Days out in the Norfolk countryside by Donald A. C. Murdie

The early Fakenham Goods

It’s just after six on a dark and frosty winter morning and three of us, my driver, his assistant, and I, are in the signal box at Wymondham, still known as Wymondham South Junction, having a yarn with the signalman. This is quite unusual as signalmen are sometimes regarded as a breed apart from the rest of us railwaymen. Not for nothing does the signal box door have a BR standard enamelled metal sign, in Eastern Region blue, on the door stating, ‘PRIVATE’. Signalmen tend to like their own company, a bit like lighthouse keepers, another vanishing breed of solitary workers. The box is a hushed inner sanctum, almost an ecclesiastical place. Brass, steel, glass and linoleum are kept polished. A single electric bulb illuminates the desk, like a lectern, where the Train Register Book is open like the Bible. Bells and gongs ring out mysteriously and the man in magisterial charge of his domain rises from his armchair by the stove and silently (for he is wearing carpet slippers) paces his operating floor and, when all is ready, heaves at the huge levers that control the patch with absolute authority.

However, the man on early turn this morning is welcoming of company and makes tea for us all. Good old boy. We’re on the early shift Fakenham goods. I’ve signed on at 04.55, which is a bit grim, but not so bad since I now live in an ex-Great Eastern Railway terraced house a few minutes’ walk from Norwich station. The Fakenham is a rare survivor of that time-honoured railway institution, the pick-up goods. It is worked over two shifts of train crew, necessary due to the profusion of trainman-operated level crossings which make progress so slow that it will take fully six hours from signing on to reaching our destination, where we will be relieved by a crew that has been driven from Norwich in a BR van. We have left Norwich Goods Yard with a few wagons of coal and some bulk grain empties that have arrived during the night from Whitemoor or Temple Mills, but we will pick up most of our traffic here at Wymondham. We’re awaiting the arrival of 7N12, the 04.33 ex Whitemoor, which, amongst other stuff, has air-braked bogie vans of palletised fertiliser for Dereham, grain hoppers (PBFs) on the whisky circuit for loading at Ryburgh maltings and presflos of Ketton Cement for Wymondham itself. The “call attention” rings from Spooner Row, followed by the bell code 1-2-2 (“Is line clear for partly fitted fast goods train?”) and we finish our tea. A few minutes later we can see the front lights of the Class 47, and sparks cascading off its brake blocks as the driver gathers the heavy train together. The aim is to detach our traffic and get the Whitemoor away as quickly as possible. The driver and guard have been at work all night and the engine is diagrammed for a day’s work on the Liverpool Street inter-city service. The layout at Wymondham allows us a few different ways of extracting our wagons from the Whitemoor, marshalling our own train and stabling the Wymondham traffic. There are two long sidings on the down side incorporating a crossover for run-round purposes. On the up side there is a loop around the back of the station known as the “stone road” (from the days when locally-mined flint was loaded here). The stone road is signalled at the Ely end, but at the Norwich end, formerly the junction with the Forncett branch, it and a main-to-main trailing crossover are controlled by a guard-operated ground frame with a release from the signal box. Also at the Norwich end, a short, sharply curving siding, the “tank road” branches off from the stone road, and this is where the presflos are unloaded. The exact moves depend on how the Whitemoor has been marshalled. We have a TOPS printout of the traffic to be detached and it’s nearly always at the front with either the air-braked fertiliser vans or the PBFs and presflos forming the fitted head. Usually we’ll uncouple behind the Wymondham traffic and send the Class 47 ahead to stand in the down platform clear of the main crossover and uncouple the engine. Then our branch engine can come across the road and take the wagons we want over to the up road. The alternative is to place the branch traffic in the up sidings. Either way the 47 is put back on its train and gets the right away to Norwich. We now have anything up to an hour’s shunting to do at Wymondham to make up the train for the branch and get the cement wagons placed. Fortunately we have a Class 31 this morning which is much better for shunting than the alternative Class 37 which is prone to jerking and snatching at low speeds.

