There was virtually no road building in the 1950s until the M1 was constructed right at the end of the decade; the only improvement I can call to mind was the straightening of a short length of blind bend outside Ditchingham Hall. This was in about 1957; you can still see the lay-by which this created on the Bungay road. The traffic was still relatively light; many of the cars were prewar, and those that were not were all painted black; you were lucky to get a car at all, and the colour wasn’t important. The lorries were of the fixed chassis type – there were no articulated juggernauts then. The country folk who had to go to town went by bus, otherwise they travelled round on their bikes.
In Norfolk the railway network was already beginning to shrink. The lines from Cromer to Mundesley and from Heacham to Wells closed completely in 1952, and the stations at Hellesdon and Whitlingham stopped serving passengers early in the decade. Also in 1952 passenger traffic was ended on the Wroxham to County School branch; however most of the rural branch lines remained open. For a few more years Hunstanton, Holt, Dereham, Watton, Swaffham and Fakenham (all of them substantial country towns) had regular train services that carried passengers as well as goods. Trains stopped crossing Breydon Water en route from Yarmouth Beach station to Lowestoft in 1952; the swing bridge remained in place but permanently open to shipping.
There were still a lot of sea-going freighters threading their way up the river Yare to Norwich. Coal was one their main cargoes, and it was universally used to produce electricity, gas and domestic heating all across Britain. The miners toiled day and nigh to extract this invaluable commodity. Many coal-fired steam drifters tied up along the Yarmouth quayside every autumn herring season, ready for the Scottish fisher girls to pack the fish away in their millions. The London Docks were still at the hub of the nation’s trade in 1950, and Southampton was still the place you went to catch liners for overseas destinations.
As for aircraft, the skies were full of them; not commercial airliners (there were none of these outside London) but fighter jets. Never a day went by without vapour trails appearing among the clouds, and sonic booms were often heard. There were still over a dozen RAF air bases in Norfolk at the beginning of the period, including at Coltishall, St Faiths, Swanton Morley and Marham; there was a major USAF presence at Sculthorpe near Fakenham. All through the decade the RAF held open days to commemorate the Battle of Britain. In the less mean-spirited nature of the times these festivities were free to attend, although the members of the public who flocked to them would support them generously in a voluntary capacity. The threat of Nazi invasion was still a recent memory and those who fell in resisting it were honoured annually.
Norfolk is a sparsely populated county; in a hundred and fifty years the population of Norfolk doubled to stand at around 600,000 by 1961. Even with the huge increase in recent years it is still estimated at under a million, which is tiny for one of the largest counties in the land. It has always been an agricultural economy, specialising in arable crops. All across the country the horse had vanished from the farms by 1950, and everywhere the ploughing and reaping was done by internal combustion engine: the tractor was king. Things are still much the same for now in Norfolk, but the most thriving communities are increasing becoming centred on the digital world. We had no idea what the phrase ‘the digital world’ might mean in the 1950s. The first massive mainframe computer arrived at Norfolk County Hall in the 1960s (it was about the size of a small bungalow), and the data was carried on magnetic tapes between there and Norwich City Hall in a little blue Daf van. Even electric typewriters were almost unknown in the 1950s, and calculations were largely done with pencil and paper; the very advanced firms (like Norwich Union) used mechanical comptometers with their highly trained female operators.
There were young Teddy Boys with Brylcreemed hair, jeans and bomber jackets, and their female counterparts, but many of the working population had been alive when Victoria was Queen. They had been through two World Wars, many of them as combatants in both. National Service was still in force, and this all made for a less effete nation. It was a hard life – for example there was virtually no central heating, and double glazing was completely unknown. The ice would form inside the bedroom windows as you slept. The only insulation was made from asbestos, and that was treated with gay abandon by everyone, but fortunately we seemed to survive without succumbing to the material; visits to the doctor were for other ailments. The GPO phone box was always there for use in emergencies; you pressed button B and heard the money drop into the machine, when you would ask the operator to connect you. There were two visits a day from the postman who rode his red bicycle round the village. The local Bobby rode his black bicycle to keep a beady eye on the world. All these things were common throughout the land; in the 1950s there was a sense of national identity that is largely lacking today. The very idea of Scotland splitting away was almost nowhere on the political agenda back then. It is true that there were voices raised against the new queen’s title. Even a few post boxes with the monogram EIIR on them were blown up in Scotland. This was not from republican motives, but because she should have been called Elizabeth the first in Scotland – it had been an independent country when Good Queen Bess was on the throne!
