Reflections on the Lynn & Hunstanton railway line fifty years on by Ben Colson

Reflections on the Lynn & Hunstanton railway line fifty years on by Ben Colson

On 3rd May 1969, the last train of the day from Hunstanton to Lynn left at its scheduled time of 10.16pm, stopping as it did every night en route at Heacham, Snettisham, Dersingham, Wolferton and North Wootton. On that 3rd May, however, it was much more than just another ordinary journey for it was the last passenger train ever to run the line. This year we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of that last run, and with the possibility of the line re-opening, it is a good opportunity to take a nostalgic look back in time.

Of course that last train was packed – it is reckoned that between 200 and 300 people were on board at Hunstanton alone, compared to a normal load probably in single figures. The railway had anticipated it, and lengthened the train that evening – something that today, fifty years later, they seem wholly incapable of doing.

Within days, the railway’s track and signals engineers were at work lifting the track, taking down the signalling, and decommissioning the automatic crossing gates – many only installed a couple of years earlier. There was clearly a determination that this line was not to have a stay of execution or be re-opened, and indeed much of the trackbed has now been built over, as the authorities have steadfastly declined to ‘protect’ the route of the line for possible future use.

In fact, today there are competing plans for its use. A group is actively seeking its re-opening, yet to do so would require a considerable change to the original track alignment, which is quite an opportunity, as to do so could enable it to better serve housing and tourist developments in the area, and the incline that a modern train can climb means that alternative routes can be considered. Almost as if to ensure that cannot happen, Norfolk County Council has this year published its own plan to make the line into a cycle and pathway, but seemingly without any consideration as to how to divert around those post-closure developments, or cross the A149, not a quiet road at the best of times.

The line’s history is unusual, as was the nature of its closure, and to understand it, it helps to go back some years before it actually opened. The eighteenth century had witnessed a nation at war - we had fought in twenty six in total – and as the century wore on, so our success rate fell from almost certain victory, to a number with no definite outcome, to outright failure. The most spectacular lost war was the American War of Independence which coincided with a number of others, three being against European countries, including France.

By the end of the American War in 1783, the Exchequer was not surprisingly bust, yet despite this the European wars continued for another year or two. The government raised taxes and excise on a number of imported goods including a variety coming from or via Europe. French entrepreneurs saw the opportunity, as did our own local sailors, to smuggle goods in to the UK to avoid these despised taxes, and Cornwall and North West Norfolk saw some of the most outrageous smuggling of the time. Witness BBC’s Poldark television series, but one could equally have been made a TV drama concerning activity in this area. Such was the extent of smuggling that the government declared ‘war’ on the trade, strengthening the Excise office at Wells and stationing militia at various coastal towns including Snettisham (at the Rose and Crown), Burnham Market and Wells. At first, this failed to crack the smuggling gangs, which worked as lucrative local businesses.

Their business model had been fuelled by an Act of Parliament, the Inclosure Act of 1773. In essence, it empowered land owners to confiscate, parish by parish, the common land, which had been used by subsistence rural populations for centuries to grow vegetables and graze animals – and enclose it. With the benefit of crop rotation and other agricultural improvements then being introduced, enclosure increased land productivity significantly, essential for the feeding of the growing populations of the new industrialised cities, but impoverished local populations, relying on sub-subsistence agricultural wages paid by the newly enriched landowners.

Thus there was an ever-ready supply of local labour for the smugglers, which organised as two businesses, one to bring the contraband to North West Norfolk and the other to carry (or ‘mule’) it overland to rendezvous points en route to London. You can see the similarity to drug smuggling today, and, perhaps as now, local landowners benefited from supplies being dropped along the Peddars Way mule route, allegedly at places such as Houghton Hall, where the grandson of the former King’s Lynn MP and first Prime Minister of the country lived.

Alarmed, the government hit back and there was a lockdown in Thornham in 1783 (referred to in a subsequent government policy paper as ‘the Battle of Thornham’) and vicious murders by the smugglers in (Old) Hunstanton in 1784.

