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Recapturing railway thrills

PUBLISHED: 12:11 08 January 2009 | UPDATED: 12:42 03 July 2010

VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE: Gorleston station soon after the coast line opened in 1903, with a Yarmouth-bound passenger train at the platform. The photographer stood on the footbridge across the lines.

VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE: Gorleston station soon after the coast line opened in 1903, with a Yarmouth-bound passenger train at the platform. The photographer stood on the footbridge across the lines.

RAILWAYS seldom enjoy a good Press. For example, in recent weeks there has been critical publicity of the Norwich-London line - which carries Great Yarmouth passengers - for overcrowding, unreliability, vulnerability to breakdowns and track problems, threatened loss of the restaurant car, poor information for people anxious for updates.

RAILWAYS seldom enjoy a good Press. For example, in recent weeks there has been critical publicity of the Norwich-London line - which carries Great Yarmouth passengers - for overcrowding, unreliability, vulnerability to breakdowns and track problems, threatened loss of the restaurant car, poor information for people anxious for updates...

But looking on the bright side, at least Yarmouth still has a railway, which is more than can be said for most Norfolk communities.

According to a recent television programme, in the centre of the county optimistic enthusiasts are slaving away to reinstate some sections of lines where the land is still available to lay tracks, even to the extent of working towards shared use with the franchised networks. That could never happen hereabouts, for the old routes are now occupied by agriculture, housing, light industry and roads: the Gorleston inner relief road and the road to Stalham from about Repps follow former rail tracks.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the closure of the entire Midland and Great Northern Railway, affectionately dubbed the Muddle and Get Nowhere line for meandering across Norfolk, serving umpteen villages and small towns before reaching the wide world beyond the county's western borders. Vigorous official protests went unheeded, and the line's eastern-most end, Yarmouth Beach Station, is now a coach park.

In the same issue of the Yarmouth Mercury reporting the M&GN drama was the rumour that British Rail also wanted to close the length from Southtown Station via Haddiscoe to Beccles where it linked with the main line to London Liverpool Street.

That fear was confirmed and the line closed in November, with the promise that there would be no reduction in the number of London trains that henceforth would be routed along the coast line and onward through Lowestoft.

That year, 1959, was not a good one for rail passengers.

Memories of the borough's train services of long ago were rekindled when I read a new book, Branch Lines around Lowestoft from Yarmouth and Beccles, by Richard Adderson and Graham Kenworthy, published by the Sussex-based Middleton Press (£14.95) as part of its Ultimate Rail Encyclopaedia series. Prospective buyers should check availability by telephoning the publisher on 01730 813169.

I hope the word “Lowestoft” in the title is no deterrent to die-hard Yarmouthians and Gorlestonians: although only one of the five sections recalls our Yarmouth Southtown-Lowestoft Central service, that segment occupies half the book, with 60 of its 120 photographs - many hitherto unpublished - recapturing scenes lost in 1970 when it was terminated.

Although the core readership of this series is probably the trainspotting railway buff revelling in technical data like “class B17 4-6-0 no 61664 Liverpool etc”, nonetheless it is a powerful purveyor of nostalgia for ordinary folk who will look at the abundance of photographs and utter telling exclamations like: “I remember that! I'd forgotten there used to be a railway bridge over Lawn Avenue.”

Those reminders of yesteryear are precious to older generations who had first-hand knowledge of the era when Yarmouth had three mainline termini (Southtown, Beach and Vauxhall) within the old urban borough, plus Gorleston and Gorleston North stations. And for newcomers, and younger people, they will receive an insight into part of our transport past.

But even a book so graphically illustrated as this can never recapture all the railway thrills I enjoyed as a little lad: the massive locomotives chuffing out smoke or emitting steam at pressure; rushing from one side to the other of a bridge to peer through the intoxicating murk coming from the funnel as a train passed beneath; struggling with the sturdy strap that raised or lowered the carriage window through which one had to stretch for the door handle; wheels rhythmically clicking over the joints in the rails; the interruption and swaying as points were negotiated; the whoosh when a train went past in the opposite direction seemingly only a fingertip away; wondering what life was like in first-class when I knew only third-class; helpful porters and a knowledgeable booking office issuing those little stiff-card tickets without the help of computers; the unsolved bemusement at the difference between “home” and “away” signals despite my Hornby clockwork train set; long goods trains hauling too many coal trucks to count...

The late Reginald Gardiner, an aristocratic-sounding Englishman who became a Hollywood actor before the war, made an unlikely 78rpm record of train noises encountered on a steam train journey, all done by mouth but very realistic. It used to feature on Children's Choice on BBC Radio when Uncle Mac (Derek McCullough) was the presenter, and it was a great favourite of boys like me.

But I digress...

In this book there is comprehensive coverage of the service from Yarmouth to Lowestoft, both from the Beach Station crossing the Acle New Road near Vauxhall Station and the old Breydon Swing Bridge viaduct to the Gorleston North Station and junction near Harfreys Road, and by the more direct route from Southtown; after Gorleston North the line connected Gorleston, Links Halt, Hopton, Corton and Lowestoft North to Lowestoft Central.

Down the decades, cameras have captured scenes to provide powerful reminders of the comparatively short life of the Yarmouth-Lowestoft railway - only 67 years, from 1903 until 1970. The Beach-North Gorleston section was closed in 1953, although the actual Gorleston North station had not existed since 1942 as the result of damage sustained in a German air raid.

Most of those 67 years saw steam trains pulling the carriages and goods wagons, but in the line's dying years these were superceded by diesel locomotives operating the London express services (Yarmouth to Lowestoft along the coast, then on to the capital) and by railcars carrying the dwindling number of passengers wanting to travel between the two resorts, although in the mid-Sixties there were as many as 20 departures daily in either direction.

But passenger numbers, never high volume, shrank and that, plus a combination of mounting costs and people's changing travel patterns, combined to produce the inevitable closure decision.

Mind the doors!


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