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
There have been railways in East Anglia for 170 years. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this form of transport, not only when it was new, but still today. Imaging the great metropolis of London functioning without railways. Railways have changed greatly over the years. The welded rails have removed the diddly-dum, diddly-dee sound which used to be inseparable from train travel; electric trains now take us to London, smoothly, swiftly and quietly too. These are minor changes however, compared to the major change, the shift from goods traffic to passenger travel. The railway used to be a service to the industrial sector, moving fish from Yarmouth, coal from Newcastle, tins of mustard from Norwich and agricultural produce from the countryside to the towns. Passenger trains were tacked on, almost as an afterthought. At first there were just a handful of passenger trains to London each day. Even so it was a burden for the timetable, as passenger trains must run on time, whereas freight trains leave only when they are ready. Today large tracts of the rail system see no freight traffic at all, especially in East Anglia; only an oil tanker service from North Walsham and a sand train from Middleton near Kings Lynn intrude on the daily passenger trains.
A word about the ‘Beeching Axe’; although there were cuts before Dr Beeching came on the scene, these were just about supportable. I will grudgingly admit that the network was a bit too large, but don’t try to get me to say which lines were expendable. Maybe we have not seen a great reduction in service in losing the Wymondham to Forncett line. This was a useful way to avoid reversing direction at Norwich Thorpe in the days when freight traffic was important. Now that goods traffic has gone, only the small village of Ashwellthorpe has lost its railway station as a result. The Heacham to Wells branch passed through a very sparsely populated corner of Norfolk, and that too might not be seen a major loss. As I intimated, these were pre-Beeching cuts. Those that were lost in the Beeching and post-Beeching era were almost all damaging to lines and stations up and down the country.
The reductions proposed in ‘Beeching Two’ were even worse, but luckily they never happened. Under these draconian proposals the services in Norfolk would have been reduced to just two; London to Norwich and London to Kings Lynn. Even the ‘Hi-Tec corridor’ from Norwich to Cambridge would never have come to pass, as weeds would have taken over the trackbed where frequent trains now run. As things turned out the lines in East Anglia escaped largely untouched. The exception is North West Norfolk; that is a desert in railway terms. Swaffham, Watton, Dereham, Fakenham, Aylsham, Burnham Market and and many smaller market towns lost their railway stations. So did the seaside resorts of Snettisham, Hunstanton, Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea. The south and east of the county have fared much better; Diss, Thetford, Attleborough, Wymondham, Downham Market, Acle and North Walsham are still railway towns, as are the holiday destinations of Sheringham, Cromer and Yarmouth, all receiving a regular service.
Slowly – but oh how slowly – some of these unnecessary cuts are being reversed. Two line working through Beccles has recently been restored, but what a small thing this is. It still took years to plan and execute, and cost a small fortune. If they had merely left things as they were in 1970 all this could have been avoided. Nevertheless, the improvement to services all along the East Suffolk line has been impressive following this upgrade. Train numbers have doubled and passenger traffic has soared. The late Jim Prior, who lived near the line, fought hard when he was a minister to keep it open. It was just as well he succeeded.
There is even a brand new station being opened in May of this year, to serve the Cambridge Science Park, but with other hoped-for improvements we have not been so fortunate. The reopening of Soham station has again stalled. The realignment to Ely Junction that is desperately needed to enlarge capacity has been kicked into the long grass. The restoration of a railway service to Wisbech seems as far away as ever. Even the proposed provision of a direct rail service from Yarmouth to Lowestoft, which has not existed since the closure of Yarmouth South Town station in 1970, got a very lukewarm reception. This would have seen a short stretch of track in Reedham restored, a line which was removed over a century ago.
It has been a bumpy ride for railways since the Second World War. They had made possible the transport of munitions, foodstuffs and armed forces that was essential for a successful war effort. Immediately the conflict ended the people’s love affair with road transport put the whole system in danger. The railways had done sterling work with only minimal investment throughout the war, and now the run-down network was an unloved burden on the taxpayer. Nationalised British Railways was the butt of everybody’s jokes. Even in London there were closures. Broad Street Station, adjacent to Liverpool Street, at one time a busy commuter terminus, was demolished as the numbers of passengers using it plummeted. The same fate was mooted for both St Pancras and Marylebone. Only traffic on the London Transport Underground continued to grow and the network to expand.