For all that, the nation was industrialising and the new city populations (Manchester grew from 10,000 to 89,000 in the last twenty years of the century) needed feeding, and importantly needed fresh fruit and vegetables in order to avoid the outbreak and rapid spread of disease such as rickets. The canals were the backbone of the system for transporting goods (as was the stagecoach for people) but increasingly these were insufficiently slow to meet the need of an industrialised nation.

The railway was born early in the nineteenth century and the early entrepreneurs and investors thus saw it primarily as a means of transporting goods, with passengers coming as a secondary thought. In fact, the railway era, which grew from the 1830s to 1850s was built on the growth of travel rather than goods transportation although that is not to underestimate the significance of freight as well.

The battle of Thornham and associated events, including jury-nobbled criminal cases held at the Thetford Assize and at Bow Street Court in London, meant that this part of the country was viewed from a London perspective as utterly lawless, and therefore one in which investor interest would, at best, be limited. Why fund infrastructure in a hostile area where risk, but not the reward, is therefore proportionately higher? It didn’t make business sense.

As Lynn’s railway network developed, largely around the port’s requirements, by 1846 or 1847 with lines to Ely (connecting there to Cambridge, London and the Midlands and North) and to Dereham (connecting for Norwich), so a new project was being developed in Hunstanton. Whereas in the Fakenham area the landowners there, especially the Cokes of Holkham (who became the Earls of Leicester) and the Townsends of Raynham both saw and embraced the opportunities of enclosure and agricultural innovation, those closer to The Wash did not follow suit. That may have been their perception that the poorer soil would not produce, or it may have been other reasons. The Le Strange family started off in a different, non-agricultural, direction altogether.

Based on similar resort building in Hove, Eastbourne and Clacton, they saw an opportunity to build a new resort town, known as New Hunstanton, which was to be largely finished at the same time in 1846. The Golden Lion (then the New Inn) was the first public building to open that year. Unlike the others, it failed to attract ‘gentlemen of a certain class and their families’ due to its greater distance from London, coupled with the truly appalling state of the road from Lynn to Hunstanton, today’s A149, which some would say is no different now.

It took more than another decade for the landowners in the area to come together and for there to be sufficient London investor interest. Competitive pressure in this area to get food products to market was added by the opening of the Mid Norfolk Railway from Norwich to Dereham in 1846, extended to Fakenham as early as 1849 – a good decade before Hunstanton was linked in – and from there to Wells in late 1857. Indeed, the Wells extension was largely financed by the Cokes of Holkham, such was their acumen in understanding the need to get perishable foodstuffs quickly to markets. During that time there were attempts to stimulate interest in a Hunstanton line, including a report in The Times of 6th October 1856 noting “it appears that exertions are being made to form a company for the purpose of constructing a cheap railway from Lynn to Hunstanton” for the sum of £80,000. Today, just to make alterations to the railway junction at Ely is estimated to cost over £800 million!

If a successful business case was to be made, landowner interest, influence and investment was paramount, with Henry Styleman Le Strange family at the top of the tree, exerting the family’s interest in the area as it had done for centuries, now with Major John Hare of Docking Hall much in evidence too. Probably one of the more notable missing from the line up at the inaugural meeting at the Dukes Head Hotel in 1860 was the Hon Spencer Cowper of Sandringham Hall. However, he was a habitual gambler and the Sandringham Estate and his other at Beechamwell were significantly mortgaged to pay his debts, the reason which led to him to eventually sell Sandringham.

Potential investors and local landowners met at the Dukes Head in Lynn, and The Lynn & Hunstanton Railway Company Ltd was in time incorporated by Act of Parliament on 1st August 1861. Its Chairman was Mr Lightly Simpson, a railway entrepreneur and investor from London, with Le Strange as Deputy Chairman, Major Hare and two others from Lynn as Directors.

Thoughtfully, they delayed construction until after the harvest had been gathered in (today the same process would take twenty years at least) and on 13th November the Mayor of King’s Lynn cut the ceremonial first sod. Work was well advanced by the end of that year, with the line’s Engineer being John Sutherland Valentine who knew the area well, having built the lines from Lynn to Ely and Dereham. Henry Le Strange was a keen architect and probably influenced the rather grand architecture found in the line’s buildings.

