Although he was a local man by birth, the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong travelled down from London to Norwich by train on the 14th of September 1850 to take up his new appointment. He came from Shoreditch station in London via Bishop’s Strortford, Cambridge and Ely by train. He remarked on the view of Ely cathedral; just six years earlier this would have been a much more arduous journey; then the only railway line open in Norfolk had been that from Norwich to Yarmouth. After the ceremony in Norwich cathedral he travelled on to his new living in Dereham, again by train. This town had been reached by railway just three years earlier. The station master was immediately an important person locally, and Armstrong makes a point of recounting his wife’s background on the day when he baptised the family’s daughter. The station master’s wife came of Huguenot stock, and her family had been involved in the shawl trade in Norwich.
With the new method of transport Benjamin Armstrong could make day trips to Kings Lynn or Lowestoft. London was easily accessible. He could travel to Oxford via the varsity line, a journey we can now can only dream about. Great Yarmouth, where he was amazed at the hundreds of fishing smacks, from Holland, France and of course Britain, was another popular destination. In the summer the flat-bottomed Dutch boats could bring tons of plaice, haddock and turbot to the shore; the fish they off-loaded onto horse-drawn carts taken down to the beach through the surf. In October the herrings arrived off Yarmouth and the docks became packed with drifters. Huge quantities of herring were salted for the export trade, and already fish trains were taking the fresh fish around the country. It was another 24 years before Cromer could be reached by train, but as soon as this town was on the railway network he was off with his family to admire the view. Then it was home to Dereham by bedtime. The day trip to the seaside had truly arrived, and the railway company ran weekday excursions with ladies going half fare.
The railway carriages in 1850 (and for decades thereafter) were simple four-wheeled affairs; heating was not at first available, and bogie coaches and corridor trains had to wait until the next century as far as East Anglia was concerned. In 1850 the locomotives were open to the elements (poor train crews!), although they were covered within ten years.
We are definitely in the modern era; in those earliest days of train travel it was slower to go to London than it is today, but not by great deal. Armstrong remarked how he could be in London in the morning and by the afternoon be attending to parish affairs in Dereham. Compare this with just 25 years earlier, when no traveller went faster than a horse could take you. By coach it took all night and half the following day to go from Norwich to the capital. Nor was travel the only way things were suddenly modern; postage stamps had made communication quick and relatively cheap in 1840. The number of letters passing through Dereham Post Office went from 7000 per annum in 1873 to 25,000 just three years later. There was already the electric telegraph to India in the 1850s, and the first local telegraph lines in Dereham appeared at the same time. The first commercial use of the long distance telephone in Britain took place on the 1st November 1878. This was along the 115 mile line from Cannon Street in London to Norwich– where else? This used the telegraph line of the Great Eastern Railway to transmit the human voice. Photography had arrived and soon it was in common use; street lighting was going up in Dereham, and the parson was anxious to install gas in the church.Thomas Cook had begun his excursions, and he took a huge number of the local folk to Dublin and back for 42 shillings each. This wasn’t exactly cheap, but the idea of an overseas holiday for the masses was an incredible innovation. On the sea crossing by steamer there was nothing to eat laid on, but the travellers made do with large quantities of whiskey, cigars and a crust of mouldy bread!
The Revd Benjamin Armstrong had married Anne Duncombe in 1842, and brought up his family of five children in the commodious parsonage in the town. (One daughter died in infancy.) The large gardens made a suitable place to hold meetings, as when the Norfolk Agricultural Show was held in the town. Being in the centre of the county, Dereham was also where Norfolk County Cricket Club held its matches in the 19th century. National sporting events get a mention in Armstrons’s diary, such as the occasion in 1877 when the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race resulted in a dead heat. Mostly his diary is taken up with the daily round of church affairs; visiting the sick, chairing meetings and conducting weddings (he said he preferred funerals). It was a more religious community then than it had been in the previous century (and certainly more devout than it is today), and Armstrong held services every day of the week. Sundays were taken up with multiple church services (two, and he wanted to introduce a third as soon as gas light made this possible). As the choir sang throughout the week the vicar thought they deserved a treat; he took the choirboys on a day’s outing to Lowestoft, and only three of them had ever seen the sea before.
The health of the country was still racked by epidemics of smallpox and cholera, and the advances in medicine were slow to exert their influence on the population; anaesthetics were starting to appear (to begin with in childbirth) and surgery was slowly advancing beyond the ‘cutting for the stone’. This operation (without any anaesthetics) had been the commonest one to begin with, and was attended by some success. The wonder drugs, starting with penicillin, were not to appear until the middle years of the 20th century. In all sorts of ways the speed of change has accelerated in the last two hundred years and it still continues to do so; before 1800 many things scarcely changed from one millennium to the next.