Hard though it is to believe, in the 1955 General Election the Tories received more than half the popular vote in Scotland. The Tories governed the UK for most of the 1950s, but it was a very different country sixty years ago.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
I like Jeremy Corbyn’s stated aim to reopen the railway line from March to Wisbech as soon as possible if he becomes PM. As things stand we have endless reports on the subject but no action. Corbyn is naturally in favour of the renationalisation of the railways, but the track infrastructure has been in public ownership since 2002, when Railtrack effectively went bust. It is only the train operating companies and the rolling stock leasing companies that are privatised. I think the policy to take back the railway operators into public ownership as the franchises come up for renewal is the right way to go; it costs nothing to the taxpayer and returns the train operations to those who ought to own them, the people. Instead of paying large subsidies to companies like Virgin Trains and Abellio, the money would be retained in the public sector. Why ever are we filling the pockets of Sir Richard Branson and the Dutch national rail operator in this way? I like LABOUR’s policy on the rail industry; I wish that all their policies were as fiscally neutral as this one!
What about the commitment of Corbyn to abolish university fees? I was one of the lucky generation who not only got our fees paid but got a grant towards living expenses too. The number of young people attending university in those days was under 10%, and the cost to the government was affordable. With that number now nudging 50%, the ongoing cost to the taxpayer would be quite outrageous. The policy is naturally popular among the young, or a section of them at least; whether it ought to be popular among those young people who do not receive a university education (but will nonetheless be expected to pay for those who do) is another point entirely. If political affiliation had anything to do with self-interest none of this group would support the Labour Party, but it has much more to with the idealism of youth. Even this idealism would surely be sorely tested among those unfortunate young graduates who already have student debts of many thousands of pounds to repay. After rashly promising to pay off these debts too, the mind-boggling sum this would cost caused even the Labour leadership to have second thoughts; instead they have said they will merely “think about it”. While the Labour Party is thinking about this, the better paid graduates will have paid off their debts; can they then look forward to a massive lump sum in repayment of the money spent on their fees? Of course not, but that would be the only fair option to pursue. With all these proposals Labour have got into deep waters indeed; where do they see the money coming from for all their schemes? I think they even said they would reduce the deficit at the same time!
The SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY’s plan to set up a not-for-profit alternative to the big energy companies has the potential to provide the way forward in that country. The oligopolies in energy supply are worse than the nationalised industries that they replaced. However, given the SNP’s abysmal record in administration, I wouldn’t count on anything they try to do being a success. Scottish education used to be the envy of the world; look at it now! Scottish universities are still free for Scottish students, but the expense of providing this has been ruinous for the rest of the education system. Further education in Scotland has more or less collapsed.
The LIB DEMS are stuck in an unhappy place; their resolute determination to remain in the European Union should have garnered them much support, given that nearly half the electorate voted that way in the referendum. Moreover, they are the only major party to unequivocally take that position. Nonetheless their parliamentary representation is only 20% of what they enjoyed just a few years ago. I hesitate to mention university fees once again, but their volt face on the subject is the only thing I can point to that could account for their reversal in fortunes.
