“Slow, Middling and Jolty” (also known as the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway)

Those of us who grew up in Sulgrave during and just after World War 2 will remember that the main sound which intruded upon our otherwise silent village was that of steam locomotives crossing the railway embankment about half a mile to the east. This was especially noticeable at night. For us, at that time, railway journeys meant walking or cycling to the nearest main line stations at Helmdon (known as “Helmdon for Sulgrave”) or Culworth (actually about half way between Culworth itself and Moreton Pinkney). My journey to school in Brackley on Saturdays involved walking two and a half miles to Helmdon “top” station, 4 miles on the train and then walking a further mile from Brackley “top” station to the school.

“Helmdon for Sulgrave” in the 1950s.

However, in nearby villages there were other stations on other railway lines.

For example, there was a station more or less in Culworth village, known as “Eydon Road Halt”, on the line linking Banbury to the former Great Central Railway just to the north. My uncle was for many years the signalman in the box shown on the above photograph.

Until the early 1950s, in addition to the mainline station mentioned above, Helmdon also had a second station (inevitably known as the “bottom station”). This was situated on what had once been called the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway or “the SMJ”. Although the name subsequently changed, from the 1920s onwards, those in the village who used it from time to time still referred to it as the “Slow, Middling and Jolty”!

Helmdon “Bottom” Station, c 1910.

This station featured in evidence given at the trial of a man who committed a dreadful murder in Sulgrave in 1897.

I have particularly fond memories of this little railway as it ran through the fields to the south of Stuchbury, where my cousins lived during the war. We spent many hours playing on or around the brick bridge carrying a byway over the railway (which still exists). Perhaps once or twice a day, a small locomotive pulling a single carriage passed under the bridge at a speed which enabled us to exchange a few words with the driver leaning out of the window.

However, these are mere childish memories and I am not a railway buff. I am therefore indebted to Chris Behan for carrying out research into the origins of the SMJ, the results of which are set out on the next page as part of an enthusiastic report on his unexpected encounter with the railway at Cockley Brake, to the south of Farthinghoe.


Chris Behan writes:

Last Monday I had the misfortune to drive into a massive pothole, bigger than a manhole cover, on Cockley Road, Farthinghoe. The consequences, a flat tyre in seconds and an hour’s wait for the RAC to arrive.

So what do you do after the hi-vis jacket as been put on, the red warning triangle has been placed on the road and you have walked to a place of safety?

Monday was a beautiful day, spring really had arrived.

The woods are named Cockley Brake. “Brake”? That’s an unusual word for a wood.

With nothing else to do for an hour I sought answers on my iPhone. Within seconds I had the answer.

A dense group of trees or bushes. A thicket, often of ferns. “Brake” is the plural of the Middle English word “Bracken”.

So there I was, a wiser man, with 55 more minutes of an unplanned break to occupy.

The search for “Cockley Brake” also highlighted “Cockley Brake Junction”. That sounded like a railway connection. “Carry on reading”, I said, and another story emerged.

In the woods between the Halse Road and the Cockley Road is the site of a long gone railway junction, the result of Victorian Railwaymania coupled with Victorian entrepreneurial opportunism.

What was the pot of gold that drove Victorian businessmen to invest and obtain Parliamentary Acts to build a railway line from Blisworth to Cockley Brake Junction across unpopulated green and pleasant Northamptonshire farmland with no prospect of passenger traffic, just cattle, sheep and milk?

The answer lies in the soil. The ironstone discovered around Blisworth in the mid 19th century.

The promoted financial attraction for the investor was the shipment of this newly discovered ironstone from Blisworth to the blast furnaces of the South Wales steel works, via a direct rail route through the Cotswolds. Can you imagine the response to that kind of proposal today?

In 1847, the Northampton to Banbury Railway Act was passed authorising the building of the line, but nothing happened. Was it lack of investors? So in 1863 another act was passed, the Northampton to Banbury Junction Railway Act. This one definitely failed to raise enough capital. However work had now started on the Northampton to Banbury Railway and in 1866 the line between Blisworth and Towcester was opened. It was not a success. Why? It was only four miles long and had no locomotives or rolling stock. Both had to be hired.