There have been three volumes of selections from the diaries of the Revd Benjamin Armstrong. The first was published in 1949 and the most recent in 2012. These journals are not so well-known as the diaries of Parson Woodforde; Armstrong’s diaries are much more recent in their concerns, in spite of only 15 years separating the lives of the two men. That makes them more understandable but of less historical interest. Look out for further posts mentioning the Reverend Armstrong; there is plenty more of interest in his diaries to digest.
THE BLOG FOR STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
In Victorian times, and even into the 1950s, the weather and the changing seasons seldom disrupted train services. Flooding may have been a problem, but there was no difficulty about leaves on the line; trees were kept well back from the track to avoid conflagrations arising from sparks from the chimneys of steam engines. If the wind blew a few leaves under the train the large wheels and heavy superstructure of these locomotives would make short work of them.
The 60 ft rails held together with fishplates could accommodate the most extreme temperatures without buckling. Now we have welded rails the passage of the trains is quieter it is true, but every year on hot days there are delays and cancellations caused by the expansion of the track.
Most recently we have had a catastrophic failure of all the colour-light signals on the Norwich to Cambridge line, caused by lightning strikes. The whole system was permanently stuck at red (which I suppose is slightly better than being stuck at green). To make things worse, the spare parts required had to be ordered from Germany. Semaphore signals never suffered in this way; these old signals were only removed from this stretch of line a few years ago, after more than a hundred and fifty years of faultless service. It hasn’t taken long for the modern signalling infrastructure to reveal its flaws.
The collision between a Cambridge bound train and a farm tractor, which happened about a year ago, was caused because (with the ending of semaphore signalling) the number of signal boxes on the line was drastically reduced. The signalman in the box at Cambridge made a mistake because, when called on the trackside phone, gave the tractor driver permission to cross. The train was already nearly upon him, and although luckily no one was killed, there was a terrible collision. Being so far from the scene must have had an effect; no signalman who had just let a train past his box would have allowed someone to cross. Also, having so much more work to do, with all the other signal boxes closed, it is perhaps not surprising that the mistake was made.
These problems are the result of recent updating on the railway. They haven’t made the trains run any faster, but they have certainly saved money on wages. Do not get me wrong; I fully accept the need to modernise a method of transport that was begun almost 200 years ago, but these improvements should be to enhance safety, not solely to protect the bottom line. They should result in a better service at all times. It should not be so easy for the vagaries of the weather, or the tiredness of the operatives, to disrupt things so badly. It ought to be possible to devise systems that would end the problem of leaves on the line for example; it might be a start to return to the old procedure of cutting back the undergrowth on embankments and cuttings along the line.
As to the problem of the rails expanding in hot weather, it might be that with the increasing warming of the climate, is it time to go back to a slightly shorter length of rail? I wonder how they manage things on the new high-speed line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa? The variations in temperature between night and day must be far greater than anything we experience in this country. There are certainly clever people working in the rail industry who could come up with much more innovative solutions to these problems than me, but at present they do not appear to be doing so. Rather we are told that it is just one of those acts of nature, and we must learn to accept it. A surprising number of badly served customers do accept this, but not me. In the 21st century we should be able to travel with comfort and reliability, nor should it cost a fortune to do so; in all three respects we are worse off than our great-grandparents.
THE BLOG FOR THE FUTURE OF THE RAILWAYS
I have been to many parts of the country by rail in my lifetime; some so long ago they are barely remembered, and some much more recently. When steam was king I took the railway from Norwich to Barnstaple in Devon. I was under ten at the time, and can remember nothing of the journey. Fortunately there were still steam engines on the tracks when I was a little older and I can well remember them. I was 19 before dieselisation was complete on British Rail. I rather lost interest in railways after the demise of steam, but I should’t have done, because the rolling stock was still from the 1950s or even pre-war, and it is the rolling stock that you are mostly aware of as you travel by rail.
The plush elegance of the coaches was something you will never now experience. You may get a hint of it on a heritage railway, but that is a short journey on a special occasion. The lovely feeling of establishing oneself in a compartment for a journey of two or three hours is hard to convey. This was completely normal for us back in the day; the trains were still well supplied with staff but under used by passengers. It couldn’t last, nor did it. The last compartment coach I travelled in was on the way back from Chester to Norwich in the late 1980s. That was highly unusual by then, and most coaching stock was open throughout.The high backs of the seats in the compartment, the clean anti-macassers, the pictures above your head, even the air that rushed in from the ventilator and occasionally covered you with smuts from the coal fire, all these things have utterly vanished. Air conditioning is fine until it ceases to work; then you might hanker for something a little less high-tech.
