south to work? They will certainly need a car if they work in Coventry or Birmingham. According to another person I spoke to, the railway is a Trojan horse, an idea that brings with it the ‘hidden’ houses.

At the time of writing, there is nothing much to go on. The West Northamptonshire Joint Planning and Infrastructure Board meeting, held on January 14th, noted that Question 20 from the Issues Consultation document received the most responses. Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, this was “primarily in relation to North-South Rail”. The Chair commented that the proposal “was in the preliminary stages and there was much information to be gathered and assessed”. It was also noted that “due process needed to be followed to avoid any legal challenges” which does not suggest that the WNJPU is putting the idea to bed, at least not yet, and that they are mindful that any progress will not be plain sailing (sorry).

Meanwhile, people still walk, run and ride along the Way, the line side trees continue to bud and will soon flower, and the birds are staking their domains for the breeding season.

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