There was not much track belonging to the Southwold Railway left in 1972, but this buffer stop of the harbour siding remained on Blackshore. This extension of the railway was put in with high hopes of profiting from the herring trade just before the Great War. The herring trade never took off in Southwold; a number of factors conspired against it. The difficult harbour entrance with its ever changing sand bar did not encourage drifters to make the passage, and the war itself made fishing hazardous with the Germans peppering the North Sea with mines and U boats.
Here you may see one side of the track nearest the river. Under a fisherman’s old fish box and beyond the buffer stop you can see the end of the rail. Where the tides have washed away the supporting land the sleepers stick out. Time has seen the remains of the track deteriorate since this picture was taken. The buffer stop remains, but the sleepers in particular seem to have gone. [CLICK HERE for a recent photo.] Another piece of the track remains in Halesworth, and a short length between Blythburgh and Walberswick, where the earthworks for a WW2 gun emplacement concealed it from the scrap gang. [Click Here.]
A luggage van also survives, now at the East Anglian Transport Museum at Carlton Colville near Lowestoft. [Click here.] This was found in someone’s garden, and I first saw it outside the old Southwold terminus station building where it was put on display. Unfortunately, not long after this display was established, the old station was demolished and the fire station was erected on the site.
Along the old railway line in Southwold, between the station and the river I spent the summer of 1960 learning to ride my bike, a blue BSA with stirrup brakes. I was my dear sister Tiggie who took the responsibility of teaching me. It can’t have been much fun, running along behind me and placing a steadying hand on the saddle, while I pedalled madly away, and only occasionally fell off. It was the ideal place to learn, perfectly flat and quite smooth, and no danger from passing cars. It all paid off, and by September when I returned to my second year at boarding school I could cycle almost as well as the next boy.
The only member of my family who could remember the railway when it was working was my mother, who as a teenager was taken on a summer holiday to Southwold. She was living in Wolverton in Buckinghamshire at the time. They went by the East Suffolk line (then part of the LNER) to Halesworth and then got on the narrow gauge line to continue their journey to the coast. It was just a run-of-the-mill journey for her, and only exceptional in retrospect.
While on holiday in Southwold Mummy decided to walk to Dunwich with her young brother Tony. By the time they turned back it was evening, and they got lost on the way. Poor Tony was tired and wanted to go to sleep on the marshes. Mummy had to keep telling him it wasn’t very far. Mean while their parents were getting frantic, and got the police out to search for them. They finally made it home well after midnight. Grandad was so relieved that he forgot to tell the police and they went on searching all night! They got across the river by using the railway bridge – a precarious thing to do, as they had to step on the sleepers over the swirling waters of the River Blyth. They had missed the last ferry from Walberswick by some hours, but by getting onto the railway track they were able to make their way back to Southwold. What an adventure!
At 3ft this was one of the widest narrow gauges in use; in New Zealand the gauge is 3’6″. In most places across the world just about the only wider one (and that was only marginally so) was the metre gauge. Metre gauge railways are still common in many parts of the world for urban tramways as well as railways, but given the British Imperial system of measurement they did not occur in the UK. There are a number of 3ft gauge railways left in other parts of the world – the White Pass and Yukon Line is now open as a heritage railway on the Alaskan/Canadian border for example. Two 3ft gauge heritage lines are popular tourist attractions in the Isle of Mann but there were never more than a handful in the United Kingdom. There are none left in the mainland UK now, unless we can count the Southend pier tramway, which was converted to 3ft gauge in 1986.
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