The first railway to join London and Birmingham was the London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838 and only the third main-line railway to be opened in the country (following the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830 and the Grand Junction Railway in 1837).
After five years of construction, the double-track line surveyed by Robert Stevenson eventually stretched from Euston Square in north London to the northern terminus at Curzon Street, Birmingham, by means of an amazing series of civil works. This work was carried out using only manpower and animal power and, at the time, represented one of the largest works ever undertaken. The techniques developed during the earlier phase of canal building were adapted for railway construction and the canal construction workers - the 'navigators' or 'navvys' - became the core of the workforce. A massive volume of earth had to be moved to create a route gentle enough for the small and not-very-powerful early locomotives. In 1835, Otis introduced his first steam shovel in the U.S.A. to mechanise this type of earth moving, but, for some reason, the introduction of steam shovels in England (where they were normally called 'steam navvys') took some time.
The terminus at Euston was graced by a Propylaeum - the monumental arch usually called the 'Doric Arch' and swept away by the vandals when Euston was modernised. Now, only the Entrance Lodges remain, flanking Euston Grove which originally led to the 'Doric Arch'.
At Curzon Street, the central part of the original stone-built station remains, as shown below.
Years of neglect have failed to take away the quiet dignity of this building, now marooned some distance away from the modern railway. Incidentally, the building in the background of the picture is Birmingham Science Museum.
Leaving Euston, trains immediately faced the straight 'Inclined Plane' which was necessary to lift the lines over the Regents Canal at Camden. Originally, this section was cable-worked and the locomotives were attached at Camden to continue the journey north. An elegant round-house was constructed on the east side of the line to house the diminuitive Bury locomotives which ran the trains. Two, three or more of these locomotives were needed on heavier trains. Later, as locomotives became more powerful, the cable working was discontinued and locomotives worked trains to and from Euston. Heavily-adapted, the original locomotive house survives as the Roundhouse Theatre.
From Camden, the line then passed through Primrose Hill via a tunnel. The massive and elegant tunnel mouth can still be glimpsed from passing trains. When the line was first opened, families would picnic on the hill, so as to watch the wonder of the steam trains coming and going.
Each mile of the route north had its constructional challenge, tunnels, cuttings (like Bushey and Tring), embankments, viaducts (like Watford) and myriad bridges. Perhaps the most famous feature of the line is the 2432 yard long Kilsby Tunnel, south of Rugby, shown in the classic view below.
Because of objections to the originally-proposed route through Northampton, an alternative route was chosen, necessitating the construction of Kilsby Tunnel. Surveys had failed to discover the quicksand which caused the workings to flood and the contractors almost despaired of completing the work. Perseverance eventually triumphed and today's 'Pendolino' electric trains still pass through the tunnel.
Eventually, Northampton realised that it had become isolated by declining the railway and a loop line was constructed from Rugby via Northampton, rejoining the main line originally at Blisworth and later via a line to Roade.
Along the route, many of the nineteenth-century features remain, although increasing traffic meant that long sections were widened from the original double-track to quadruple track by the successors of the London & Birmingham Railway, the London & North Western Railway.
In general, grades on the route were fairly easy and fast running was possible. Perhaps the hardest part was starting northbound trains from Euston, once cable haulage to Camden was discontinued. Right up to the end of steam traction, the firemen of departing trains were faced with getting the train up Camden Bank with a 'green' fire, not yet brought to working temperature by the fierce steam blast of a hard-worked engine. If the crew were lucky, some rear-end assistance would be provided by the engine which had previously drawn the coaches into Euston (when I was young often an 0-6-0T 'Standard Shunt') but there was sometimes a significant gap between the rear coach and a reluctant 'banker'!