What can I say about the TORIES? Their tinkering at the margins of student loans is pathetic; it doesn’t impress anyone, and nobody will vote for them because of this. They are in a terrible position; with no majority in Parliament they are attempting to put into effect the greatest constitutional change in this country since the Second World War that is Brexit. Not only that, but most of Parliamentary Conservative Party plainly do not in their heart of hearts believe in the policy they are committed to implementing. I contrast this with the rapidly shrinking paid-up Tory Party membership, who are about 100% Leavers. Mrs May’s inclusive social policy has no prospect of ever being brought about. Much of it is in direct opposition to her party’s pro-business values. Even if it had a chance of success, it is not part of a conservative mindset; it might be a very good thing (or it might not) but the Conservatives should leave Socialist values to a socialist party. The Tories cannot gain from aping Labour at very turn. The true believers will always vote Labour, and the conservatives will have nothing to go to the ballot box for.
You will have noticed how often the subject of university fees has raised its head. The fact is there are far too many universities. At least half are providing a poor standard of education to intellectually challenged students. Many of the rest used to provide a perfectly good technical education without an academic veneer on which successful careers could be built. Worse than possessing this travesty of a degree level qualification, few of these low-end graduates will ever earn enough to pay off their student loans in full, though most will earn enough to ensure that they pay a higher rate of tax than their more sensible non-graduate counterparts. The whole higher education system is a pig’s breakfast.
We live in interesting times.
Barnstaple, Devon 1958. My first long distance trip, starting from Norwich Thorpe as the station was then called, to distinguish it from the other two termini in Norwich. Steam engines ruled the tracks in those days!
Glasgow, Scotland, 1962. With my sister Tiiggie we stopped off at Glasgow en route to Malaig, where we were to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had gone up to Edinburgh on the night sleeper.
Ostend, Belgium, 1965. School trip to Eastern Europe.We went by train from Waterloo. After catching the ferry to Belgium we caught the train at Ostend. There were no electric trains on the European railways then, but in the capitalist West the expresses were already diesel hauled. In Communist Europe the trains were still steam hauled.
Cologne, Germany, 1965. Our first change of trains at about midnight. The workers were still busy digging up the road outside the cathedral (a dedication to getting the job done unheard of in England in those days, and even today). We had to stop at the border with Czechoslovakia where we were thoroughly checked by the Communist border guards. The border was heavily defended by machine gun-toting soldiers. It was strictly prohibited to photograph near the railway, but I managed to sneak my camera there to take this picture!
Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1965. After an overnight sleep in the couchette car of the train we arrived at Prague, our first destination in the Communist East. In the hotel I experienced my first night under a duvet; such things were then unknown in Britain.
Budapest, Hungary, 1965. We spent several days in Czechoslovakia before going on by train to Hungary. We stopped off at the border to view the Danube Bend. In Budapest we rode the ancient electric underground railway which was then still using the original carriages from the 1890s.
Vienna, Austria, 1965. Our last stop was back in the West, and rather flat in comparison to Communist Europe. It was dire in the East for the inhabitants, but as visitors from the wealthy Capitalist part of the world we were treated very specially indeed, almost like Royalty. They needed our cash!
Montreal, 1969. While visiting my sister in Canada my mother and I caught the train from the suburbs to downtown Montreal. We went with my sister and her children. It was single car train, but it had an observation deck (which I used of course). There was another railway visible from my sister’s house, one with plenty of freight trains going past.
Oxford, 1967. I went to Sheringham from school by bus, to catch the train from the station. This was already the new BR built halt. The North Norfolk Railway had purchased the adjacent former station, but as yet no trains were running and it stood derelict. This was in December for my interview for a place at university. From Norwich I caught the train to Liverpool Street, and from Paddington I went to Oxford on a train full of fellow candidates.
Folkestone, 1977, en route for the Baie de Somme, France. With my friend Bill I went on a day trip to ride the Baie de Somme narrow gauge preserved line. The return trip entailed changing trains after midnight at Shippea Hill of all places!
Aarhus, 1982. In Denmark me and my friend Bill travelled from Aarhus in Jutland to the island of Zealand, which at that time involved the entire train being hauled on the ferry for the sea crossing. (Since then a bridge has been built.) The door at the end of the last carriage on the train had a widow, from which you could watch the track disappearing into the distance.