I must say that the reliability of the rolling stock continues to improve in matters like doors closing, but in other respects the quality of service has declined. The refreshments available are awful; a trolley may appear bearing sandwiches and instant coffee, but where is the three course meal served by a steward in a white jacket? It has gone, together with all the other things which made up the romance of travel. Or most of them at any rate, though I would still like to take the night sleeper to Aberdeen.
But this blog is meant to be about the places I have been to on the train. I have been to all the mainland countries of the UK, but I have never travelled the trains in Ireland. I have used the trains in much of Europe; France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Portugal, Denmark and Norway. I have even been for a train journey in Canada. (My friend Jill has been to China on the Trans Siberian Railway!) Holland and Poland I have been to but never used the trains there. In 1967 I spent an interesting morning inspecting the steam trains in a motive power yard in Rimini, but again I have never been on any Italian trains.
Back in the UK I have taken a Castle class to West Wales back in the days when you really could go behind such an engine without relying on preserved locos. (It shows how old I am.) I took the train to several places in Scotland in the early 60s, but although I saw plenty of steam engines, those I travelled behind were all diesels; their were no electric trains in Scotland then. I went to Weymouth behind a Merchant Navy class Pacific, which was a great experience. More recently I have been on the High Speed Train from London St Pancras to Brussels. Because I went first class I did have lunch on the train, but it was only a two course meal. It was served by a waiter, but he didn’t wear a white jacket. It was all served in plastic trays and none of it was hot. Still, for the 21st century, it wasn’t bad; it would cost you a fortune unless (like me) you were disabled – I went business class for a second class fare!
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF RAIL TRAVEL
A RAILWAY STORY
The Jones family were resident in the Buckinghamshire village of Ludgershall for generations (from at least the 17th century) until the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Oxfordshire opened up the possibility of travel. It was an opportunity that the working class welcomed with open arms. Prospects of wider horizons and adventurous careers were there for the first time, and no longer would they have to look for spouses in their small home communities. I am sure the new blood that this freedom of movement introduced into the gene pool of the English people has done nothing but good for the nation.
William Jones (born 1817) could now abandon the traditional family job of working on the local farm in Ludgershall. Even before the first trains were runnig, he had joined the band of hard-living and hard-working navvies who were constructing the embankments and cuttings by hand with spades and wheelbarrow. To be fair to him, he may have been the exception, neither drinking nor smoking and not even swearing; I just do not know. What I do know is that he would certainly have been better paid than his fellows who had remained tied to the land. This travelling lifestyle took him down the line as it progressed into Cornwall. There he spotted a young lady with striking red hair, riding her adoptive father’s horse through the town of St Austell. Young Sally Oliver had already lived through a difficult time; born in 1825, she was orphaned at an early age, and Sarah Greene (her birth name) was adopted by a local clergyman, the Revd Oliver. She joined the rough group of travelling navvies when William Jones married her in 1855. Their eldest child was born in Devon in 1856.
William’s grandfather (also called William) was born in 1770 and worked as a farm labourer until he was over 70 years old. In spite of his humble job on the land, at some stage during his life he had learned to read and write. This we learn from the fact that in old age he was employed as Parish Clerk at St Mary’s church in Ludgershall. If any remuneration accompanied this employment it was but a pittance, and before the Old Age Pension came to the aid of those too old for manual labour times were hard for the poor. Luckily William’s wife Mary (née Silver) could continue to work at home in the local trade of lace making.
William senior’s eldest son John was also a farm labourer, and he was the father of William junior, who became the navvy. Unlike his relatives, who had lived in a small corner of Buckinghamshire their entire lives, William junior moved all over Southern England, following the railways. They were springing into life across the country. After the railway reached its terminus at Penzance he began work on the Somerset and Dorset Railway, where a daughter was born in Evercreech, Somerset, in 1860. By 1869 he had fathered another son and daughter. He was working in Portsmouth, where the railway was being extended to the dockyard to service the Royal Navy ships. His eldest son (aged 15 in 1871) was a locomotive fireman on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which had been running to Portsmouth since before the young man was born.
By the 1880s William was in his late sixties and too old for the strenuous work of railway construction. In any case, by then all the principal routes that we still use today were already in place, and the great age of railway building was drawing to a close. William Jones was working as a general labourer in East Molesey, Surrey, no doubt for the London and South Western Railway who ran a branch line into the suburb at Hampton Court. The whole family was involved in the railways, and by 1890 the former navvy was living in retirement in a railwayman’s cottage in Middle Street, New Bradwell (now called Spencer Street, part of Milton Keynes). His younger son Samuel (b. 1863 in Chard, Somerset) was employed at the Wolverton workshop in the carpentry trade, building railway carriages for the London and North Western Railway.
