I have travelled on lines in Norfolk that have been closed for more than fifty years. North Walsham to Mundesley-on-Sea is one such; that was closed in 1964. I have also travelled Dereham to Kings Lynn, but that has only been closed 49 years, having seen its last passengers in 1968; Cromer to Melton Constable (closed 1964), and Kings Lynn along to Hunstanton (closed 1969) I can also remember.
These lines I went on as a child; steam was still the main form of motive power for freight traffic, although diesels multiple units were already taking over passenger services on rural lines. Quite a few lines had already closed before I began to use the railways. The Wymondham to Forncett spur closed to passenger traffic before I was born, when the Second World War broke out. It closed completely when I was three years old. The line from Cromer through Trimingham to Mundesley was ripped up at the same time, when the first spate of closures occurred as the effect of post-war road traffic began to bite. The route from Wells through Burnham Market to Heacham ended for passengers when I was scarcely more than a toddler, and I would have been too young to remember anything about these railways, even if I had been taken on them.
I do remember going on the train from Norwich to Kings Lynn, mainly because it reversed direction at Dereham; I was convinced I was going back to Norwich! We were on a journey to Snettisham, to visit our relations who had a holiday chalet there. The train from Norwich to Kings Lynn was a dmu, but from Lynn to Snettisham we were steam hauled. Normally we went by road in our old Singer car, but on this occasion it had broken down so we went by train. I like to think we would have done this more often, but it was long walk of at least two miles from Snettishan station to the beach, and my little legs got very tired. For our return home we borrowed my uncle’s car, a Jowett Javelin. How we got it back to West Norfolk when the Singer was repaired I don’t remember; if it entailed another train journey I was not included.
There were lines that I could have gone on but didn’t; I was ten when the M&GN closed, and was old enough to have remembered had I been taken for the ride, although I was a bit too young to have travelled on my own. Dereham to Wells closed in 1964 without my ever experiencing the ride, and the line through Watton to Thetford closed in the same year, untravelled by me. By then I was fifteen, and quite old enough to have gone on the train alone. Yarmouth Southtown to Lowestoft lasted until I was twenty-one, again without my ever having used it. Luckily the age of closures is in the past; reopenings and new lines are already happening in some parts of the country (to Tweedbank in Scotland and the Elizabeth Line – Crossrail), although there is little prospect of any in East Anglia.
Of the lines still in use one I can remember from years ago is the Wherry Line from Norwich to Yarmouth and Lowestoft. (I regard the term Wherry Line as recent brand name, though it has been used for decades.) I remember the line over the swing bridge across the Yare well because I reached that from Yarmouth via the Burney Arms. This is very unusual way to go from Yarmouth to Lowestoft by railway, but it is still possible if you change (as I did) at Reedham. This was part of my trip round the railways of East Anglia in 1982, and is recorded in my post on the Anglia Ranger. I made another Anglia Ranger trip about fifteen years later, with my young family, going from Gunton Road station in North Norfolk to Felixstowe and back.
There were stations that have vanished without trace, though the lines still exist. I remember some of them. The station at Whitlingham I even alighted at; it must have closed to passengers when I was very young, about four, but I remember it because the guard allowed me to start the train by holding up his oil lamp and giving the green light to the engine driver. Most of the stations between Norwich and Diss were closed under Dr Beeching, although Swainsthorpe station had closed to passengers in 1954. Swainsthorpe stayed open for freight for another ten years, and during this period I often used to sit in my father’s car while the London bound express trains thundered over the level crossing which was adjacent to the station. I am sure there was a signal box there too, although all sign of it and the station have long gone. The stations at Flordon, Forncett and Tivetshall all stayed open to passengers until 1966. You flew past so quickly on the express trains that they went by in a flash and you hardly noticed them, but I took the stopping train to Ipswich to see my sister in 1962. I was thirteen, but I recall vivid snatches of the experience; these country stations were not exactly busy and the porters must have had an easy life, but when the train pulled in there were plenty of things going on. The post and papers had to be unloaded and the milk churns put into the brake third coach, and there even might have been a passenger or two.
There is a mainline through Norfolk that I have never travelled on, and this year I hope to repair this omission. This is the line through Downham Market to Kings Lynn. To go there from Norwich means changing at Ely. In Suffolk I have travelled all the existing lines, with two minor exceptions; I have never been on the short section from Bury St Edmund to Ely, and the line to Sudbury, which runs almost entirely in Essex, is another line I would like to experience. There is a fine viaduct of 32 arches at Chappel on the line. This used to run from Marks Tey to Cambridge, serving the town of Haverhill. This is now a large conurbation which would dearly like its rail connection to Cambridge restored, but there is little prospect of this, though the trackbed remains.
The railway I have used most often is the mainline from Norwich to London, and despite all the changes of rolling stock, motive power and so on, the basic experience has not changed much in my lifetime. I can still sit in a comfortable seat as I speed on my way to the capital. Getting on the train at Norwich I use the identical platforms, although Liverpool Street Station had a major makeover some thirty years ago. The speed may be a little faster, but the electric trains of 2017 shave very little off the timings of the Britannia pacifics of sixty years ago. The much hyped ‘Norwich to London in 90 minutes’ is only promised for one or two trains a day, and even this will rely on the closure of a lot of level crossings in Norfolk and Suffolk. This seems a poor kind of ‘improvement’ to transport links in general, to cut many rural communities in two. Over a hundred years ago the Norfolk Coast Express ran non-stop from London to North Walsham; it only had to stop there en route to Cromer to take on more coal. It provided a fast service for holidaymakers from the capital, and all without removing any level crossings. It is unlikely to be equalled in the future.