My Time with the Sands of Leighton Buzzard

In 1943-44 I found myself working for Joseph Arnold & Sons at Billington Road, Leighton Buzzard for the second time. I was employed in the Loco Repair shed at Billington Road. The repair shed consisted of a long, low, corrugated iron clad shed which was used to house and repair the many Simplex light railway locomotives that were engaged in the various sand-pits in the Leighton Buzzard area that were owned and worked by Joseph Arnold and Sons.

The engine shed and workshop was normally occupied by four locos, two were used to work the railway loading bridge from a siding off the Leighton Buzzard to Luton line. These also covered the sand pit known as Pratts Pit at Billington Road. The remaining two locos were normally the loco being worked on and a spare engine to cover any breakdowns etc.

Work started at 07.00 in the mornings, winter and summer. In summer our working conditions could be quite good as we could have the shed doors open, but in the winter, it was quite a different story. It was a good job that ‘Health & safety at Work’ wasn’t involved as much as today, because you can imagine two locos starting up for their day’s work in a closed shed in winter, and with war time restrictions. It was not ideal, but we survived.

I was the junior fitter and trainee and when the trains were moved, my job was to see the engine safely over the roads crossed by the trains. It wasn’t long however, that I was able to drive and operate the locos the length of the line to the foreman’s approval. As I became more proficient and able to operate the locos safely, on occasions, I would be loaned to the Light Railway to help-out if they became short of drivers.

The Light Railway was responsible for most of the sand traffic from various pits in the Leighton Buzzard area supplied by the two main owners, Joseph Arnold and George Garside. Their fleet consisted of five ex war department Simplex 40hp engines and two 20hp versions. Three of the bigger engines were used on Arnolds traffic and two on Garside’s work.

If a driver for one of the smaller engine locos was unavailable, I would be called upon to help-out on a loan basis. This could mean taking the empty train of 10 wagons to the Nine Acre pit at Stonehenge Brickworks or perhaps serving the sand washing plant at Billington Road. For Nine Acres, I would take a train of ten empty wagons to the pit and collect a train of ten one ton skips and return to Billington Road. For the sand washing trip. I would take four wagons from the station at Pages Park down a very steep slope and across Billington Road, around a very sharp, right hand curve into the washing plant.

On the way to the plant the four fully loaded wagons would be in front of the engine. Starting down the slope the hand wheel had to be applied with no throttle at all. Then, as soon as the first wagon was across the road and into the curve, the brake came off and full throttle applied to get into the washing plant itself. Likewise, bringing the washed sand out again it needed all the power of the 20hp engine to get back up the slope again. Bringing a train of ten loaded wagons from Nine Acre pit to Billington Road was, if anything easier to handle. Really, the only difficult stretch was from Vandyke Road to Hockliffe Road to what became notoriously known as ‘The Swing Swang’ which I understand is a term still in use today.

This was quite a fast section and as the name implies, the wagons ‘swing-swang’ from side to side and in many cases if the catch became loose, tipped a ton of sand out quite quickly – this could be proved by the many heaps of sand dotted along the track. A shovel was an essential part of the equipment you made sure you had with you. Nevertheless, it was all quite an experience and one I well remember as a 17-year-old.

In April 1945 I was called up to do my national Service in the Army in The Royal Engineers and so ended my spell as a light railway loco engine driver – quite an experience.

Quick Links
One mans memories of Slapton between the wars.
Sand Museum
This is a fascinating website about the Leighton Buzzard sand industry. Contains old photographs, history of the local sand companies descriptions of the lives of those working in the industry and also includes audio extracts from local people describing their memories.
Leighton Buzzard Railway
Very popular narrow gauge railway enjoyed by visitors and steam enthusiasts from all over the world