In terms of rolling stock it was a different world when I was a boy. Steam engines still ruled; in the coaches leather straps still let down the windows; every seat had a regularly changed anti-macassar. Pictures of railway scenes or landmarks along the line decorated the compartments. Elegant dining cars were provided on all mainline express trains. White jacket stewards served coffee from silver plated coffee pots while the cutlery gently jingled as the train raced down the tracks. Mixed freight trains waited in the sidings as you rushed past. Stopping trains loaded milk churns and unloaded post and newspapers at sleepy village stations as the passengers made their leisurely progress to the next town. As diesels replaced steam engines there were still lots of coal trucks to be moved, although the mixed goods trains had gone. Buffet cars replaced dining cars, and there you jostled other passengers at the bar while waiting to be served; things were changing. Now you must sit in your seat while a trolley is pushed past, with a plastic cup of instant coffee for those who can afford it; o tempora o mores.
On the track-side semaphore signals have largely disappeared to be replaced by colour-light ones. Semaphore signals never failed, which cannot be said for their electric replacements. Signal boxes too have gone from most locations, substituted by huge centralised control boxes. Hand worked level crossing gates have made way for automatic barriers. Telegraph poles, which once marched alongside every railway line, have gone and telephone wires have disappeared underground; with the growth of mobile phones all messages will no doubt soon be entrusted to the airwaves, as phone contact with the train driver already is. Down on the ground wooden sleepers are being discarded in favour of concrete ones. At least we still use George Stephenson’s standard gauge of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 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.
MEMORIES OF RAILWAYS
On 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.
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.
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!
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.
[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 BLOG FOR THE STORY OF THE DOUBLE BASS
The golden ochre livery was a relatively late introduction to the locomotive stock of the M&GN, but it remained on passenger trains after grouping in 1923. Grouping turned almost all other locos in mainland Britain the various shades of green (the Southern, Great Western and LNER) or maroon (the LMS). Because the M&GN was jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, and these two were grouped into the LMS and LNER respectively, the M&GN retained its independent existence until 1936. Only then did LNER locomotives begin to take over the running of the M&GN system. The Somerset and Dorset Railway was in a similar situation, being jointly owned by two companies, the Midland and the London and South West Railway, which were grouped into different entities. The blue livery of the S&D lived on until 1930.
The Midland and Great Northern Railway was a late-comer to the Norfolk railway network. The Great Eastern had already been in operation for three decades when the M&GN came into existence. Whereas the Great Eastern served the whole of East Anglia, joining Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds with London, the M&GN was principally a Norfolk line, and its connection with the rest of the railway network was west, through Spalding in Lincolnshire to Leicester. Its hub – the Crewe of Norfolk – was Melton Constable. This had been a quiet rural village before 1880, as it has again become since 1959. During the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century however it saw all the traffic on the M&GN passing through this station. Trains bearing holidaymakers from the midlands to resorts at Cromer and Great Yarmouth, coal from the Leicestershire mines to Norwich, and agricultural produce from Norfolk farms to the industrial towns to the west; all had to use the junction at Melton. The workshops constructed the concrete signal posts and fencing that were an up-to-date development in railway engineering, and even railway locomotives were built there. Yet in spite of all this trade and activity it was never a very profitable line, even in its busiest years.
