The Lynn and Dereham Railway and the Norfolk Railway both obtained Parliament’s permission to build lines to Dereham in 1845, at the height of the so-called “Railway Mania”, when railways were being frantically built across the whole country. The Norfolk Railway, building its line from Wymondham, reached Dereham first, and opened its railway to passengers on the 15th February 1847; while the line from Lynn had to wait until 11th September 1848.
Traffic was quickly transferred to the new railway, with more than 10,000 tons of coal being carried in the first year. However, the cost of building the line had been immense, leaving the Norfolk Railway in a precarious financial position in spite of its success. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the Eastern Counties Railway took on a lease of the Norfolk Railway from May 1848. Work was already under way on building the extension to Fakenham by that time, but after opening that section of the line on the 20th March 1849, the money to build the remainder of the line had run out. Eventually, the independent Wells and Fakenham Railway was set up to build the final missing link, which opened in 1857, ten years after the first trains had run into Dereham.
All this time, the Eastern Counties Railway had been jealously guarding its monopoly in East Anglia, dominating and then leasing smaller companies in the area. The result was a hotch-potch of agreements with the countless small companies, and the ECR had gained itself a thoroughly unpleasant reputation as a result of its constant belligerence and its desire to put profits before customers’ needs. Matters were dereham 1968 greatly improved in 1862, when all the companies concerned merged as the Great Eastern Railway, thus shrugging off the ECR’s burden of bad publicity.
Following the merger, it took several years before expansion took place but, once started, it was carefully planned. A line was built, in stages, from Wroxham to link up with the Wymondham to Wells line just north of County School, and was opened throughout in 1882. Then the line from Wymondham to Dereham was dualled and an avoiding line was built at Dereham, so that King’s Lynn trains no longer had to reverse in Dereham station. To complete the improvements, a line was built south from Wymondham to connect with the main Norwich to London line at Forncett.
The Great Eastern Railway did not manage to maintain its monopoly in East Anglia for long. Having connected all the major centres of population to London, they mistakenly believed that there were no further routes left to build. This false impression was exposed by the arrival of the predecessors of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, with its competing routes to both Norwich and London.
By the end of the 19th century, the line was at its peak and Dereham had a station with trains leaving for King’s Lynn, Wells, Forncett and Norwich (via Wymondham or via County School). It had four platforms, a refreshment room with an extended drinks licence on market days, an engine shed and a busy goods shed. It was a hub of activity as almost everything made in Dereham, or brought into the town, was moved by train. The station staff numbered over 90.
As with most railways, the line was heavily used during the First World War, and by the time hostilities ceased in 1918, the whole network was a worn-out wreck. The result of this was that there were calls for the railways to be nationalised, but the government of the day resisted these calls, opting in 1923 to group the many small companies into what became known as the “Big Four”: the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), the Southern Railway, the Great Western, and the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). The Dereham line, along with the rest of the Great Eastern, became part of the latter.
Under the LNER, the line received little in the way of investment, and the line’s gradual decline began in the years of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when passenger numbers began to fall. However, war was once again on the horizon, and Norfolk was in a particularly exposed position, resulting in a massive increase in military traffic; in fact, extra sidings had to be laid at Dereham in order to cope with demand.
As the First World War had done, the latest war exacted a heavy toll, and once again, there were calls for nationalisation. The Labour government of the day, under Clement Atlee, were much less averse to this than the Liberals had been in 1923, and so at midnight on 31st December 1947, a nationwide fanfare of locomotive whistles heralded the demise of private ownership of the nation’s railway network. The days of British Railways had begun.
The 1954 Modernisation Plan was introduced in an attempt to revitalise the railways, but by the mid-1950s many wartime restrictions and shortages had eased, and competition from road transport became greater with the increased use of private cars
As a result of modernisation, the line witnessed its last scheduled steam-hauled passenger train on the 17th September 1955. Diesel units took over the next day, and the line enjoyed quicker trains and a more frequent service. Steam-hauled freight continued into the early 1960s. By 1960 there was an hourly passenger service to Norwich taking between 32 and 40 minutes. Even so, the increased use of road transport, leading to a decline in passenger numbers, had an impact on the line and it became one of the many railways to be threatened by the “Beeching Report” in 1963.
This led to the withdrawal of the passenger service between Dereham and Wells in 1964. Dereham became an intermediate station between Norwich and King’s Lynn, as the line from Wroxham to County School had lost its passenger service as early as 1952. The usual signs associated with rationalisation were soon to be seen, as sidings were taken up and signal boxes demolished as part of an attempt to reduce operating costs. In June 1965, the Wymondham to Dereham section was reduced to single track with a passing loop at Hardingham. More was to come, with the withdrawal of the passenger service from King’s Lynn in September 1968 followed by the service between Wymondham and Dereham in October 1969. In less than a decade, a century of railway history had been brought to a terrible end.
