Norfolk's historical railway stations
PUBLISHED: 12:32 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:32 16 January 2018
copyright: Archant 2014
While thousands of passengers pour through some of our railway stations every day, others no longer see a single train. But the familiar brick frontages and flourishes of woodwork, wrought iron and tiles all have stories to tell
Take the train from Norwich to Cromer and, part-way to the coast, it halts, briefly, in the 1950s. Old fashioned trunks are piled on the platform, shiny doors are labelled ‘porters,’ ‘station master,’ ‘parcels office,’ and ‘general waiting room.’ There are metal adverts for Colman’s Mustard and the Royal Links Hotel and a perfectly-painted zig-zag-edged arcade runs along the front of the pretty brick building.
This is Gunton Station, built in 1876 to serve Gunton Park and Gunton Hall. Royal guests arrived and departed here – including the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and his mistress, Lillie Langtry. Today’s trains actually halt on another platform, but are perfectly placed to see the beautifully-restored original station.
Gunton has just one of dozens of remarkable stations across Norfolk. Another with Royal connections is Wolferton, on the line which once ran between King’s Lynn and Hunstanton
Wolferton is one of two Norfolk stations which make it into a book celebrating 100 railway stations across the country. Author Simon Jenkins says: “The mooted reopening of the Hunstanton line allows me to include it in my list.”
It was built to serve Sandringham and was used by kings, queens, emperors and empresses from around the world. Even the lamps here are topped with royal crowns and Jenkins retells the story of when the King of England and the Tsar of Russia went for a walk, got lost, found the railway line and caught a train. Asked for their tickets, Edward VII said: “I am the King of England and this is the Tsar of Russia.” The ticket collector replied: “Glad to meet you. I am the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The other Norfolk station featured in Simon Jenkins’ Britain’s 100 best railway stations is Norwich. He calls the architecture of the city’s Thorpe Railway Station “a spectacular shotgun marriage of French nobleman to Russian princess, part Loire, part Hermitage,” with a ticket hall which “hints at a Versailles ballroom.” He is equally thrilled at the grand concourse and goes as far as to say “To buy a ticket here is a privilege.”
Heading out from Norwich, the first station on the Wherry Line to Yarmouth and Lowestoft is Brundall Gardens. It is the name which is particularly fascinating, a relic of the pleasure gardens which once brought 60,000 visitors a year from Norwich and Yarmouth to ‘The Switzerland of Norfolk’ Created by a 19th century Norwich doctor, botanist and traveller they were developed and opened to the public in the 1920s. A series of ponds and rockeries cascaded down to a lake, and the site included exotic plants and trees, tearooms, a dance pavilion, a hotel, a steamship dock – and from 1924 the new Brundall Gardens railway halt. The gardens were sold in 1937, and eventually almost forgotten, until around 30 years ago. Keen gardener Janet Muter moved to a house on land which was once part of Brundall Gardens. Intrigued and delighted she launched a huge restoration project with neighbours and now the remains of the pleasure gardens are occasionally open to the public for charity.
Further along the Wherry Line to Yarmouth the railway halt at Berney Arms is one of the most remote in the country. A request stop only, it is simply a windswept platform with grassy footpaths leading off across the marshes. No roads run anywhere near, although across a couple of fields stand the almost-as-lonely riverside Berney Arms pub and mill and a couple of cottages.
The strangely named County School Railway Station, near North Elmham, was built in the 1880s to bring pupils to a boarding school. The school was never able to fill all of its places and in 1903 reopened as home and training school for orphans, run by Dr Barnardo. It trained boys for a life at sea in the Royal Navy, with music lessons for boys keen to join military bands.
After the naval training school closed in 1953 most of the buildings were demolished but the railway station remained on the Dereham to Fakenham line. It is currently a visitor attraction on summer Sundays, staged to look as it would have during the Second World War. In the 1950s training films were made here to teach drivers how to handle the change from steam to diesel engines and eventually trains would once more pass through as the heritage Mid Norfolk Railway, which now runs between Dereham and Wymondham, continues on to County School, and then Fakenham.
King’s Lynn is another Norfolk railway station with strong royal links, with the Queen regularly pictured arriving and departing from its platforms. Built in the 1870s in pale brick it boasts a particularly pretty roofline.
Although the town of Brandon is in Suffolk its railway station is in Norfolk, and is one of the county’s very oldest. It was opened in 1845 as part of a railway line from Essex to Trowse, stopping short of Norwich because the swing bridge wasn’t built.
Trains to the seaside are a retro treat which is still fun all year round. Here in Norfolk the stations at Yarmouth, Cromer, West Runton and Sheringham still serve seaside resorts, with Sheringham’s original station, across a level crossing from the mainline station, now the headquarters of the North Norfolk Railway, and the town’s tourist information office. It’s just a short walk, with buckets and spades, to the beach.
Pretty Downham Market Railway Station is a patriotic delight in red, white and blue. Built of local carrstone, or gingerbread stone, in 1846, the listed building was given a makeover this spring. Its 19th century wooden signal box is also a listed building.
Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations, by Simon Jenkins, is published in hardback by Penguin Viking for £25