Tag Archives: STEAM LOCO


The stock on the railways includes the fixed assets like the permanent way, bridges and buildings. Rolling stock covers all the wheeled vehicles. More specifically the term is often used to distinguish the stock that must be moved around the system from the locomotives that provided the motive power. In modern times the use of coaching stock that is integral with the power source has removed this distinction from passenger traffic.

Modern train in the country where it all began

In its most basic form the rolling stock of a railway at first consisted of trucks alone. These were operated by gravity, so no locomotive was required; these trucks included the wagons that were used to carry the slate down from the mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales to the harbour at Porthmadog. Workers had to perch precariously on the wagons as they began their long descent, to apply the brakes. When the train was eventually brought to a halt and the slates had been transferred to the waiting ships the empty wagons had to be returned uphill. This was done by a horse, who had also made the perilous journey down in a truck at the back of the train.

Puffing Billy was one of the first locomotive to haul trains in 1815, and the rolling stock was exclusively mineral wagons. Richard Trevithick’s Catch Me Who Can steam engine ran round a circuit of track in Euston Square in London during 1808, and the rolling stock on that ‘Steam Circus’ was for passengers. The first paying passengers to be carried on a railway line were loaded into coal trucks, which may (or may not) have been modified by the provision of seating. The earliest railway coaches made to carry people looked very much like the stage coaches that travelled the roads. These were for First Class passengers, and Third Class travellers were still squeezed into open wagons. This ended in the 1840s, as public outrage at transporting the poor in such uncomfortable conditions grew too loud to ignore. Passenger carriages were all more or less the same, with only the level of internal luxury distinguishing them; that is once the lowest class of passengers got a roof over their heads. Originally there were three classes of passenger, but the Midland Railway abolished Second Class in 1872, and the other companies soon followed. First and Third classes remained until 1956, but by then standard of Third Class carriages was amazing good. I well remember the compartments where all the seats had antimacassars (which were regularly changed). There were pictures behind every seat – coloured reproductions of  paintings, photographs of beauty spots along the line – or else mirrors. They were all kept spotlessly clean by the army of railway workers that were then employed – modern rail companies please note.

Freight demanded numerous different kinds of wagon. As the working of the railways rapidly progressed all kinds of traffic developed their own specific kind of wagon – horse boxes, oil tankers and bolster cars, to name but three. With the modernisation of the railways in the 1960s this variety was simplified somewhat; the mixed freight trains disappeared and livestock was no longer carried on the railways. Short wheel-based four-wheeled rolling stock was replaced, and long wheelbase container flats became the main goods rolling stock. This container traffic predominates in East Anglia, carrying import from the docks at Felixstowe, although there are trains of open wagons for sand from Kings Lynn, and tanker wagons from North Walsham for North Sea gas distillate. Many lines now carry no regular freight services; there is for instance no goods service from Norwich to Ely. In the mid twentieth century freight was still a massive user of the railways. This transfer to carrying people is the major change on the railways, which were originally built to carry freight with passengers as an awkward afterthought. The track maintenance trains for leaf cleaning and line replacement, and the special technical vehicles that carry out the checking of the line are another kind of rolling stock. Naturally these are used over the whole network.

Wheels are what makes rolling stock roll, and I can remember the railwayman walking along a train with a long-handled hammer and banging it on the wheels as he passed. This was to check for any flaws, as a cracked wheel would not make the same ringing sound. This is far too unscientific a process to be used today, but it was undoubtedly effective.

That is my overview of railway rolling stock, from the earliest primitive trucks of the eighteenth century tramways to the sophisticated carriages of today. Everything has changed, but rolling stock still needs wheels. Eventually, if magnetic levitation ever moves from the drawing board to practical use, we will have to adopt a new terminology. Until then we will continue to refer to rolling stock.






The first kind of motive power to work railways was the horse. Primitive railway tracks were used to transport coal and other minerals by gravity to the harbours on the coast; the empty trucks were returned by horse power. This occurred as long ago as the eighteenth century, but horses were still being used on the sidings at Wells-Next-the-Sea until the track itself was lifted sometime in the twentieth century. The sidings used to run from the station to the docks.

The next form of motive power to appear was the steam locomotive. Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly were two of the earliest, built over two hundred years ago in 1814. By an extraordinary coincidence both locomotives still survive, one in London and the other in Edinburgh. Steam locomotives survive in large numbers, both in museums and preserved in working order on Heritage Railways. On British Railways the last steam loco to be made was Evening Star, a class 9F freight engine. She was made at Swindon Works and was completed in March 1960, thus bringing to an end more than a hundred and fifty years of development in steam engine production.