Copenhagen, 1982. Arriving by train, we spent a few days in the Danish capital, where we did all the usual tourist things like visiting the Little Mermaid. We flew back to Manchester airport from there.
Aldershot, 1986. Stopped off for a haircut en route to my RAMC recruitment assessment.
Ash Vale, 1986. To RAMC HQ at Keogh Barracks for basic training.
Windermere, 1986. Just married, Molly and I went on a special to Lake Windermere in the Lake District; on the way we went over the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line. We stopped off at Ribblehead station for a look over the valley.
Bournemouth, 1996. I caught the train down to Bournemouth where I had a week’s training at the Elstead Hotel as rep for the Union of Postal Workers. Saw the QE 2 at Southampton.
Paris, France, 2001. Our first overseas family holiday; Molly, Peter, Polly and I went by Eurostar from London. This was before the high-speed line was built, and we left from Waterloo.
Bruges, Belgium, 2002. With our children we went on a day trip by train to Bruges from the Midi Station in Brussels.
Estoril, 2005. On a family holiday to Portugal (when we flew to Porto) we arrived at our hotel by train from Lisbon.
Cascais, Portugal, 2005. We travelled to the beach for a morning sunbathing at the terminus of the line. Sunbathing is something I almost never do, and this was not a success. The railway line was lovely though, and runs along the sea throughout its length.
Flam, 2011. On our Norwegian cruise we travelled this steep electric railway line from sea level (the fjord) up to the mountainous country. There, despite it being August, there was still some snow about.
Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Molly and I travelled on Eurostar from St Pancras and spent a few days with Peter and Alex in Brussels. It as February, and Peter was due to move back to England later in the month. We went first class (as by then I had suffered from a stroke) and were entertained to a lavish meal as we were whisked through Kent.
Wymondham, Norfolk, 2015. I went solo for the first time since suffering from my stroke.I got on the train at Wymonham and travelled to Cambridge, where I was met by my cousin William. I also returned unaccompanied to Norwich.
I have been on many other railway journeys, mostly to London. Over my lifetime I have been by train to Wales, March in Cambridgeshire, Weymouth, Liverpool Street (all of these in steam days), to name but a few. I have travelled on lines that were axed by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s. This article includes all my travels abroad.
THE BLOG FOR RAILWAY MEMORIES
[TO SEARCH FOR A SUBJECT IN THIS BLOG ENTER ‘joemasonspage’ and the subject from the list on the right into Google; this should show the relevant blogs]
To read my initial thoughts on Norwich’s Northern Distributor Road you need to read my earlier blog. CLICK HERE to read THE NORTHERN DISTRIBUTOR ROAD. We are now several months down the line, and some things are becoming clearer. As far as I am concerned (living as I do at the western extremity of the route) it appears to be of little relevance to me and my travel needs. I will have to use the first few miles to reach Norwich Airport in future, because they have now permanently closed the road that I have previously used, to enable the construction of the new road.
I had hoped it might provide a speedier way to get to the London bound trains, but the nearest the NDR comes to the railway station is miles out in the countryside, and I don’t think it will be any quicker. It will certainly be much further to drive than going through the city centre. The road goes quite near Salhouse station, so that would be the place to get the train to Cromer; unlike Norwich station, the car parking there is free but the service is two hourly; only every other train stops there.
The NDR will provide a quicker route to Wroxham and North Walsham, but I seldom go that way; maybe with the NDR making these places more readily available my travelling habits will change. The main destination which it will be much easier to access will be Great Yarmouth. It is a shame that my days of riding the roller coaster on the Golden Mile are well and truly over. It will perhaps make it slightly easier to go to Lowestoft and Bungay too, and a visit to Whitlingham Broad might be bit easier by the new road. Otherwise I do not see myself making much use of it.
