Norwich is the only station in Norfolk that retains something of the bustle and livliness of how railway stations used to be. In the first half of last century there were dozens of stations in Norfolk, each with a station master and most with a porter and signalman; the larger ones had a ticket clerk as well. When nearly all the stations went unmanned in the 1960s the life went out of them. In many instances, even where the lines remained open, many of the halts along them were closed. I can remember travelling to Ipswich in about 1961, stopping at places on the way like Forncett, Haughley and Tivetshall; now Diss and Stowmarket are the only intermediate stops between Norwich and Ipswich on the London Line. Hethersett, Trowse, Swainsthorpe were all stations within a few miles of Norwich and were once served by passenger trains. Whitlingham station (gone some 50 years ago) I can remember using when I was no more than five years old. It must have been at dusk, because the guard allowed me to start the train that I had just got off by waving the oil lamp with its green light at the driver.
Although Kings Lynn is the terminus of the electrified mainline from London it is a less busy place than Norwich, mainly because there is now no other line out of the station. There used to be lines to Dereham, Wells and Hunstanton. From Norwich you can still travel on separate lines to Sheringham, Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Cambridge, as well as the main line to London. Nowadays most trains from Lynn go to Kings Cross, although in the past they all used the Great Eastern London terminus at Liverpool Street. Today only a few peak time weekday services use Liverpool Street.
Some of the stations are slowly coming back to life. Wymondham station has a well regarded restaurant, although not one that has any connection with the railway except its location, and after many decades it is now possible to buy tickets there, from early to mid- morning. A similar facility is available at Attleborough. Thetford and Great Yarmouth are slightly better served. Although there is a ticket machine on North Walsham station and a refreshment room at Wroxham there are virtually no other facilities on the Sheringham line. Many stations now have hardly any facilities for the travelling public; no waiting room or toilets nor anything other that a platform, car park and perhaps a cycle rack.
The heritage lines come alive at the weekends unlike the other stations that sink even deeper into dejection. They also have most of the facilities that the nation network stations lack. Compare the station on the North Norfolk Railway at Sheringham with the adjacent station on the Bittern Line. The commercial station is merely an unstaffed halt, while the NNR terminus is by contrast a hive of activity during the season. But when the season ends the activity ceases, whereas the Bittern line keeps up its service, connecting the people of Sheringham with the national rail network from Thurso in Scotland to Penance in Cornwall. These are the furthest north and furthest south railway stations in the UK, and Penzance also represents the most westerly; Lowestoft represents the most easterly railway station. Lowestoft has an hourly service to Norwich and since the doubling of the track at Beccles it also has an hourly service to Ipswich.
It was not only the human passengers which kept the staff of the stations occupied. Large wicker baskets of racing pigeons arrived by train and had to be released to fly home. Cattle were loaded onto wagon for the journey to and from Norwich market. Bags of mail came by the early train, and were dispatched late in the evening. Churns of milk were delivered from the local farms and were loaded onto the train, while the day’s newspapers were offloaded for distribution to the local paper shops. In the fens particularly the railways were used for the carriage of strawberries and other soft fruit, vegetables in season and potatoes in vast quantities for the large towns and cities.
Nowadays the only regular goods traffic through Norwich is the petroleum condensate from Bacton gas terminal which is piped to North Walsham where the trains pick up the trains of tanker wagons. From Kings Lynn there is short spur along the old railway line to Swaffham as far as Middleton for sand traffic. There is still a station building at Middleton but it is of course a private dwelling. The most active place for freight in East Anglia is Felixstowe with one of the biggest ports for containers in the country. The station at Felixstowe town has been converted to a shopping centre with the trains banished to a mere platform further down the track.
FELIXSTOWE is one of the remaining stations on the coast of East Anglia; there are six including Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and Sheringham. There used to be over ten other places on the coast served by rail. One of these, at Weyborne, is on the the North Norfolk Railway. The station there is now the site of the engine sheds of the preserved line, and it is the only station I have mentioned that can be called a much busier place than ever it was before. Even during the closed season there is work going on there, preparing the rolling stock.