Let's chat and ogle choo choos

MRS Peggotty and I have resisted friends' advice to try a cruise. Life on board a liner is wonderful, they insist. Worries about prolonged seasickness and the temptation of round-the-clock food being available are among our reasons not to deviate from our usual holiday patterns, even for, say, a cruise along the Rhine.

MRS Peggotty and I have resisted friends' advice to try a cruise. Life on board a liner is wonderful, they insist. Worries about prolonged seasickness and the temptation of round-the-clock food being available are among our reasons not to deviate from our usual holiday patterns, even for, say, a cruise along the Rhine. One type of organised holiday that appeals to me is an escorted European railway journey, enjoying scenery from a well-appointed carriage with overnight stops at good hotels, your luggage being transferred for you. But the costs are too daunting.

Occasionally I receive review copies of books about railways in the Great Yarmouth area. Seeing photos from the so-called golden age of steam, when most folk travelled by train, make me think back to my early years, when travel was usually a pleasant experience. Indeed, the only serious hiccough I recall was in 1953, when my M&GN train from Yarmouth Beach to Birmingham New Street arrived too late to catch the coach back to my National Service square-bashing base and I was put on a charge!

The latest book to come into my hands, Branch Lines East of Norwich (The Wherry Lines), by Richard Adderson and Graham Kenworthy, has stimulated my nostalgia buds. It is the latest from the prolific Middleton Press in its aim to assemble “the ultimate rail encyclopaedia”.

With 96 pages and 120 photographs, most hitherto unpublished, plus maps and illustrations, it examines the lines from Norwich to Yarmouth via Reedham; Reedham to Lowestoft; and Brundall to Yarmouth via Acle.

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The authors also include the Yarmouth Tramway, that freight line linking two of our former three termini with businesses and the docks, mainly along quayside lines set into busy roads. I'll look at that section another week because, by coincidence, it was the subject of a recent column.

The book's text is limited to two pages covering the geographical setting of the lines, their historical background, and passenger services. The rest comprises pictures and detailed, sometimes elongated captions, much of it of general interest but some aimed at the railway enthusiast excited by a starter signal being “still a tall GER specimen” and a locomotive in the early years of British Railways continuing to carry its LNER number on the buffer beam.

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The authors record that Norwich people and businessmen expected their first experience of the railway age to be an extension of the line from London via Ipswich. When it was apparent that this service would never reach beyond Colchester, it was decided that the best hope of reviving the city's flagging economy was to link it through the Yare Valley to Yarmouth. So, Norfolk's first railway, a single track joining city and port, opened in 1844. After a branch was built between Reedham and Lowestoft in 1847, the Brundall-Reedham track was doubled. Yarmouth-Acle and Brundall-Acle additions were made in 1883.

“These routes became extremely popular as the public's desire and opportunity for seaside holidays increased,” says the book. Down the decades the number of daily services varied: in 1920, Yarmouth had 20 trains each way, but the introduction of diesel units in the winter of 1957-58 led to “an astonishing improvement to 20 services”, whereas Lowestoft enjoyed 22. Last year, only two return trains between Norwich and Yarmouth went through Reedham but Lowestoft had 19.

Seventeen trains daily covered Norwich-Yarmouth via Acle in 1969, five of them main-line services to and from London. For more than a century trains from Yarmouth and Lowestoft for the city combined at Reedham, and services in the opposite direction split to continue separately to the twin ports/resorts.

To whet the appetite, here are some snippets that appealed to me:

At Thorpe, a canal half a mile long was cut to avoid two expensive crossings of the navigable River Yare. Whitlingham Station closed in 1955 after it was found that an average of only three passengers used each of the 59 daily trains.

Brundall Gardens Halt was opened in 1924 so people could visit the 76-acre estate opened as a tourist attraction by owner Frederick Cooper, the cinema magnate responsible for building Yarmouth's 1,679-seat Regent in 1914. At first a disused railway carriage provided shelter for passengers.

Buckenham station was served by fewer and fewer stopping trains, and in 2009 nothing stopped on weekdays and only one train each way on Saturdays; but “remarkably the service increased to a total of nine trains on Sundays in the hope of attracting visitors to bird reserves.

In its infancy, Cantley station was closed because of small passenger demand, and no goods yard was ever provided. With the building of the beet sugar processing plant in 1912, private sidings were worked by the factory's own locomotives. In 1959, 7,274 railway wagons delivered nearly 75,000 tons of sugar-beet (16pc of the total received) and carried away 26,000 tons of pulp (40pc of total production). Rail-borne traffic ended in the 1980s.

After the first world war, the rail company spent �4,000 on sidings to serve a planned chilled meat factory down the line, but the project was abandoned before production started.

At remote Berney Arms, a building served as post office, waiting room, ticket office and residence. A coffin was once removed by train, and a Yarmouth postman used to get off there to deliver mail in the area.

Yarmouth Vauxhall was gas-lit until 1959. After the closure of the M&GN line and Beach station in 1959, Vaux-hall saw hectic summer Saturdays as long-distance trains delivered and took away thousands of holidaymakers, but social and travel patterns changed and in 2007 there were only two trains each way from London.

Haddiscoe once had two stations: one for the Norwich-Lowestoft service, the other at the High Level for the Halesworth, Beccles and Haddiscoe Railway which closed half a century ago.

Readers interested in buying this entertaining �15.95 hardback book can call the the publisher on 01730 813169.

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