Only few years after the steam engine, the next kind of motive power to appear was electric traction. A locomotive powered by Galvanic cells was made in Scotland as early as 1837, and was run on a section of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line in 1841, but the locomotive had far too little tractive effort to have any practical application. The first practical electric railway in Britain was Volk’s Electric Railway in  Brighton, which opened in 1883; it is still running along the beach today. Electric powered railways were given a great boost by the development of the London Underground, where the smoke of steam locomotives filled the tunnels. Electricity was clean, but the use of steam continued on the Underground until some years after the last steam engine had been withdrawn on British Rail. They were used to haul works trains when the current had been turned off at night. Electric traction required an infrastructure of power supply. The most common form was initially third rail; overhead cables would not fit in the tube. These were only used once electric traction became common on overground routes, and even then the first mainline railway (the Southern) to make extensive use of electricity used the third rail system. Overhead power lines are much safer for the public, although visually intrusive; Crossrail (the Elizabeth Line) is underground for its central section, but uses overhead power. Because they require an external power supply electric trains are not prime movers like the other forms of motive power referred to in this article.

Diesel motive power is used where the more lightly used lines do not justify the installation of electric power. The development of the internal combustion engine for use on the railways took place in the inter-war period, as methods of power transmission were improved. For relatively small loads mechanical transmission via a clutch and gearbox was adequate, and was used in diesel shunters and dmu (multiple unit) passenger trains. For the demands of higher speeds and heavy loads diesel engines are used to power electric motors which transfer the power to the wheels. Diesel-electric was the most common form of motive power used in the first generation of locomotives on British Rail in the 1960s. The alternative was diesel-hydraulic power, and this was used on the Western Region in particular. The first diesel-hydraulics had problems in with the transmission oil overheating, but these have been resolved and all three methods of transmission are used today. The use of separate locomotives is however becoming rare in passenger trains, and motors are increasingly located on the axles under the carriages. This method of applying traction has removed the distinction between motive power and other kinds of rolling stock on passenger trains, but is not applicable to freight trains, where diesel-electric or electric locomotives are still used.





It was an extension of the Great Eastern Railway along the rich agricultural land from Wisbech to Upwell. Opened in 1883, the line was built to standard gauge and powered by steam locomotives; in 1952 it became the first line in the country to be entirely diesel hauled. The wagons that brought the produce from the market gardens and fruit farms of the Fens were then dispatched to the towns and cities of the East of England. It ran largely along the A 1101 road and was unfenced, so it had to be restricted in speed. It was limited by law to 12 mph; there frequent stops on the journey from Upwell to Wisbech. The distance of just seven miles included five stations and took an hour to accomplish.

It was designated a tramway when it was opened. It was very well used for the transport of vegetables and fruit from the area, and, rather surprisingly for a rural line, it was also popular for bring the local population into Wisbech. The coming of the motor bus destroyed this side of the business, and it closed to passengers in 1927, but a coach was retained for use on trains as a mobile office for the fruit trade. A coach from the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway survived to be used (and then destroyed) in the making of the Ealing Comedy film The Titfield Thunderbolt.  The goods traffic continued for nearly another forty years after the loss of the passenger traffic. The line was closed in 1966 as part of the Beeching Axe, and even the fact that it paid its way was not enough to save it. Upwell is in Norfolk and Wisbech is now in Cambridgeshire, although in the for all the tramway’s existence the town was still part of that mini-county, the Isle of Ely. It was definitely an East Anglian line.

By the time the line closed I was 17 years old, and during its final years our occasional visits to stay in Kings Lynn (West Norfolk) to see family members meant my father could drive me out to see the tramway.  Nothing was moving on the occasion that we were there, as this at Easter and the traffic was highly seasonal. However the permanent way and rolling stock were visible alongside the road. During the winter months the traffic was reduced to one train a day by the sixties, and by then the train had to make frequent halts to accommodate buses stopping and the parked cars that blocked the line.

Tram at Upwell

The steam-powered tram engines have become a popular example of railway history, out of all proportion to their number in real life. As a teenager I had a loco (made from a kit) on my model railway, and Toby the Tram Engine even features in one of the stories that the Revd W. Awdrey published in 1952. These J70 locomotives were built at Stratford Works in East London by the Great Eastern Railway. Designed by James Holden, these verticle-boilered double-ended locomotives had cow catchers and side skirts to protect people and livestock. The fuel used was coke to emit no smoke, and the steam was condensed to emit no water vapour. The wooden cladding of the upper part was painted brown. This type of engine was also employed on the docks around the East Anglian coast, where the railway also ran along public roads; although I remember seeing wagons being pulled across the square outside the town hall at Great Yarmouth, I cannot now recall the type of motive power. I know from old photographs that ordinary steam shunters were used on this dockside railway, but so too were J70s.