A few years earlier Susannah, the navvy’s eldest daughter (born, you may recall, in Evergreech), had moved to London to work in service. Railways continue to play a major part in the family history, because in London she met Phipp Peachey who had caught the train down to London from his home in Lakenheath in Suffolk. Like the Joneses, the Peacheys had for centuries before the arrival of the train lived in their local area, in their case the warren at Lakenheath. They married in Wandsworth in 1883 before Phipp and his wife returned to his home in Suffolk. Phipp and Susannah Peachey were my great-grandparents.
Samuel’s sons had followed him into the carriage works (after 1923 it belonged to the LMS); his two youngest children were Marjorie and Kathleen, who both remained unmarried. Kathleen was a schoolteacher before developing Disseminated Schlorosis; the same age as my mother, she and Kath had become best friends at school together. It was through this friendship that she met my father, one of the Jones descendants.Marjorie was the Matron in charge of the Dr Barnardo’s children’s home in Felixstowe, Suffolk. She was a good pianist.
What became of the railways that allowed my ancestors to meet? The Somerset and Dorset line fell victim to the railway closures of the 1960s, but all the other places mentioned in this post, St Austell, Portsmouth, Hampton Court, Wolverton and even Lakenheath, still have railway stations. Lakenheath only has a handful of passengers a year, and is only served by four trains a week (on Saturdays and Sundays) to allow people to visit the nearby nature reserve. It is too far from the village to draw any custom from the large American airbase that now occupies Lakenheath’s former warren. The line itself, which takes trains from Norwich to Cambridge and Norwich to Liverpool, is increasingly busy however.
My great-aunt Ruth kept in touch with this side of the family; her mother was Susannah Peachey (née Jones). I have lost contact with these Jones relations, but I have however read some posts online from them, one of which records that only in recent years did the last member of the Jones family to live in Ludgershall pass away. I have never been to Ludgershall, although I must have been near to it on my way to and from Oxford. It is only 16 miles away. John Wycliffe, the 14th century founder of the Lollard movement, was Rector of St Mary’s, Ludgershall, for several years. It was an appointment that allowed him to spend most of the week consulting the libraries and intelligentsia of the University. It would have been no distance for him to travel on a pony.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS
The golden ochre livery was a relatively late introduction to the locomotive stock of the M&GN, but it remained on passenger trains after grouping in 1923. Grouping turned almost all other locos in mainland Britain the various shades of green (the Southern, Great Western and LNER) or maroon (the LMS). Because the M&GN was jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, and these two were grouped into the LMS and LNER respectively, the M&GN retained its independent existence until 1936. Only then did LNER locomotives begin to take over the running of the M&GN system. The Somerset and Dorset Railway was in a similar situation, being jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the London and South West Railway, which were grouped into different entities. The blue livery of the S&D lived on until 1930.
The Midland and Great Northern Railway was a late-comer to the Norfolk railway network. The Great Eastern had already been in operation for three decades when the M&GN came into existence. Whereas the Great Eastern served the whole of East Anglia, joining Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds with London, the M&GN was principally a Norfolk line, and its connection with the rest of the railway network was west, through Spalding in Lincolnshire to Leicester. Its hub – the Crewe of Norfolk – was Melton Constable. This had been a quiet rural village before 1880, as it has again become since 1959. During the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century however it saw all the traffic on the M&GN passing through this station. Trains bearing holidaymakers from the midlands to resorts at Cromer and Great Yarmouth, coal from the Leicestershire mines to Norwich, and agricultural produce from Norfolk farms to the industrial towns to the west; all had to use the junction at Melton. The workshops constructed the concrete signal posts and fencing that were an up-to-date development in railway engineering, and even railway locomotives were built there. Yet in spite of all this trade and activity it was never a very profitable line, even in its busiest years.
I am fortunate to remember Melton Constable at the very end of its years as a railway town. When the rest of the line closed in 1959, a short stub from Cromer to Melton remained open. A part of the workshops remained, producing tarpaulins for British Railways, and it was to service this facility that the line stayed open for a few more years. Briefly after February 1959, when the pre-Beeching axe fell on the rest of the line, Melton Constable was used to supply coal trains to Norwich City Station, but this was soon ended by the construction of the Themelthorpe Curve. Although the passenger numbers generated by this remote part of Norfolk could never have been more than a trickle, DMUs continued to serve this station for five more years after 1959. In 1960 even the Broadsman express from London Liverpool Street to Norwich made its final stop in Melton Constable, where the carriages would spend the night. This was because steam engines were still being used to haul the train (though the Britannias went no further than Norwich), and they needed the turntable at Melton to reverse direction. This express was later abbreviated to end at Sheringham, when double-ended diesel locomotives dispensed with this need for a turntable. As a young teenager I used the station at Melton twice during the final year of operation. The first time was memorable as the cafeteria was still open, and my Dad and I had our lunch there.