Fakenham East station looking towards Great Ryburgh

Finally at about half past seven we set off down the branch. We have three bogie pallet vans of fertiliser ex Ince and Elton for Dereham, eight empty PBF grain hoppers for Ryburgh, six CGOs for North Elmham and four 16-tonne minerals for the coal merchants at Dereham. But we’re not going far before our first stop. Church Lane level crossing, below the looming tower of Wymondham Abbey is the first of the many trainman-worked crossings on the branch, making progress so slow that it takes a full hour to travel the eleven and a half miles to Dereham. We’re running class 8 and, although it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve piped up the air-braked wagons so that the driver has a bit of braking assistance for stopping at the level crossings on a frost-covered rail.

I’ve described the line as a branch, but a few years earlier it was more of a secondary main line, double track as far as Dereham and providing an alternative route from Norwich to March and the north via Swaffham and King’s Lynn. Older railwaymen remember the fast train that ran this way each afternoon, hauled by a B12, collecting en route fresh produce for the markets of northern cities, and, until 1964, there was a smartly-operated DMU service every two hours between Norwich and Wells-next-the-Sea. Even Beeching did not envisage closing the Dereham to Lynn road as it connected three major Norfolk towns to Norwich. Like many of the most damaging post-Beeching closures, the mid-Norfolk lines were shut by the Labour government of the late 1960s. In the eastern counties the profusion of staffed level crossings was the deciding factor in many cases, most notoriously the East Lincs route. Modernisation of the crossings was not on offer as an option, and many of these were on by-ways with alternative routes close at hand so they could have been closed to road traffic. Much easier though just to close the railway. The closure of the Wells and Lynn routes was in vivid contrast to the survival of, for example, the East Suffolk and Sheringham lines. Would anyone today seriously advocate the closure of these?

Anyway, we roll into Dereham at half-past eight. Senior Railman Vic Gilham is waiting for us. Vic is the last of one hundred and twenty three railway staff that were employed at Dereham. The first job is to place the pallet vans in the siding of UK Fertilisers. A forklift is waiting to unload them and they must be ready to be picked up this afternoon to head back to the Wirral on the Speedlink network. Then it’s time for breakfast. The driver and his mate have theirs in Vic’s office, but I’m ravenous and haven’t brought sandwiches today, so I go into town for a fried breakfast, two mugs of tea and a read of the Eastern Daily Press in a greasy spoon establishment. Back at the station it’s time for a bit of shunting. We’ve got coal for the two coal merchants and empties to come out. Their sidings are at the side of the old Lynn road. Before we take out the empties, the huge, heavy side doors of the 16-tonne mineral wagons have to be closed. This is a two man job and sometimes it takes several attempts. The door has to be swung upwards and the two latches at the top have to drop into place to hold it shut in a fail-safe manner. We take the empties back to the station and leave them in the platform to be collected on the return working.

Then it’s off down the branch again, stopping at another long list of level crossings; Norwich Road, Netheared Road, Swanton Road, Hoe, Worthing and North Elmham. North Elmham is our first stop for traffic and it’s a case of ‘loaded out, empties in’. The loaded bulk grain vans (CGO/CGVs) are left in the loop to be picked up by the late shift crew, then it’s on to Ryburgh where the procedure is similar but a bit more complicated due to the layout of the granary sidings and the position of the grain- loading augurs. This can involve a bit of shunting with wagons fore and aft of the engine which is a bit tricky, with a big main-line locomotive and heavy PBF hopper wagons, in a confined space on dodgy trackwork, with hens running about pecking at spilt grain. Thank goodness it’s not a Class 37 today. Again the loaded wagons are neatly placed in the loop for the return working to pick up.

We have no Fakenham traffic today so the short run to our terminus is engine and brake only, but first there’s a bit of sport to be had . A furtive discussion takes place at the door of the maltings and a small bag of grain is placed aboard the brake van. I soon learn the purpose of this. Most of the old drivers would expect to go home with at least a brace of pheasants after a week on the Fakenham job, and the role of the guard is to scatter grain on the track through the woods between Ryburgh and our destination, where the brake is left in the loop. The locomotive then makes a couple of runs, at some speed, back and forward to Ryburgh, and any pheasants that succumb are quickly dispatched and stashed away in the cab. As a vegetarian at the time, I’m a bit squeamish about this, but, from the pheasants’ point of view I don’t suppose being run down by a Class 31 is any worse than being forced into a low, slow flight in order to be an easy target for overweight businessmen with shotguns.

