Tag Archives: RAILWAYS


A Cambridge bound train near Cringleford in years gone by.

Since Sunday 21 May 2017 there has been a brand new railway station to serve Cambridge Science Park; Cambridge North in the Chesterton area of town. Now we need a similar station to serve Norwich Science Park, and a village just south of Norwich -Cringleford- is the perfect place for it. It is on the Cambridge line, and only a short bike ride from the Science Park. There is a level crossing on Low Road at Cringleford, and that means that if a station were built there it would have no need for an (expensive) footbridge; just a couple of platforms (not three as at Cambridge North). It would not need an expensive station building either.  There looks to be plenty of space nearby for a car park/cycle park, and a bus service could connect the station with the hospital/science park/university. It could continue to the city cente. The station would be roughly half way between Wymondham and Norwich stations.

A short distance up the track is another level crossing on Intwood Road. A station here would be slightly less convenient for Cringleford villagers, but the station would not really intended for them. It has even more space for a car park, and this could be closer to the railway too. Either site would be much cheaper to develop than Cambridge North, although knowing the way new projects like to splash the cash it probably would not done as inexpensively as I like to think. Perhaps now is little soon to start building such a station, but if the Science Park at Colney grows as we all hope it will, it is not too soon to start thinking about it. It has more in favour of it than the proposed station in Thorpe for the Broadland Business Park; at least it is on a line between two major business hubs (Norwich and  Cambridge), unlike the Bittern Line where the Broadland Business Park station would be, which only runs to the seaside at Sheringham.

A new station for Broadland Business Park would cost £6.5 million we are told, which is not a great sum of money as such things go. Cambridge North was projected to cost £44m has in fact cost £50m. My scheme at Cringleford could be done for far less. Nor, unlike the Broadland scheme, do I foresee a requirement to increase the number of trains on the line just to service the new station; with the increased demand for transport links with Stansted Airport and Cambridge I anticipate a more frequent service on the Breckland line anyway, once the Ely junction has been upgraded. However we must think of a better name for the new station. Nobody has a clue where Cringleford is; how about UEA International anyone?  They like impressive titles in Norwich (look at the ‘international’ airport). Perhaps Norwich Science Parkway would be more appropriate. I would of course support both Broadland Business Park and Norwich Science Park stations, whatever they are called.

I don’t expect such an improvement to be built in my lifetime; I would be happy merely to see the reopening of Soham station, which everybody is talking about but nobody is doing anything to advance. The reopening of the Wisbech branch, that still has the track in place – some of it even using modern concrete sleepers, though overgrown with weeds-  would cost no more than Cambridge North Station, £50m. I won’t even mention the promised link from Bedford to Cambridge which would cost hundreds of millions. Opening up the old Varsity line providing the possibility of through trains from Norwich to Oxford is a tantalising prospect. Such enhancements to the railway network are long overdue, but they are long-term projects, so I should be glad the new station in Cambridge is now open. I don’t suppose I will ever use it (not being much of a scientist), but I may see it from the train. It is a small step, but a welcome one.





When I was in my thirties I would sometimes spend an evening in Aylsham, playing chamber music in the home of a retired butcher. Butchers are not normally notable for their musical tastes, and this one was no exception; he was a plain, hones, down-to-earth Norfolkman. However, his wife had longings for the more refined side of life, which is why she played the violin. To find a young string player of a similar cultivated background (who had been to a Public School and Oxford no less) obviously impressed her greatly, and so I was invited to her soirées, although my instrument (a double bass) was not the ideal member of a string quartet! Butchering had been kind to the family, and they lived in fine style in a detached house in its own grounds in Aylsham.

I would already have been very familiar with the town, because the road from Norwich to Cromer went right through the middle until the bypass was built the 70s. My first plain memory of Aylsham goes back to middle 1960s, when I attended the wedding of  Sandra, my father’s receptionist at the time. In fact she was only a few years older than I was, although she seemed very mature to me. My father had two receptionists at this period, and the other one, Helen Keller, was even nearer my age. Sandra’s wedding took place at St Michael’s church, which stands  just north of the market place.

