The branch line to Bedford was completed by 1861. By this time the line had been extended east through Gamlingay and on to Cambridge. This allowed through traffic between Cambridge, Bedford and Oxford. Footpath 21 is a 150m. track from the junction of Sunderland Road and Brickhill Road which takes you east (underneath the railway junction) into the Sand Hills or north along Bridleway 25.
There are a number of paths in the woods around Cox Hill which was excavated for sand during the 19th century when Victorian Sandy was being built. Postcards from 1900 show an almost vertical cliff face, dotted with tiny holes. There were reports of hundreds of sand martins nesting on the sheer cliff. Following the end of World War Two much more large-scale sand extraction virtually removed the hill. It is definitely worth a detour round. A huge flat-bottomed pit, the size of several foot pitches, is surrounded by trees on gentle to steep sandy slopes and covered in gorse. It has been and still is an attractive site for motorbikes, mountain bikes and racing stolen cars. Over a dozen, burnt-out and rusty hulks were found dotted around the site in 2005. The Council removes them. Further north, away from the road, there are some flooded clay pits and overgrown remains of 19th century brickworks. During the winter, some of the lower parts of the wood are very water-logged but during the drier weather in the summer there are a host of marsh plants, insects and birds.
The track follows the side of the Sandy to Cambridge railway line past the former Morgan/Matroc factory (TL 177496). Before it closed down in the late-1990s it manufactured lighting components and glass-bonded mica components under the trade-name Micatherm. According to their website “Matroc Bioceramics, a subsidiary of the Morgan Crucible Company plc, designs, manufactures and markets ceramic implant devices for a variety of orthopaedic reconstructive and surgical applications. These include ceramic femoral heads and cup inserts for ceramic on polyethylene and ceramic on ceramic hip replacement bearings, knee prostheses, spinal fusion devices and orthopaedic instrumentation. Custom designed components are also manufactured for cardiovascular devices, diagnostic equipment and trauma products.” When work was in full swing, it employed about 700 people. Buses used to bring in workers from as far away as Bedford. There is planning permission for four new industrial units and refurbishment of the old factory but a proposal to develop the site as a luxury housing estate with five-bedroomed homes has been refused.
Much of the land to the northeast was RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield. In Freddie Clarke’s book, Agents by Moonlight, a day by day account of the missions flown out of Tempsford, he said that
there were three ‘Air Raid Red’ alerts in January 1944. There must have been others later since I well remember flares dropping and shadows of low flying German aircraft turning towards London. Wisely the defences of Tempsford kept as quiet as a mouse. They were using the cooling tower to the north of the aerodrome as a turning point and the railway line to London as their Iron Beam.
Ted Smith told a story of ‘Scorcher’ Wisson. He used his double-barrelled shotgun to take a shot at a Dornier 129 flying very low over the flat fields of sugar beet and kale near the railway. It had bombed the power station at St Neots, just 5 miles (8 km) north of Tempsford, but was shot down and crashed at Little Barford. He always wondered whether he’d done it.
Two spies were reported as managing to get as close as Tempsford railway station before suspicions were aroused and they were apprehended. They were dressed as British air crew and had walked along the railway line and presented themselves at the guard house. They argued that they had just been shot down near Sandy and had urgent papers which they needed to take by plane to an airfield in the north. The duty officer who was called saw through their story as there had been no flights that day and all crews had been grounded. On being arrested one was found to have £3,000 strapped to him (worth about £67,480 today)! Both were claimed to have been sent to the Tower of London and then executed as spies. Whether they were or the British Secret Service managed to turn them to act as double agents is unknown.
Another railway-related story was told by a Sandy man. Those local men who did not get called up had to join the Home Guard, the ARP (Air Raid Protection) or the Special Police. Under the command of Major Ream of Carthagena Farm, Potton, they had to look after Potton, Gamlingay, Sandy, Sutton and Everton. Their once weekly duty started at 1800 and finished at 0500 hours. There was just enough time to cycle home, grab a piece of toast and then go to work!
The Home Guard played a part in the defence of Tempsford Airfield. Their headquarters was at Girtford Manor, a half-timbered medieval house just south of Sandy which was demolished after the war. In the fields between the airfield and Sandy a number of air raid shelters can still be seen today. They provided shelter for those on night duty. The ammunition dumps in woods needed protecting and the petrol dump near Deepdale. The main railway line was the focus of their defence, in particular the bridge carrying the Cambridge to Oxford line over the Great Eastern from London to Edinburgh. Atrhur Walker, a captain in the Home Guard on the staff of Bowes Lyon, commended Mr Backhouse, a signal man on the railway, for bravery for directing train drivers following a bomb attack on the railway line. As the line had been damaged, Backhouse signalled train drivers to stop and he walked up the line to direct them to use the other track.
Using the side of the railway track to get into Sandy from the base was not done. They would likely get shot by the Home Guard. The Roman Road was the main route used and then a footpath (Bridleway 37) southwest across the field to Lowfield Farm. From there they followed the farm track which ran alongside the railway towards the Midland Line bridge. Mr Walker of Biggleswade recalled a story told by his father, how, on some nights, there were special operations when the Home Guard and the local police were put on alert to stop anyone trying to get back to the airfield. There were occasions when men were taken out at night and dropped off at various points around the airfield and their aim was to get back to base undetected. Whether they were agents given extra evasion exercises or pilots and crews given practice to avoid detection should they be forced to land in occupied territory is unknown. It was said that a prize kitty of up to £50 could be shared by those who managed to get back undetected. Mr Walker recalled how he was lying in a ditch near the railway line and hearing someone approach. He waited until the last minute and just tapped the man on his arm with his gun. All those who were caught were taken to Sandy Police Station for transfer back to camp in the morning.
Bernard O’Connor’s ‘RAF Tempsford – now the story can be told’’ can be found in the library. Copies of his updated ‘RAF Tempsford - Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield’’ are available. Email firstname.lastname@example.org