So that’s the end of our trip to Fakenham. We unlock the station office and there’s maybe time for a game of cards while awaiting the van which will bring our relief crew and take us home to Norwich. Sometimes on a Friday we’ll go into the Great Eastern pub next door, but as this only purveys the baleful products of Watney’s Norwich Brewery, it’s not a great attraction.

Back from Fakenham

The late turn Fakenham was a nice little number with the luxury of a late morning start. A BR van took us out to the north Norfolk town and took home the crew that had worked the early morning shift, and had done most of the work. They would however, with a bit of luck, have been rewarded with a brace of pheasant. All we had to do was collect up the coal and fertiliser empties and the loaded grain hoppers as we made our way home, finally picking up the empty presflos from Wymondham. We paused at Dereham for Senior Railman Vic Gilham to label up the grain traffic while the rest of the crew took the locomotive to uplift the empty pallet vans for Ince and Elton and run round them. At times of heavy traffic of malt for the whisky trade, the PBF hoppers would be double labelled; consigned initially to the BR Area Manager at Doncaster, where they would be combined with similar traffic from all over East Anglia and Lincolnshire and forwarded as a block load from Belmont Yard direct to the Highlands. In any event, our grain traffic and the cement and fertiliser empties would go forward to Whitemoor on the 20.05 Class 7 from Norwich Yard.

It was on this turn that I worked the longest train of my railway career. In June 1980, when conventional wagonload traffic was being run down and the Speedlink network was taking over remaining flows, I had a week’s work on the late shift Fakenham. On the Wednesday (17th) and Friday (19th) two special Freightliner trains were to run from Dereham to Manchester Trafford Park conveying new, empty containers from the factory of Crane Fruehauf on the disused airfield at Swanton Morley. On such occasions we would be provided with a dual-piped (air and vacuum) brake van, TOPS code CAR, no.955090, so that the guard could use the air brake to stop the long train accurately once it was clear of each of the many level crossings. The early shift crew would take the empty Freightliner vehicles, four standard five-car sets, down to Dereham and place them in the goods yard that formerly occupied the site west of the station and was accessed from the remaining stub of the King’s Lynn branch. They would then make a foray towards Fakenham, collect any loaded or empty traffic that was ready to go, then return to Dereham and hand over to the late-shift men.