The Northampton to Banbury Junction Railway (NBJR), as it finally came to be known, was saved from bankruptcy in 1870 by another Act, which attracted enough funds to complete the line to Cockley Brake. Here it connected to the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) line from Bletchley, Buckingham and Brackley to Banbury Merton Street station, which, by the way, was in Northamptonshire in those days. From Blisworth the NBJR line ran through Towcester, Wappenham and Helmdon Village to Cockley Brake. Although it passed close to Greatworth, the village never had a station.

For many reasons Cockley Brake turned out to be the end of the line for the NBJR and its investors. However, it still managed to struggle on as an independent company until it was purchased in 1910. Its survival for over thirty years was only made possible by hiring locomotives and rolling stock from the LNWR and negotiating running rights over the LNWR line from Cockley Brake to Banbury.

The NBJR railway line, under various ownerships, somehow survived until 1951 operating three passenger trains a day, four on Thursdays, from Banbury to Blisworth and back. On at least one of theses passenger trains, as well as two passenger coaches, there would have been six or seven cattle wagons.

From the very beginning passenger revenues were never sufficient to justified the line but the revenues from cattle traffic to and from Banbury Cattle Market made the line viable, if only just.

By now, the RAC had arrived, changed my wheel and moved on to the next car, which had also suffered at the expense of the offending pothole.

A walk to the site of Cockley Brake Junction was now a must, but for another day.

Back home I studied the latest edition of the OS map for South Northamptonshire. It gives sufficient clues, old embankments and cuttings, to locate the site. However, I decided to look at earlier editions published when the railway was operating. The 1900 edition, available to view on the Internet, provided the most information. Details of the track layout, signal posts and the signal box. More importantly it showed a footpath, which went across the junction.

Armed with my 1900 map I drove to Halse Road, parked my car next to the left turn to “Greatworth only”, as the signpost says and crossed the road to join the footpath.

The 1900 map showed that there was a railway bridge over the Halse Road and this became very apparent as the footpath climbed onto a wide greensward path. I was walking along the old trackbed of the NBJR. As I walked along the path it swung to the right in a fine geometrical curve, clearly not of Mother Nature’s doing, but of a Victorian engineer with precision in mind. After 200 yards the greensward widens into a clearing with another wide and fine geometrical curved path coming in from my left. It was another railway trackbed, which, having not been used for nearly 70 years, was slowly being taken over by Mother Nature. This was the LNWR line from Bletchley to Banbury.

Cockley Brake Junction as is is now.


Cockley Brake Junction as it was when built.

I was standing on the site of Cockley Brake Junction. It wasn’t as significant as reaching the South or North Poles but it was poignant. This was the spot, a clearing in a brake, nearly 100 miles from the blast furnaces of the South Wales steel works, where the local Victorian businessmen’s ambitions were thwarted, where their plans were found to be wanting and where their investment was clearly not enough.

The pot of gold had turned into a pot of clay.

Author’s note:

To my knowledge there are only two photographs of Cockley Brake Junction in existence. Are there any more? Has anyone got a photograph of the railway bridge over Halse Road at the “Greatworth only” turn, or even the Cockley Road bridge over the railway line just before the entrance to Cockley Hill Farm travelling towards Fathinghoe.

Chris Behan


Editor’s Note:

This extract from the OS 1″ 7th Series (1952 – 1961) clearly shows the relationship of the junction to nearby villages:


As a young man, the word “brake” was a term heard not infrequently amongst the farming and hunting community. A poaching song sung in local pubs, called “The Innocent Hare” contained the words “…then up she springs, through brake she flies…”

Colin Wootton


3 Responses to ““Slow, Middling and Jolty” (also known as the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway)”

  1. David Dale says:

    Very interesting reading, my neighbour and I have walked the old cutting too and enjoyed it.

  2. The bridge over the Halse road at the turn for Greatworth was known as the iron Bridge for obvious reasons. It was dismantled as I recall in the early seventies.
    We used to go to the Top Station at Helmdon from Stuchbury Manor Farm to get coal from Mr Peart, and to get Basic Slag, a by product of the steel industry,which was used by farmers as a fertiliser. A dirty , dusty material. It came from Stewart’s and Lloyds at Corby.

  3. Mike Constable says:

    Richard is quite correct with his comments about the Iron Bridge. I understood it was finally demolished after the Brackley based Fire Engine ran into it with the ladder, at speed. I used to pass under it every school day from September 1958 until June 1966. There were Badgers in Cockley Brake in the late 70s.

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