I am fortunate to remember Melton Constable at the very end of its years as a railway town. When the rest of the line closed in 1959, a short stub from Cromer to Melton remained open. A part of the workshops remained, producing tarpaulins for British Railways, and it was to service this facility that the line stayed open for a few more years. Briefly after February 1959, when the pre-Beeching axe fell on the rest of the line, Melton Constable was used to supply coal trains to Norwich City Station, but this was soon ended by the construction of the Themelthorpe Curve. Although the passenger numbers generated by this remote part of Norfolk could never have been more than a trickle, DMUs continued to serve this station for five more years after 1959. In 1960 even the Broadsman express from London Liverpool Street to Norwich made its final stop in Melton Constable, where the carriages would spend the night. This was because steam engines were still being used to haul the train (though the Britannias went no further than Norwich), and they needed the turntable at Melton to reverse direction. This express was later abbreviated to end at Sheringham, when double-ended diesel locomotives dispensed with this need for a turntable. As a young teenager I used the station at Melton twice during the final year of operation. The first time was memorable as the cafeteria was still open, and my Dad and I had our lunch there.
The M&GN began life as series of small companies, each constructing a short length of line. There was obviously a master-plan that envisaged these companies amalgamating in due course, but the object was to frustrate any attempted take-over by the Great Eastern Railway. In the east the line was started from Yarmouth Beach Station, and it had no connection with the GER line to Yarmouth Vauxhall. All its first locomotives had to be hauled through the streets of Yarmouth by cart horses. The line reached North Walsham in 1880, and there at last it was able to connect to the railway network through a temporary track. North Walsham became an important transport hub, with connections North to Cromer and Mundesley, east to Yarmouth and Lowestoft, west to Fakenham and Kings Lynn and south via the GER to Norwich and Cambridge. It was at North Walsham that the meeting that led to the formation of the Farm Workers’ Union was held, and it must have been chosen for its fine transport links to all corners the most fertile county in England.
Fakenham was similar to North Walsham in having both a GER and an M&GN station, and connections to the four corners of the compass, but they were not quite so extensive in Fakenham’s case. Nevertheless, the large printing works of Cox and Wyman must have used the railways as its means of distribution until road transport took over. Now both the railways and the printing firm are long gone. Fakenham Race days must have brought many people to the town by train, and horses too; Fakenham Races still draws in the crowds now that the railway has gone. In the early years of the 20th century special excursion tickets took supporters from the towns and villages of North Norfolk to local football Derbys in places as small as Fakenham.
I suppose we must be grateful that some of the M&GN remains. The Heritage Railway from Sheringham to Holt has two original stations, those at Weyborne and Sheringham, and the station now at Holt was another M&GN station, removed from Stalham. The short stretch of line from Cromer to Sheringham is all of the former line that remains in use by Network Rail, and although the stations at Sheringham and at Cromer remain, the station at West Runton is the sole remaining M&GN station in its original state on the network.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The GER was formed in 1862 from a number of earlier railways operating in East Anglia. The principal line was the route from London to Norwich, opened by the Eastern Union Railway and later operated by the Eastern Counties Railway. It was during the period of the Great Eastern Railway that passenger transport was most extensive in the east. The GER was still opening new railways almost until the end in 1923, but under the LNER they were beginning to close them. One of the first places to lose its passenger service was Stoke Ferry in Norfolk, which saw its last coaches draw into the station in 1930. Hadleigh in Suffolk lost its passenger service two years later. Closures gathered pace under British Railways, and it is only recently that we have seen a few lines reopened.
The livery of the locomotives was royal blue, with crimson details, most notably the connecting rods. The coaches were of varnished teak until 1918, when it was changed to crimson. Although the B12 locomotive now kept on the North Norfolk Railway dates from 1928, after Grouping, the type was already in use in 1923, so it is acceptable to see her in GER colours. With the rake of Gresley quad coaches in varnished teak, which the NNR also possesses, the impression of what a GER train looked like makes a grand sight. The loco is currently painted in LNER apple green, which is more authentic but less visually striking.
