Sand is a universal building material throughout Europe but particularly pure deposits of sand, such as those around Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, are a valuable mineral resource, used in glassworks, foundries and other manufacturing concerns.
Much of the sand used by British industry before 1914 was imported, but shipping problems during the First World War stimulated domestic production. An extensive range of quarries north of Leighton Buzzard was developed by two companies, Joseph Arnold & Sons Ltd and George Garside (Sand) Ltd. Their steam lorries caused severe damage to local roads and after they were told that they would be responsible for the cost of repairs the companies built a 2 ft (610 mm) gauge railway system, with a ‘main line’ which extended 5.6 km from Grovebury Sidings on the standard gauge railway from Leighton Buzzard to Luton, with branches to individual quarries. At Grovebury sidings sand was washed and transferred to standard gauge wagons for onward transit. Much of the equipment was war surplus material, and in 1921 steam locomotives were replaced by armoured petrol locomotives that had been intended for use on the Western Front. The line prospered and reached a peak of activity in the 1950s, when it carried 100,000 tons of sand per year, but many of the quarries came to be exhausted and the remaining traffic was gradually transferred to the roads. The ‘main line’ was closed in 1969 and the last internal quarry railway ceased work in 1981.
The Lighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway Society, formed in 1968, now operates the line from a station at Page’s Park, not far from the site of Grovebury Sidings, to a station at the society’s depot, Stonehenge Works. While the original line did not normally carry passengers, a regular service is now operated for visitors. The line passes through unspectacular housing estates of the 1970s, but is nevertheless important evidence of a little-known industry, and of the role of narrow gauge railways in serving industrial needs in the twentieth century. The society’s 50 steam and internal combustion locomotives have seen service in many parts of the world, and include three made by Orenstein & Koppel in Berlin, and the railway has some 120 wagons from industrial railways of many kinds.