The carriages used on  the line were originally four wheelers, but a bogie coach (no. 7) survives and now forms part of the Vintage Set of coaching stock on the North Norfolk Railway. The coaches were low and squat looking to make access from the stations possible, as some of them had no platforms. The remaining carriage is now painted in GER vermilion, which is the authentic livery used until World War I.

[This FENLAND TRAMWAY video may be viewed if you click here.]




Come to the launch of my book St Edmund and the Vikings on April 19th at Jarrold’s shop in Norwich. Arrive at the Book Department from 6 p.m. for the presentation at 6.30. Have a glass of wine (or a soft drink) with me; both attendance and the refreshments will all be completely FREE.

This will be a great opportunity for so many of my readers to meet me. My book will be available to purchase for the first time. I will say a few words about how I came to write the book. Don’t forget to book your place; enquire may be made at Jarrolds on 01603 660661.  I want to see as many of you as possible. I really do hope to see you there!


Network Rail places a high safety requirement on all its operations, and as a consequence our railways are the safest in the world. When you consider that last year alone there were 1.7 billion railway journeys undertaken in the UK, the safety record of rail travel is amazing. There have been only FOUR train accidents that resulted in fatalities in the last ten years.  Compare that with the almost daily toll on Britain’s roads, in which around two thousand fatalities occur every year. In the circumstances which method of transport ought you to prefer? There is nothing recent about this aspect of British railways either. As the first railway system in the world, we had to find out all the dangerous pitfalls implicit in the iron road for ourselves, but the safety of railways has always been of the highest priority. Our railways are the only ones in the world that must be fenced off from the surrounding countryside; it is rather worrying to our eyes to see trains speeding past lineside houses in France with nothing between them and the railway. These miles of fencing have been required in the UK from the very start. They not only make trespass on the line by humans more difficult, they also keep farm animals away from the trains.

The first widely reported railway accident occurred at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. George Stephenson developed his steam engine The Rocket to operate this, the first real passenger railway. The MP William Huskisson was among the guests who came to witness this major event, but unfortunately he fell onto the track as the Rocket was approaching; his leg was crushed, and with the primitive medical aid available at the time this proved fatal. Railway accidents were common at first; on a journey from East Dereham to Oxford (one that it is no longer possible to make) the Revd Benjamin Armstrong relates how he was delayed for an hour at Winslow station when the locomotive’s boiler blew up. No one was injured on that occasion, but in an entry in his diary in 1855 he mentions that four people were killed in a collision near Attleborough.

Single line working tablet

One of the major railway disasters occurred on the Norwich to Yarmouth line just outside Brundall in 1874. Twenty five people were killed when two trains collided on a single track section of the line. This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster led to the introduction of the tablet system, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track. This system is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and with that the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed.

The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.

The use of modern technology makes keeping the railways safe much easier than it used to be. The entire network is regularly checked by a special train that examine the track by ultra-sound for cracked rails, which could fail and cause a derailment. With high-definition cameras they can check the line from the air, and thermal imaging equipment reveals hotspots in the cables on electrified lines that suggest problems with the system. Engineers are then dispatched to the exact location to remedy the problem. It all adds to the safety of the railways.





A ‘furriner’; this traction engine was made in Suffolk by Garretts of Leiston.

This traction engine was made in Suffolk by Garrett’s of Leiston.

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.

Traction engine driving a threshing machine

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.

Soame  Wagonette

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.

William Marriott

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.





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.

Reliable semaphore signals.

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.





Modern train in the country where it all began

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.

Bill and Joe have dinner on the train, 1980

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!





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 Norfolk; 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, and only the small village of Ashwellthorpe has lost its railway station as a result of the line’s closure. 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.

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, Heacham, 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 Beeching 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 (2017), 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.






iom-db-festOn Monday 16th my sister Tig and I set off from our home near Norwich in the Fiat Panda. My double bass was in its cover on the roof rack. My dog Fido was also coming with us all the way to the Isle of Man. We had lunch at a pub near RAF Cranwell. Bill had travelled from his home near Whitby to see us for the day, and having shared the driving we arrived at the house of Marie Wragge (Bill’s mum) in Prestbury at four o’ clock.  We three younger ones took the dog down to the Bollin river for a walk. The river had lots of Himalayan Balsam plants growing on the banks, and I enjoyed surprising Bill with their exploding seed pods. That evening he drove us all out to a village called Wincle, where we had smoked trout at the Ship Inn.

