I have called all the small towns in Norfolk Market Towns, and I suppose they all once had a market. A lot still retain a flourishing market like Aylsham and Cromer, but others have lost them. Holt still has market cross, but no market stalls. In other towns there isn’t even a market place, which makes me wonder if they ever had one. A market is a very ancient institution. They all date from the middle ages, and some have even become part of the place’s name. Newmarket for instance must have been namely for the exhange of goods long before it got its reputation for horse racing. The tiny village of Thorpe Market between North Walsham and Cromer sounds as if it was once a market town.
The major towns of Norfolk are Great Yarmouth, Thetford and Kings Lynn, and these all retain their railway stations. The first of these towns to get its railway was Great Yarmouth (together with the city of Norwich) in 1844, but this line was not initially connected to the wider railway network. Thetford was the first town to have a line to London, and that opened in the following year, 1845.
Before 1950 Norfolk was well provided with railways. The closures began in 1952. Before then virtually all the towns in the county had a station, even the small ones that were really only large villages, like Cawston and Reepham. Reepham, North Walsham and Aylsham had two railway stations as did Kings Lynn, and Norwich and Yarmouth each had three. Loddon and Hingham never had a rail connection, but these places were unusual in this respect. The nearest station to Loddon was (and still is) Haddiscoe, six miles away. From Hingham the nearest was Kimberley Park, now on the Heritage Railway to Dereham. The current nearest railway station to Hingham is at Attleborough.
Among the Market Towns in Norfolk there is now a marked divide between the south and east on the one hand, and the north and west of the county. Apart from Harleston in the extreme south and Mundsley on the north coast, all the towns in this half of the county still have the railway which they acquired in Queen Victoria’s time. These include Acle, Cromer, Wymondham, Diss and Attleborough. In the north and west only Downham Market still has its station; Hunstanton, Burnham Market, Fakenham, Holt, Dereham, Watton and Swaffham have all lost theirs.
Until 1959 virtually all these Norfolk towns retained a railway, although some like Burnham Market and Aylsham were goods only lines. The Beeching axe had a devastating effect on communications, but the closures had already begun before his time. Beeching and his supporters envisages just a line from London to Norwich and one to Kings Lynn. There was talk of closing Lowestoft to Ipswich (the East Suffolk Line) and Norwich to Cromer. What a short-sighted policy! In the last ten years the traffic has grown by at least 50‰, and in some cases it has almost doubled. So many lines that were once double have been singled, and this has reduced the capacity of those lines; otherwise the railways would be even busier. There is talk of reopening the line just across the border into Cambridgeshire from Wisbech to March. What is delaying things is, I think, the large number of level crossings. The fact that the track remains in place is an encouraging feature, although it would all have to be replaced. At least the route is all complete, except for the last bit into Wisbech town. There is unfortunately no sign of any towns in Norfolk being reconnected to the National Rail network. The Norfolk Orbital Railway which would connect Holt, Fakenham and Dereham is no more than dream. Still, if immigration continues to add millions to the population, I suppose anything is possible.
Holt and Dereham have their Heritage Railways, and Aylsham has its narrow gauge railway, but these are merely tourist attractions. The regular passage of the real trains gives all the other market towns that retain a national railway station an extra dimension. The villages that lie between the towns should also benefit from having a railway, but this is not always the case. In several cases the railway is so far from the village whose name it bears that its influence is hard to notice. It is the more central stations, as in Lingwood or Worstead, that the railway is a definite advantage. Brundall is the one remaining parish in Norfolk to have two stations, and between them they provide over 100,000 passengers a year. Although only a village, it has a vigorous Broadland holiday trade, which provides a lot of this traffic.
The local feeling of community in these country towns is much more apparent than in the larger towns. The town that I was most a part of was Bungay, just over the border into Suffolk. Although it still had a railway in the days when I was a schoolboy there, it had already lost its passenger service. In those days the marvelous St Mary’s church was still the parish church. It is still the visual hub of the town but it is unused. The town lacks a heart. The shops still appear to flourish there, but Nursey’s the sheepskin shop has recently closed after some 200 years. My one-time school mate Timothy Nursey still trades in sheepskin garments, but only on-line. Other shops I remember have long gone, like the Mint House and S. N. Balls the ironmongers, and Spashett’s toy shop.
Dereham has plenty of shops and pubs and a town square that is at the very centre of this town in the centre of Norfolk. Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast is not only the local shopping centre but is also a seaside magnet for holidaymakers. Is it the main town of the locality, or does that honour fall to Cromer? As well as having a railway station Cromer also has a pier (and an annual end of the pier show), a museum and a hospital. It also retains a flourishing market. Sheringham has several hotels, if none on quite the grand scale of the Hotel de Paris at Cromer. Both resorts have a golf course.
Burnham Market is one of the smaller towns, and I am afraid it lacks a sense of community. Because so many of its property owners are not residents but rich people with holiday homes, the shops tend to cater for a clientele that is anything but local. Wells is still a North Norfolk town with a sense of community, but here too there is a definite tendency towards gentrification. When I sit in a pub in Wells (and this is something I have often done) I still feel I am a part of Norfolk history – I recall that parson Woodforde too had bread and cheese at a pub in Wells nearly 250 years ago. He was on a leisure visit from his home near Norwich. Can it be that Woodforde was one of the first to regard this North Norfolk town as a holiday destination?