My frequent attendance at the Aylsham Sale Yard was mostly in search of second-hand books; Keys, the auctioneers, developed a special line in book sales. However I have bought all sorts of other things there too; everything from musical instruments to rolls of wire netting. I have never bought ‘Three Chairs’ though; this announcement was always made preceding the sale of a lot of these articles of furniture, and it always brought the response from the crowd ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray’. This joke is probably obscure to those unfamiliar with the ‘Broad Norfolk’ dialect.  To let you ‘furriners’ in on the joke, the word ‘cheers’ is pronounced ‘chairs’ in the local tongue.

There is no longer any livestock sold at Aylsham sale yard, but when I first used to go there calves and pigs were still being auctioned every week. This part of the sale ground has now been built on as a housing estate. Live chickens and rabbits lasted rather longer.Now the only bullock you will see there is when they hold a picture sale of eighteenth century livestock.

The fine thatched pump in Aylsham was erected to commemorate John Soame, who died in 1910. He was a farmer from Spratts Green, an area towards Brampton near Marsham, and was undoubted a relative of Soame the steam engine maker from Marsham. We no longer require water to be drawn from a public well, but back in 1911, when it was built,  both horses and people were glad of the artesian bore that was sunk some 50 metres into the subsoil.

There is still a railway station at Aylsham, but this is now the terminus of the narrow gauge tourist line that runs to Wroxham from the town. This follows the route of the standard gauge line that was opened in 1880 and finally closed in the 1980s. Regular passenger services were withdrawn in 1952. This was the GER branch line from Wroxham to County School near North Elmham. Aylsham  had two railways serving the town; Aylsham North was on the M&GN main line from Leicester to Great Yarmouth, and lost its passenger service when the former M&GN closed in 1959.

My most recent visit to Aylsham was during last summer, when I spent a pleasant hour or two in the Black Boys pub on the Market Place. The market is not to be confused with the sale yard; the Market Place is the centre of the town, where the Town Hall and the church look down on the vegetable and flower stalls. A market still take place there. I had known this pub the Black Boys for as long as I can remember, but this was the first time I had been inside. It was already long-established in the 18th century, when it was supplied by William Hardy from his brewery at Letheringsett. The interior has been much altered over the years, but the oak staircase running to the first floor from the bar is as old at the property itself.




Great Aunt Nellie

Father Charles

Ellen Lydia Mason is something of a shadowy figure. I can for instance show you no pictures of  her or of her husband. She was born in Northamptonshire at a village called Sulgrave. Its main claim to fame is Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington’s family. Since Ellen was born, the Grade 1 listed building has become a museum, and no doubt it gets many visitors from America.

To find out why Ellen (Nellie) was born so far from Norfolk we must try to discover some family history. Ellen’s parents (and my great-grandparents) Rebecca (née Buxton) and Charles Mason had met at the age of 21  in Staffordshire. Rebecca was from Easton in Norfolk, but she had gone to Stoke on Trent for a job in domestic service. The young couple fell in love and Charles travelled to her home village of Easton to marry her; this took place on June 17th 1879. It was difficult for her husband to find employment locally, and at the time their first child was born in Norfolk the boy’s father was working away.


Charles always had an affinity with animals and spent most of his career looking after the cart horses that were used for deliveries from Carrow Works in Norwich. In 1880 he was working as kennelman to a hunt in Kent. Three years later both he and his wife were living in Northamptonshire, no doubt with Charles working in some similar capacity. So it was in Sulgrave that Ellen was born. She was baptised in the church of St James the Less in Sulgrave on March 7th 1883. She did not stay long in Northamptonshire, because by the following year the family was back in Easton for the birth of Will, my grandfather. Rebecca stayed at the Dog Inn for her lying-in.

At the age of eleven Nellie lost her mother Rebecca; her father was left with a young family to bring up and soon remarried. By then he had found secure employed with Colmans at Carrow Works and the family was living in Trowse. By the time of the 1901 census she was 18 and already living away from home as cook to a pair of middle-aged spinster ladies at Elham in Kent. It was there that she met her husband to be, Maurice Lawrence.