What would make my life much easier would be if the bridge over the river Wensum near Ringland were built. This would also relieve Costessey of much through traffic, but this is not part of the current scheme. It seems likely that such a crossing will eventually be built, and only then will the NDR be a useful road. For us residents of Taverham this would mean we would no longer have to thread our way through unsuitable roads to get to the Longwater retail park; and reaching the A47 would be a piece of cake. This would also be the case for travellers from Fakenham, Reepham, Holt and Cromer. To get to the A11 at present these drivers have to make their way into Norwich as far as the Ring Road and then down the Newmarket Road to the Southern Bypass. That is unless they do as I do, and go through the narrow roads and speed bumps to the Royal Norfolk Showground. Even with the opening of the NDR next spring this will still be the most direct and quickest route for them to take, although I am sure the road signs will direct them to take the huge diversion east along the NDR.
The dual carriageway is already complete at the western end, and the construction traffic has moved on. We are not yet allowed to drive along it, but there is talk of the first part from the Fakenham road to the Cromer road opening as early as October; we shall see. One thing is sure; even when it is ‘complete’ there will still be much work to be done.
THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
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.
*See the correction in the comments section.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The first hint of the coming revolution in road transport came with the Puffing Devil, a steam-propelled road engine built by Richard Trevithick early in the 19th century. This was in Cornwall, where Trevithick was also engaged in the development of the high-pressure steam engine. Steam traction engines were being built all across the country (including East Anglia) by the middle of the 19th century.
There were several producers of this invention in Norfolk, and two firms in particular produced many machines. Charles Burrell of Thetford was making self-propelled road engines by the 1850s. Burrells did not survive and went bust in the first half of the twentieth century, but at one time their Norfolk built traction engines were exported all over the world. Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn’s steam Juggernauts were in production by 1855; the firm moved on from making farm equipment to corner the market in fairground rides and showman’s engines, even before the 20th century dawned. They were still in business in 1973, when the firm closed.
Norfolk is a rural county, which may explain the early enthusiasm for steam engines, that were used in farms to power threshing machinery. Traction engines, which were self-propelled versions of the stationary engine, were later employed to move goods about the farm and drive ploughing machines. The steam-powered wagon made by Samuel Soames in Marsham was an early example of an automotive road engine for personal transport, but it was a one-off.
Norfolk is not particularly notable for its place in the history of the motorcar, but that does not mean it was not involved at all. The firm of Mann Egerton in Norwich was involved deeply in the production of motor cars, building the bodywork for Rolls Royce chassis before the First World War. With the coming of war the firm moved into the production of airframes for the burgeoning aircraft industry. Two Norwich firms were involved; as well as Mann Egerton, who were commissioned by the Government to build aircraft to the deigns of others.This activity ceased with the coming of peace, but the other company who made aeroplanes during the First World War continued making aircraft throughout the Second World War. This was Boulton and Paul, whose Defiant was the most famous British night fighter of the Second World War, although by then production had been shifted to the midlands where the factory was deemed less exposed to enemy action. Earlier planes designed by Boulton and Paul had been the Overstrand and Sidestrand biplane bombers, and they had been made in Norwich.
Even railway locomotives were made in Norfolk. The Great Eastern made all its own locos, but their workshop was at Stratford in East London. When the M & G N was formed their works was in Melton Constable; although mot of their motive power was provided by other manufacturers, they did produce some of their own design of locomotives under their Chief Engineer William Marriott.
Before the coming of these mechanised forms of transport, the horse was the beast that moved men and goods on land. Before that it had been the ox, because horses were only used by the most exalted travellers; for the use of oxen as beasts of burden we must cast or eyes back to the middle ages. The great East Anglian horse was the Suffolk Punch, but this breed was apparently not popular in Norfolk.
With all the waterways in Broadland, water transport was the way we carried out trade before the coming of the railways. The high point of the development of boats for this trade was the Norfolk wherry. With just one sail to handle, this vessel could be sailed by one man, although the assistance of boy was helpful. Wheat and malting barley were taken downstream for transhipment to larger craft, or upstream to Norwich, while coal was carried by wherry upstream from Yarmouth. Lime was another common cargo.