On Tuesday Bill had to catch the train back to Yorkshire, and we bade farewell to Mrs Wragge and drove off to catch the ferry at Liverpool. We had been to the Isle of Man two years earlier, with Bill on that occasion. We gave Fido a run in a disused railway yard beside the terminal and then boarded the RO-RO ferry, Mona’s Isle. The dog got on free, although I think he was supposed to have a ticket. He was able to walk round the ship on his lead. While Tig went to the bar I chatted to a Manxman who was returning to his birthplace after 20 years. After the crossing we drove round the island and saw the Viking longship Odin’s Raven at Peel. She had sailed to the IoM from Norway three years earlier.

Rodney Slatford & PUPILS .IoM

Rodney Slatford & his pupils, Isle of Man

We were staying in Tiggy’s friend Elly Cadell’s cottage near Port Erin. Elly, who was away as resident nurse at a sanatorium, was not then living in May Cottage. This pretty property had previously belonged to Ronnie Aldrich, the former bandmaster of the Squadronaires. We drove south from Peel to find the cottage; it is very picturesque but very damp, although not as bad as it had been in 1980 when Bill and I slept there. In spite of it being summer we had to light a fire, which began to dry things out a bit. There is a lovely moor nearby, with flowering grasses and heather, and so were able to exercise Fido. We had shepherd’s pie and apple tart for tea.

On Wednesday 18th I enrolled for the Festival and bought my ticket for the final concert. There is a newspaper for the competition called the Daily Scroll. Then with Tig I went to see the Glen Maye waterfall near Peel. We took Fido for a long walk and met a sheep in a pigsty. Then we had coffee and Tig bought me a deerstalker hat for 95p! I promptly left on Odin’s Raven, but Tig got it back. To Douglas and saw the horse-drawn and electric trams. We bought a ticket for Fido so he will be legal on the boat back.

In the evening I went to a concert by Rodney Slatford and 12 of his pupils from the Royal College of Music. Frances Dorling, a young bassist from Norwich who is studying at the Guildhall School of Music sat with me. She intends to be a professional musician.* She will be competing in the Festival later. I sent a postcard to our mutual teacher Colin Boulter to tell him the news.

Alan Pickard

Alan Pickard

Thursday; after breakfast I was taken to the Falcon’s Nest in Port Erin where they were holding a Junior Bass School. The warm-up studies were excellent; I suppose I should have been playing, but I would have been out of my depth even in a junior class! Alan Pickard who had taught music at Gresham’s when I was a pupil there has now returned to his native IoM where he has a music shop. I was talking to a couple of locals who were helping out at the concert. They knew Alan very well. After Fernando Grillo’s concert at the Art Centre I went to Alan Pickard’s bookshop and we reminisced on old times. He says that he wrote the Lt. Governor’s introduction in the programme for him! After lunch I went to the Railway Museum- Bill would have had a field day buying souvenirs, old tickets and crested crockery. Next I went to a lecture by a husband and wife who make bows for basses; they are going to show us rehairing later. Then to a Master Class by Barry Green. At cocktail hour I got talking to a student and an army trombonist who plays bass as a sideline. The evening concert was given by the prizewinner of the first competition in 1978. I chatted with Frances Dorling again and met another competitor, a young man called Mike Woolf [an American who is now Professor of Double Bass at the University of the Arts, Berlin].

Friday, August 20th; today I fluctuated between despair at ever being able to play and enthusiasm. I walked Fido towards the Chasms after breakfast of fish fingers; the first class was at 9.30 so I did not have to rush. It was bowing exercises today, followed by a video of the BBC  The Great Double Bass Race. Heard pieces by Mozart, Capuzzi and Bottesini. Had a drink with Frances in the Bass Bar and chatted to Joan, a bassist from the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra. Returned to the cottage to find Elly had arrived with her dog Honey, who Fido was very interested in.