CONSTABLE’S HAY WAIN, (Willy Lott’s cottage).

Maurice was born in 1877 in Stratford St Mary near the river Stour on the Suffolk/Essex border. The son of a farm worker, after starting as kitchen boy he soon graduated to be an errand boy, delivering goods to houses in the locality. One of the places he visited on a regular basis was Willy Lott’s cottage, well known from the  picture of the Hay Wain by John Constable (1776-1837). By 1900 Maurice was in service to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s mother at her home, Leith Hill Place in Surrey (this house now belongs to the National Trust). A year later he had got a job on the railway and he was working as a porter at Elham station in Kent. He was not there long either, as he was soon promoted to the position of signalman in Folkestone, but not before making the acquaintance of young Nellie Mason.

It was a slow burning romance, because the couple were not married for eight years; then they returned to the bride’s home in Trowse where the ceremony took place in the village church on the 26th of September, 1908.  The couple began married life in Cheriton, a suburb of Folkestone. They lived in a spacious terraced house with a bay window in Dunnett Road in the town. By 1930 he had been promoted from assistant to the signal box at Walmer, a seaside town just outside Dover. They had a house in the centre of town not far from Walmer Station, in Dover Road. Maurice reached retirement age during the Second World War; after twelve years of retirement he was widowed when Nellie died in 1956 aged 73. Maurice lived until 1967, when he died at the age of 90. They had no children.





There are fewer links with the past in Norwich with every year that passes, but we can still claim some notable historic establishments.

Bullen’s, London Street, 75 years ago.

A. E. Coe is an old-established name in photography in Norwich. Albert Edward Coe (born 1844) set up the shop in London Street and Castle Meadow.  In 1890 he was advertising his photographic business at 32 London Street; he had qualified as an optician the previous year. I can remember when this shop in London Street was connected by a passageway with that on Castle Meadow. When my father was first established as an optician in the city (in about 1930) the Coe business was being run by his descendant Neville Coe, who also traded as an optician. The businesses have since been organised as separate firms; Coe, Costa and Moore being the optical side, and the photographic business as Barrett and Coe. The photographer’s shop had been well over a hundred years at the same address, but it has recently moved to Thorpe; although the business remains it has relocated. I will therefore cite W. R. Bullen, the jewellers in London Street, as a business that has remained in the same place for 130 years  . . . but both Bullen’s and Coe’s were established but yesterday in the long history of Norwich.

The department store Jarrolds is well over two hundred years old. It was established as a grocers and drapers in the Market Place in the Suffolk Port of Woodbridge in 1770. The founder, John Jarrold I, died early on and his son, John Jarrold II, was too young at first to take part in the operation of the firm. In the early 19th century, as soon as he was old enough, he transferred the business to its current home in Norwich. Once there the shop abandoned the grocery and drapery trades and became a bookseller and stationer. During the century it became a major printing business which (among other books) published Anna Sewell’s best-selling novel Black Beauty in 1878. Jarrold’s publishing activities were greatest before the 20th century, but in printing it went from strength o strength. It was still producing postcards and calendars into the 21st century, but it is now no longer a printer or publisher. It has remained a large retail store in Norwich city centre throughout this period, and has even reintroduced drapery among its lines. Thorns, the hardware shop which is just across Exchange Street from Jarrolds, and is another old-established family firm. It was set up by a merchant who arrived in the city from London in 1835.

Norwich Railway Station was first opened in 1844; although the terminus has been moved a few metres north since then, the original train shed is still used, now as the base for train crews to sign on. Unusually for post-Beeching Britain, the station retains all the lines that ran out of it when the railway network was at its peak, in the 1920s. Sheringham, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, London and Cambridge all still receive regular services. The other stations in Norwich have not been so lucky; there used to three of them, and now there is only the one.

St Mary, Coslany, half a century ago.

