Villagers turn out for the robber's return

Eye witness: 40 years on. Great train robber Bruce Reynolds revisits the place where they hid, to raise funds for the village hall.
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The Independent Online

The bouncy castle and tea counter made it look like a church fete, but the guest of honour was a thief. Bruce Reynolds walked carefully and talked slowly, partly because the 71-year-old was wary of the sun, and partly because he was used to being watched and listened to. Forty years ago Reynolds led the heist that became known as the Great Train Robbery, for which he was called the Napoleon of Crime - so he could afford to smile and wave his cigarette hand in a weak protest. "You don't have to be a mastermind to hold up a train. Jesse James did it with rocks on the tracks." They loved that in Oakley, the village in Buckinghamshire where Reynolds and his gang hid in August 1963. The robbers put blankets up in the windows of a farmhouse on the edge of the village and played Monopoly with some of the £2.6m they had stolen from the mail train in the early hours of 8 August. At the time it was the biggest robbery in British history.

Yesterday Reynolds returned to Oakley to "give something back" by standing on a makeshift stage in a field and speaking to 1,000 people. Among the villagers were the crime anoraks - they should be called balaclavas - who buy the books and videos that must make being an ex-con more profitable than crime itself. Asked if he had any regrets about the robbery in which a train driver was coshed over the head with an iron bar, Reynolds smiled again and said: "I was a career thief. The New York Times called it the Crime of the Century, so I was at the pinnacle of my career."

Patricia Mills, daughter-in-law of the injured driver, said the family was "sickened" by the event. But nobody in Oakley was prepared to criticise. The village hall needs a new roof costing £30,000, and after whist drives, tea dances, and three rejected applications for lottery money, the parish council decided to turn to crime.

So John Mole, parish councillor and local historian, tracked down robbery memorabilia and invited Bruce Reynolds. "He had three invitations to mark the anniversary but mine was the only one that said it would be of mutual benefit," said Mr Mole. "That was why he responded." The event programme warned people not to visit Leatherslade Farm, where the original hideaway was knocked down a decade ago. "The current owner does not take kindly to visitors, and two large dogs now live at the farm." But most villagers were happy to look back to the day that put Oakley on the map. "Apart from what happened to the poor old train driver," said one, "everybody thought they were heroes." John Maris did not. Yesterday, the cowhand who tipped off police that the gang had been in the farmhouse told how he had received death threats from the robbers even while they were being lauded. He had to spend part of his £18,000 reward defending himself against a civil charge of perjury.

John Woolley was more magnanimous. The retired police officer, first on the scene after the tip-off, posed for photographs with Reynolds. "We were like the ant and the grasshopper," said the robber who "enjoyed the Hemingway life I had always wanted in Mexico" before coming back to Britain and jail in 1968. "You were like the ant, storing up your food, while I was like the grasshopper, jumping all over the place, spending all my money. Now all I have got left is the state pension." His fee for yesterday's event went to charity. After speaking he signed copies of his book, including one held out by a man in a T-shirt that had been signed by Ronnie Biggs. "Ronnie is in such a bad way," said the second-most famous Great Train Robber. "He can only communicate with the aid of an alphabet board and a stick. Some of the time I think he recognises me, but he is on such a heavy dose of drugs you can't be sure."

Watching Reynolds enjoy yet another day in the sun felt strange after reading Jack Mills's account of the robbery. "I felt a sickening thud on the back of my head, then another. I lost count of how many times I was struck ... then everything was spinning - the masked faces, the night sky, the driving panel, the floor, all linked into one, spinning faster and faster until I passed out." Mr Mills never fully recovered. He died seven years later (from leukaemia, as Bruce reminds anyone who challenges him). But there was no reward for the driver, no film based on his life as there was for Buster Edwards, and no book deal like the one enjoyed by Reynolds. "I know what they did," said John Mole. "We are not condoning violence or robbery, but this is our history. And the most important thing is to get a new roof on that hall. Bruce caused the village a great deal of aggro - now it's payback time."

What happened to the robbers?

There were 15 men in the gang, but the principal members were:

Bruce Reynolds. Now aged 71

Leader and mastermind of the robbery, captured in Torquay in 1968. Served 10 years. Jailed for a further three years in the 1980s for drug dealing.

Ronnie Biggs. Now aged 75

Sentenced to 30 years, but escaped in July 1965. For 35 years lived the high life in Spain, Australia and Brazil. In poor health, he gave himself up in 2001. In prison, having resumed his sentence.

Ronald "Buster" Edwards. Deceased

Fled to Mexico but gave himself up in 1966. After nine years in jail, set up flower stall at Waterloo station. Subject of 1988 biopic Buster; played by Phil Collins. Found hanged in a garage in 1994.

Charlie Wilson. Deceased

Believed to be the "treasurer" of the gang. Sentenced to 30 years in 1964, but sprung from jail after four months. Caught in Canada in 1968, and brought back to serve another 10 years. Shot dead in 1990 by hitman in Spain.

Tommy Wisbey. Now aged 72

Jailed for 30 years, but released in 1976. Imprisoned again in 1989 for cocaine dealing. Now retired.

Jonathan Thompson