Full steam ahead on Norfolk’s railways
Imagine a railway where the coaches are full of happy travellers, children wave from windows, the scenery is fabulous, the stations are cheerful and the cafes serve homemade cakes. Sound like a nostalgic fantasy? Think again. SIMON PARKIN offers a guide to Norfolk's steam railways.
NORTH NORFOLK RAILWAY
Sheringham-Holt, operates Sat-Sun until April 1 then daily until October 30, return ticket �10.50 (�9.50 cons), �7 children, �35 family unlimited travel on day of issue, 01263 820808, www.nnrailway.co.uk
It's a sweeping generalisation, but there are two types of people who travel on the Poppy Line. Those who have memories of the great days of mainline steam train travel. And there are those, an ever increasing percentage of course, who do not.
Although steam services still run on the mainline, they are rare indeed and your average mainline train traveller today will hardly wax lyrical about their trip, mainly because it's a chore not a pleasure.
In comparison the word picturesque could have been invented for the Poppy Line. From the moment one steps into the headquarters at Sheringham to buy a ticket, the experience begins. The sights and smells are the same as they were for those who regularly travelled in the traditional way so many years ago.
The line along the Norfolk coast was opened by the Eastern and Midland Railway in 1884 which went from Melton Constable to Holt, being extended to Cromer in 1887. In 1923 it came under the control of the London and North Eastern Railway who downgraded it to a branch line. In 1959 most of the west-east routes in Norfolk were axed. Only the part from Melton Constable to Cromer remained, this finally closed in 1964.
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A preservation society started with the objective of purchasing one of the closed lines to run as a heritage railway. Passenger services began in 1975.
Today it offers a 10.5 mile round trip by steam train (vintage diesel trains on some journeys) through delightful North Norfolk countryside designated outstanding natural beauty.
To the south are wooded hills and the Norfolk beauty spots of Kelling Heath and Sheringham Park. To the north, the sea. All within easy walking distance from the various stations.
At Sheringham station, which is the other side of the road from the mainline Bittern Line terminus, there is a museum signal box, children's activity coach, souvenir shop, buffet booking hall and ladies' waiting room.
The children's activity coach gives younger children the chance to sell tickets, ride in the carriages and drive the train, with some historical and practical education thrown in.
On the station platforms, piles of old fashioned suitcases and historical signage help to complete the nostalgic atmosphere.
There is a chance to help out with some of the improvements planned on the Poppy Line, such as the road crossing, in one of the charity bins provided.
While waiting for your train to pull away, it's likely that you will see the engine being used to pull you and your fellow passengers switch ends.
Having pulled into the terminus in one direction, the driver will separate from the carriages, nip up past the waiting train and reattach at the other end. This is a first good opportunity to experience the thundering weight of these magnificent steam engines – you can feel their sheer mass and power as they move off with that familiar, accelerating 'fuff, fuff, fuff'.
The trip starts with a slow pull past the pretty Sheringham golf course and a quick hoot from the driver to alert anyone crossing the golf course access road that the train is approaching.
The first glimpse of the sea can be caught at this point, which will elicit the obvious whoops of delight from children, even though many of them have seen the sea constantly throughout their holiday for the last few days.
There are embankments which interrupt the view for a short time, but even at these points there is plenty of wildlife, especially in the form of rabbits, butterflies and flora to see. The flowers along the line are a sight to see throughout the year. In spring and early summer there are primroses, bluebells and the yellow gorse. Later in the year the poppies abound and are set off by the mauve heathers.
First stop is Weybourne, where much of the oily and noisy works goes on in the carriage maintenance and restora-tion centre. There will be many people of an engineering persuasion for whom this will be a highlight.
It is quite something though to witness some of the rolling stock which is kept here, it gives a sense of perspective about how much goes on along the Poppy Line away from the simple tourist trips.
Kelling Heath holiday park comes next, with the rolling landscape to the north opening again to arable fields and the woodland to the left hiding the popular tourist attraction. A tiny halt at the park provides access to the park through a request stop, although bear in mind that because of the comparatively steep gradient, steam trains do not stop here on the journey to Holt. Diesel services will stop if you ask them to and they all stop on the way back on request.
The western terminus is at Holt, by which time you will have travelled for around 25 minutes and a little over five miles. There is a London Routemaster Bus service meeting most steam trains in the summer and it is a joy to travel on if you want to complete the traditional transport experience.
Planned correctly, there should be time to get the mile or so from the station into Holt for an hour or two. But also make sure you spend some time at the station too. What really is worth a visit is the William Marriott museum, where a great deal of history can be gleaned, particularly about the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway. It's worth the �1 charge for adults, with children free, for the lesson.
As well as regular services, the Poppy Line also runs special events throughout the summer starting with a vintage steam rally on March 12/13 and including a visit from Ivor the Engine on June 11-12 and the ever popular 1940s Weekend in September.
They also run driver experience days, behind the scenes tours, dining trains and murder mystery journeys.
BURE VALLEY RAILWAY
Aylsham-Wroxham, operates Sat-Sun until April 2 then daily until October 30, return ticket �12, �6.50 children, �32 family, 01263 733858, www.bvrw.co.uk
It is only a nine-mile journey from Wroxham to Aylsham but with the variety of countryside, the 17 bridges in-cluding a 105-foot-long girder bridge over the River Bure at Buxton, and the long tunnel under Aylsham bypass you a trip on the Bure Valley Railway can feel you have travelled much further during the 45-minute trip.
The railway is built on the track-bed of the East Norfolk Railway line which opened in 1880. ENR was taken over two years later by the Great Eastern Railway which, in turn, became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.
