Cambridge lineIn 1972 hauled trains still ran from Norwich through to Cambridge, and not merely to Cambridge but all the way to London Liverpool Street. Expresses from Norwich to London alternated between the Cambridge and Ipswich lines, although the Cambridge route took about half an hour longer. This green painted class 31 diesel is heading a rake of coaches in BR maroon livery. Compartments were already being phased out, but the rolling stock was much more spacious and comfortable than today’s. You could open the windows too, which meant that you did not overheat and suffocate in the summer if the air conditioning broke down (because there wasn’t any).

Even in 1987 when I travelled to Cambridge from Norwich in connection with an article I had been commissioned to write on the facilities in the town I was able to travel directly without changing trains at Ely. This was by dmu by then but it was still a fairly good service. Then for over ten years it was no longer possible to travel to Cambridge without a change of train at Ely. This was rather galling, as we had always known the line through Thetford as the “Cambridge line” although its official title was the “Breckland Line” by then. Now the direct rail link between the university towns of Norwich and Cambridge has been restored. Maybe one day there will again be line between Oxford and Cambridge; they are the two world class universities in the country which used to be connected by rail in the pre-Beeching era – as if!

This line through Cambridge was the first line to be built between Norwich and London. The railway began operating on July 30th 1845 from Norwich Thorpe. The station in Norwich had been opened the previous year to take trains from Yarmouth on the first railway in Norfolk. The line from London via Colchester and Ipswich did not open until 1849 and ran into the Norwich Victoria station. At first there was no connection between the the two stations.

The stations along the Cambridge line are a mixed bunch. Hethersett has been closed for many years, although many more people live in that village than live at Spooner Row, and yet this little halt just south of Wymondham still has a service, if a restricted one. It doesn’t have many trains stop there. For over forty years all these minor stations were unmanned, but now the ticket office has reopened on a restricted hours basis at the larger stations of Wymondham and Attleborough.

Wymondham station has the added attractions of an award-winning flower garden and an historic railway themed restaurant. The line has recently been provided with an up to date signalling system but until then the signal boxes were staffed, and at Attleborough the signalman also operated the crossing gates. Having a human being doing the job is much safer; a person could have said “Watch out there’s a second train coming” and saved two young lives, but no one seems to make this simple point. A similar way of operating the gates at Harling Road continued until December 2012. The gates have now all been replaced by automatic barriers. Harling Road is the last station before Thetford. In the northerly direction Eccles Road come between Harling and Attleborough. Thetford is the most important place on the line until you get to Ely and is staffed from 7 a.m. until mid-afternoon. Brandon is one of two stations on the line as it passes through Suffolk (the other one is Lakenheath) although Brandon Station is actually just across the border in Norfolk.

I remember a plantation of poplars beside the line as it passes through the fens and a sign proudly stated to travellers by train that these were trees were destined for Bryant and May to be made into matches. Unfortunately match production moved from Britain to Scandinavia before the trees were mature and the promised provision of matchwood never materialized. The sign disappeared, although the trees may still be there.

In about 1978 I was travelling back home after a railtour special with the M&GN Society. It was late at night or the early hours of the next day when our train terminated at Thetford. The track was being repaired. We all had to pile out and transfer to buses to finish our journey. It may have been inconvenient but at least in those days they waited to do major works in the dead of night when few people would be inconvenienced, rather than shutting down the line all weekend. There has recently been a change of heart on this issue, but we must wait and see the practical effects of more uninterrupted daytime Sunday train journeys.

Joseph Mason                  



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