Dereham Herbert Page operating the gates

On arrival at Dereham we would find loading underway. Lorries would be shuttling the boxes in from the airfield and a hired mobile crane would be loading. The relief railman from Lenwade, John Roberts, was sent in to do the loading as he was conversant with crane work. The locomotive (31 206) was needed straight away to move the Freightliner wagons back and forwards to bring them within reach of the crane, and as soon as a five-set was loaded it would be shunted out to the station and an empty set moved in. At guards’ training school I had learned the operation of the twist locks used to secure containers to flat wagons, but this was the first time I had used them in practice. The regular twenty-wagon Freightliner would equate to 60 SLU, the length limit for the branch. As we were getting close to finishing loading, Vic Gilham came over with a message from Control. Would we take the four empty pallet vans for Ince and Elton so as to maintain their circuit working? Well it was ok with me and our driver was a can-do sort of guy. The only problem was that the Freightliner was now standing in the station loop, which would need to be clear for us to run round the palvans. So we would have to propel the long train and brake van through the two level crossings north of the station in order to clear the loop, which is what we did. Then we shunted the vans out and ran round them. But that wasn’t all. The branch had started to receive fertiliser from Europe via the Harwich train-ferry in VTG-owned bogie vans, and three of these vehicles were standing in a siding between the two crossings. Might as well clear them out as well, suggested Vic. So, with the Ince and Eltons attached to the Class 31 we uplifted the VTGs and added the whole lot to the front of the Freightliner. I made my way back coupling and piping up until eventually I reached my brake van over five hundred metres away. In accordance with the rules I should now have carried out a brake test, but we were blocking the level crossings over two main roads in the town and traffic chaos was developing, so, as best as I could at such a distance, I signalled the driver to draw ahead, which fortunately he did, and once we were clear of the two crossings I opened the air valve in the brake van and brought the train to an almost instant halt. That was the brakes well and truly tested, and the feeling of power over this huge train was a rare experience. Eventually, having discussed with the driver what would be the modus operandi at Wymondham, we got away, and actually made quicker time than usual over the branch thanks to being fully air braked. The driver could run faster between the many level crossings, and, using the guard’s valve, I could stop the train almost instantly once we were clear of each set of gates. I didn’t actually work it out, but I reckon we had approximately 80 SLU – Standard Length Unit, equivalent to a typical short wheelbase goods wagon such as Vanfit or 16 tonne Mineral, 21 feet in length (I did record in my journal book that we had twenty seven vehicles and a total of 792 tonnes.) In view of the line’s role in wartime, I would never claim that this was its longest ever train, but it can’t have been far off, and I only wish someone had been around to photograph it. At Wymondham we left the brake van on the branch and placed the Freightliner in the down sidings. Then we went back on to the branch for the brake and drew forward on the down main to the ground frame. The train was left on the main while we shunted the cement sidings and came away with six empty presflos. I then had to release the air brake on the rest of the train, as the presflos were, of course, vacuum braked and what was now a fairly lightweight train of empties could run loose-coupled to Norwich Yard where we arrived at around 17.45. The ferry vans would go forward to Ipswich on the 19.18 Temple Mills and the palvans and presflos would go on the 20.05 Whitemoor. So not a bad afternoon’s work.

Donald A. C. Murdie at Worthing crossing looking towards North Elmham

Even with this fairly healthy level of traffic, the introduction of air-braked, high-capacity wagons, and the development of the Speedlink network, BR was soon to dispense with the Fakenham branch. The problem was that, thanks to the plethora of level crossings, it took a locomotive and two sets of traincrew before the traffic off the branch could even set off in the right direction towards its destination, and the obvious solution of a combination of modernisation and closure for the level crossings was never even considered. So a regular, high-value, long distance flow of traffic, malt to the Highland distilleries, was deemed uneconomic, with the inevitable negative consequences for the environment all along the route. In any case the Speedlink network was to be sacrificed in the gadarene rush to privatisation with the result that the UK no longer has a rail freight network.

There was, of course, a good outcome for the Fakenham branch in the shape of the highly-successful Mid-Norfolk Railway. At the time of writing it is forging northwards from Dereham. There is even a proposal for a grand Norfolk circular route, comprising the Fakenham line, a connection to Holt over the former M&GN route, the North Norfolk Railway thence to Sheringham , and the Bittern Line to Norwich. If that ever comes to pass, I hope to be on the first train.

A video by the late Barry Ketteridge showing the goods coming off the branch at Wymondham in the last days of its operation can be found here on the excellent Wymondham Station Website

‘Round the World’ to Lenwade and a fragment of the M&GN

A freight train job with a signing-on time of 08.30 was an absolute luxury, especially when it involved a ramble around the circuitous route ending at the concrete prefabrication factories just north of the city of Norwich at Lenwade. They were there because of a plentiful supply of aggregate and were served by a surviving fragment of the Midland and Great Northern Railway (M&GNR) line which formerly reached Norwich City station.

I hope I can be excused a brief excursion into (fairly recent) railway history at this point. When the M&GN system closed in 1959, BR was faced with the problem of servicing the Norwich coal merchants whose premises were mainly at the City station. The result was that heavy coal trains had to make their way for nearly fifty miles via Cromer and Melton Constable to travel the (as the crow flies) couple of miles from the ex-GE network at Trowse to the former M&GN City station. A solution was found which was to build a curve from the Wroxham – County School branch (the ‘Round the World’ route to Dereham ) to join the M&GN at Themelthorpe, and this shortened the route considerably. By the 1970s, the City station site had become more important for property development than rail traffic, and the coal traffic had been transferred to Norwich Victoria. (This fate has now overtaken all the city’s rail freight sites except the aggregate terminal at Trowse.)