The inns of Britain are among the oldest non-religious institutions in the country. Nottingham has three pubs which all claim to have been drinking holes since the middle ages, but such antiquity means their origins are lost in the mists of the past. As for Norwich, the oldest pub is the Adam and Eve, which was run by Benedictine monks to provide refreshment for the builders who were working on Norwich Cathedral. The first time it was recorded by name was in 1249, and this would make it compete in age with the pubs in Nottingham; however it was rebuilt in the 17 century. The Maids Head Hotel in Norwich may well be oldest continuously occupied hotel in England, being commonly dated to  the 13th century. This hotel is near Norwich Cathedral, which was begun in 1096. Also in near the Cathedral is the Great Hospital; this was established in the first half of the thirteenth century as a refuge for the elderly, which is still its function today. The nature of the inhabitants has changed a but since its inception; until the Reformation this was reserved for decayed clerics, but now it is sheltered housing open to all, of either sex.

Norwich Castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest, and was erected at the same time that the Cathedral was started. Its official use as a goal ceased in the 19th century, and with the change of use to the City’s principal museum in the 1890s it cannot really be termed a surviving institution. Even as a museum however it is now quite a venerable institution. The oldest building in Norwich must be St Mary’s Church in Coslany, which has an Anglo-Saxon tower, but it has been redundant as a church for decades now and it is therefore a moot point whether it can be included in this list of surviving institutions. As for the oldest church in Norwich still used as a place of worship I am at something of a loss to determine; St George’s in Tombland still holds services, although nothing about it seems older than the 14th century. Alternatively in may be St Julian’s, although this church was bombed in the war and has been largely rebuilt. On further consideration I think it must the Anglo-Catholic church of St John the Baptist, Timber Hill, as this church also has signs of Anglo-Saxon stonework in its construction.

Thorns, Bullens, the Cathedral, the Great Hospital, the Adam and Eve and the Maids Head Hotel have all retained their original use in the same place for many centuries. Even the railway station has been there for well over a century and a half. All are part of the rich and ancient fabric of the City.





Sarah Elizabeth Mason

Sarah Elizabeth Mason



Great Aunt Bessie (she was born Sarah Elizabeth Mason) was my grandfather William’s youngest full sister; he was five years older than her. Their father was Charles Mason, and he was working for Colman’s, the mustard makers, at the time of her birth. She was born in 1889 in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. She went to the local school where she received a basic education. By the time Sarah was 21 she was working as parlour maid for a retired Army Officer in Folkestone. There she met a young  clerk who worked for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, Douglas Hughes. He was employed on the Elham Valley Line, a short branch of 14 miles that ran from Canterbury to Folkestone. The cuttings and embankments of this pretty country railway were thick with primroses in the spring. The whole area was a provider of horticultural produce across the South East, and apple blossom gave it the authentic appearance of ‘the Garden of England’; it adjoined the East Kent coal field, but test bores near the line in the last years of the 19th century failed to find significant deposits of coal. It thus remained an agricultural district, free of the mine shafts and winding gear of a coal field. The service on the line was regular but not heavy, with seven passenger trains in each direction every weekday. In 1914 a railmotor – a tank engine with an attached carriage for passengers –  was introduced for local services, while a non-stop train ran through from Canterbury to Folkestone.

Sarah Elizabeth Mason

Sarah Elizabeth Mason

Bessie’s father Charles Mason

When Sarah was 25 the First World War broke out, and things would never be the same again. Douglas and Bessie were married in the church of St Mary the Virgin in  Elham in 1915. (The village was pronounced Eelum.)

Being so near the South Coast there was a strong military presence; with the Great War this only increased. There were for example Canadian soldiers billeted at nearby Shorncliffe. The Royal Train was brought to a siding on the Elham Valley line in 1915, while King George and Lord Kitchener rode off to inspect the troops.