The GER was slow to adopt bogie coaches, and even ‘modern’ 6 wheeled stock was late coming to passenger trains; there were old-fashioned 4 wheel coaches running on suburban lines until the end of the company in 1923. Until 1897 there were no bogie coaches on the GER, and no complete corridor trains until the dawn of the 20th century. The lack of corridor connections made long-distance travel less than ideal; the guard could not inspect travellers’ tickets while the train was in motion, and without a corridor there was no possibility of a dining car to serve the whole train. Even toilets could not be provided in non-corridor stock. This mattered less on suburban trains; the mainline express from Liverpool Street to Cromer, the Norfolk Coast Express, was the first to introduce corridor rolling stock in Edwardian times. The Norfolk Coast Express ran non-stop from London, avoiding Norwich via the Wensum Curve, to North Walsham; there it had to stop to take on coal for the last stage of the journey. Water could be taken on from water troughs. While the express continued to Cromer High Station, passengers could alight at North Walsham and take the stopping train to Mundesley and the Poppy Land villages of Trimingham, Sidestrand and Overstrand. The Edwardian conceit of the ‘Garden of Sleep’ made this part of North Norfolk the height of fashion during years leading up to the First World War.
Liverpool Street Station was opened in 1874 as the new London terminus on the GER. The old Shoreditch terminus became the Bishopsgate goods yard until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1964. The last remnants of Bishopsgate station were removed in the 21st century and a new Shoreditch station now occupies the site. It was also during the ownership by the GER that the current Norwich terminus was built, a few metres north of the original terminus. The old building still stands, now used as the local HQ for train crews.
The major lines in Norfolk were already completed by the time the GER was formed, but the route north from Norwich to Cromer was opened by the Great Eastern (although built by another company). Opened in 1874, this relatively late addition to the rail network might have been expected to be one of the first to close, but against all the odds it is still there. I think the regular freight service of North Sea gas petroleum concentrate from North Walsham may have helped save the line through the lean years of contracting railways. We are once again seeing brand new railways being built, rather than merely old ones being reopened. The new line across London, Crossrail, will reach out to Stratford which was once the site of the principal Great Eastern railway workshops. This enormous infrastructure project will provide through services from Shenfield in Essex on the Great Eastern mainline to Reading on the Great Western. Trains will run every few minutes throughout the day. The tunnels required under central London have already been completed and the opening is projected to take place in 2019.
The term Great Eastern is still used to describe the lines out of Liverpool Street, although the later LNER is consigned to history. It is nearly a hundred years since the Great Eastern Railway was merged with other companies to form the London North Eastern Railway, but the interest in this historic line seems as great as ever.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The Vale of Rheidol Railway
This is one of the Great Little Trains of Wales. There are so many of them now, not the handful there were when this name was invented. My first visit to Wales was in 1963, before this term had been coined. I went to Porthmadog to ride on the Ffestiniog railway. Only seven and a half miles of track between the terminus and Tan-y-Bwlch station were open. Beyond that the line was being submerged under the reservoir that was being built for a hydro-electric scheme. The line was eventually reopened to Blaenau Ffestiniog by a new route in 1982. In 1963 the train from London was a special chartered by the Ffestiniog Railway Society, and the engine was a GWR Castle Class steam loco. On the return journey to Paddington we ran through a level crossing gate somewhere in Wales, late at night.
In those days there was the Taly-Llyn, the Vale of Rheidol and the Snowdon Mountain Railway which had all stayed open since the beginning. The Ffestiniog Railway reopened as a preserved line in 1955 and the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway reopened in 1963, but apart from these I don’t think there were any other narrow gauge railways running in Wales. Today there are a dozen, operational or planned.
In 1963 the tracks by Lake Bala and from Pant in the Brecon Beacons, which now have narrow gauge railways of their own, were still operating as standard gauge lines, parts of the National Rail Network. The Beeching Axe was shortly to fall on these lines as on so many others across Britain. The Welsh Highland Railway has recently been completed, and part of this was also once a standard gauge line. It runs from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, through the glorious scenery of Snowdonia. When I went to Porthmadog in 1963 the WHR was no more than a distant memory, and there was no thought of it ever reopening. Apart from the Ffestiniog the only other Welsh narrow gauge lines I have travelled on are the Snowdon Railway and the Vale of Rheidol line. I went to Aberystwyth in 1971 with my sister Tig and took the trip from there up to Devils Bridge. The station for the narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol line in Aberystwyth was then separate from the main line station. They are now combined.