The M&GN began life as series of small companies, each constructing a short length of line. There was obviously a master-plan that envisaged these companies amalgamating in due course, but the object was to frustrate any attempted take-over by the Great Eastern Railway. In the east the line was started from Yarmouth Beach Station, and it had no connection with the GER line to Yarmouth Vauxhall. All its first locomotives had to be hauled through the streets of Yarmouth by cart horses. The line reached North Walsham in 1880, and there at last it was able to connect to the railway network through a temporary track. North Walsham became an important transport hub, with connections North to Cromer and Mundesley, east to Yarmouth and Lowestoft, west to Fakenham and Kings Lynn and south via the GER to Norwich and Cambridge. It was at North Walsham that the meeting that led to the formation of the Farm Workers’ Union was held, and it must have been chosen for its fine transport links to all corners the most fertile county in England.
Fakenham was similar to North Walsham in having both a GER and an M&GN station, and connections to the four corners of the compass, but they were not quite so extensive in Fakenham’s case. Nevertheless, the large printing works of Cox and Wyman must have used the railways as its means of distribution until road transport took over. Now both the railways and the printing firm are long gone. Fakenham Race days must have brought many people to the town by train, and horses too; Fakenham Races still draws in the crowds now that the railway has gone. In the early years of the 20th century special excursion tickets took supporters from the towns and villages of North Norfolk to local football Derbys in places as small as Fakenham.
I suppose we must be grateful that some of the M&GN remains. The Heritage Railway from Sheringham to Holt has two original stations, those at Weyborne and Sheringham, and the station now at Holt was another M&GN station, removed from Stalham. The short stretch of line from Cromer to Sheringham is all of the former line that remains in use by Network Rail, and although the stations at Sheringham and at Cromer remain, the station at West Runton is the sole remaining M&GN station in its original state on the network.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The GER was formed in 1862 from a number of earlier railways operating in East Anglia. The principal line was the route from London to Norwich, opened by the Eastern Union Railway and later operated by the Eastern Counties Railway. It was during the period of the Great Eastern Railway that passenger transport was most extensive in the east. The GER was still opening new railways almost until the end in 1923, but under the LNER they were beginning to close them. One of the first places to lose its passenger service was Stoke Ferry in Norfolk, which saw its last coaches draw into the station in 1930. Hadleigh in Suffolk lost its passenger service two years later. Closures gathered pace under British Railways, and it is only recently that we have seen a few lines reopened.
The livery of the locomotives was royal blue, with crimson details, most notably the connecting rods. The coaches were of varnished teak until 1918, when it was changed to crimson. Although the B12 locomotive now kept on the North Norfolk Railway dates from 1928, after Grouping, the type was already in use in 1923, so it is acceptable to see her in GER colours. With the rake of Gresley quad coaches in varnished teak, which the NNR also possesses, the impression of what a GER train looked like makes a grand sight. The loco is currently painted in LNER apple green, which is more authentic but less visually striking.
The GER was slow to adopt bogie coaches, and even ‘modern’ 6 wheeled stock was late coming to passenger trains; there were old-fashioned 4 wheel coaches running on suburban lines until the end of the company in 1923. Until 1897 there were no bogie coaches on the GER, and no complete corridor trains until the dawn of the 20th century. The lack of corridor connections made long-distance travel less than ideal; the guard could not inspect travellers’ tickets while the train was in motion, and without a corridor there was no possibility of a dining car to serve the whole train. Even toilets could not be provided in non-corridor stock. This mattered less on suburban trains; the mainline express from Liverpool Street to Cromer, the Norfolk Coast Express, was the first to introduce corridor rolling stock in Edwardian times. The Norfolk Coast Express ran non-stop from London, avoiding Norwich via the Wensum Curve, to North Walsham; there it had to stop to take on coal for the last stage of the journey. Water could be taken on from water troughs. While the express continued to Cromer High Station, passengers could alight at North Walsham and take the stopping train to Mundesley and the Poppy Land villages of Trimingham, Sidestrand and Overstrand. The Edwardian conceit of the ‘Garden of Sleep’ made this part of North Norfolk the height of fashion during years leading up to the First World War.