In December 1915 a landslip closed the mainline between Dover and Folkestone; it remained closed for the rest of the war and all the traffic between these two ports was diverted along the Elham Valley line, which therefore became even busier. Red Cross trains carried wounded soldiers from France to hospitals in Canterbury and beyond, while fresh troops were transported to embarkation at Folkestone. Goods trains of materiel destined for the frontline kept the railway busy late into the night. One of the signalmen on the line was recruited into the Army, and his replacement was the first female to be so employed on the SE&CR. Following Grouping in 1923 the SE&CR was taken over by the Southern Railway; meanwhile the motor bus company began to attract passengers from the railway. Slowly the line declined and in 1931 it was reduced to single track. In 1940 the passenger service ended and the line was given over to military use. In 1947 it closed completely and the track was lifted the following year. It was thus never an operational part of British Railways, which was formed in 1948.


Back in 1916 Bessie Hughes was pregnant with her first child, and Charles was born in Elham on the 21st of November of that year. He was named after his grandfather Charles Mason (my great-grandfather).  Charles Hughes was his second grandson, the eldest being my father, born in 1911. Douglas and Sarah’s second child was born in 1922; although he was christened Alfred after his paternal grandfather (a tea dealer from Rye in Sussex) he was always called John, his second name. The family was still living in Elham when John was born, and continued to do so for many years thereafter. With two boys the Hughes family was now complete.

The Withams’ wedding at Elham; Douglas & Bessie in attendance; 1938

Bessie’s youngest half-sister was Florence, eighteen years her junior, being born in 1907; their father’s first child had been born in 1880, nearly 30 years earlier.  Florrie was married to Billy Witham in Kent at St Mary’s church in Elham,  although they both came from Norfolk. Florence had lived with her father Charles until his death in April of 1938; she was unable to work, being rather immobile on account of a stiffness in her legs. Without her father’s pension for support she needed some alternative, and quickly too; she was married within a couple of months of her father’s death. She continued to live in the house in Russell Terrace, Trowse,  as Billy’s wife. The properties had been built to house Colman’s workers, but Billy was not employed by them, soan arrangement must have been made.

Travel had been easy for railway worker Douglas Hughes, and his family had made frequent visits to Trowse to see his aged father-in-law Charles Mason – there was even a station a few hundred yards from his house there. A friendship with Florrie must have developed, and perhaps this explains why Kent was chosen for their wedding; this did not please other Norfolk members of the family however, who were not invited! As appears in the photograph, the only sibling to attend the wedding in the 13th century church was Bessie.

BESSIE (left) & son Charles, Folkestone 1933

Before the ultimate closure of the Elham Valley line the Hughes family had moved to Cheriton, a suburb of Folkestone. Cheriton was a halt on the mainline from Tonbridge to Dover, but it was only used by Elham Valley line trains, so that it too closed in 1940.  (Today the site of the Elham Valley line at Cheriton Junction has been obliterated by the huge marshalling yard where lorries and cars are loaded onto Le Shuttle for transport to Calais via Euro Tunnel.) Charlie Hughes had married Eileen Fenwick in Folkestone during the war, and while her husband was away fighting in the Navy Eileen had a daughter Christine. She was born in July 1945. The war ended on September the 2nd; Aunt Bessie was hanging out the washing when her neighbour rushed into the garden shouting ‘The Japanese have surrendered’!

CHARLES HUGHES in retirement

After Aunt Bessie died in 1964 her widower Douglas Hughes moved from Cheriton to Croydon to live with his eldest son Charles and his family. Charlie had begun by following his father into working on the railways, until call-up came early in the war.  After his war service in the Royal Navy he stayed on for peacetime deployment; after finally retiring from the Armed Forces he worked for the Inland Revenue at Somerset House in London. This fine Neoclassical building will be familiar toanyone who has walked along the Strand. Charles died in Croydon in 2001.


Charles and Eileen’s daughter Christine married a clergyman Frederick Woods in 1968. He had a parish in Colchester where she died in 2003, and her husband remarried. The Rev Woods and Christine had four children. Charlie and Eileen also had a son Neil in 1946; he is my second cousin, although I have never met him, nor indeed any of the people mentioned in this essay. It is only in the past few years that I have even learned of their existence. I have known of Sarah Elizabeth Mason for slightly longer, but initially believed she had died unmarried! It is only through meeting another cousin that I can piece together their story.







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.

Diesel Multiple Unit at Dereham Station, 1958.