Although the use of the wherry for transport had ceased by the middle 20th century, the importance of water transport continued on the river Yare well into living memory. Sea-going coasters carried coal and timber up to Norwich, and fruit juice from South America to Carrow Works for Robinson’s Barley Water; scrap metal was exported from Wensum wharf. This trade petered out about thirty years ago, and now all the river transport beyond the sea ports is leisure craft.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
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
Robert Ransome was the son of a Quaker, born in Wells-next-the-Sea in 1753. Wells was still a centre of Quakerism a hundred and fifty years later, when my wife’s grandmother moved there and became an enthusiastic member of the congregation. The town was not however home to a conventional brand of Quakerism; instead of opting for silent worship the Wells Quakers were namely for their singing. Indeed in the nineteenth century it was known that members of the Quaker community attended Church of England services in order to sing in the parish choir!
The Society of Friends (their official title) had met in the town since the very first flowering of the denomination in the middle years of the 17th century. The community bought the Meeting House (on its present site) for twenty pounds and one guinea in 1697. Robert Ransome’s father was a teacher, instructing the children of Quakers in the town. When Robert himself left school he was apprenticed to a local ironmonger. Even while still at Wells his inventive nature was apparent. From Wells he moved to Norwich where he established a foundry, and his first patents were granted. In April 1786 Parson Woodforde went round Mr Ransome’s new iron foundry in Norwich and was very impressed by what he saw.
Norwich had a number of flourishing Non-conformist denominations, including Unitarians and Baptists as well a Quakers, but Robert seems to have found that the Cathedral city stifled his religious convictions. Ipswich had been a hotbed of Puritanism in the 17th century, and this put the Suffolk town on a collision course with the Quakers, but by the 18th century this animosity had subsided. In 1789 Robert Ransome moved his business to Ipswich.
Quakers being both industrious and frugal became one of the wealthiest religious communities; the Barclays who founded the eponymous bank were Quakers, and other old Quaker names still appear in the field of business (think of porage oats). Ransome was no exception and his capital was £200, a considerable sum in the early years of the 19th century. He and one employee established a foundry at a disused maltings in St Margarets Ditches. As result of a mishap in his iron foundry a hot casting came into contact with cold metal, resulting in an extremely hard product. Ransome patented this discovery which he put to use in making ploughshares. Agricultural machinery became the company’s bread and butter, although railway equipment was also made by an associated firm.
In 1845 the firm moved to Orwell Works, whose riverside location provided access to the sailing ships and steamers which carried their burgeoning export trade across the globe. The following year Ipswich was connected to the growing railway network, which opened up further the national market. One of my relatives was an engine driver for Ransomes in the 19th century; the firm had its own network of lines to transport goods from Orwell and Waterside Ironworks to the docks and railway station.
After over two hundred years it is not surprising that independent existence of the firm came to an end in the late 20th century, but the name Ransomes survives. They still make lawnmowers in Ipswich. The first mowing machine was made in 1832; before then any lawns had to be mowed by hand with a scythe, or else grazed to a smooth appearance by sheep. In the past the firm had a much more varied product range, from traction engines to large astronomical telescopes. During WW1 they made aeroplanes; by then the firm must have abandoned its historic links with pacifist Quakerism.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
NANNY – my paternal grandmother – gave me £15 for Christmas 1962; I was thirteen. She and Uncle Laurie were living in a retirement flat in Recorder Road in Norwich. Uncle Laurie was her second husband, her first husband, my grandfather, had died before I was born. Quite why she decided to be so generous I don’t know; fifteen pounds was a king’s ransom in 1962 – at least £250 in today’s prices. I believe she preferred to give me my inheritance while she was still alive; certainly there was nothing for me in her will when she died three years later, but that was fine. I rather doubt if she had intended me to spulge it all at once; no doubt she would have preferred me to squirrel it away in a bank account.