Liverpool Street Station was opened in 1874 as the new London terminus on the GER. The old Shoreditch terminus became the Bishopsgate goods yard until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1964. The last remnants of Bishopsgate station were removed in the 21st century and a new Shoreditch station now occupies the site. It was also during the ownership by the GER that the current Norwich terminus was built, a few metres north of the original terminus. The old building still stands, now used as the local HQ for train crews.
The major lines in Norfolk were already completed by the time the GER was formed, but the route north from Norwich to Cromer was opened by the Great Eastern (although built by another company). Opened in 1874, this relatively late addition to the rail network might have been expected to be one of the first to close, but against all the odds it is still there. I think the regular freight service of North Sea gas petroleum concentrate from North Walsham may have helped save the line through the lean years of contracting railways. We are once again seeing brand new railways being built, rather than merely old ones being reopened. The new line across London, Crossrail, will reach out to Stratford which was once the site of the principal Great Eastern railway workshops. This enormous infrastructure project will provide through services from Shenfield in Essex on the Great Eastern mainline to Reading on the Great Western. Trains will run every few minutes throughout the day. The tunnels required under central London have already been completed and the opening is projected to take place in 2019.
The term Great Eastern is still used to describe the lines out of Liverpool Street, although the later LNER is consigned to history. It is nearly a hundred years since the Great Eastern Railway was merged with other companies to form the London North Eastern Railway, but the interest in this historic line seems as great as ever.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
You can still take the train through the Canadian Rockies, but not from Calgary any longer. There is still a lot of freight on the line but the only passenger service now runs three times a week from Edmonton. As well as this scheduled service operated by VIA (the Canadian equivalent of AMTRAK) the Rocky Mountaineer is a chartered train which runs along the Canadian Pacific Railway from Vancouver towards Calgary but terminates at Banff. Another train then takes the tourists back through Jasper on the Canadian National Railway, the connection being made by road.
The arrival of the CPR was a great boost to the prosperity of Calgary. The track laying was easy with the gentle gradients around the town and the gangs could place up to 100 yards of rail in less than 5 minutes. Building the railway through the mountains was much more arduous. The Last Spike was driven in on November 7, 1885.
The opening of the Edmonton and Calgary line in 1891 brought travellers from Eastern Canada to the northern town; by 1905 Edmonton had become the capital of the new Province of Alberta. The line from Edmonton to Vancouver was opened in 1915, and Edmonton became a major hub in the Canadian rail network.
One of the most notable features is the spiral tunnel on the CPR at Kicking Horse Pass. This takes the line across the Great Divide, from Alberta to British Columbia. Originally the railway ran up a very steep incline which was extremely difficult for railroad engines to negotiate. The ruling gradient on the CPR was set at 1‰, but for four miles up the Big Hill it was 4.4‰. This route is now used by the Cross Canada Highway. The spiral tunnels were opened in 1908.
My fiend Bill stayed in Calgary back in the 1980s when there was still a passenger rail service to Vancouver. He was travelling on to visit some friends on the West Coast and he went by train. Being a friendly character he persuaded the train driver to allow him to travel in the cab. The passage through the tunnels was a great experience for him, and he fondly remembers it to this day.
The nearest station to the summit of Kicking Horse Pass is Field. The settlement was entirely made up of railway workers to begin with, although now it is a tourist centre, catering for both summer and winter visitors. It was where the motive power required to assist trains over the Big Hill was kept. With the easing of the gradient by the excavation of the spiral tunnel this was no longer necessary, and the change from steam locomotives to diesel has further reduced Field’s importance. Nonetheless sidings remain there and when I was driven past there were many boxcars on the lines.
We did not see a train going through the Spiral Tunnels, but we did see a train ascending towards Kicking Horse Pass. This was a long train of potash wagons; it looked huge to us, but trains are much longer in North America than they are in Britain. We were told (by my nephew) that the train had originated in Saskatchewan, and was destined for the port at Vancouver.
The railway went within a quarter of a mile of my sister’s house in Calgary. While we were staying with her we often heard the trains passing and sounding their sirens, but we never saw one; maybe next time. I still have the faint hope that at some future date passenger traffic will return to the CPR mainline through Calgary, and to the branch from there to Edmonton; I can always wish!
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS
DEREHAM STATION is well positioned, within easy waking distance of the centre of town. As the HQ of the Mid Norfolk Railway it is a lively place with a coffee shop, and many diesel locomotives in various states of repair. If it were still part of the national railway network it would be bereft of life except briefly when the train came in from Wymondham. As the main operational centre of a preserved railway it is a hub of activity, especially at weekends. In spite of this valuable work it is not a real railway; it is merely a hobby for volunteers. As you may recall from my blog on the North Norfolk Railway, I would much prefer that Dereham was still a station with regular passenger traffic. Even a goods only line like the stub from Kings Lynn to Middleton Towers railway station for the sand traffic still is a real railway, whereas the MNR is not. But better a preserved line than grassy wilderness or a road bypass, to which so many former railways have been reduced.