On 21st April 1862 The Times again updated its readers on progress with building the line noted that it was “advancing rapidly towards completion.” Opening was expected to be during that Summer, but it was September before the line passed its obligatory Board of Trade inspection, having failed earlier ones, and the decision was taken to open on Friday 3rd October. This great occasion for the area had been overshadowed by the sudden death of its real instigator, deputy chairman Henry Styleman Le Strange, on 27th July 1862. Without his enthusiasm and determination, it is possible that this line would never have been built, but he was not to survive to see its triumphal opening.

Two other events of note occurred in 1862. First had been the culmination of a series of East Anglian railway amalgamations to form the Eastern Counties Railway, which in an Act of Parliament that year brought it together with a number of others to form the Great Eastern Railway (GER). Whilst the Lynn & Hunstanton was separately owned it gave a concession to the GER to operate and market the service provided on the line.

However, it was the other event which was to transform the fortune of this line for its entire life until closure in 1969. In February, Sandringham was sold by Spencer Cowper, and the purchaser was none other than Queen Victoria, using money left for the purpose in his Will by her beloved husband, Albert Victor. It was to be for her eldest son Edward’s twenty first birthday, the Prince of Wales who would later succeed her as monarch in 1901 when he became King Edward VII.

Put simply, this was to change the economics of the line, and with it the fortunes of its investors when they sold to the Great Eastern Railway in 1890. There was a tussle for Royal patronage with the Lynn & Fakenham (part of the Midland & Great Northern) as it had a route via Peterborough from the more substantial London terminal at King’s Cross, which provided a link to Hillington, which was quickly renamed as ‘Hillington for Sandringham’. By comparison, London’s Liverpool Street was mainly a suburban, commuter terminal with facilities to match. However, it was the Great Eastern’s bid for the work which won the day, and thus the Lynn & Hunstanton was pivotal, through its station at Wolferton. To overcome the lack of splendour of Liverpool Street, a deal was done with the Midland Railway such that Royal (and other express trains) could divert from Cambridge via the Great Northern and then Midland line to arrive at the grandeur of St Pancras station.

In the 1861 census, Wolferton was much larger than today, with a population of 264, today less than a hundred. Nonetheless, it was a station with potential when the line was planned because it would serve the in- and outbound commercial trade of the Sandringham Estate. The first station building there was thus rightly much less substantial than all the others along the line, being not much more than a glorified bus shelter on the East side of the track, then a single track line.

It was inevitable that Royal patronage would bring significant new business to the line which would benefit all the communities it served up to Hunstanton. In 1870 a complete rebuild at Sandringham saw the Hall substantially demolished and a new House built on its footprint. It had a major design flaw in that there are no ante-rooms in which to receive visitors, so Prince Edward lunched with John Valentine and asked the railway company to build a new suite of rooms at the station to receive his visitors.

In 1871 Queen Victoria visited on a day trip as Prince Edward was on his deathbed at Sandringham having contracted typhoid on a visit to the North of England. In fact he rallied and lived. Press drawings of her arrival at Wolferton show no such suite of rooms whereas when she visited again in 1889 for the much happier event of his eldest daughter Princess Louise’s wedding, the Royal Retiring Rooms (‘retiring’ meaning waiting) were in evidence. It is probable that they were built in the mid 1870s. By then the ‘bus shelter’ station had been demolished and a more substantial one built, dominated by the clock tower, which was the public station, with the Royal Retiring Rooms set back adjacent to it.

By 1884 Sandringham’s new grand ballroom was open and balls were held there which brought monarchs and their families from across Europe. They all arrived at Wolferton, where two extra sidings were added across the meadow in the centre of the village just to store their luxurious carriages.

In 1898 the track from Lynn to Wolferton was doubled, so as to accommodate the Royal special trains in addition to the ever-growing freight and passenger traffic on the line. At this time, with Queen Victoria at the height of her power and reign, the new arrival station was built, befitting Royal visitors arriving at Sandringham. The iconic signal box and station staff cottages were also built then.

