By 1882, the proposal to extend the existing Lynn & Fakenham Railway line to Melton Constable and onto Norwich, and its subsequent approval, had a certain inevitability about it. A Norfolk News article from 19th June 1880 depicts a meeting held to discuss the proposal of the Fakenham & Melton and Lynn & Fakenham Railway Bills, and suggests nothing but satisfaction with the line as it stood then. A speaker from the meeting believed that ‘practically the feeling of the owners in favour of the line from Fakenham to Melton is unanimous. I am not aware of there being any opposition to the line from Melton to Norwich on the part of any landowners’, and that ‘landowners in the district attach great importance to the extension of the Fakenham line to Melton and Norwich’. There is a feeling that, without further extension, there was no real point to the lines’ creation in the first place, and that, going further back, ‘the Wensum Valley line, proposed in 1864, would have accommodated the city well, and great disappointment was felt in the city at its abandonment'. The alternative to the Lynn & Fakenham proposed line (which eventually had financial and agricultural support from practically everybody), was proffered by the monopolising Great Eastern Railway, and seemed unattractive given their notoriety at the time for inadequately catering for the district, and seemingly only acting in their own best interests. Their argument was not helped in that they also proposed that the line had to inconveniently travel through Dereham to succeed (in a similar vein to the Wensum Valley proposal). They also believed that other similar lines elsewhere in the country had been unsuccessful; pointing to the fact that small lines nibbling away at larger ones had often not thrived. Although the Lynn & Fakenham proposal had few friends to begin with, support quickly grew, and perhaps Great Eastern missed a trick in being too laid-back in believing it would not succeed, and not acting more appropriately, or acting sooner.
This line seemed different, exciting, and vitally necessary for Norwich and North Norfolk. Until that point, people had felt trapped by the level of control Great Eastern had over the county. As the Mayor of Yarmouth stated at a celebratory meeting at St. Andrews Hall after the line and City Station opened, ‘a little gentle pressure on Great Eastern would do them good’. By the time of this meeting, Mr R. P. Gooch had written to the Norwich Mercury and stated that without the extension, ‘the Lynn and Fakenham Railway...would have been pinched to death...and buried in the large affair of the Great Eastern Railway’. This was an opportunity to break free, given that promoters Lynn & Fakenham saw Norwich as the only significant town or city in the country that was dependent on one railway company. Nigel Digby, in his work on the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN), notes that the land was offered at favourable rates by Lord Hastings, too good to refuse, which was then developed from the so-called lost village of Burgh Parva, to the important junction and eventual railway village of Melton Constable. Another Norfolk News article suggests that a farmer – who was aware the line would do significant damage to his farm – deems it nonetheless worth the sacrifice. A Norwich Mercury article from 29th May 1880 depicts a meeting that discussed the extension of the line from Reepham to Norwich, and shows that all landowners were now in favour of the line, even if they were not in the past, and that it was ‘the only proper and direct line’ possible. Thus, the proposed Lynn & Fakenham extension of the line becomes, for landowners, a no-brainer.
Whether the line was ever seriously envisaged of in terms of public passenger requirements is a less clear-cut issue. Even supporters at the meeting aforementioned admitted that ‘the interest of individual citizens in the line is not so great as the landowners’. However, at all the public meetings that discussed various issues to do with the line in the proposed stations along the route, there never appeared any real opposition to the line, and there was near-universal support when landowners and the public met to discuss the line. This makes sense as, with no other forms of transport, and the possibilities of travel that could be opened up to people who were miles from other stations, they were unlikely to refuse. Despite this, I detected a feeling of faint ambivalence; that if it comes, it comes. These were rural Norfolkians who were unused to such freedom, and were unlikely to habitually use it, but would even so be comforted by the fact they now had such an option if they wanted it. Given that Digby notes, with the exception of Reepham and Drayton, the line passed through relatively unpopulated villages, this may explain why.
Indeed, when the line is up and running, the predominant usage of it is for goods transportation (mainly coal and cattle), passenger traffic becomes light, and inevitably this leads to its closure to passengers in 1959 as other modes of transport become more convenient and popular, and full closure in 1969 when such goods traffic moves to Norwich Victoria station.
This all seems to be quite objective, but becomes questionable in light of the events of February/March 1959. What had surely existed as a proprietors’ line seems to have actually had a life and character of its own and had become very much a part of people’s lives. What we see, perhaps surprisingly, are funereal-style demonstrations of sympathy, as a line that had developed a human-like character passed away. Many crowds lined many of the stations, most significantly in Melton Constable, but I cannot personally see this is in protest, more in celebration and a casual acceptance of a need to modernise. To continue the metaphor, perhaps the public were happy to welcome the new young-born member of the transport family, the public buses, to Norfolk. Indeed, adverts mentioning the new bus routes Eastern Counties Buses would be offering appeared, perhaps not coincidentally, alongside articles that were in recent memoriam of the demise of the M&GN. A television news piece from the time affirms this, whereby many elderly residents accept that the omnibus will be a more attractive and beneficial alternative for youngsters and people generally – even if they still disagree with the closure – and that locals had said that if they cannot use the bus, they may not travel at all over having to use the train. Even while still in existence, perhaps the line was being seen as outdated as far as passengers were concerned, and these funereal meetings offered more a chance to meet your neighbours and celebrate what, even then, was a slightly bygone era. Certainly, there were stories in articles I’ve read of youngsters wanting to keep tickets as souvenirs, and of a mother wanting to keep newspaper cuttings for her daughter for when she was older. As far as these final journeys went, newspaper The Journal suggests that in Melton Constable, ‘few railwaymen were present’, that ‘the train was barely half full’, and that on a journey back from Peterborough, for the few people who had been on the train back from a Norwich away football fixture, ‘the Canaries were the main topic of conversation...not the death of the railway’.
Some of the railwaymen themselves were naturally quite resistant to the closure. Mr. E. W. Bartram of Cromer, who was a first-class signal relief signalman, was offered a gold watch for 45 years service but declined in protest against the 810 men who were being made redundant as a result of the closures. Perhaps this was a sentimental stance, not helped by the fact that the railway closed on his birthday, as many redundant men were actually put into work in pulling up the tracks, and some accepted the closure in terms of progress.
This was a line that, it appears, was always intended for proprietors. It was for the transport of goods, mainly coal and cattle, and when this transferred to Norwich Victoria in 1969, the line was wholly redundant. But it took on a character of its own for the people, perhaps because in remote and cut-off villages, it did provide the transport links, but also became part of the village. In essence, it was the church, the pub, the railway station. Thus, when it closes, like with any public amenity, it draws a crowd of mourners, per se. But maybe all concerned really knew that the time had come, and ultimately the line was not ever, really, intended for them in any case. Hypothetically, the route may have had an extended life as perhaps a pleasure-line, if it had not been for the Baedeker Raids of 1942 which damaged the Italianate Norwich Station, which might have proven a focal point for a nostalgia line. That souvenirs were being collected on these final journeys is testament to the public awareness of nostalgia, but without a grand centrepiece station, there was only really the one alternative; to carry on as a goods-only line for the next few years, until the takeover by Norwich Victoria. This explains the mixed feelings of the crowds as the stations saw the last passenger services. Dismay as an era was ending, anticipation of the new bus routes, but ultimately pride in a bit of history that – for a line that was foremost for proprietors – united the people of a village in close-knit communities; ironic for something which was meant to open up the country to them.