Running 393 miles between King’s Cross station in London and Edinburgh’s Waverly station north of the border, the East Coast Mainline (ECML) is one of Britain’s key north-south arteries. Built during the 1840s, the line has 51 stations and has 16 passenger and freight operators running services along it. This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of blogs and vlogs (check out my YouTube channel here) in which I visit each of the 51 stations and the areas they serve to see what is there.
Starting from Peterborough there are 24 stations on the ECML to London King’s Cross ranging from stations with long distance services to local stations serving outer London. This post is going to cover the first six on that journey south, Peterborough; Huntingdon; St. Neots; Sandy; Biggleswade; and Arlesey. Serving towns in Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, these six stations along show the variation in services, with Peterborough being a rail hub with direct trains to a vast proportion of the country, whilst Arlesey is only served by the half-hourly Thameslink stopping services.
Catching the 0754 Thameslink service, my first stop of the day was Biggleswade, a market town in central Bedfordshire, served throughout the day by the Peterborough to Horsham Thameslink services and also by Great Northern services during the morning and evening peaks. Constructed in 1850, Biggleswade was the first town in Bedfordshire to have a mainline railway station, beating the county town of Bedford by almost a decade.
The town of Biggleswade has held a market since a charter was granted by King John in the 13th century. During my visit, just a couple of stalls were open, selling housewares; fruit and vegetables; and various types of food. The old town hall on Victoria place is now disused, having fairly recently operated as a Pizza Express whilst the Town Council operate from offices near the station located within the former magistrate’s court.
The town centre consists of a fairly standard mix of independent and chain stores and whilst Biggleswade may be worth a stop for some local shopping if you’re passing by, I wouldn’t say its worth a special journey. Access wise, there’s no step-free access at the station with both platforms accessed via a footbridge without lifts. The town centre is about a five-minute walk from the station.
After my bumble around Biggleswade, I arrived back at the station, just in time for the next southbound service and so hopped on for the short journey one stop to Arlesey. Arlesey is roughly the halfway point between King’s Cross and Peterborough, sitting approximately 38 miles from both stations. Arlesey station has ramps to both platforms but no step free access connecting the two, requiring a trip via Stevenage or St. Neots to head back to where you came from if you aren’t able to use the stairs.
Arlesey is a small town in the east of Bedfordshire, just across the border from the Hertfordshire towns of Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin. Unlike most other stations between Peterborough and Hitchin, Arlesey isn’t served by the additional peak Great Northern services, meaning only the regular half-hourly Thameslink services call at the station.
There really isn’t much in the town at all, with St. Peter’s church being the highlight of my visit. The church was built in the 12th century and the town certainly retains its historic character, although the rest of the church looks less ancient. The other highlight of stopping at Arlesey is the Arlesey Old Moat and Glebe Meadows, adjacent to the station, which is a 4.3-hectare nature reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust.
After a short explore of Arlesey, I decided to head back into Cambridgeshire and visit the county’s largest town, St. Neots. This historic market town was named after the ninth century monk, Saint Neot whose bones were brought to the local priory from Cornwall around 980AD. The town centre and many of the local green spaces are covered by a conservation area meaning much of the town retains its historic charms.
To the east of the town centre is the River Great Ouse which runs for 143 miles from Northamptonshire to Norfolk and is the fifth longest river in the UK. The river here used to play a large part in the town’s trade but is now much more suited to leisure traffic and a large area on the western bank is the Riverside Park which contains the Riverside Miniature Railway. Open every Sunday between April and October, the miniature railway costs just £1 per ride and is a more unusual attraction of the town.
My final stop in St. Neots was the St. Neots museum, housed in the former police station and magistrate’s court. Complete with early 20th century police cells, it tells the story of the town from the prehistoric era through to the modern day. Costing just £3 (or free for local residents), the museum includes an exhibit on the history of a local school as well as some of St. Neots’ most famous citizens: James Toller, the Eynesbury Giant, who stood over 8ft tall and the St Neots’ Quads, the first British quadruplets to survive more than a few days.
Having paid the museum a short visit, I headed back out to the High Street to discover that there was indeed a bus that covered the mile and half to the station and, even better, it only cost £1.50! At the station, I had about a fifteen-minute wait for the next southbound train that was to take me the short distance to my penultimate destination for the day, Sandy.