DMU at Dereham Station, 1958.

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.

A tank engine, NNR in M&GN livery

A tank engine, NNR in M&GN livery

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.







Shippea Hill has been having a bit of publicity recently, with articles in The Guardian and The Daily Mail. It has also got a mention on the Youtube channel. This is all because Shippea Hill is the least used station in the country. Some years the grandiosely titled Tyneside Airport station has fewer passengers,  but generally this distinction falls to Shippea Hill; it gets around one passenger a month on average, so when I say it is mostly deserted I mean it. In the in the autumn of 1977 I got on a train at Shippea Hill.  That morning I (and my friend Bill) must have been among the largest group of passengers to have got on a train at Shippea Hill in over 160 years! There were dozens of us. How did this come about?

I will explain, but first I want to tell you a little about Shippea Hill; it will be a little, for there isn’t very much to say about the place. Where the hill is I cannot say, because the wide expanse of Cambridgeshire fenland seems as flat as a pancake. I have read that the land here rises a foot or two above sea level, so perhaps that  explains the ‘hill’; either that or the sense of humour among railwaymen. Other names that the station has gone by in the past are Mildenhall Road and Burnt Fen. In 1977 there were no buildings in sight except for a signal box – it was still being used until 2012. Otherwise there are just acres and acres of rich agricultural land.

It was early on Sunday September 25th, about 2 o’clock in the morning, that the coaches carrying our party pulled up at the station. We had been on a day trip to France, and as there was no Channel Tunnel in those days we caught a special train from Folkestone Harbour on our return. The train had to terminate at Ely because the junction with the Norwich line was closed for repairs. We got onto coaches at Ely, and the first station on the line to Norwich was Shippea Hill; it was there that we were headed. A DMU was waiting at the station to carry us on to Norwich, and once we had left the train it took the remaining trippers on to North Walsham, 24 hours after they had left.

Just six months before Shippea Hill had been the site of a fatal accident when a train collided with a lorry on the adjacent level crossing.  The train driver was killed and several passengers were injured. The level crossing was operated by the signalman until 2012, when the crossing gates were replaced by automatic barriers. Although most trains do not stop at Shippea Hill (even by request), the line itself is served by stopping trains which call at most of the local stations. In the 1970s express train from Norwich to London still used the line. There were then (as now) two services every hour to Liverpool Street, only they went alternately via Ipswich and Cambridge. The Cambridge route took rather longer.

Shippea Hill is just one of several sparsely used stations on the line from Norwich to Ely; others are at Lakenheath, Eccles Road, Harling Road and Spooner Row. All are among the least used stations in the country. By contrast many far better used stations were closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s, although the lines still run past these former stations. Even on the Breckland Line (the line that runs past Shippea Hill) Hethersett Station was closed in 1966, although it must have had vastly more passengers than just twelve a year. I wonder how Shippea Hill has survived all those years? Fortunately the trains to Manchester, Liverpool and Cambridge that mostly bypass this little place are themselves increasingly busy.





There have been railways in East Anglia for 170 years. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this form of transport, not only when it was new, but still today. Imaging the great metropolis of London functioning without railways. Railways have changed greatly over the years. The welded rails have removed the diddly-dum, diddly-dee sound which used to be inseparable from train travel; electric trains now take us to London, smoothly, swiftly  and quietly too. These are minor changes however, compared to the major change, the shift from goods traffic to passenger travel. The railway used to be a service to the industrial sector, moving fish from Yarmouth, coal from Newcastle, tins of mustard from Norwich and agricultural produce from the countryside to the towns. Passenger trains were tacked on, almost as an afterthought. At first there were just a handful of passenger trains to London each day. Even so it was a burden for the timetable, as passenger trains must run on time, whereas freight trains leave only when they are ready. Today large tracts of the rail system see no freight traffic at all, especially in East Anglia; only an oil tanker service from North Walsham and a sand train from Middleton near Kings Lynn intrude on the daily passenger trains.

Modern train in the country where it all began

Modern train; where it all began, before Victoria was Queen.

