Reminders of Hopton on Sea railway station

FOR VISITORS AND VILLAGERS: Hopton railway station early last century, with its long platforms. Pict

FOR VISITORS AND VILLAGERS: Hopton railway station early last century, with its long platforms. Picture: M&GN TRUST/RAY MEEK - Credit: M&GN TRUST/RAY MEEK

WHEN we members of the older generation rabbit on about the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston neighbourhood of yesteryear, often it is because we look at this or that place now and recall what stood there originally, recollecting incidents and perhaps people from our past.

ARCH MARCH...the brickwork supporting part of the old Hopton railway station, revealed when the line

ARCH MARCH...the brickwork supporting part of the old Hopton railway station, revealed when the line closed and tons of sand were removed. Picture: Mercury library - Credit: Archant

Try telling a teenager that a double-track railway line linked Southtown Station (“Where’s that?” they might well ask) with Lowestoft Central, passing through Gorleston North (on the Yarmouth side of the present bypass bridge in Burgh Road) before reaching Gorleston itself and continuing towards Hopton, Corton and Lowestoft North before arriving at Lowestoft Central, and they might be politely disinterested.

Adding that there was also an unmanned halt at Gorleston Links would be unlikely to arouse curiosity.

We know how it looked and where it was, but they can accept only what is there now.

That old friend of this column, Trevor Nicholls, Yarmouth’s former registrar living in retirement in Lowestoft, has been smitten by Hopton-on-Sea railway station…or, to be precise, its construction in 1903 and removal in 1982, some 12 years after the whole line was axed.

The only reminders of its presence in the seaside village are, he claims, three former railway houses in Station Road (named, of course, after the line was built), one detached property in which the station master once lived, and a semi-detached pair formerly the homes of two of his staff and their families – “a neat statement in bricks and mortar of gradations by rank in the hierarchy of railway employment.”

Homes were constructed on the ex-station site, and the village continues to expand its population with the provision of more residential property..

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The stations at Hopton and Gorleston North shared a common feature: a double arcade of large brick arches Trevor describes as “like the nave of a Norman church, or Roman aqueducts” hidden beneath massive sand embankments and provided to support the platforms and buildings.

At Hopton, the civil engineering task also involved two shallow cuttings, a long embankment and a girder bridge across what was to be renamed Station Road.

So professional was the entire design concept and construction at Hopton that the station “might have lasted for a thousand years, a hidden testament to the skill of its builders,” says Trevor. “But within a single life-time, it had gone, victim of the motor car which was in its infancy even as the builders had set to work.”

He reckons that the Yarmouth-Lowestoft line “was the last railway to be built to main-line standards in the United Kingdom until the building of the Channel Tunnel rail link in the 1990s. Those structures at Gorleston and Hopton are evidence of the quality of the work.”

To emphasise its coastal proximity to potential passengers contemplating a holiday but unsure about geography, the railway company added “on Sea” to the name of some stations, Hopton and Gorleston among them, to reassure the visitors that they were within the sound of seagulls and breaking waves. The sea was only half a-mile away from the line along much of its length.

As for Gorleston North, it was a victim of German bombs in 1941 and closed permanently the following year.

The whole Yarmouth-Lowestoft enterprise was ambitious and expensive, perhaps over-providing in anticipation of rich pickings as seaside holidays began to escalate in popularity. Platforms were surprisingly long in the expectation of lengthy trains, and the railway company ensured that there was plenty of land around its stations to allow expansion if the service prospered.

And despite the flatness of the terrain – to a layman’s eyes, anyway – the initial project required some heavy engineering.

Two world wars did not help the commercial goals, but the railways strove to attract custom, even running a direct service from London and experimenting with a short-lived Holiday Camps Express in the late 1950s.

A powerful locomotive hauled excited visitors from London’s Liverpool Street Street terminus to Lowestoft where a veteran engine took over for the final coastal stage.

When I stroll along Burgh Road in Gorleston, passing Bridge House at the crossroads roundabout near the Co-Operative supermarket, I wonder why the home bears that name as there is no evident bridge.

But Trevor Nicholls reminded me that it is close to the site of the long-gone road bridge across another railway line – that linking Yarmouth Southtown to Beccles and London until it was axed in 1959.

Talking of Hopton, when a friend told me recently about his impending move there into a new home off the old main Lowestoft Road through the village, I told him I was stationed there during my two-year National Service in the Royal Air Force in the 1950s.

As a comparative newcomer to the area, he was surprised to learn about the so-called domestic site off Coronation Terrace in Station Road where RAF Hopton was based, providing living accommodation and catering for the radar operators working on the cliff-edge near the Corton boundary. As I lived at the southern end of Gorleston, I cycled to and fro daily.

Ex-RAF Hopton became a holiday camp, then a housing estate. As the dualled Yarmouth-London A12 now bypasses the village, its predecessor has become a backwater.

Putting the calendar back a century, to 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo, Mr Nicholls reports that 600 soldiers wounded in the historic engagement were landed on our South Beach (where the Pleasure Beach flume now stands) from ships anchored in the Yarmouth Roads and were carried or walked to the nearby Royal Naval Hospital.

My recent feature about Yarmouth’s coat-of-arms, pondering whether or not today’s students are taught – or become aware of – the borough’s long and proud heritage, Trevor informs me they are still displayed on rubbish bins, taxis and the new pavement bollards, among other places.

He came across our arms on the plinth of a sturdy planter, designed in his typical terra-cotta style by borough surveyor J W Cockrill more than a century ago.

It has stood in the Anchor Gardens on the Golden Mile probably throughout its life, untouched by the vast changes our Marine Parade has witnessed through its inanimate existence.