The Swedes & Swimmers
THE WYMONDHAM to FORNCETT RAILWAY was known as the “Swedes & Swimmers” from the staple diet of the navvies who built it. Swedes are self evident; “swimmers” were the local Norfolk name – for dumplings! Nigel Barber’s grandfather James was one of those original navvies on the Swedes and Swimmers; he emailed me with his memories of Ashwellthorpe station before it closed.
The reason for the construction of the Wymondham to Forncett railway was to provide a route from the Ipswich line to the Cambridge line that did not go through Norwich, where it required turning of the engine. Of course there was a line to Cambridge from Ipswich through Stowmarket, but in those far-off days a lot of goods traffic was generated by the wayside stations north of Diss (all now disappeared). Similarly goods to and from Swaffham, Dereham, Fakenham and Wells could go south without passing through Norwich, where the trains would have to reverse. It was conceived principally as a way for goods, although passengers were also carried, but the service was not frequent and anyone who wanted to go further had to change at Wymondham or Forncett. There was one station on the line at Ashwellthorpe. Passengers were no longer carried after the outbreak of war in 1939, when Ashwellthorpe station was closed, although it remained open to freight until the line closed. The last stationmaster was Mr Howard. Ashwellthorpe station had been opened in 1881 and saw its busiest period in the First Word War, when the increase in traffic justified the doubling of the track and the rebuilding of all the bridges.
The line was short, only 6½ miles long, and the journey from Wymondham to Forncett only took 13 minutes, including the stop at Ashwellthorpe. In 1922 the passenger service was quite good. There were no Sunday trains, but during the week there were 6 trains in each direction, the earliest leaving Forncett at 7.34 a.m. on Monday morning, and the last train arriving at Wymondham at 8.18 p.m. When you add the goods traffic to these 12 passenger trains, the line was quite a busy one.
The availability of a line avoiding Norwich was again useful in the Second World War, when the city became a major target in the German bombing blitz. On at least one occasion the line into Norwich became impassable due to bomb damage and the alternative route was invaluable. In the post-war period the growth of road transport made the continuation of the Swedes and Swimmers unnecessary, and the line was closed completely in 1951. The track was lifted and the rail over bridges were demolished, although the ballast remained. In later rail closures such as the M & G N, most of the bridges were left intact (there being only cost and no benefit in their removal), but the ballast was removed for use elsewhere. Also items of railway furniture such as the complete contents of a plate layers hut, with tools inside were left isolated on the abandoned permanent way.
My family found the old track bed a great place for walking our dog, although it could be a problem when you came to a removed rail-over bridge. This was in 1956, at the height of the myxomatosis epidemic among the rabbit population. There were little skulls and skeletons lying all over the railway embankments and the occasional feeble animal on its last legs.
A short spur of the line remained at the Wymondham end. It was used by Archy King for scrap railway carriages, the wooden superstructure being burnt before the steel undercarriage was broken up. Eventually the scrap dealers realised that there was a market for the more valuable pieces of ornament in the carriages, and they were removed before being torched. My father acquired a set of railway prints of Hamilton Ellis paintings which came from above the seats in the compartments. In 1967 the North Norfolk Railway rescued the Gresley Quad set of coaches from the scrapyard near Hethel at Wymondham, and I am sure other items of rolling stock were similarly removed for preservation.
P.S. I wrote that the word SWEDES is self evident, but I was wrong; the website on Norfolk walks attributes it to the nationality (i.e. Swedes as natives of Sweden), not the root vegetable. They may be right, but I don’t think so. You would eat swedes and swimmers, but Swedes and swimmers have very little to do with each other. Also swedes are common enough in Norfolk, while Swedes are rather rare.
P.P.S. As result of this post I have been acquainted with the Forncett Village Info website where you can download copies of the Forncett Flyer. These have much information on the Wymondham to Forncett Railway by “Railway Ron”. If you are at all interested in the Swedes and Swimmers check it out.
Click on this link for other RAILWAY related items from my blog. For memories of North Norfolk Branch Lines click here. I try to do piece of railway related matter once a month, so do browse my later posts.
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