Leighton Buzzard and the surrounding villages are built on sand - thick seams of very pure sand laid down in prehistoric times, and since covered by layers of clay. This is a very valuable material, which is still quarried in large quantities.
Because of its purity, and its range of colours from white to dark brown, it is used in a variety of applications, from foundry moulds to golf-course bunkers, as well as in the construction industry. The early quarries, in the 19th century, were mostly on the west side of the town, near the transport arteries of the Grand Union Canal and the London Euston to Birmingham railway.
The coming of the Leighton Buzzard-Dunstable branch line, in 1848, opened up new areas for exploitation.The thick seams of sand in the hills of the Greensand Ridge to the north, towards Heath & Reach village and what is now the A5 road, remained largely untouched. The cost of transport would have made them uncompetitive with cheap imports from Europe.
The building of the line
The outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, changed all that. Industrial and military demand soared, while supplies from the cheap overseas competitors were eliminated. Wartime regulations allowed sand to be transported by road – horse-drawn carts, and later steam lorries – from the new northern quarries to sidings on the Dunstable branch at Billington Road.As a result, the roads in the area suffered enormously.
Once the war was over, the quarry owners were told that they would be responsible for repairing any future damage, and this led quickly to the formation of Leighton Buzzard Light Railway Ltd.
Owned by the two main quarry operators in the area - Joseph Arnold & Sons Ltd and George Garside (Sand) Ltd - the railway company had its line built, from the Billington Road sidings to Double Arches, near Heath & Reach, and in service by the end of 1919. Using mostly surplus materials and equipment from the War Department Light Railways (WDLR), which had operated the supply lines to the battle zones, it was built to 2 foot (610 mm) gauge, and was just over 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long.
The line at work
Additional to this was a network of quarry branches, plus sidings serving the industries which set up alongside the line.The LBLR's original steam locomotives, a pair of Hudswell Clarke "Ganges" class, lasted less than 2 years, being replaced in 1921 by ex-WDLR armoured "Simplex" petrol locomotives, built locally in Bedford. This almost certainly made it the first railway in Britain (or even the world?) to convert entirely to internal-combustion traction. It may also explain the line's low public profile for much of its working life.
The peak period for traffic on the LBLR was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when 20 train loads of sand were regularly dispatched each day - a phenomenal performance for a single-track railway, taking into account the return empty workings. Thereafter, road competition, and the rationalisation of the main-line railway system, took away much of the traffic, and through trains to Billington Road ended in 1969.
In 1967, a group of railway enthusiasts had received permission from the owners to run passenger trains over the LBLR "main line", starting with a series of diesel-hauled "fan trip" specials, on 3rd March 1968. This was the beginning of the non-profit body whose members still operate the railway as volunteers. Initially, it was called the Iron Horse Preservation Society, and sought to recreate an American image, but soon changed to Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway Society.
Steam-powered regular services started in June 1968, and have continued - with breaks for winter maintenance works - ever since. Indeed, this is one of the few British heritage railways not to have closed down during the transition to its new role.
Quarry branches continued to be used at the northern end of the line, to transport sand to the processing plant at Double Arches, but one by one they were replaced by the large dumper trucks which still do the work today.The last fragment of a quarry branch curves away from the "main line" just beyond the Vandyke Road level crossing, and now houses a Simplex locomotive and a couple of skip wagons as a reminder of how it used to be.
The very last operational branch line, from Churchways quarry, ceased operation in June 1981, ending a form of transport going back over a century, and turning the most northerly part of the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway into a dumper run.
Locomotives, wagons and Ruston Bucyrus 10RB quarry face shovel and dragline excavator from that era are in our working museum collection.