Saturday; drove into Port Erin for a lecture by Rodney Slatford on Koussevitsky (1874-1951), the Russian born conductor, composer and bass player. He spent most of his career in Boston, USA. After going round the Motor Museum I came home for sherry before lunch with Tig and Elly. The dogs get on well except when they are eating, when Honey gets the upper hand. Back for a class on bass maintenance; things like bass bar repairs and the fact the sound post always falls down when the strings are removed – all bass players know that. Then it was a very special Master Class by František Pošta (1919-1991), the Czech virtuoso. On the way over I was chatting to Barry, a bassist who plays with the Bournemouth Symphony who knows Colin Boulter very well – he bought his five string bass from him, a fine instrument by Benedikt Lang. František Pošta’s English is just adequate; his most memorable saying; ‘play in tune then add VIBRATO, play in time then add RUBATO‘. Back for a concert by Leonard Woolf. Barry tells me that Colin got a fellow bass player so drunk he had to be held up all though a concert!

Colin Boulter in 2012

Colin Boulter in 2012

When I got back Tig and Elly were out with Elly’s friend Marie and I was locked out, but the back door was open. Apparently Honey had eaten Fido’s supper again;  she will be getting enormous and poor Fido will fade away.

Sunday; Elly drove us to the Laxey Wheel, and told us to buy something to eat at the pub before going on the tram up Snaefell. We took rolls and cans of drink with us. We went to the summit, leaving the dogs behind. It was sunny, but the haze prevented us seeing any of the four other countries you can see on a good day (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). We descended and I saw two bassists on the tram going up. Elly took us to Tholt-y-Will Glen, and we walked down past the waterfalls to have a cup of tea at the bottom. We drove south to Fleshwick Bay where I gathered a lot of driftwood for the fire (although we had earlier bought some coal). Back to the cottage to burn some of the wood. This evening Fido was able to eat his food before Honey got to it.

Monday morning Tig and I went to a secondhand bookshop in an old barn. The owner had died three months before and it was being run by his widow. We got a lot of books, a Wodehouse, Pick of Punch etc. I went to a recital at 2.30, it was by the eventual winner. I asked Frances what she did yesterday and she told me she spent it playing quartets with three other bassists. At May Cottage I sawed up some logs. The evening concert was by the Nash Ensemble.

Tuesday; a lot of walking in the rain; things kept getting cancelled but eventually I attended a lecture on position playing. At 10.30 there was a Jazz bass concert. Home, and Tiggie and I went to the Nautical Museum at Castletown. There we saw the armed yacht Peggy  built in 1791 by an eccentric called Quayle. It had been walled up in its boathouse in the early 19th century and was rediscovered in 1951. At Port Erin I heard the lecture on hairing bows. On my return to the cottage I found the ladies having a bonfire in the garden and the house full of smoke. The recital this evening was by a Japanese competitor.

Wednesday. Tig took Fido to Ramsey and nearly ran into another car which pulled out into her path; she braked so suddenly Fido fell off the car seat. I did not go into Port Erin until 10 o’clock and watched a video of two members of the Berlin Phil playing cello and bass in pieces by Rossini, Mon, Paganini and Romberg. I sat through another recital with Joan, Frances left after two items. There was also a concert of Dragonettis and Bottesine pieces written for instruments other than the double bass. As it was such a lovely bright afternoon I skipped the Jazz recital and went round the open air museum, saw the train arriving but returned in time for cocktail hour. I had taken my copy of the 1978 competition programme for Joan to read.  The František Pošta recital was well received by most of the audience but the music was not to Frances’s taste. Colin would say that the job of a professional musician is to play what is put in front of him, not to like what he hears. Afterwards I had a drink in the Bass Bar.

Thursday 26th August. It was the last day of the competition, taken up with recitals by the finalists in various categories. I bought Bill one of the last three dinner plates at the museum shop with the Isle of Man railway crest; it cost £4. The two Dutch bassists who Tig had met earlier in the week gave a very stylish recital. After the final performances (which Duncan McTier won) we went back to the Falcon’s Nest for a farewell drink at the Festival Final Reception. František Pošta shook us all by the hand.


*Frances Dorling has worked as a freelance double bass for many of the professional orchestras in the UK. She played in the Dutch Tango quartet Cuarteto Rotterdam until 2008. For more details of Frances Dorling’s biography click here. To see her and hear her on the bass click here.

For some of my own later experiences playing the double bass click here. A list of the musicals I played in the decade to 1990 is given here.

[I am told by his granddaughter that Colin Boulter died in February of this year- 2017. He had been living in London since 1982.]





The yellow locomotive livery was a distinctive part of the M&GN.

The yellow locomotive livery was a distinctive part of the M&GN.