In 1971 the Vale of Rheidol Railway was still run by British Rail, as it had been since Nationalisation. Before that it had been part of the Great Western Railway since Grouping in 1923. By the end of the 1960s it was the only steam railway left on BR; it was a major tourist attraction and was never threatened with closure. The locomotives and coaching stock were all painted in the corporate colour of BR blue. Since the privatisation of the railways the Vale of Rheidol Railway has returned to private ownership and the colour scheme has reverted to chocolate and cream for the coaches, the GWR colours.
There is a Norfolk connection with the Vale of Rheidol, and it concerns that linguist and author George Borrow. He spoke several languages fluently including Welsh. Borrow was born in East Dereham and attended the Norwich School some 200 years ago. “I am from Norfolk, where the people eat the best dumplings in the world, and speak the purest English ” was his account of his birthplace.
One of his books is called Wild Wales, a record of his walking tour around the principality. In it he tells of his visit to Devils Bridge in the Rheidol valley. Today his stay there is remembered in the name of a local hotel. To reach the George Borrow Hotel you must journey beyond Devils Bridge to the village of Ponterwyd where the hotel bearing his name is located.
In Devils Bridge George Borrow stayed at a grand hotel which had recently been redeveloped by the Duke of Newcastle in Swiss chalet style. This is still a hostelry, not much different in appearance from how he described it in 1864. It now goes by the name of the Hafod Hotel. Although then it was already a busy place for tourists in the summer months, at the cold time of year that Borrow went there he was the only guest. Besides being cold it rained incessantly, and although he was snug enough by the fire, the cascade which flows under Devils Bridge became more torrential by the minute. This waterfall was his view from the hotel window.
If you wish to go there nowadays I suggest you do this by train, which ascends to within a short distance of the Hafod Hotel. This was not possible in George Borrow’s day; the line was not built until the late 1890s. There were already standard gauge railways in Wales however. In 1854 when he made his tour of the country the line to Holyhead had been open six years. Borrow however did not like this new fangled means of transport. “I despise railroads,” said he, “and those who travel by them.” I’m afraid he would have despised me, because I love train travel; but whatever would he have thought of a railway (even a narrow gauge one) going up to Devils Bridge?
Although Devils Bridge was already a destination for tourists, even in the mid-nineteenth century, the line was built for the lead mining industry not for passengers. Nearly all the narrow gauge lines in Wales were built for the slate or lead mines in the hills; an exception is the Welshpool line which had no mines on its route, and another was the hilliest of them all, the Snowdon Mountain Railway. That was always intended exclusively for passengers.
FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS
Le Chemin de Fer de la BAIE de SOMME. This Heritage Railway along the estuary of the river Somme is in Northern France. The 4’8½” and metre gauge dual gauge line was finally abandoned by SNCF in the 1980s, but the narrow gauge section was closed by the early 1970s. The first 3 miles of the railway, which eventually ran for over 10 miles, was opened as a horse-drawn line in 1858. In 1969, with closure immanent, the PRESERVATION SOCIETY was formed.
The principal traffic had been agricultural goods but also included stone (beach pebbles) and shellfish. A passenger service provided access to seaside resorts for tourists. The First World War was a period of heavy use with the Somme valley seeing some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Although part of the line is dual gauge, the preserved railway is run as a metre gauge line exclusively.
A day trip to the railway was organised by the M&GN Railway Society for September 24 1977. The special train began from North Walsham on the Cromer line but my friend Bill Wragge and I joined it in Norwich. It was an early start – I got dressed at 3.30 in the morning! The train left Norwich at 4.30 and we went to London via Ely. Luckily I was able to snooze on the way. As we crossed the river Thames at Fulham we was saw two herons despite it being central London; it must have been because of the early morning mist that they felt more secure. Then on past the oast houses and hop fields of Kent.
