Boyhood rail memories on track

BOYS of my generation seldom had overflowing toy boxes because factories had switched production to support the war effort. I was lucky to have a Hornby train set but, being clockwork, it needed frequent rewinding and was generally disappointing.

The train derailed on bends because I had only sharp curves and could not buy shallow ones. The track kept coming apart despite the joining clips. How I would have loved a neat, realistic, reliable electric-powered Hornby Dublo.

The next best thing was an occasional visit to the Red House pub on Great Yarmouth Market Place, my parents sneaking me in so I could view for a penny the famous model railway that circled the bar on a shelf at picture-rail height, passing through various “countries”.

My childhood flashed back recently when my son and grandson showed me the basic Hornby Dublo layout they were assembling in their loft. Just a simple rectangle and one loco and rolling stock so far, but they had plans for acquisition and growth. I anticipated another Red House scenario... It might well have been inspired by a video of model railway layouts we gave our grandson several years ago and which he played relentlessly.

Pre-1960 steam railways have been a frequent topic here but let me finish it today before we hit the buffers, figuratively speaking. It was initiated when ex-Gorlestonian Chris Wright sent me a photograph of a painting based on a snapshot of him as a lad, train-spotting at South Town Station beside a passenger locomotive.

One issue that arose was the use of locomotives to heat carriages so they were comfortable when passengers boarded. He has now added: “Back in the 1960s, carriages were heated by steam and although diesel locos had the capacity to undertake this task, their use led to complaints from neighbours because of the throbbing of diesel engines throughout the night.

“This led British Railways to press back into service a number of locos, stored in the March depot in Cambridgeshire, for the sole purpose of steam heating. There were three in our area, one each for Yarmouth Vauxhall, Lowestoft Central and Norwich Thorpe.

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“Every Saturday they would run ‘light engine’ to Norwich for servicing, so in practice one could still see steam locos plying between Yarmouth and Norwich, and Lowestoft to Norwich, twice a week in winter through to the mid-1960s, outward Saturday evenings, returning from Norwich Sunday evenings to heat carriages for the Monday early morning trains to London and Birmingham in the case of Vauxhall, and London and York in the case of Lowestoft.”

One steam railway column was illustrated by a photograph of a train in Gorleston Station, prompting Chris to contact Tim Holmes, younger son of John Holmes, the former shed master at South Town.

“Tim was a former pupil of the Oriel School and is a retired maths teacher now living in York,” explains Chris. “His back garden is adorned by one of the old standard lamps from the platform at Gorleston Station.

He also has one of the original Gorleston Norfolk & Suffolk Joint Railway signs which probably dates back to the opening of Gorleston Station in 1903.”

A former friend was the late David Harrup, a fellow member of the Yarmouth, Grammar School Railway Club. David’s home from 1958 in Station Road, Ormesby, was the former station master’s house, bought by his parents from British Railways.

Chris continues: “Another connection with railways in Ormesby is that an old friend of mine, Peter Phipps, lives in the old railway station itself. His living room is the former ticket office.

“We used to play in Lowestoft-based rock band Due East. Pete went on to play with a fabulous local rock band called Boy Bastin, prot�g�es of former radio DJ Dave Lee Travis.

He then went on to become ‘the third Bachelor’ in 1984, replacing bass player John Stokes and working with the two Irish brothers, Con and Declan Cluskey.

“He travelled all over the world with them for around 12 years, playing their classic hits. They certainly played at least one summer season in Great Yarmouth.

“For the last 10 years, Pete has been working with tribute act The UK Beachboys who perform all over the UK, including regular performance at the Vauxhall Holiday Park in Yarmouth.”

Railway enthusiast Chris Hopkins, aged 64, of Laburnum Avenue, Bradwell, sent me a photograph he took yonks ago of a steam locomotive used for the carriage heating, stationary outside a Vauxhall shed. The same shot had been displayed in the station’s ticket office.

Until retiring in November, he worked on the railways in Norwich, but had also been employed for 15 years to 1978 by the Gorleston-based Matthes bakery.

Also in this series was the wrangle between a railway company and Yarmouth Town Council in 1900. The railway wanted to build a line from Beach Station to Lowestoft, using the existing level crossing on Caister Road, but increasing road traffic meant infuriating delays (already dubbed “the North End Nightmare”) so the council insisted on a bridge over the highway. There was compromise, but the bridge was built.

Regular correspondent Mike King, of Lowestoft, has now passed me photographs of that pre-bridge Caister Road level crossing, built in 1881 for the line to the White Swan Yard and then on to the Fishwharf.

Finally, I mentioned a BBC Television series, Great British Railway Journeys, in which ex-Cabinet minister Michael Portillo came to Yarmouth and reported the surprising role local trains had in the 19th century in delivering corpses – some exhumed, others paupers - from here to a school of anatomy in Cambridge. On camera, medical historian Dr Elizabeth Hurren told viewers about this grisly practice.

That column brought a message from Brian Haylett, of Caister, who says the story “obviously came from Dr Hurren’s own investigations”. He gave me an internet website address where these are detailed: