The Rails, Removed - Judith Strasser
A machine has ripped the rails
from the abandoned track
to make way for a future
of bikes. For now: a rubble
of spikes, steel plates, splinters
of ties, pebbly ballast and
hummocky earth. A rusted
iron squiggle that looks like
a petrified worm on a hook
What gets me is how my eye
reacts to the absence of rails,
how it jumps the invisible track,
turns the old straight and narrow
into a future wide as a highway
paved with good intentions,
recursive, of course, and
unpredictable as the world.
This is not a poem about Marriott’s Way, but it could be. I can’t remember if I saw the photos of these tracks being lifted at Hellesdon Station or read this poem first, but they seem to perfectly reference one another. Walking, cycling or riding along Marriott’s Way – if you know to look – remains an act of glimpsing both past and future. Although the track is no longer freshly raised, there are still signs of the railway all the way along, and its determined straightness – along with the steady levels of cutting and embankment – are permanent reminders.
Railway lines are at the intersection of histories – social, cultural & topographical. How the lines were conceived of, proposed, laid, ridden and lost can tell us a great deal about Norfolk and the wider world. Railways can sit at the heart of people’s personal stories, their family lore, and their own narrative of change. You do not have to be a train spotter to be drawn in.
Marriott’s Way today is an immensely well-used 26 mile trail between Norwich and Aylsham that runs along the path of two disused railway lines (a section of the old M&GN line between Norwich City Station and Melton Constable [Norwich to Whitwell], and of the Great Eastern line between Wroxham and County School [Reepham to Aylsham] – joined by the Themelthorpe Curve). From its life as a railway, to its afterlife as a public footpath, cycle route and bridleway, for over a century it has connected communities and enabled travel between them – joining rural villages, market towns and the city of Norwich.
But just as the closure of many lines, including this one, has never been short of controversy and debate, neither was the railway’s initial proposal. Neither, indeed, was the Victorian proliferation of lines in Britain as a whole, as these two quotes from contemporary writers aptly illustrate.
Sydney Smith (a writer, wit and Anglican cleric) wrote in the mid-19th century of the great promise of the railway:
'Railroad travelling is a delightful improvement of human life. Man is become a bird: he can fly quicker and longer than a Solan goose. The mamma rushes sixty miles in two hours to the aching finger of her conjugating and declining grammar boy. The early Scotchman scratches himself in the morning mists of the North, and has his porridge in Piccadilly before the setting sun ... Everything is near, everything is immediate - time, distance, delay are abolished.’ (Sydney Smith, 1842)
John Ruskin, however, took a more scathing view. Discussing the Headstone Viaduct, built by the Midland Railway over the River Wye in Derbyshire, he wrote:
‘The valley is gone… and now every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange - you fools everywhere’. (John Ruskin, 1863)
In any case, and whichever side of the argument you land on, the immense impact of railways on the country might be summed up by H.G. Wells:
'The nineteenth century, when it takes its place with the other centuries in the chronological charts of the future, will, if it needs a symbol, almost inevitably have as that symbol a steam engine running upon a railway. This period covers the first experiments, the first great developments, and the complete elaboration of that mode of transit, and the determination of nearly all the broad features of this century's history may be traced directly or indirectly to that process.' (H.G. Wells, 1901)
This is not just an industrial heritage, it is also a people's history. As Adrian Vaughan – a signalman and railway historian who I visited in the signal box at Sheringham early in the project - told me: ‘the beauty of the railway is listening to human stories.’
Encompassed within these stories are histories of: Victorian engineering, competitive line building, acts of parliament, landscape and lifestyle change, dramatic weather events, wartime triumphs and tragedies, passenger traffic, railway careers, tales of decline, demise, and re-imagining.
In The Coming of the Railways to East Anglia, John Gale writes that:
‘East Anglia was not attractive to railway speculators. Predominantly agricultural in nature, and relatively isolated from other counties, it was not considered to be an area that would generate high profits for shareholders. It was therefore not surprising that the railway age was late in arriving in this part of the British Isles. However, when the early East Anglian railway companies eventually began to operate, they brought immediate changes to rural life.’