Although I have visited the MNR station at Dereham I have not been on the line since it was part of British Railways, longer ago than I wish remember. The photo from the cab of a DMU dates from that time, so you can see that even then diesels worked the line. I must have first used Dereham Station in 1957 or 58. A little further down the line the branch to Foulsham from County School had closed to passengers in 1952 but a goods service continued to Foulsham from Reepham until 1964.
Passenger trains ran north from Dereham to Fakenham and Wells until 1964, but the line beyond that to Docking and Heacham had closed to passengers in 1952. I never went on the line north of Dereham, but I used the line from there to Kings Lynn at least a couple of times. Coming from Norwich the train reversed at Dereham before branching off to Swaffham. This was confusing to a little boy. I was convinced that we were going back to Norwich! Unfortunately I can remember nothing of the stations between Dereham and Lynn.
I returned to Dereham Station recently and was impressed by all the activity, although it was not a day when train were running. I sat in the restaurant and had a cup of tea before inspecting the work being carried out on a locomotive. Unlike the NNR and most preserved lines, the MNR concentrates is energies on diesels. During the summer season it plays host to steam locomotives, but its own stock is exclusively internal combustion engined. I used to have no time for anything but steam engines, but now the main lines are increasingly given over to electric units the early diesels, especially the first DMUS, have a certain charm.
North of North Elmham County School station is kept in immaculate order, and there are coaches and other items of rolling stock there, but just beyond the platform the rails have been torn up and this haven of railwayana is completely isolated from the rest of the railway. Progress continues to be made towards North Elmham, which still retains a continuous track from Dereham although in a very derelict condition. This is gradually being brought back to working order, but it is painfully slow. When the track will be relaid between Noth Elmham and County School heaven only knows! That is the intention, and even further into the future is the intention to reopen the line as far as Fakenham. The plan to extend the line to Holt is a dream.
Although the preserved line has a connection with the National Rail Network’s Breckland Line at Wymondham station, MNR trains go no further than a Halt at Wymondham Abbey. There is nowhere to park and it is a tidy step from the town; unlike the station at Dereham the stop at Wymondham is far from ideal.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS
THE WEST OF ENGLAND
This first visit stretches the very limits of my memory; some vivid episodes remain in my mind but much has long gone from my consciousness. My sister Margaret – eleven years older than me- and my mother took me to Ilfracombe in 1957. We went by train from Norwich; the line from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe was then still open, but unfortunately I have entirely forgotten this part of the holiday. All the locomotives were steam engines and the corridor coaches had spacious and comfortable compartments. If you had a lot of luggage the guard would look after it for you in the brake third coach, normally at the end of the train. The carriages then were divided into first and third class – no second class had existed for many years.
We were visiting mother’s friend Olwen Morris, who had previously lived at Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk. Her husband was a farm worker whose special responsibility was looking after cattle, which job he was doing at a farm near the settlement of South Molton. I remember how wet the climate was compared to the drier East Anglia. I can still see roadside in my mind’s eye, with its glistening wet rocks, a strange new sight for a Norfolk Dumpling like me. Snails only come out in the wet, but they were everywhere because of the pervading damp. They were the colourful common snails which were yet another new sight to me; I had previously only ever seen the larger but duller garden snails which are brown all over. These were all colours, pink, yellow and red, with darker whirls.
The farm cottage was quaint and old but not cramped. The Morrises had two sons, Geoffrey and Michael, and Michael was confined to a wheelchair with disseminated sclerosis. He did not live beyond his teenage years. The sanitary arrangements were an outdoor privy, but this was nothing new to me because that was what I was used to at home in Norfolk. In fact I seem to remember that things were a bit more advanced in Devon because although the privy was outdoors, it had a water closet.
Two places I remember visiting were Hartland Point and Clovelly, both on the coast. Hartland Point was nothing remotely like a seaside resort however. The huge Atlantic breakers surged remorselessly in and crashed against the sandstone and shale rocks. It was something to experience, not with pleasure but with awe. The geology of the surroundings is something special and Devon is unique among the counties of England in having given its name to a global geological time period, the Devonian.