We sailed from Folkestone to Boulogne at 10.30 a.m.. Although Dover to Calais remains as a sea route to France this cross channel service was ended by the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and both the English town and the French one are no longer ports for ferry vessels. In 1977 however such developments were far in the future and the harbour branch at Folkstone was well used. We got on the ferry Vortigern (this vessel was launched in 1969 and was sold by Sealink to Greece in 1988, finally being scrapped in 2005). We had our breakfast of shrimp sandwiches and a lager on board. The ferry had to alter course as we nearly collided with a bulk carrier. At Boulogne we were loaded onto four coaches for the next leg of the journey, about an hour’s drive, to the steam hauled metre gauge line from Le Crotoy to Noyelles-sur-Mer and back. We went through a nice little town called Rue, but this area of France is very flat and there was nothing to see but fields.
On the return journey we were surprised to find ourselves aboard the Caesarea. This vessel, together with her sister ship Sarnia, had run the mail boat service from Weymouth to the Channel Islands during the 1960s and they were much used by me on visits to my sister Tig who was a teacher on Guernsey from 1963. The mail boat had been taken off the Channel Island run when that was converted to a roll-on roll-off service in 1973. Before that any cars going to the Chanel Isles were craned up in nets and deposited in the hold. (Sarnia and Caesarea were the Roman names for Guernsey and Jersey.)
Back in England the journey home was rather a nightmare. The train was delayed going through London and at Ely we had to get off altogether and board buses to Shipppea Hill. Then we got on a DMU but Bill had the bright idea of travelling in the First Class section, where I was able to sleep till we reached Norwich. We finally got home 24 hours after we had left. I had arranged to leave my dogs in kennels on Friday and rushed off to get them back at 9.30 on Sunday morning.
FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS
Summer holiday over 30 years ago
SISTER Tig and I left Norwich on Wednesday August 20th and drove via Kings Lynn to Newark. I had to stop on the way to tighten the clutch cable on the Fiat 127 as the garage that fitted the new one had not done a very good job. (Tig was very annoyed about this.) We had ice creams in Pickering and stopped at Eller Beck on the Moors so that the dogs could have a run and a dip. There was a nice little campsite with tents around a fire. The heather was in full bloom.
We got to Sleights and thence to Bill’s bungalow in Iburndale by late afternoon. Fido was so pleased to recognise the place that he barked with delight and anticipation. Most of the food we had brought with us had survived the journey, but the crab apple jelly tart had got squashed when Tig’s dog Suki stood on it. Later Bill plied us with drinks, Tig with sherry and me with beer (Old Peculier – Theakston’s is a Yorkshire brewery!).
The next morning Tig was up and gone to the Top Shop before Bill or I were awake.
(Top Shop was not then the name of a national chain of fashion retailers and the name merely meant the village shop at the top of the hill.) She bought bacon which we had for breakfast and picked up a leaflet on a walk across the moors, which we decided to do that morning. Tig drove us to Glaisdale; we parked near the station and as the other end of the walk was also near Egton Bridge station we could return by train if we were too tired to continue. This was on British Railways and the service was not as infrequent as it has since become; the line was still double track and the goods yard at Sleights was still used, for coal trucks at least. In the event we did not need to use the line. The walk was mostly through woods and it took us about a hour to get to the Postgate Inn at Egton Bridge. We walked back by another path; this took us throough a field of bullocks which chased Suki and frightened Tiggie. Back at Glaisdale we walked over the Packhorse Bridge that was built in 1619. We then drove to Lealholm where we picnicked on the green by the river Esk and then browsed the secondhand bookshop. Tig discovered a copy of John Knowlittle’s Broadland by Sail and Motor which I bought for £2.
After we got back to Bill’s we changed cars and he drove us over the new bridge in Whitby. We all went shopping and the returned for supper. Bill dug a root of potatoes from his garden and we had them with haddock and cauliflower. Tig and I took the dogs for a walk along the Beck before nightfall and then we watched The King and Mrs Simpson on TV.