A word about the ‘Beeching Axe’; although there were cuts before Dr Beeching came on the scene, these were just about supportable. I will grudgingly admit that the network was a bit too large, but don’t try to get me to say which lines were expendable. Maybe we have not seen a great reduction in service in losing the Wymondham to Forncett line. This was a useful way to avoid reversing direction at Norwich Thorpe in the days when freight traffic was important. Now that goods traffic has gone, only the small village of Ashwellthorpe has lost its railway station as a result. The Heacham to Wells branch passed through a very sparsely populated corner of Norfolk, and that too might not be seen a major loss. As I intimated, these were pre-Beeching cuts. Those that were lost in the Beeching and post-Beeching era were almost all damaging  to lines and stations up and down the country.

The reductions proposed in ‘Beeching Two’ were even worse, but luckily they never happened. Under these draconian proposals the services in Norfolk would have been reduced to just two; London to Norwich and London to Kings Lynn. Even the ‘Hi-Tec corridor’ from Norwich to Cambridge would never have come to pass, as weeds would have taken over the trackbed where frequent trains now run. As things turned out the lines in East Anglia escaped largely untouched. The exception is North West Norfolk; that is a desert in railway terms. Swaffham, Watton, Dereham, Fakenham, Aylsham,  Burnham Market and and many smaller market towns lost their railway stations.  So did the seaside resorts  of Snettisham, Hunstanton, Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea. The south and east of the county have fared much better; Diss, Thetford, Attleborough, Wymondham,  Downham Market, Acle and North Walsham are still railway towns, as are the holiday destinations of Sheringham, Cromer and Yarmouth, all receiving a regular service.

East Norfolk’s railways at their greatest extent.

Slowly – but oh how slowly – some of these unnecessary cuts are being reversed. Two line working through Beccles has recently been restored, but what a small thing this is. It still took years to plan and execute, and cost a small fortune. If they had merely left things as they were in 1970 all this could have been avoided. Nevertheless, the improvement to services all along the East Suffolk line has been impressive following this upgrade. Train numbers have doubled and passenger traffic has soared. The late Jim Prior, who lived near the line, fought hard when he was a minister to keep it open. It was just as well he succeeded.

There is even a brand new station being opened in May of this year, to serve the Cambridge Science Park, but with other hoped-for improvements we have not been so fortunate. The reopening of Soham station has again stalled. The realignment to Ely Junction that is desperately needed to enlarge capacity has been kicked into the long grass. The restoration of a railway service to Wisbech seems as far away as ever. Even the proposed provision of a  direct rail service from Yarmouth to Lowestoft, which has not existed since the closure of Yarmouth South Town station in 1970, got a very lukewarm reception. This would have seen a short stretch of track in Reedham restored, a line which was removed over a century ago.

It has been a bumpy ride for railways since the Second World War. They had made possible the transport of munitions, foodstuffs and armed forces that was essential for a successful war effort. Immediately the conflict ended the people’s love affair with road transport put the whole system in danger. The railways had done sterling work with only minimal investment throughout the war, and now the run-down network was an unloved burden on the taxpayer. Nationalised British Railways was the butt of everybody’s jokes. Even in London there were closures. Broad Street Station, adjacent to Liverpool Street, at one time a busy commuter terminus, was demolished as the numbers of passengers using it plummeted. The same fate was mooted for both St Pancras and Marylebone. Only traffic on the London Transport Underground continued to grow and the network to expand.

In terms of rolling stock it was a different world when I was a boy. Steam engines still ruled; in the coaches leather straps still let down the windows; every seat had a regularly changed anti-macassar. Pictures of railway scenes or landmarks along  the line decorated the compartments. Elegant dining cars were provided on all mainline express trains. White jacket stewards served coffee from silver plated coffee pots while the cutlery gently jingled as the train raced down the tracks.  Mixed freight trains waited in the sidings as you rushed past. Stopping trains loaded milk churns and unloaded post and newspapers at sleepy village stations as the passengers made their leisurely progress to the next town. As diesels replaced steam engines there were still lots of coal trucks to be moved, although the mixed goods trains had gone. Buffet cars replaced dining cars, and there you jostled other passengers at the bar while waiting to be served; things were changing. Now you must sit in your seat while a trolley is pushed past, with a plastic cup of instant coffee for those who can afford it; o tempora o mores.