Clovelly was much cosier but it clings to an extremely steep cliff. The hill was too narrow and precipitous to allow cars down; it had steps rather than a roadway. Donkeys would make their way up the hill with people who were unwilling to walk but could afford the fare. We walked of course. The picture of Clovelly in this blog dates from the 1920s and shows my father-in-law Alfred Turner walking up the cliff as a child. It is nearly 90 years ago but the scene is very similar today. The pub sign you see belongs to the New Inn. It is very ancient, naturally.
I have been to Devon on only one other occasion, in the summer of 1969, when I went with my father on a day trip to see the Dart Valley Railway. We did not call preserved railways Heritage Lines in those days, but that is what it was. By comparison with the North Norfolk Railway, which was the preserved line we knew best (and which had organised the trip to Devon) the Dart Valley was impressive. It had only been opened in April of that year, so the North Norfolk Railway. The work was progressing at Sheringham, but is was a long way behind. No trains were yet running on the NNR- none that were open to the tourist anyway.
We went by train from Norwich through Exeter and experienced the long stretch of Brunel’s impressive civil engineering along the coast to Dawlish before getting off the train at Newton Abbott and going by coach to Buckfastleigh. In those early days of the preserved line it had no station at Totnes, but it still took some trains through to the terminus at Ashburton. This section was closed in 1971 to enable the land to be used for road improvements. Unlike my earlier Devon adventure which was extremely wet, this time I only remember unbroken sunshine.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
This picture shows me and my mother. It was taken in 1964 and I am standing on the platform of the former M&GN station at Catfield in North Norfolk. The platform is plain to see, and the concrete platelayer’s hut in the middle distance shows that this was indeed once a railway scene. This type of hut was a post-war development; earlier huts had been made of wood. For six months from January 1880 Catfield was the terminus of the line from Yarmouth. It must have had a length of double track during this period to enable the locomotive to run around the train, but for the rest of the 79 years of its life it was a single track station with just one platform. The railway had been closed for five years by the time this photo was taken. Note how the roses and flowers in the foreground reveal the garden that once graced the station. By 1964 the flowers that had once decorated the platform were overgrown and unloved.
The next station towards Yarmouth was Potter Heigham, an altogether more important stop with two platforms, a passing loop and several sidings. In the other direction the next station was Stalham, although for two years from 1933 a halt was opened just a couple of miles down the line between Catfield and Stalham. It was called Sutton Staithe, and was intended to serve the holiday makers who started their Broadland voyage from the staithe which connects with the river Ant to the north of Barton Broad.
Until closure in 1959 Catfield Station had a signalbox, from where the signalman operated the level crossing gates adjacent to the station. On several occasions this essential requirement was omitted, leading to a collision between the train and the gates. There was a station master to deal with the few passengers that used the stop, though whether there was still a porter too by 1959 I don’t know.
My father was an optician, and one of his tasks was to do domiciliary visits to patients who could not get to the opticians premises. Most of these ‘out-tests’ were to elderly people who were house-bound, but there were exceptions. One of his tasks as a young manwhile working for D. R. Grey was to go out into North Walsham ‘on the knocker’ in search of patients, whose sight he would test there and then. He took his trial case of lenses and a folding test chart with him. D. R. Grey Ltd is still a name in East Anglian optometry, but this was in about 1930, and his employer was the man himself. D. R. were his initials, but many of his patients called him ‘Doctor Grey’, a misapprehension of which he did nothing to disabuse them. My father did not like this way of obtaining business as it involved cold-calling; however as North Walsham was a town with no resident optician going from street to street offering sight tests was a service of sorts. You wouldn’t find qualified opticians walking the streets doing that sort of thing today.
On one occasion he remembered going out to a signalbox on this stretch of the M&GN to test the eyes of the signalman. This was a single track line with few passing places, and so it was not a particularly busy line; once a train had passed, there was no chance of another while it remained in the section, and there was thus ample time for my father to carry out his sight test. He normally did part of his work in darkness, but with the ample daylight from the signal box windows it was not possible in this case. North Walsham is not far from Catfield, but I doubt this test involved cold-calling; he would have been approached on the railwayman’s behalf. He certainly went from Norwich by train to change at North Walsham, and on to Catfield to attend this appointment.
All that you see in the picture at the top of this page was obliterated within a few years when the A149 from Kings Lynn to Great Yarmouth was straightened through Stalham by realigning it on the trackbed of the M&GN. It is now a busy highway. The Broadland village of Catfield lies some distance beyond the site of the railway station, as many stations tended to do. You can see from the picture that the station appears to be completely surrounded by nothing but fields. Perhaps it was as much involved with the transport of agricultural goods as with passengers, or even more so. There was a siding at the station with a short spur to enable shunting operations, which suggests that farm produce was loaded here. There was certainly no other industry for miles around.