The next day we decided to go south across the Moors to Pickering. We went to the trout farm there and purchased three fish. We walked the dogs through the wood and went round the castle where the entrance fee was 30p each. Tig and I duly paid but Bill walked round without paying. This is typical Bill – Tig was of course very cross with him for this. We went to Hutton le Hole for a drink. After a footpath walk we went round the Rye Dale Folk Museum. It is a large 2 acre site with lots of buildings and rural craft exhibits. We had a picnic of sausage rolls, then went round Nunnington Hall (National Trust), a 16th century house in its oldest parts. There are lots of oak panelled rooms but not a lot of artefacts or paintings. Back across the moors we went to Rosedale abbey and Castletown where we did some shopping.
Back at Iburndale Bill’s deputy called with the hospital keys. Bill thought he had to go Scarborough this evening on Rotary Club business, but a phone call revealed that this was not the case and he stayed with us and had lamb chops. He did go to a Rotary meeting in Whitby later in the evening, and while he was away we took the dogs to Sandsend for a walk along the beach. The waves were big and looked rather cold. We had a drink at the Hart. My bedtime reading was rather high-brow – the Lays of Marie de France (12th century poems of courtly love).
Bill got out the vacuum cleaner and started to clean the carpets on Saturday morning, which was another thing that annoyed Tig. We drove to Guisborough getting the car filled up on the way. Up here you can get ICI petrol. I paid £5 and Tig contributed the 40p! We went on to Roseberry Topping. We picnicked by the gate before climbing the hill. A schoolmaster had a party of children up there already (they must have been on a holiday trip) and a dog was of their party too. The dogs had all got rather hot on the way up and enjoyed wallowing in a pool they found on top of the hill. Then they rolled about on the ground and nearly began rolling down the slope. I had a ginger beer at the Fox when we had descended.
We walked back to Grosmont via the former inclined railway line. It was all down hill but the stiles along the way had no dog holes at the base. We had to lift Fido and Suki over them, and Suki ended up like Alexander Beetle, on her back waving her legs in the air. She was an old dog by then, at least 13, and she did well to keep up with all the walking we did. She was no longer as agile as she used to be, however. After that we had to look for other routes for the dogs where they could scramble underneath fences when we came to a stile. We happened upon a Gymkhana with horse races and a Donkey Derby. Tig was in here element. I thought Fido could have won the dog show as the “Dog with the Most Interesting Expression”. When we got back to Bill’s house he go out the lawn mower and cut the grass. My improving bedtime reading continued with a book of Donne’s poetry.
On Monday morning we were again in Grosmont, this time walking along the Monk’s Path from Aislaby. We had an interesting time going along Murk Beck Slack – where do they get these names from? (It is a tributary of the river Esk.) We drove the short distance to Egton to have a drink in the Wheatsheaf – Ian Carmichael the actor (who lived nearby) was also in the bar. Bill was pleased to have laid on a celebrity for us. We found a patch of heather where we had our ham and chicken sandwiches. Then off to Ormesby Hall where the police horses were kept in the stables (this branch of the Yorkshire Constabulary was disbanded in 2013). Although the last of the Pennyman baronets had died as long ago as 1852 Mrs Ruth Pennyman was still living in the house when we visited it. When one of us need the loo we had to go and get the key. The hall later passed to the National Trust. As with many eighteenth century properties in private hands there were some concerning maintenance issues (as we knew only too well). These included cracked ceilings and peeling paintwork.
Tuesday, our last full day’s holiday, we spent at Robin Hoods Bay. We parked on the site of the old railway station. From there we walked down the steep path to the beach and across the rocks and pools to Boggle Hole. This cave is where the smugglers hid their contraband, so it is said. It was rather misty at first, although the sun got out later. The Mill Beck there provides several fresh water pools where the dogs could have a drink. We walked back to the village by the cliff top path, a section of the Cleveland Way. Seeing both a fish and chip shop and a pub we resolved to stay there for lunch. We sat on the steps while a Mercedes truck unloaded a packing case at the Marine Laboratory. Later we found the truck still there, stuck on the hill and needing a tractor to pull it out. After leaving Robin Hoods Bay we drove the Langdale Forest Drive. This takes one through the large and densely planted modern Forestry Commission Dalby Forest.