On the track-side semaphore signals have largely disappeared to be replaced by colour-light ones. Semaphore signals never failed, which cannot be said for their electric replacements. Signal boxes too have gone from most locations,  substituted by huge centralised control boxes. Hand worked level crossing gates have made way for automatic barriers. Telegraph poles, which once marched alongside every railway line, have gone and telephone wires have disappeared underground; with the growth of mobile phones all messages will no doubt soon be entrusted to the airwaves, as phone contact with the train driver already is. Down on the ground wooden sleepers are being discarded in favour of concrete ones. At least we still use George Stephenson’s standard gauge of 4 feet 8 12 inches, although we now call it 1,435 millimetres. The railway age began nearly 200 years ago, and after a rocky period it is still on track.





The red “Rumble-Thump” – my father’s name for the bus, from its diesel engine.

A 1950s double-decker

I did most of my travelling by bus when I was really young; from the age of five until I was ten I went to school eleven miles away every day. It is true that often I was taken there in the morning by my father in his car before he went to work, but I came home by bus. Sometimes my mother came to travel home with me (especially when I was five), but mostly I travelled alone (with some school friends). I may be wrong, but I cannot imagine a six-year-old being expected to make his way home alone by bus today. Even an eight-year-old would be shepherded home by his mother, even if it was only a street or two away. Yet we saw nothing unusual about this unaccompanied travel in 1955; youngsters were not regarded as being in constant danger from ill-intentioned adults or natural disasters. How things have completely changed in couple of generations, and not wholly for the better. From the age of ten I was at boarding school, so the business of getting to school did not apply; I was already at school when I woke up in the morning.

My next experience of using the bus was as a student at university. In less than a decade the nature of bus travel had changed completely to more or less its modern version. The old kind of buses, as shown the illusration above, had gone; no longer were there bus conductors – only in London, where the Routemaster held sway for decades, were they still employed. Everywhere else, by the end of the 1960s, the front entry  bus allowed the driver to take your fare, so there was no need for a conductor. Also, the entrance was now controlled by a door, which went some way to making winter journeys a warmer experience. On the other hand the corresponding lack of fresh air made coughs and sneezes (those other features of winter journeys ) more infectious.

Apart from these two periods of my life I have done most of my travelling by other means. Once I could ride one, a bicycle was my main means of transport when I was a teenager. After that I was a car driver – railway travel hardly featured; it was not that I did not like trains, but by then they did not go where I was going. All the branch lines that I would have used had closed.

Bus tickets are not cheap, and I feel sorry for those young people (who on account of their youth do not qualify for the minimum wage) who have to spend so much of their meagre pay on the daily commute to work. With the free bus pass it is another matter; it opens up the world to the nation’s old folk. They have to make their way to the bus stop it is true, and they have wait for the bus, but then they can relax. There is no hurry to get to work for the retired, and nothing to pay.  Free bus passes are in fact nothing of the sort; it is just that the ticket is paid for by the local authority rather than by the traveller. It is the bus companies who really benefit; instead of running buses throughout the day nearly empty, they are now filled with pensioners using their bus passes. It was a brilliant idea by somebody, a way of getting something in return for subsiding the bus companies. Few people appreciate that it is these commercial concerns who get the money, not the pensioners. They merely take advantage of off-peak transport. Politicians, who ought to know better, purse their lips at all the wealthy pensioners who are swanning about at other people’s expense. Would they prefer that these bus routes were simply scrapped, or that the subsidies were paid directly to the bus companies with no pensioners benefiting? For they are the only two other alternatives for uneconomic bus routes.






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.

LBSC tank engine of the 1870s

LBSC ‘Terrier’ tank of the 1870s; William Jones’s son would have fired these engines.

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.

Marjorie Jones

Marjorie Jones

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.