The line continued to grow in traffic aided by the addition of the West Norfolk Branch Line, running from Heacham across open fields to Wells, opened in 1866, and the growth in popularity of Hunstanton as a seaside resort. Paid holidays were yet to become law, but there was sufficient trade by 1910 to make a timetable of up to four through trains a day to and from London, mostly with appropriate dining cars as well.

Prince Edward duly became King Edward VII in 1901 and reigned until 1910 when his second son George succeeded him. Geroge V famously said “Sandringham, the place I love to be.” During their reigns, Royal trains continued their journeys to and from Wolferton, but not with such great frequency did Royal and celebrity visitors come, for, as King Edward (and then George V) could entertain at Buckingham Palace, in the way in which his mother would not.

Thus the thirty years 1880 to 1910 represented the heyday of the Lynn & Hunstanton line with growing local passenger and freight traffic coupled with a growing desire to take holidays from work, and topped off with the frequent Royal comings and goings. As one of the most profitable lines in the country, it is no wonder that the original shareholders sold out in 1890. From the accession of King George V, Sandringham was to become, as it remains today, a family retreat, and whilst that still required Royal train visits, it was not at the same pace as during the late Victorian era or to an extent the Edwardian era.

Motor bus competition between Lynn and Hunstanton had definitely commenced by 1924 when a new operator started with half a dozen journeys a day each way, some going through to and from Wells. The law forbade road motor vehicles to exceed 12mph so the end to end journey time was longer than the train, but fares were cheaper and buses took you from much closer to your home to closer to your destination, so for local passengers it was a no-brainer to use the bus.

King George V passed away in January 1936. A Royal funeral train ran from Wolferton to London a few days later, to take the late King’s body to London to lie in state and thence to Windsor. Sixteen years later the ritual was to be repeated for the late King George VIs cortege, this time with much greater security and TV cameras on the green at Wolferton. Footage was seen throughout the Empire – soon to become the Commonwealth.

Wartime brought troop and ammunition movements en route to airfields and secret dumps, adding to both agricultural and passenger traffic. Armour plated trains (the local one was based at North Walsham and sometimes outbased at Heacham) patrolled the Norfolk coastline at night. And the lights were out, in homes, as on station platforms and buildings, changing the appearance of the stations considerably. Worn out by much heavier trains and with minimal investment in repairs and renewals, the seriously rundown railway was nationalised on 1st January 1948 and the era of British Railways was ushered in.

The fifties witnessed yet different traffic on the line, and especially the growth of excursion, charter and scheduled special trains for day trips to Hunstanton, especially on Sundays. This was a complex operation as it involved trains coming in from all over the Eastern Home Counties and East Midlands reversing at Lynn, travelling up the single track railway and similarly returning at night. To achieve this, during Summer months, on Sundays all local stopping trains were cut out, and at the peak time of the day, a through train would head up the line to Hunstanton up to six times an hour. As each train approached Lynn, the engine would be taken off and it would ‘run round’ to sit ready to head up the subsequent arrival, and the same on the way back. To make sure that the system worked for the homeward run, the earliest arrivals at Hunstanton had to be the latest departures back. As the earliest arrivals were shorter in distance, so demand would be greater and more concentrated, so they would usually be supplemented by a second train, which was the last in the flight up and first back to offer customers a choice of trip lengths. The later arrivals would be the first to return, whilst the stock for the earliest arrivals would leave to return much later.

It was a fascinating operational solution, but it did mean that local passengers were abandoned – to the competing bus – and that simply fuelled the decline of the railway as a means of local travel.

More widely, by the fifties, all was not well with the railways. Seemingly stuck in a dinosaur era in which steam trains continued to be designed and built long after continental systems had adopted more efficient electric or diesel alternatives, and with a Minister of Transport (equivalent to the rank of Secretary of State today) who hailed from a road construction company, it was inevitable that change would be forced on the industry. In February 1959 the entire Midland and Great Northern, running through South Lynn and Hillington was closed, ostensibly because of bridge replacement costs over the rivers Ouse at Lynn and Nene at Sutton Bridge, but it has been suggested that it was also to send a clear signal to industry and trade unions to change or face the consequences. They didn’t. As a result, this year we commemorate not only the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the Lynn & Hunstanton line but also the sixtieth of the Midland and Great Northern.