The line was taken over by British Rail in the post-war period and it was finally closed to traffic in January 1982. But in 1986, Broadland District Council put its weight behind a scheme to revive the line as well as providing a public footpath.
The project, a joint effort between the private and public sectors, finally saw the line built and opened in 1990 and the railway is now run by a small board of directors and staff with an invaluable team of volunteers.
The Bure Valley Railway has become one of England's premier narrow gauge railways, offering a service second to none to the enthusiast, traveller and tourist in all seasons of the year.
The steam and diesel trains pass through scenery which is as varied, interesting and beautiful as any to be found on any railway journey.
Setting off children crane their heads out of the carriage windows as you chugged gently past geese waddling in marshy meadows, muddy fields of snuffling pigs, then the quite different vista of RAF Coltishall.
No doubt the excitement levels are even higher among the young passengers at the moment as half-term Teddy Bear specials continue this weekend.
Between Aylsham and Wroxham there are three intermediate stations at Brampton, Buxton and Coltishall, all of which have their own characteristics.
The main station of the line is situated in the middle of Aylsham. Although it is now a terminus, you can easily imagine where a bridge once took the line under the road and beyond.
The station buildings here were built in 1989 to a traditional railway design and house a busy railway shop, restaurant and a tourist information centre. The workshops are also based at Aylsham and are often open to the public. Its fascinating, with engines that the children could clamber on to, and BVR volunteers and staff who were happy to oblige with snippets of information and insights into railway life. Then there is the museum and miniature railway.
The railway prides itself on being a family day out, providing nostalgia for the grandparents and the novelty factor for the younger generation.
Dereham-Wymondham, operates Sat-Sun from March 26 then on selected weekdays until October (see website for full details), steam journeys �10 (�9 cons), �5 children, �26 family, 01362 690633, www.mnr.org.uk
The Mid-Norfolk Railway Preservation Trust was established in 1995 with the aim of buying and restoring the then disused line between Dereham and Wymondham.
They currently own 28km of track and trackbed through some of central Norfolk's most attractive countryside, making them one of the largest preserved railways in the UK today.
The line is currently operational between Dereham and Wymondham, though the the line is intact (although derelict) as far as North Elmham and there is a long-term aim to reach as far as Fakenham.
The experience and journey is enjoyable whether you're a railway buff or just someone who fondly remembers the bygone age of railway travel. If you've got children, the journey is a fun experience. Even if you just want to watch the countryside glide by there is plenty to spot.
The line, which is entirely volunteer run, has a fleet of heritage diesel locos but also hosts regular steam days and visits from steam locos. They host numerous special events through the year including driver experiences and a spring gala weekend on March 18-20.
OTHER PLACES TO GET ABOARD
WELLS-WALSINGHAM LIGHT RAILWAY
Wells-next-the-Sea (off the A149), operates daily from April 9-October 29, returns fares �8, �6 child/single fares �6.50, �5 child, 01328 711630.
The railway reached Wells-next-the-Sea with a line from Fakenham in 1857. Passenger traffic stopped in 1964. Lt Cmdr. Roy Francis, who had already built the Wells Harbour Railway, turned his attention to a more ambitious project to build a miniature railway from Wells to Walsingham. Work started in 1979 and passengers were first conveyed in 1982 by steam locomotive 'Pilgrim' 0-6-0T built in North Walsham. It is the longest 10� inch gauge line in the world and the scenic journey passes through delightful countryside with great views of the North Norfolk coast. Along the way there are five bridges, halts at Warham St Mary and Wighton and ample time at the other end to explore the picturesque town of Walsingham, famed for centuries as a centre of pilgrimage.
The two steam locomotives are at the railway they are No.3 'Norfolk Hero' built in 1986 named after Admiral Lord Nelson and No.6 'Norfolk Heroine' built 2010 named after Edith Cavell.
The main station is a restored signal box at Wells where refreshments and souvenirs are available. As well as a daily timetable, evening charter trains are also bookable.
EATON PARK MINIATURE RAILWAY
Eaton Park, Norwich, operates Sundays 1pm-5pm from April 24-October 2, 01603 743372.
This hugely popular feature of Eaton Park is run by the Norwich & District Society of Model Engineers. From its opening in May 1960 it has carried thousands of happy travellers round the elevated track and the longer track which runs through heather and grass.
On its first day of public running, the first circle around the site occupied by the Railway Club House took �5.6.0. (about �5.30 in today's money).
Today there is over 1km of line. The track, station and engine shed were all built and paid for by NDSME with the help of lottery funding. NDSME volunteers also constructed the collection of rolling stock. They also maintain some of the engines in use, while others are privately owned.
You can take a train ride every Sunday from Easter to mid-October (depending on the weather). All proceeds go towards maintaining the railway or are donated to local charities.
BESSINGHAM STEAM RAILWAY
Bressingham Steam & Gardens, Bressingham, near Diss, operates Wed-Sun from March 31-October 30, mu-seum/garden entry (unlimited rail travel) �12.50 (�11 cons), �8.50 children, 01379 686900.
Bressingham Steam is a great place to learn more about the history of steam power and its railways — especially on steam days —are hugely popular attraction.
There are two separate lines. The 4km-long track of the Nursery Railway (2ft gauge) leaves from the museum building and offers views of Roydon Church and the wilder expanse of Wortham Ling. On the return leg, visitors get an excellent view of the intensive side of the garden nurseries.
The Garden Railway operates from the coach park. Its track, which runs alongside the perimeter of the gardens, has been recently lengthened and now has a gauge of 10 �in. Designed and built by Bressingham's own engineering team, the line's new locomotive pulls up to 60 people in three carriages.
When both railways are operating, passengers will often see the larger-gauge locomotive giving way to the Nursery Line.