These changes included the increased mobility of the population, better employment opportunities (agricultural labourers could earn better wages as railwaymen), a boost in livestock, grain, fruit, vegetables and fish aided by transport abilities, and the financial benefit of longer term holiday visitors, especially coastal resorts.
But these changes did not arrive without apprehension and, in some cases, real fear. In an article from 1874 entitled 'Protection Against the Railways', the Eastern Daily Press - responding to a deadly crash between Thorpe and Brundall - argued that:
‘One of the lessons which the Thorpe catastrophe is calculated to impress forcibly upon us is the necessity which has long existed for some sort of protection against railway mismanagement. It is a notorious fact that the powers which railway corporations have acquired for themselves from time to time are subjected to little or no external check. The executive of the company draws up its time tables and two trains freighted with human lives are actually at the mercy of an understanding between two or three clerks, while the traveller, without the right to question this arrangement, is forced to run the risk of sudden death and all that it may involve.’
Discussing the perceived ineffectiveness of an 1871 Act empowering the Board of Trade to conduct investigations into the ‘cause and circumstances’ of railway accidents, he writes:
‘The Board, for instance, possesses the right to supervise all the permanent ways, and to make recommendation, but it has no power to enforce what it recommends… It is seen, therefore, that after all that Parliament has done and professed to do for the traveller it still leaves him at the mercy of railway mismanagement, and that with all its great powers the Board of Trade is little better than a body authorised to go to railway directors as soon as the steed is stolen and suggest to them the wisdom of locking the stable door.’
The Thorpe catastrophe refers to an accident on the line between Norwich Thorpe and Brundall on 10th September 1874, in which two trains were involved in a head-on collision, resulting in the deaths of both drivers, the fireman and 21 passengers, and serious injury to 73 others. The Illustrated London News reported the calamity as follows:
'On the night of Thursday week, it is our painful task to state, one of the most appalling accidents that ever happened in English railway travelling occurred on the Great Eastern Railway, between Norwich and Brundall, which is a station nearly six miles from Norwich. A train carrying mails to Norwich leaves Great Yarmouth every evening at 8.46, and is joined at Reedham, twelve miles from Norwich, by another train from Lowestoft. This junction was effected that night in the ordinary course, and the combined train proceeded to Brundall, three stations further on. Here it had to wait, because the line is single, until the arrival of the evening express from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, or until permission should be given to the engine-driver to proceed. A mistaken order from Mr. T. Cooper, the night inspector at Norwich Station, allowed the down express to leave Norwich, while the combined mail train from Great Yarmouth was suffered to come on from Brundall. The consequence was that the doomed trains met at Thorpe nearly two miles from Norwich, and ran headlong into each other…
It is thought that the speed of the up mail could not have been less than from thirty to thirty-five miles an hour, while the rate at which the express train was travelling would be from twenty to twenty-five miles. Imagination can only faintly conceive the fearful shock of two such bodies propelled with this velocity, each presenting exactly the same points of contact, and giving and receiving at the same instant the full force of each other’s blow… People living nearby thought they heard a thunder peal… How this was in reality can never be known, as the four poor fellows who manned the two locomotives, were killed in a moment.'
The accident led to the invention of the Tyer tablet system for improved safety on the railways, which would prevent a train being allowed to proceed unsafely along a line.
This focus, though, on the speed, force, and potential terror of the railway draws heavily on other Victorian portrayals of – and fears over – railway travel. Newspapers in the 19th century were fascinated by lurid stories of the seemingly sane sent mad by train travel, and doctors warned of the devastating impact on the nerves of the vibrations on board such a high speed machine. Charles Dickens himself was involved in a railway accident in 1865, the ongoing trauma of which he later described with rushes of terror he said were ‘perfectly unreasonable but unsurmountable.’
Ralph Harrington has also argued that ‘systematic theorization about psychological trauma in the modern West commenced with the responses of mid-Victorian medical practitioners to the so-called railway spine condition, which was characterised by the manifestation of a variety of physical disorders in otherwise healthy and apparently uninjured railway accident victims… The investigation of this condition led many nineteenth-century surgeons to examine the role of psychological factors – variously referred to as “fright,” “terror,” or “emotional shock” – in provoking disorders some thirty years before Freud and Breuer considered the matter in Studies on Hysteria, and half a century before the First World War brought a general recognition of the reality of the “psycho-neuroses.”
The history of the railway in Britain then is also one of medical and psychological significance. However, fears, as in the case of Ruskin above and - famously - William Wordsworth, were not centred wholly on these, particularly as the 19th century wore on and improvements in safety were made.
When it came to discussing the proposed extensions of those lines which now comprise the Marriott's Way, arguments in favour were of convenience, economy, and breaking the perceived grip of the Great Eastern Railway on travel in the county.
The Reverend Whitwell Elwin, quoted in the Norwich Mercury 29th May 1880, speaking at a meeting in Reepham to discuss the railway:
‘He made an able speech, and after quoting various facts to show the enormous difference between road and railway carriage, both for passengers and goods, went on to say, to pay less is equivalent to gaining more, and a near and convenient, instead of a distant railway will, with rare exception, be an addition to the income of our whole community. (Cheers.)
There are two projects before us – that of the Great Eastern Company which is constructing a line that will take us to our capital city by a circuit of twenty-four miles and a quarter, and that of the Lynn and Fakenham Company, which has applied to Parliament for the authority to make a line, of which the portion from Reepham to Norwich measures only twelve miles and a half. This short line through the Wensum Valley is our natural route, and to compel men, cattle, and goods to go double the distance would be merely to tax our population for the enrichment of the Great Eastern Company…
It does seem to me that it would be grossly unjust to bar our transit to Norwich by the most direct, and in all respects the most advantageous line, in order that the dividend of another company may be swelled through the diminution of our prosperity, and the sacrifice of our money, time and convenience.’
Others too, argued passionately in favour of the line. The Reverend W.H. Freeman stated that: ‘…the proposed line of the Lynn and Fakenham Company is the one best calculated to supply the wants of the district, by not only providing direct access to Norwich, but by opening up communication with Fakenham, Lynn, and the midland counties, the north of England, and the north-west of Norfolk.’
Josiah Christmas, landowner at Briston, said simply: ‘If we had a line direct I could kill my fat beasts on the spot and send them to London, the best market in the world.’
Others, such as Mr H.F. Walter of Drayton, a representative of the firm Delane & Magnay owners of paper-mills at Drayton, also spoke in support of the line, lamenting the abandonment of the proposed Wensum Valley line almost twenty years earlier. This line (proposed in 1863/4) would have connected Dereham, Swanton Morley, Elsing, Bylaugh, Lyng, Great & Little Witchingham, Lenwade, Weston, Morton, Costessey, Earlham and Hellesdon, passing through Heigham (over to the Newmarket Road) and terminating near the Norfolk & Norwich hospital. He argued:
‘We employ 180 to 200 hands in our mills. The high price we have to pay for carriage and coals very much handicaps us. Ling, Swanton Morley, and Elsing mills have been given up, and if we do not get some sort of railway communication my father proposes to give up Taverham Mills… If we can get our coals by railway, we shall continue there; if not, the firm have made up their minds to remove the business from Norfolk.’
Many of the opportunities and excitements of railway expansion are exemplified in these arguments: the increased movement of goods, benefits to businesses, escape from the ‘iron bondage’ of the Great Eastern Railway, and increased competition leading to lower prices for consumers.
Although the proposed full extension, linking up to Thorpe Station, was abandoned due to strong opposition to its passing through Cathedral Close, the line to City Station was approved, built, and opened by the end of 1882. Construction on City Station had begun in June 1882 and involved 1,000 men. It opened on 2nd December of that year.
Once opened, as well as the daily timetables of trains carrying passengers between Norwich and Melton Constable, the operation of 'special trains' provide an insight into the era.
In 1885, trains from Norwich City Station carried passengers to London for the Illuminations at the International Inventions Exhibition. The official exhibition guide describes the intention to stage such a celebration as arising from H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, who ‘specially referred to the passing of the New Patent Acts, which were designed to be useful to the poorer classes of inventors, and [that] … much good might result for the holding of an Exhibition which should illustrate the progress of invention since the time of the last Great International Exhibition in this country, in the year 1862.’ In the accompanying exhibition guide, much space is given over to the celebration of improvements to the construction and management of railways – especially in improving efficiency and safety.
Special trains also facilitated trips for theatrical and musical performances, seaside excursions, sporting events, and agricultural fairs.
Over the years of its operation, the line - and the county that contained it - saw many major historical events. These included the floods of 1912, when the slum areas around the river at City Station were overwhelmed and many parts of the line submerged. Two years later, the First World War also took its toll. In British Railways and the Great War, E.A. Pratt discusses the contributions of the Melton Constable works to war efforts, noting that the ‘M&GN sent 20 wagons and 20 coaches overseas and of these 19 wagons and all 20 coaches returned'. Adrian Vaughan describes how in Britain ‘184,000 railwaymen joined the armed forces out of a total railway workforce of 650,000… 18,957 railwaymen were killed in the war…' He adds that over the course of WW1, 'the railways carried twice as much traffic as in 1913 with a third less staff.’ Today, close to Whitwell Station is a memorial to those who left on the train to enlist, and never returned. One of these was William Marriott's own son, Stanley George Marriott (b. 1894). Stanley Marriott died aged 22 on 21 October 1916, killed in France following the explosion of a shell whilst superintending a working party of 600 men.
The man who lends his name to the Marriott's Way was, of course, a central figure in the operation of the Midland & Great Northern line for over 40 years. William Marriott (1857-1943), became an engineer on what was then the Eastern & Midlands Railway in 1883, becoming Locomotive Superintendent and, later Traffic Manager, retiring in 1924. Marriott was a significant presence not only on the line but also in Melton Constable, where he lived while the town boomed as a result of the railway. He played an undeniable role in the religious, social, educational and working life of Melton Constable, buying two cottages for conversion into a place of worship and ensuring a regular supply of preachers. He also established a Railway Institute, which contained within it a temperance establishment.
In 1942, The Baedeker Blitz led to a starkly altered City Station, the air strikes on Norwich leaving it mostly destroyed. In some of the oral history interviews undertaken for this project, the aftermath of this is discussed. Alan Baker, who began work on the railway in the last year of WW2, describes his experiences with a characteristic mix of seriousness and charm, and Ian Dack recalls the latter appearance of City Station on his schoolboy commute.
In these interviews, we see the change on Norfolk's railways charted by memories, including the move from diesel to steam and the development of communities along the lines. Ian Dack also describes the sense that this era was one that would never end: City Station was a busy one, and the sights and smells remain long in the memory. This meant that the closure of the line, and others like it, were keenly felt by many.
Following nationalisation in 1948 passenger services had rapidly declined, but the route was kept running to serve the concrete factory at Lenwade, with the extremely tight Themelthorpe Loop constructed in 1960 linking the two lines together to facilitate transport of concrete through Norwich and onto the Midlands. The curve was so acute that a limit of 25mph had to be imposed to avoid danger of derailment. The line finally closed to all rail traffic following the closure of the factory in 1985. This was met with significant resistance and a funereal acknowledgement send-off and, again, some of the project's interviewees recall the deep sense of loss.
Today, as the Marriott's Way, these lost lines have gained an afterlife. While stations such as Whitwell and Reepham provide a testimony to the railway past, the thousands of users each year travelling on foot, horseback and bike serve to maintain the connectedness and vitality of the route.