The M&GN relic had been cut back to the Lenwade concrete plant. There was only one of the factories remaining, as the production of prefabricated high-rise blocks had ended after the collapse of the Ronan Point block in east London. Anglian Concrete Products mainly produced pre-stressed concrete beams for motorway and rail bridges. Most of these were ‘out of gauge’ on rail and necessitated a weird and wonderful collection of mainly ancient special traffic wagons which were kept in the far side of Crown Point yard in Norwich. There were flatrols, weltrols, rectanks, lowmacs, glaswags and borails, as well as a collection of four wheel and bogie flats of various types that served as under-runners and spacers.

Our train, 9K72, set out from Crown Point at 09.35, conveying a motley collection of the above vehicle types marshalled in accordance with the requirements of the structures to be carried. It was rare to have any other traffic. There was occasionally road salt in hyfit wagons for the county council at Aylsham, or a ferry tank wagon (TOPS code ICX) carrying chemical traffic for a Norwich factory, a substance that was considered too dangerous to discharge in a built-up area, so was dealt with in a siding at the back of Lenwade station. We proceeded via Whitlingham Junction to Wroxham and diverged from the Cromer line heading for Aylsham, Cawston and Reepham through idyllic Norfolk countryside. There was a particularly lovely stretch along the River Bure at Buxton Lammas. The peaceful nature of the area made the branch ideal for overnight stabling of the Royal Train and this occurred a couple of times that I was aware of.

As on the Fakenham line, level crossings were traincrew-operated, but they were much fewer in number. In 1980 a very minor level crossing at Aylsham, Greenwood, was converted to AOCL (Automatic Open Crossing Locally-Monitored) status as a demonstration by BR Norwich Division of what was then an innovative solution to the costs of staffed crossings, and it was to be deployed at a number of locations on the East Suffolk line. This required the train to come to a dead stand before proceeding.

At the intermediate stations points were worked by ground frames released by an Annett’s key which was attached to the ‘one train only’ staff issued by the Wroxham signalman. After passing Reepham we doubled back towards Norwich over the Themelthorpe curve, slowing down from the line speed (25 mph) to 10mph, and soon reached the old station at Lenwade. There was only ever one platform here with a goods yard at the back consisting of a couple of sidings and these were reached via a headshunt. The chemicals tank, if it was in the consist, would be placed in the yard. Next there could be a bit of fun to be had. Lenwade was one of the places where the Sectional Appendix permitted haulage of wagons by rope. It was a means of running round in the very limited track layout at the end of the branch. There was a run-round loop at the concrete factory, but usually it was full up with stabled wagons, both BR and internal users. So, using a sturdy rope, the train would be hauled into the headshunt while the locomotive proceeded on the “main” line. This was also where I performed the only fly shunt of my railway career, the intention being to get the locomotive to go ahead on the “main” and the train into the headshunt in a single forward movement. For those unfamiliar with the technique, what happened was this. You would signal the driver to draw ahead while running alongside the train with shunting pole poised. At the crucial moment, you would signal the driver to ease down enough to slacken the couplings, then uncouple behind the locomotive. That done, you would signal the driver to pull away smartly leaving a gap between the locomotive and the train, which would be rolling along gently. Timing was critical, and if the engine cleared the points in time leaving enough space between it and the train, you could pull the hand points diverting the train on to the diverging route. Not one for the feint-hearted or the inexperienced, and I was certainly inexperienced, but I did it and told everyone about it when I got back to the guards’ room!

Loading and securing of the out-of-gauge loads was in the hands of John Roberts, the Lenwade Railman. This was a highly skilled and safety-critical job for one so lowly graded, but the grade seemed to suit John as he could do quite well on overtime and travel allowance covering for crossing keepers, lampmen and the like throughout the Norwich area. John took a pride in his work and always drove out to Themelthorpe to get a photo of a loaded beam train departing. The loaded trains could look very impressive in complete contrast to the ramshackle appearance of the beam sets when empty. John was a keen and committed railwayman but had ways and means of bending the rules. The branch was worked under ‘one train only’ regulations, and the train staff and attached Annett’s key were the authority for all movements. John had however acquired a duplicate Annett’s key and this allowed him to let the private-owner shunting engine out of the factory sidings to assist with marshalling the beam trains in the cramped facilities available. How far this locomotive proceeded on BR tracks is not recorded!

