The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about industrial heritage along the Trail to help us create a community Top 50!

Industry made the Trail a noisy, dusty place with the sounds of factory hooters and trains, canal construction, chalk quarrying, tree felling and woodworking. Pitstone Quarry is one of the few sites still operating, but you have to keep your eyes peeled for the often overgrown and quiet railway buildings, chalk pits and saw pits along The Ridgeway. Places of work are now spaces for recreation – canals, reservoirs, cycle routes along redundant railway lines, nature reserves. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image: Old railway bridge near Compton, Berkshire. Credit: Hedley Thorne.

Sitting amongst the densely packed orchids and hosts of butterflies at Aston Clinton Ragpits nature reserve near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, visitors have the site’s history to thank for its rich biodiversity. The pits and spoil heaps were created in the process of quarrying for ‘rag’, which is a type of chalk suitable for use as a building stone. Chalk stone in the church at Great Kimble in Buckinghamshire, for example, came from these pits. There are numerous chalk pits along The Ridgeway, such as Watlington Chalk Pits in Oxfordshire, where chalk would have been put to various uses – mixed with clay to make bricks, as lime for farmers to ‘improve’ soils, as ‘whiting’ for whitewash and making paint, toothpaste and more, and for mortar and cement.

Quarrying grew to a huge scale at Chinnor (Oxfordshire), College Lake and Pitstone (Buckinghamshire) and these extensive pits, most of them now waterbodies, can be seen from the Trail. Local stories from Chinnor, where a quarry operated from 1908 to 1989, refer to machines called ‘navvies’ digging out the chalk. The operators would work day and night, with headlights to help in the dark and a midday lunchtime hooter that could be heard for miles around. The cement works chimneys would always be smoking and a fine white powder would frequently cover surrounding land and properties as recent as the 1970s. Today, College Lake is a popular Wildlife Trust reserve and the one remaining ‘beehive’ lime kiln at Chinnor is listed building in a new housing estate!

The word ‘navvies’ is more commonly associated with canals and railways and refers to the construction labourers or ‘navigators’ of whom there were once hundreds working around The Ridgeway in the Victorian period. This is particularly true of Tring in Hertfordshire where construction of the Grand Union Canal, started in 1799, took four years to hand-dig an average depth of 30 feet through the Chiltern Hills! This is the highest summit along the canal’s entire route and the ‘Tring cutting’, where The Ridgeway crosses the canal, sought to reduce the climb up and down the hills. However, numerous locks were still required on both sides and four reservoirs, today valued for recreation and wildlife, were needed to maintain the water level. Such feats of engineering were a feature of canals, with the first example being set by the ‘Canal Duke’ who had an estate nearby at Ashridge and commissioned a canal serving Manchester. A monument to the Third Duke of Bridgewater can be seen from The Ridgeway near Tring and in return it offers fine views from the top if you can climb the 172 steps inside the column!

Horse-towed canal barges soon lost business to the faster train services as railway development spread across the country and The Ridgeway area saw numerous local lines constructed. The Ridgeway’s two tourism railways linking Chinnor to Princes Risborough and Wallingford to Cholsey give some insight into what it was like back then. Chinnor’s line was one of the few to be retained by the ‘Beeching Cuts’ in the 1960s because business was still strong for the cement works and sawmill. The Princes Risborough to Pyrton railway line opened in 1872 with stations at Watlington, Lewknor, Aston Rowant, Kingston Blount and Chinnor. Later there were stations at Wainhill and Bledlow Bridge. An old railway station can be seen on the Trail as it crosses the A40 near Aston Rowant and in places the Trail runs parallel to the overgrown railway line.

Whilst it is hard to miss Brunel’s huge brick Moulsford viaduct across the Thames, it is easy to overlook the old brick bridge on The Ridgeway near Compton in Berkshire (see image gallery above). The bridge crosses the disused Southampton to Newbury to Didcot railway line. Before the decline of the wool industry, Compton station was busy with pens to hold animals on the way to and from the sheep fairs and markets at East Ilsley. Lambourn was another Berkshire village that once had a train station and it was the terminus of the Lambourn Valley line. Trains carried coal, dairy produce, livestock and racehorses – up to 35 horseboxes a day were hauled in and out of Lambourn station between 1920 and 1935! Watercress was also a major local produce transported by train to London at one time.

The woodlands weren’t always quiet places either, the High Wycombe area in Buckinghamshire in particular being famous for furniture making for over a hundred years until the end of the Victorian period. Chairs were assembled in factories, but some of their components, such as legs, spindles and back supports, were made in the woods by craftsmen known as ‘bodgers’. The men would buy lots of timber that were left felled in the woods to season and then they would split and ‘turn’ the wood on a pole lathe. Working long hours every day in the woods, they would build small temporary huts for shelter and cook food over a fire. They would leave trails of sawdust to find their way home on dark evenings. Sawpits are the only physical features that remain of this industry – trees would be pulled across a small pit so that the ‘underdog’ would stand underneath whilst the ‘topdog’ stood above as they sawed together.

Notes: More information about horses, sheep, food production, the Thames and watercress is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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