Hadleigh is a small town in the south of Suffolk near the river Stour.
The Eastern Counties Railway had run out of steam by the time it had reached Colchester in 1843, and in the ensuing pause a number of schemes were promoted for continuing its progress towards its ultimate destination, Norwich. It was mooted that the town of Hadleigh was to be on the mainline to Diss, with Ipswich being relegated to a branch. The traders of Ipswich would have none of this, and floated the Eastern Union Railway’s proposal to link the town to Colchester directly. It was this line that was built and now is part of the Great Eastern mainline.
As built the nearest that the line came to Hadleigh was Bentley station between Manningtree and Ipswich, some seven miles away. The line to Ipswich was opened in 1846; Royal Assent was given to the Bill authorizing construction of the branch to Hadleigh in the same year and work proceeded rapidly. Up to 300 navvies were employed on the project. and the beer consumed during the evenings after work had ceased for the day was phenomenal. This was appreciated by the local publicans if few others. The branch to Hadleigh was opened on Friday August 20th 1847 to great celebrations. A public holiday was declared in the town. The train had left Ipswich at 3.25 and arrived in Hadleigh three quarters of an hour later. A brass band had accompanied the train and at Hadleigh the Town Band led the assembled multitude through the town. Two hundred and fifty invited guests sat down to a meal at five o’clock. Despite the enthusiasm, the line was not opened to the general public for another fortnight to allow the necessary inspection to take place. There were two intermediate stations on the line, at Capel and Raydon, although both stations were located over a mile away from their respective villages.
A disturbing event occurred during the first year of operation. A special train was arranged to run to Ipswich for the regatta on the 16th September 1847. It was a windy day and the construction of a wall at Hadleigh station had only been competed that morning. The mortar was not yet dry, and a gust of wind of near hurricane force blew down the the 14 foot high wall and injured over fifty of the waiting crowd.
Barley for the maltings and malt exported from the town was a major commodity handled by the railway at Hadleigh. Hay and straw for the cattle carried by rail were kept in the good shed, and arrangements to provide water were at first precarious. In the days before piped supplies all water came from wells, including that needed by the steam engines themselves. Wood was taken from Raydon station and cattle from all stations on the line. Goods traffic was important to the railway, but so too were passengers. There were initially five passenger trains daily in each direction, and three on Sunday, though these weekend services were not well used and were soon abandoned. However the number of daily passenger trains increased during the nineteenth century. There were occasional accidents on the line, mostly of a minor nature, but all were reported to the authorities.
The First World War produced a growth in freight as the farms around Hadleigh were required to make up for the food that could no longer be imported from abroad. After the war the decline in passenger traffic was exacerbated by the the growth of motor omnibuses built on the chassis of ex-army trucks. The fact that the journey from Hadleigh went direct to Ipswich by road, whilst the railway journey required a change at Bentley did nothing to encourage passengers to travel by rail. Passenger traffic was ended in 1932. The effect of the Second World War was similar – the building and then the subsequent supply of the USAAF air base at Capel made for extra business for the railway, but this again declined after the war. Ultimately the line closed to freight traffic on the 15th April 1965. The station at Bentley which had been the junction with the Hadleigh branch was closed in November of the following year. A part of the track has been opened as a Wildlife haven.
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The line to Aldeburgh opened in 1860, having been built as far as the town of Leiston one year earlier. At Leiston a branch connected with the traction engine works Garretts, a major employer in the town and the principal reason for building the line. This works line was operated by horses until 1929, when the steam locomotive Sirapite was purchased. Serapite was built in 1906 by Aveling and Porter for Gypsum Mines Ltd in Sussex. It was used until 1962 when it was acquired by Sir Richard Macalpine for his collection of locomotives.
A part of this line to the Long Shop Museum (the former Garrett works) has now been relaid, and Serapite is again in Leiston, part of the Museum collection. This short stretch of line recently hosted a diesel shunter which operated along its curtailed length; it no longer has a physical connection with the Network Rail line at Leiston. Leiston was the most important station on the line (more so than the terminus at Aldeburgh) and it remains in use as far as that town.
These five miles of track are employed to serve the nuclear power station, Sizewell ‘B’. With the proposal to divert much of the material for the new power station (Sizewell ‘C’) from road to rail this will be much more heavily used in future (if) when Sizewell ‘C’ is built. Whatever the officials say, this will go ahead, as the line has already been upgraded to concrete sleepers and welded rail i.e. modern track. This would not have been done if Network Rail were not convinced the line would shortly be needed for heavy use. This happened within the last twelve months, so it is plainly all systems go on the line.
When the line meets the East Suffolk line the trains used to go half a mile along the mainline to Saxmundham station. This is where passenger services from Aldeburgh terminate until 1966, when the last 3.5 miles closed permanently and the remainder lost its passenger service. In 2005 the council mooted the possibility of reintroducing an hourly train service from Leiston to Saxmundham. This would have been similar to the train service on the Stourbridge branch in the West Midlands. That short section is operated by the flywheel powered Parry People Mover. At the time it was anticipated that all nuclear material would have been removed from Sizewell ‘A’ by 2012, and all freight traffic along the line would therefore cease. Nothing came of the Suffolk County Council proposal, and the future of the freight usage of the line looks very different today. Personally I think it is great shame that Leiston does not have a passenger railway service. Its size and the presence of a track through the town suggest that it should.
The track to Aldeburgh was taken up in the year following closure and the railway station was demolished in 1975. The site is now a roundabout. The station had a locomotive based there in the days of steam with an engine shed to house it. A certain amount of goods traffic went to the town, although not as much as was handled at Leiston. By the end all services to Aldeburgh were by diesel multiple unit, the goods traffic having been discontinued in 1964.
So far I have not mentioned the only other station on the line, that at Thorpeness. This was no more than a Halt, opened in the ominous year of 1914, to serve the seaside resort that been growing over the previous decades. No goods traffic was handled here, and the Halt was unstaffed. The former railway line here is now a footpath, and the platform is still in existence, though overgrown with vegetation.
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