The golden ochre livery was a relatively late introduction to the locomotive stock of the M&GN, but it remained on passenger trains after grouping in 1923. Grouping turned almost all other locos in mainland Britain the various shades of green (the Southern, Great Western and LNER) or maroon (the LMS). Because the M&GN was jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, and these two were grouped into the LMS and LNER respectively, the M&GN retained its independent existence until 1936. Only then did LNER locomotives begin to take over the running of the M&GN system. The Somerset and Dorset Railway was in a similar situation, being jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the London and South West Railway, which were grouped into different entities. The blue livery of the S&D lived on until 1930.

The Midland and Great Northern Railway was a late-comer to the Norfolk railway network. The Great Eastern had already been in operation for three decades when the M&GN came into existence. Whereas the Great Eastern served the whole of East Anglia, joining Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds with London, the M&GN was principally a Norfolk line, and its connection with the rest of the railway network was west, through Spalding in Lincolnshire to Leicester. Its hub –  the Crewe of Norfolk – was Melton Constable. This had been a quiet rural village before 1880, as it has again become since 1959. During the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century however it saw all the traffic on the M&GN passing through this station. Trains bearing holidaymakers from the midlands to resorts at Cromer and Great Yarmouth, coal from the Leicestershire mines to Norwich, and agricultural produce from Norfolk farms to the industrial towns to the west; all had to use the junction at Melton. The workshops constructed the concrete signal posts and fencing that were an up-to-date development in railway engineering, and even railway locomotives were built there. Yet in spite of all this trade and activity it was never a very profitable line, even in its busiest years.

Melton Constable Station

Melton Constable Station

I am fortunate to remember Melton Constable at the very end of its years as a railway town. When the rest of the line closed in 1959, a short stub from Cromer to Melton remained open. A part of the workshops remained, producing tarpaulins for British Railways, and it was to service this facility that the line stayed open for a few more years. Briefly after February 1959, when the pre-Beeching axe fell on the rest of the line,  Melton Constable was used to supply coal trains to Norwich City Station, but this was soon ended by the construction of the Themelthorpe Curve. Although the passenger numbers generated by this remote part of Norfolk could never have been more than a trickle, DMUs continued to serve this station for five more years after 1959. In 1960 even the Broadsman express from London Liverpool Street to Norwich made its final stop in Melton Constable, where the carriages would spend the night. This was because steam engines were still being used to haul the train (though the Britannias went no further than Norwich), and they needed the turntable at Melton to reverse direction. This express was later abbreviated to end at Sheringham, when double-ended diesel locomotives dispensed with this need for a turntable.  As a young teenager I used the station at Melton twice during the final year of operation. The first time was memorable as the cafeteria was still open, and my Dad and I had our lunch there.

The M&GN began life as series of small companies, each constructing a short length of line. There was obviously a master-plan that envisaged these companies amalgamating in due course, but the object was to frustrate any attempted take-over by the Great Eastern Railway. In the east the line was started from Yarmouth Beach Station, and it had no connection with the GER line to Yarmouth Vauxhall. All its first locomotives had to be hauled through the streets of Yarmouth by cart horses. The line reached North Walsham in 1880, and there at last it was able to connect to the railway network through a temporary track. North Walsham became an important transport hub, with connections North to Cromer and Mundesley, east to Yarmouth and Lowestoft, west to Fakenham and Kings Lynn and south via the GER to Norwich and Cambridge. It was at North Walsham that the meeting that led to the formation of the Farm Workers’ Union was held, and it must have been chosen for its fine transport links to all corners the most fertile county in England.

Fakenham was similar to North Walsham in having both a GER and an M&GN station, and connections to the four corners of the compass, but they were not quite so extensive in Fakenham’s case. Nevertheless, the large printing works of Cox and Wyman must have used the railways as its means of distribution until road transport took over. Now both the railways and the printing firm are long gone. Fakenham Race days must have brought many people to the town by train, and horses too; Fakenham Races still draws in the crowds now that the railway has gone. In the early years of the 20th century special excursion tickets took supporters from the towns and villages of North Norfolk to local football Derbys in places as small as Fakenham.

I suppose we must be grateful that some of the M&GN remains. The Heritage Railway from Sheringham to Holt has two original stations, those at Weyborne and Sheringham, and the station now at Holt was another M&GN station, removed from Stalham. The short stretch of line from Cromer to Sheringham is all of the former line that remains in use by Network Rail, and although the stations at Sheringham and at Cromer remain, the station at West Runton is the sole remaining M&GN station in its original state on the network.

A Saddle tank at the NNRi n M&GN livery

A saddle tank at the NNR in M&GN livery