A Woodland History

Two That Shaped The Woodland

We have two people to thank for how the Great Central Woodland looks today; Sir Edward Watkin and Peter Gascoigne. This is how they shaped the centre of our village.

Before the arrival of the railway, the area now known as Great Central Woodland was open farmland beside the River Cherwell. The Ordnance Survey map of 1882 shows a field boundary running along the line of what would later become “The Bank” and a trackway following what is now Phipps Road. Apart from that, the land was just fields that separated the two communities of Woodford Halse and Hinton.

Sir Edward Watkin

The arrival of the Great Central Railway at Woodford was part of the ambitious dream of Sir Edward Watkin. He imagined a fast railway connection from Manchester through to London and on through a tunnel under the Channel to Europe. With its station, freight yard, locomotive shed and wagon shop, Woodford Halse was to become an important part of the railway system. As a result of Watkins’ vision, the Great Central was built to Continental loading gauge standards and ran some of the fastest scheduled rail services in the UK.

In 1895, 500 men working for T. Oliver & Son arrived in the parish and began working on the construction of what is now known as “The Bank”. The first trains began running over the line through Woodford in 1897. On the 5th March 1899 the first passenger trains stopped at Woodford and Hinton station.

Plan of Woodford Halse Station and the “Old Yard” showing the many sidings that once occupied “the Bank”. (Original plan courtesy of John Rose)

The station was outside the area that is now part of the Great Central Woodland, to the south of Hinton Road but the bank, where there are trees today, held the original marshalling yards. Later known as the “old yards”, there were over 30 tracks across the width of the bank, floodlit at night, able to accommodate over 1200 wagons waiting to be organised into trains for destinations across the rail network.

Woodford “old yard” looking south across the Byfield Road, circa 1900.

In 1941 more sidings – the “new yards” – opened to the north of the Byfield Road, more than doubling Woodford’s capacity to 3250 wagons. Today it is hard to imagine how busy the Woodford goods yards and station were but between 1942 and 1951 the yards handled an average of almost 1 million wagon movements a year, 3000 trucks a day and 175 trains passing through, every 24 hours. The Annseley / Woodford “runners” ( freight trains) were reputed to be the fastest, most efficient, loose-coupled, freight service in the world. The newspaper and passenger train from Marylebone to Woodford could cover the 66.4 miles in 66 minutes, including two stops en route to the North!

With the station and its goods yard and cattle dock to the south and the locomotive and wagon works and the new yards to the north, the whole railway complex around Woodford stretched for about 3 miles. Around 500 staff were employed working in the yards and the locomotive depot and wagon works, not including the station staff and in the station refreshment room (which also sold beer), signalmen, the permanent way gangs maintaining the tracks, and office staff.

One other feature of the Great Central Woodland is worth mentioning in relation to the railway. To the east of the Bank, just where the railway crossed the Byfield Road, there was a pump house and well. Together with the reservoir further to the south, beside the Cinder Path, this served the railway. Steam engines require water. Burning a pound of coal turns over half a gallon of water to steam. The tender of a single locomotive might hold 4000 gallons or more. With water needed for 60 locomotives “on-shed” at Woodford as well as for locomotives passing through (there were also troughs in the tracks between Charwelton and the New Yards to allow express trains to pick up water without stopping), the water supply played an important part in keeping the railway running. The Railway Magazine of January 1936 talks of the Woodford and Hinton depot using around 65 million gallons of water a year. The water from the spring which originally fed the reservoir still flows through pipes under the path and into the small stream at the side of the Cinder Path to this day.

When the railway closed in September 1966 contractors quickly dismantled it and spent months with large earth moving machines taking a large amount from the top of the bank, reducing its height. (The now demolished bridge on the Byfield Road was high enough to allow a double decker bus beneath, so it can be imagine how much has gone!) Part of the bank that was on the Phipps Road side was also removed. The ballast, rocks, track bed and ash were valuable road building materials. The bank soon became derelict, a dumping ground for everything from scrap cars to domestic waste.

The next step in the Woodland’s story came fifteen years later. Peter Gascoigne, a village resident who worked in forestry management, resolved to solve the problem of what had been described as “an eyesore and scene of desolation”. Through his energies, the land was eventually acquired by the Earl of Birkenhead and with Peter’s forestry experience, the process of converting it to woodland began.

It was not an easy task. The land was heavily compacted by 60 years of railway operations, there were drainage problems and the soil was potentially toxic from the chemicals used to keep the track clear of weeds. After clearing dumped debris, the top of the bank was ripped up to improve drainage and measures were taken to eradicate rabbits; the enemy of railway embankments and young trees.

Tree planting with Corsican Pine and Sycamore (chosen for their ability to cope with a hostile site like the Bank) and with hardwood species on the more fertile areas, took place in the winter of 1981/82. Over the next few years, there was replanting to replace trees lost to vandalism, trespassing and rabbits and planting of a combination of Poplars and Oak on the riverside land to allow the build up of an Oak woodland – part of a twenty-plus year vision for the land.

For some parts of the land vandalism made it impossible to establish trees but, in the main, the wood survived. Lord Birkenhead died in 1985 but fortunately the land was sold to another owner who continued Peter’s vision for a wood in the heart of Woodford until 2016 when it was bought by the Parish Council for the benefit of the people of Woodford cum Membris.

Thanks to John Rose for very helpful material on the history of the railway and to Margaret Gascoigne for Peter’s memoir of establishing the woods.