Tracking back the railway years

ALREADY I have likened a column to the Last Train to San Fernando in an attempt to close the topic of railways of old that has filled several of my features in recent months. But feedback from readers means another return to the theme: perhaps I can draw a parallel with The Runaway Train that Came over the Hill (“the last we heard she’s going still”).

American railroads have been richly commemorated in popular song, among them: Chattanooga Choo-Choo; Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe; Wabash Cannonball (fictional); Rock Island Line; Orange Blossom Special; Midnight Train to Georgia; Take the A Train... Coronation Scot, theme tune for the Paul Temple, gentleman detective, radio series yonks ago, and the Six-Five Special (coming down the line) introducing the pop music TV programme, are the only British ones that come to mind.

One previous column was a fanciful interpretation of the closed-door negotiations between Yarmouth Borough Council and a power-to-act top official of the Great Northern Railway which was creating a line from Yarmouth Beach across Breydon Water to Lowestoft, via Gorleston. The wrangle centred on the council demanding that it should cross the increasingly busy Caister Road at the Beaconsfield Road junction by bridge, whereas the GNR preferred the much cheaper option of using the existing level crossing although traffic hold-ups were infuriating local folk.

The author of that affectionate tale was Trevor Nicholls, retired Yarmouth district registrar who lives in Lowestoft. He wondered whether, on arrival in Yarmouth to negotiate with the Town Hall, the railway official might have pondered if his company would ever recoup the costs of building “this heavily-engineered line between Yarmouth and Lowestoft – so untypical of East Anglia in its construction.”

He noted: “Apart from the �68,000 cost of the Breydon Viaduct and �10,000 for the fixed Bure Bridge, the compulsory purchase of land at Gorleston cost the company dear.

“Further research discloses that the railway paid the Kilsey Trustees �500 an acre for 42 acres at Gorleston compared with �290 an acre at Hopton, Corton and Gunton. My source is The Norfolk and Suffolk Joint Railway Committee written by Dr Richard Joby, one of my old Open University tutors 40 years ago.

“At the time of his death, he was probably the most knowledgeable person as regards railway history in East Anglia. Were the Kilseys the owners in 1900 of the Elmhurst estate, I wonder? They got a high price for selling land which at that time was right on the edge of the urban area.

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“The engineers were also faced with the problem of the embankment to the west of Cobholm settling into the marsh.”

Three decades later Elmhurst land became the site of Gorleston Super Holiday Camp which closed in 1973 and is now a residential estate.

In recent years a Midland and Great Northern Railway poster dated June 1903 surfaced in private hands in Rochester, New York, reports Trevor. “I speculated that the railway management, in the summer of that year, must have been anxious that everything would be in order for the commencement of the advertised services from Yarmouth to Gorleston and Lowestoft beginning on Monday, July 13 1903. I did not know then just how fine they cut it!

“Major Druitt, HM Inspector of Railways, did not issue his clearance certificate on behalf of the Board of Trade until July 8! Part of his examination of the Breydon Swing Bridge entailed the running of six heavy locomotives coupled together across it.

“Interestingly, in 1930 the Haven Bridge was likewise tested with a similar number of Corporation steam-lorries.

“So strong could winds be at Breydon that the railway bridge was constructed with not one but two engines to swing the span.

“Especially given the desperately late hour, I should think that upon arrival in Yarmouth, Major Druitt received a considerable level of deference and respect among railwaymen.

“Despite all this negotiation over land and bridges, the heavy engineering and the expense, the joint committee decided against any formal ceremony or celebration to mark the opening of what was practically the last railway to be built in the country to main line standards until the construction of the Channel Tunnel link in the 1990s.

“Accordingly, the first fare-carrying train over the line left Lowestoft Central Station for Yarmouth South Town, without show, at 7.40am on Monday, July 13 1903. The second was at 8.37am to Yarmouth Beach where passengers could get the express departing at 9.20am for the Midlands and North of England.

“Thus was a new route opened.”

That Yarmouth-Lowestoft line was created to main line standards, with double track and substantial stations of which only Corton remains (apart from Lowestoft Central). Gorleston North, destroyed by bombing in 1942, never reopened.

“It and Gorleston-on-Sea were rather remote from the old town, but the latter was at least well-placed for the new hotels and boarding houses built on the cliffs in the late Victorian and Edwardian years,” continues Trevor.

“Demolition of the remains of Gorleston North and Hopton stations in the early 1970s revealed that the platforms were in fact the tops of a double row of brick arches which had been encased in the sandy soil to form embankments.”

According to Trevor Nicholls: “The line loaded badly. About five times as many people arriving over the M&GN at Yarmouth Beach Station from the industrial cities its owning companies served alighted there as continued to Gorleston and Lowestoft.

“Nevertheless, in both the Edwardian and inter-war periods, the Midland Railway ran a daily dining-car express from Manchester to Lowestoft via Yarmouth and Gorleston. It must have been a pleasant start to a seaside holiday to have begun one’s journey at Manchester Central, to have had morning coffee in the Pennines, lunch crossing the Lincolnshire fens and afternoon tea in the Broads.

“A journey which had begun above the narrow streets of grim Northern towns ended with a run along the sea wall at Caister, passage over the Breydon Viaduct, possibly at sunset, and with a sprint down the coast, the sea again visible – a sort of English version of ‘Nothing could be finer than dinner in the diner...’”

There, we’re back to the lyrics of Chattanooga Choo-Choo!