Train crews working the concrete beam trains would be issued with the necessary documentation before departure, setting out their special conditions of transit written out in BR Telegraphic Language. At the very least, this would state OGLO, FABRIC25, HUMPEX (out-of- gauge load, not to exceed 25mph, not to be hump shunted). There would be further prohibitions on larger structures, typically that they may not pass any other train on the sharp curve between Ely North and West Junctions, and certain loads had to be accompanied throughout by a regional loading inspector.

Into the 1980s, there was still considerable traffic out of Lenwade. My old journal book tells me that, in October 1980, a number of lengthy trains went to and from the concrete works. For example, on the 9th October I worked 8G78 08.38 Trowse No.1 Victoria Sidings to Lenwade; 31 vehicles, 52 SLU, gross train weight 605 tonnes. Unfortunately I cannot recall the consist of this train but, at the time, the factory was producing concrete refuge units for the WCML, and probably this was the traffic on offer. In the same month I worked a few other big trains in and out of Lenwade. By this time, Crown Point yard was closed for construction of the present day maintenance depot, so we went from and to Norwich Goods Yard or, when capacity was tight started from Trowse Victoria Sidings (on the down side of the Ipswich road by Trowse Lower Junction box) and returned to the back platform road of the old Trowse station. This boom in traffic was not to last long. Further into the 80s, traffic on the Lenwade branch dwindled. Freight traffic considered by BR to be of value was moving over to Speedlink, but slow-moving, non-standard and out-of-gauge vehicles could not be accommodated on that network.

My final run to Lenwade was on the weed killing train. This would have been in the summer of 1981. I was spare for the week and the daily list instructed me to book on at 10.30 for 6G00 11.30 Norwich Yard to Lenwade and return. Normally this would be a nice little job, but the weedkiller was one of the nastiest jobs for a guard, especially on a hot day in June. I found the train at the back of the Passenger Yard box taking water into its three 45 tonne tank wagons. As well as the tanks it consisted of a mixer coach, spray coach, mess coach and a vacuum piped Queen Mary brake van (CAP) at each end. A Class 31 locomotive was already coupled up. The whole train was coated with a white chemical residue. I sought out the technical officer in charge. As I was at the time LDC secretary and health and safety officer I was very interested in the substances to be sprayed. These included such dire products as 2,4,5T (aka Agent Orange). The guard was in a vulnerable position at the rear of the train and, in spite of the heat of that early summer day, the brake van doors had to be kept firmly shut. The only concession to health and safety was a plastic water container and a few paper towels for hand washing.

So off we went to Wroxham and on to the branch, proceeding at line speed of 25 mph, which also ensured a good spray coverage. At Lenwade the run-round loop at the factory had been cleared for the occasion as the normal fly shunt or rope towing procedure would not have been practical. So we ran round and then decided to push the boundary a bit. The old M&GN main line towards Norwich City was extant for a distance beyond the factory, but was heavily overgrown. I told the spray crew that we would propel as far as we could, and asked the driver to set back at walking pace. I would open the guard’s brake valve at the end of the passable line and, when the vacuum was restored, he could go ahead towards Lenwade. We would be out of site of each other due to the undergrowth and our only communication would be through the brake valve. So off we went with the old sleepers and chairs creaking below us. After about a quarter of a mile there suddenly appeared an inverted sleeper across the rails, and shortly after, a yawning gap where the bridge over the River Wensum used to be. So, quick as possible, lift the brake valve and bring the outfit to a grinding halt.

There ended my final trip to Lenwade. The concrete traffic carried on, sporadically, for a year or so and there was even a visit by a rail tour which had originated at King’s Cross. I was heading for promotion, of a sort, and a kind of railway totally removed from the easy-going branch lines of rural Norfolk.

Donald A.C. Murdie
Guard, Norwich 1975 – 1988