Christmas 1961 saw the last Royal train visit to Wolferton, and after the family had returned early in 1962, that station returned to the sleepy insignificant place that had been envisaged when the line was first planned, exactly a century earlier, but now with significant redundant infrastructure.

The Minister had by then ordered an inquiry into the future of the nation’s railways, which was to be headed up by a young former ICI scientist, Dr Richard Beeching, whose report was entitled “The Reshaping of British Railways” and delivered to the Minister in 1963. The terms of reference had been set by the Prime Minister no less, so it was a matter of the highest political importance at that time just before Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech. White heat of technology, the railways, by then, were most certainly not.

Contrary to popular belief, Beeching did not recommend the closure of the Hunstanton branch, indeed he recommended it for retention. The Eastern Region of British Railways found itself, as it saw it, saddled, with many branch lines that Beeching did not close, and it set about creating a basic railway, with little or no intermediate signalling, and conductors on light-weight, cheap to run, diesel trains. This meant that all the smaller station infrastructure would close and by replacing manned level crossings with automatic ones, further economies were possible. In a way, this solution, although with its imperfections (one key one being the lack of through ticketing to points beyond the interchange station), was laudable, but it was all taken far too far.

At the time, opaqueness was the order of the day; although the railways were nationalised, an asset belonging to us all, we were most certainly not permitted to know the finances or economics of any individual line, so if the accountant said that line X was losing money, then that was it. If management then decided upon closure there was a process to go through; nobody could object as such but representations as to hardship could be made to an Inspector appointed by the Minister to consider the closure and adequacy of replacement arrangements.

Accountants will know that you can make figures say almost anything you want, and the Eastern Region realised that if new equipment, such as automatic barriers, were depreciated in one year instead of, maybe, ten or fifteen, then it is easy to turn a profit into a loss. Accounting standards then used on the railway ignored the ‘network effect’ so, for example, in 1960 Hunstanton was claimed to handle just 44,197 passengers (the number of tickets sold there) but in fact over 210,000 passengers passed through the platform barriers with tickets from elsewhere in the country. That’s more than 20% of the King’s Lynn total in 2017. It has been suggested that the Hunstanton line was but one victim of this creative accounting, but lack of transparency means we’ll never know.

The closure of the Hunstanton line was unusual in that the Inspector appointed to consider the claims of hardship, even though he was not permitted to see the real finances of the line either, concluded that hardship through traffic congestion on the then unmodernised road would be so considerable that a substantially new road should be built between Lynn and Hunstanton. Without this foresight, the chronic conditions we now face on the A149 would have been witnessed many decades ago, and the likely outcome would have been the construction of a dual carriageway. Roads create demand, so by now that would have been approaching saturated capacity too.

Should the line have closed? Whether or not the accounts were accurate, the fact is that by the late sixties, travel by an unmodernised railway was not aspirational, it had lost its appeal to the comfort, convenience and modernity of the family car. That car use has now grown so much that the main road is frequently blocked – not now only in Summer – it is testament to the fact that the mantra of the day was not itself sustainable.

So that fateful day came to Hunstanton and stations en route, like so many across the country before it, when that last train left Hunstanton at 10.16pm on the night of Saturday 3rd May 1969. Being right at the beginning of the tourist season, it shows just how out of touch with the market the railway industry had by then become.

The train left Hunstanton with hundreds on board, and with hundreds more looking on. Before it left, fireworks were lit, and a wreath was affixed to the front of the train bearing the inscription


1862 to MAY 3rd 1969


Last word should go to Mrs Diggins, who, as she stood ready to close the gates at South Beach Road level crossing in Hunstanton, for the very last time, was moved to comment that “if they had used the line when it was open we might never have had the closure.” I wonder. Fifty years later, we may well ask, as that wreath did, “Is this really the end?”

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