Nowhere in the London commuter belt does any rail traveller enjoy a less frequent or convenient rail service than that offered to the inhabitants of three attractive North Oxfordshire villages – Ascott-under-Wychwood, Finstock and Combe.
Ever since being reprieved from proposed closure during the Beeching era of the mid-1960s, this trio of halts has been served by a sparse “Parliamentary” service, usually comprising just one up morning train and one down evening train a day, while there is currently no week-end service whatsoever.
Looking back 30 years, my British Rail timetable for summer 1989 shows two up services calling at the halts on weekdays (by request), with a single down service in the evening, and one service each way on Saturdays.
By summer 2000, the weekday service had been reduced to the single return service we have today, but things looked a good deal brighter on Saturdays, when Ascott and Shipton both enjoyed four up services (all on request) and two in the down direction.
A view of Ascott-under-Wychwood station from the level crossing, showing the new (2011) up platform, built when the section of line to Charlbury was re-doubled.
One weekday stopping service is all franchisee GWR is contractually obliged to provide, and is in stark contrast to the vast improvements that have taken place elsewhere in recent years along the Oxford-Worcester Cotswold Line, thanks in no small part to the successes of its energetic promotion group.Having been formed more than 40 years ago to fight threatened closure and then threatened loss of direct service to London, the Cotswold Line Promotion Group’s (CLPG) efforts have seen regular services restored at Pershore, Honeybourne station re-opened, enhanced facilities at many stations and an hourly pattern of direct London trains.
But for all its remarkable successes, the CLPG’s one failure has been in securing any improvement in services at places like Ascott-under-Wychwood, a delightfully attractive village, whose halt even gained a new second platform when the section of line from here to Charlbury was re-doubled in 2011.
Not only is the village of Ascott-under-Wychwood growing, but its station is by far the best located of all the halts. It is only yards from the village centre, where attractive features of note are a medieval enclosure called The Pound, where livestock was secured, and the adjacent Grade II* Listed Holy Trinity church (pictured below).
It seems quite incredible that such a delightful place – its recently-reopened Swan Inn is highly recommended (pictured below) and only a minute’s walk from the station – does not have the proper train service that would bring visitors to the village and would allow residents to have a day out in Oxford or London.Nearby Shipton was another of the Oxfordshire halts to have a basic or Parliamentary service for many decades. But things there now look a little brighter, with two up and three down weekday services and no less than four trains in each direction on Saturdays.Lady in red: a solitary passenger waits at Shipton on 1 June 2019 to board the 14.00 departure for Oxford and Paddington, formed of IET 800320
Shipton is not nearly as well located or accessible as Ascott-under-Wychwood. The station is half a mile north of the village, there is no signage whatsoever on the busy A361 to indicate its existence, and the two platforms are reached separately down long and unlit approach roads.
To makes matters worse, getting to and from the down (northbound) platform requires squeezing along a narrow path (pictured above) past numerous trucks belonging to FWP Matthews, “the Cotswold flour millers”, which occupies a large site south of the station.
There was a time when Hanborough was a fifth Oxfordshire halt that only had a token service. In 1978, the year that the CLPG was formed, just three trains a day called here.
Today though, extensive new industrial and residential development, coupled with its proximity to Oxford, has seen it become a core stop on the route, used by more than 230,000 passengers in 2017/8.IET 800303 speeds through Shipton station on 1 June 2019 with the 12.22 Paddington to Moreton-in-Marsh service.
Hanborough is stopped at by virtually every train on the line, with waiting room and toilet facilities recently installed and staffing provided. Not bad for a station proposed for closure by Beeching.
But for the residents of the three villages, it is an early start if they want to catch the only up train of the day, which stops at Ascott (07.44), Finstock (07.54) and Combe (07.59) on its journey to Oxford (08.11).Returning home, their train leaves the city at 17.25 (a through service from Paddington), stopping at Combe (17.39), Finstock (17.46) and Ascott (17.58). IET 802112 passes Ascott-under-Wychwood signal box on 1 June 2019, with the 10.22 Paddington to Hereford service.
After a year blighted by delays and cancellations, it is perhaps hardly surprising that passenger numbers have fallen, with the most alarming decline at Ascott, where the 2017/8 total of 3,321 (around 13 per day) represents a 29% fall on the previous year. At Combe the total fell only slightly to 1,994 (8 per day) and at Finstock it was down 4.4% to 1,756 (7 per day).
Paying a late afternoon visit to Combe – a brisk 35 minute walk from Hanborough – it was easy to appreciate how distressing any disruption can be. On 28 May there were severe problems outside Paddington, so having initially showed the 17.39 departure as delayed the digital display suddenly declared that the train had been cancelled.
Stranded, and wondering what would become of the luckless owners of the five bicycles chained up alongside a path up to the tiny platform, my day was saved when a lady arrived in a car to pick up her son.
After explaining my dilemma and the cancellation she kindly drove me back to Hanborough, only for me to discover that the stopping train had been mysteriously reinstated, albeit running 40 minutes late (pictured bottom of page).
In its latest newsletter, CLPG Chairman John Ellis laments the group’s lack of success in persuading GWR to provide mid-morning stops by one train at Shipton and Ascott and an early afternoon return service.
Operator GWR maintains that there is insufficient demand to justify the cost of extra stops, and is sticking to the basic level of service specified in its franchise agreement.
But after spending a pleasant couple of hours in Ascott-under-Wychwood on a sunny Saturday lunch-time, contemplating my 35 minute walk back to Shipton station while savouring Hook Norton ale in the garden of the Swan Inn, I must strongly disagree!
Membership of the CLPG costs £8.00 (£6.00 seniors) p.a. and brings you an excellent quarterly newsletter. To join, or learn more, go to www.clpg.org.uk