Sandy is very similar to Arlesey in that it is only served by the half-hourly Thameslink services and does not get called at by peak Great Northern services. Outside the station is a small area known as The Railway Triangle that seems to have been installed by the town council in around 2011. Unfortunately, the Perspex over the display signage was that dirty and opaque it was impossible to read more.
The town centre really had little to offer, with a few independent shops, a Coop and multiple hairdressers. However, one reason you may wish to visit Sandy for a day is the opposite direction from the station. RSPB’s ‘The Lodge’ is about a 15-minute walk from the station and provides 220 hectares of woodland, heath and acid grassland to explore and enjoy the wildlife. There’s some great information on the restoration work that’s gone into the heathland on the RSPB’s website, which you can find here.
Having arrived back at the station just as a northbound service departed, I found myself with half an hour to waste before the next train to take me to Huntingdon. As well as finding some information on how Great Northern have been working with the RSPB to make the station more nature friendly from insect & nectar rich flowers to House Sparrow nest boxes on the station building, I also found a great information panel on Captain Sir William Peel, R.N – K.C.B., V.C. son of Sir Robert Peel and local resident and railway fanatic who constructed the line between Sandy and Potton and also served with distinction in the Royal Navy.
Jumping onboard my penultimate class 700 of the day, it was a short journey the two stops back north to Huntingdon, my final destination to explore for the day. Huntingdon is famous for being the birthplace and hometown of Oliver Cromwell, who was a general for parliamentarian forces during the English Civil Wars and became Lord Protector of British Isles from 1653 until his death in 1658. In the centre of Huntingdon, opposite All Saints Church is the former grammar school in which Cromwell was taught and this building is now home to the Cromwell Museum, a completely free museum telling the history of Cromwell, the Civil Wars and Huntingdon.
Along with the historic grammar school, Huntingdon has a number of other beautiful old buildings including the Falcon public house which sits across the square from the Cromwell Museum, and the George Hotel which lies slightly further out of the town centre. As well as the usual mix of shops, Huntingdon town centre is also home to Commemoration Hall, constructed in 1842 which serves the community as an arts, entertainment and events venue and has just reopened following a refurbishment.
Having had quite a long day by this point, I chose to quickly see the sites of Huntingdon before finding a coffee shop to camp in and do some writing until meeting a friend for a swim out at Houghton Mill. Following our swim in the wilderness, I was dropped off back in town and headed back to the station via Huntingdon’s Sebastopol cannon which commemorates members of the Huntingdonshire regiment that lost their lives in the Crimean War. The current cannon is a replica of the original, which was melted down by the Ministry of War for armaments during the Second World War.
The final stop on this part of Exploring the East Coast is my home station of Peterborough. Rather than trying to squeeze the exploration in at the end of an already long day, I opted to head back into the city the following day to run some errands and see some of the sites. Most prominent is Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew, the 900-year-old Peterborough Cathedral which is located just off Cathedral Square in the city centre. Although founded during the Anglo-Saxon period, much of the structure is Norman and, alongside Durham and Ely Cathedrals, it is one of the most important 12th-century buildings in England to have remained largely intact. Unlike many Cathedrals and major churches in England, Peterborough Cathedral is completely free to enter, with there being a small charge for taking photos and obviously the option of donations.
In addition to the Cathedral, Peterborough also has a Museum and Art Gallery located about a five-minute walk from both the station and Cathedral. Containing interactive displays and galleries for all ages, the museum’s collection includes over 200,000 objects of great national and international importance. The museum also has events on throughout the year and often has special exhibits which have included the first ever exhibition to exhibit work by sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and painter Sheila Girling in the same space. Entrance to the museum and art gallery is free except for special events.
Peterborough also is home to a couple of railway attractions with the Nene Valley Railway terminating at its Peterborough station just to the south of the River Nene. Adjacent to the NVR station is Railworld Wildlife Haven which is an odd mix of railway history and nature reserve. The NVR operates different timetables throughout the year, with special events and trains at certain times. Railworld is generally on Wednesdays and Weekends between May and the end of November with extended openings during the school holidays.
With this part of the East Coast Mainline being the most familiar to me, all of the destinations were generally what I expected. Arlesey, Biggleswade and Sandy were nothing special, although the RSPB reserve near the latter may be worth a day out. However, if you’re looking for places to explore on this stretch, I’d certainly recommend Huntingdon, Peterborough, or St. Neots, all of which are easily accessible with regular services from London.