While Dereham, North Elmham, Ryburgh and Fakenham remained open to freight, efforts were made to restore passenger services. In 1974, the Railway Invigoration Society (later to become the Railway Development Society) called a meeting in Dereham to try to get a passenger service restored between Wymondham and Fakenham. As a result of this, the Wymondham, Dereham and Fakenham Rail Action Committee (WyDFRAC) was formed, principally to show that the line could still prove useful; and after three years of trying, they managed to charter a train in April 1978. Two return trips between Dereham and Norwich were run, and were an outstanding success. Between 1978 and 1988, at least one train was operated each year, and included ten-coach locomotive-hauled trains to as far away as York and Portsmouth.
In 1978, rumours of the closure of the Ryburgh to Fakenham section started to spread, and so the Fakenham and Dereham Railway Society (F&DRS) was formed with the aim of operating the section after closure by BR. In 1979, a charter train ran as far as Fakenham, but later that year it was announced that the section of line between Ryburgh and Fakenham would close from 1st January 1980. Local pressure brought about a brief delay while the F&DRS endeavoured to secure the future of the section. Although a substantial amount was raised, it was insufficient to purchase the line, which eventually closed in August, and subsequently the track was lifted.
It was not long before the section from North Elmham to Ryburgh came under threat of closure. The last freight train worked from Ryburgh in August 1981, but the section remained intact for a while longer. Perversely, a weedkiller train visited Ryburgh in May 1982 and the Neptune Track Recorder unit reached Ryburgh in August 1982, after which the section was officially closed.
Following this further setback, the F&DRS decided to concentrate on the Wymondham to Dereham section, and in 1983 it successfully negotiated the lease on part of the station and yard at Hardingham. Some track was laid in the yard, a Ruston diesel locomotive was acquired, and a small museum was set up in the building.
Unfortunately, the rent and rates were higher than income, and when BR decided to auction off the site in 1986, the F&DRS decided to cut its losses and move to a temporary site down the line at Yaxham. This was a low point, with only about 35 members, but before long, the District Council enquired about a railway presence at their proposed Heritage Centre at County School. The F&DRS moved in and laid tracks, relaid the level crossing and established a thriving railway centre.
It was hoped that once a rail centre was operating at County School, it could be linked again to the BR line at North Elmham to connect with chartered trains on the branch, but this dream was rudely shattered when the complete closure of the line from June 1989 was announced. The likelihood of getting the funds together to purchase a 17.5 mile stretch of line was almost unthinkable, but a sudden surge of interest kept the idea alive. It was agreed that all the organisations interested in saving the line should meet. Thus the Mid-Norfolk Railway Project (MNRP) was born.
The original idea of the MNRP was to set up a company to try to raise capital to purchase all, or part, of the line. Interest from local councils was much greater than in the past and many people asked to be kept in touch with events.
In the hope that the line could be purchased, and with the need for a big supporting society, it was decided that unification of the various groups with an interest in the line would be a good thing. The groups amalgamated in 1990 and, shortly afterwards, the F&DRS voted to change its name to the Mid-Norfolk Railway Society (MNRS).
The MNRS maintained a presence at County School and became the supporting society for a company set up to purchase the line, but the arrangement came to an unpleasant end in 1994, after which the Society resolved to make its own bid for the line. A result of the dispute was that various items of rolling stock were moved by road from County School to Dereham, from where, with special permission from BR, some went by rail to Yaxham and others were placed in store at Hardingham.
In order to buy the line, the MNRS agreed to set up a Charitable Trust Company limited by guarantee, which formally came into being as the Mid-Norfolk Railway Preservation Trust (MNRPT) in March 1995, and was registered as a Charity in the following June. Yaxham became the centre of operations, and permission was given to clear the line of undergrowth and to build a platform in order to run trains. The station at Dereham was cleaned up, and open days held. After building a platform at Rash’s Green near Dereham, passenger trains were run between there and Yaxham in 1995. This was a huge success and provided tangible evidence of the Trust’s achievements and its ability to operate the line. After relaying track into Dereham station in early 1997, the first train ran from the station in the summer of that year.
After many years of patient negotiations, and with considerable help from Norfolk County Council, Breckland District Council and South Norfolk District Council, the Wymondham to Dereham section of the line was purchased in April 1998 and became the property of the MNRPT. The line and its connection with the main line at Wymondham were passed for use by freight trains in June 1998, and within a few days a test freight train from Eastleigh worked onto the line – the first train to work into Dereham from the national rail network since closure of the line in 1989.
The resumption of train services on the Dereham line has, for many people, been the realisation of a dream. A great deal of time, effort and sweat has been put into making the Mid-Norfolk Railway the success that it undoubtedly is, and that immense effort is ongoing, gradually reversing the effects of 40 years’ neglect and decline. Looking back at old photos, in which the line was barely visible beneath great thickets of trees, it is amazing that so much has been accomplished in such a short amount of time. Long may it continue that way.
Based on an Essay written by Owen Stratford.