However this gift enabled me to buy an 8mm movie camera. ‘Super Eight’ had not then come available, and in retrospect I believe the old ‘Standard Eight’ (as 8mm was thereafter called) equipment was being sold off at a discount to make way for the new models. Although Super Eight was promoted as far superior, the main difference was that the four minutes of film did not require turning over half way through. The 16mm film had to be split when it was sent off for processing (which had already been paid for as part of the purchase price). You had to send off your Kodachrome film to the lab and then wait for the postman to call. At least the pictures were in colour by 1962; the previous generation would have had no film at all (it was wartime), and before that it was all black and white. Movie cameras were powered by clockwork, so no batteries were required.
Gregory’s camera shop in Lower Goat Lane had a Paillard Bolex camera going cheap, and this Swiss make was very good. I had hankered after it as soon as I saw it in the window, and thanks to Nanny I was able to afford it. I must have written her an effusive thank you letter, but I am sure I did not reveal my purchase to her. Inflation was soon to gather pace, and soon the £15 would only have bought the family a good meal at a restaurant, so in retrospect it was a wise decision.
Although still cameras were quite plentiful among my school acquaintances, none had a movie camera. They were not common in the 1960s; many of my peers came from much wealthier families than I did. Their fathers were directors of national organisations like Norwich Union, and could easily have afforded a movie camera for their offspring had they wished to indulge them. I’m glad that I had the imagination to make my purchase; I took full advantage of my new toy, and my first film was used photographing the severe winter of 1963. There is a view of us youngsters building an igloo on the snowy wastes of what should have been the junior school football pitch.
I was also able to capture some of the last of the steam engines on East Anglian railways. Diesels had already taken over in Norfolk and steam had vanished from the Norwich shed, but the steam depot at March was still operational. On January 1st 1964 my cousin David Anderson (aged 32) organised a trip to the Cambridgeshire station, where we were conducted on a tour round the extensive sheds by a member of British Railways’ staff . The party consisted of David, my father and me, plus a young train spotter who had been jotting down numbers at March station and who tagged along. David’s children were unfortunately too young to join us.
No longer being cared for, the steam engines were all extremely dirty, but at least those in steam still possessed their nameplates; many of those that stood cold and abandoned had already had their identification plates removed. Even then a brass number was being avidly sought out by collectors. A Jubilee class (Barham) steamed past us, and is recorded on film. The Britannia class Oliver Cromwell stood cold and out of commission but under cover. She would undoubted have gone to the scrap yard like Barham, which succumbed to the blow torch in 1965; however Britannia herself, which had been destined for preservation, was subsequently vandalised. Oliver Cromwell was therefore substituted for preservation instead. As things turned out both locomotives were eventually preserved, Oliver Cromwell as part of the national collection.
I also took pictures of my canoe, Red Squirrel, taking to the river Blyth at Southwold and the sea at Snettisham. Two people could sit in the cockpit, and both my cousins Jill and Tony Sansom went out in her with their father Uncle Arthur. We explored the river Waveney at Bungay. It’s all captured on film. Picnics and picking primroses also feature among my early movies, as does the visit of my sister from Canada with her young family. My cine camera was a marvellous purchase, and fifty years later I am so glad to have this moving record of times long past.
Compared to modern videos the 8mm camera was basic. The definition was not great and you could only shoot very brief scenes; the film was expensive. Now you can record hours and hours on-line or on DVD for virtually nothing, and sound is included. Once exposed the film had to be sent away for processing, so there was no possibility of checking what you had photographed – no instant rewind in those distant days. It was a matter of guess-work. Should it be f 16 or f 22? It depended on how bright the weather was. These arcane terms all passed out of use and out of memory many decades ago. Now you can whip out your smartphone and get a much better sequence than you could ever have done with a 8mm camera; but now that anyone can take a movie, what’s the point? When I was recording my teenage years my ciné camera was a real novelty.