History of the M&GN
The North Norfolk Railway is part of the former Melton Constable to Cromer Beach branch line of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN).
The M&GN was created in 1893 and was a sprawling cross country system created by the merger over the years of many locally promoted lines that were built both to serve impoverished rural areas and to challenge the monopoly of the Great Eastern Railway (GER) in west and north Norfolk. The system had 186 route miles (297.6km) stretching from Peterborough and Bourne in the west to Great Yarmouth, Norwich, and Cromer in the east. Most of its route was single line with passing places at stations. This made many journeys slow and prone to delays. It was Britain’s largest ‘Joint’ railway (jointly owned by both the Midland Railway and Great Northern Railway. Eventually relationships with the GER softened enough for them to build joint lines (Norfolk and Suffolk Joint) to Mundesley and Lowestoft, and to allow the GER to run through to Sheringham from Cromer.
The railway’s works were at Melton Constable (5 miles SW of Holt), the hub of the system, where its mainly second-hand locomotives, carriages and wagons were repaired, modified and even rebuilt. The Company also built houses and a school for its workers, together with other facilities such as gas works, water storage tower, sewerage works, recreation ground and a bowling green. Whilst the new village was called Melton Constable after the nearby estate, the works were actually built in the tiny hamlet of Burgh Parva. Melton Constable today with its railway terraced streets is more reminiscent of the railway towns of the industrial north of England than a small village in deepest rural Norfolk.
In 1923 when the other major railways of Britain were grouped to form the LNER (London & North Eastern Railway), LMS (London Midland & Scottish), GWR (Great Western Railway) and SR (Southern Railway) the M&GN unusually remained an independent company under joint control of the LMS and the LNER. In 1936 the LNER took over full ownership of the M&GN. They did little to develop the former M&GN, as they already owned the old Great Eastern Railway, which served many of the places also served by the Joint.
When the railways were nationalized in 1948 the former M&GN lines became part of British Railways (BR) Eastern Region. Soon after nationalization, BR set out to cut services on unprofitable lines. At this point, road transport was rapidly taking over from the railways, with many army surplus vehicles being used by new operators, and cars were becoming an affordable means of transport for everyone.
When the BR modernisation plan started in 1955, the cost of implementing it meant BR had to make significant economies, and the M&GN was a prime candidate. During 1958 the plan to close most of the M&GN was made public. Despite much protest about the loss of services, almost all of the M&GN closed on 28th February 1959.
Apart from the North Norfolk Railway the only remaining section of the M&GN is the Network Rail line from Sheringham to Cromer, which is still part of the national network. This is a part of Greater East Anglia’s very successful ‘Bittern Line’ from Norwich, which was modernized in 2000, and has a frequent passenger service using modern diesel units. In 2005 this line became a ‘Community Rail Route’, which means that the local organizations have a say in its management and promotion, which has furthered its success. From February 2010 the reinstatement of the Station Road level crossing in Sheringham means that the North Norfolk Railway will once again be connected to the national rail network.
History of the North Norfolk Railway
The Pre-Preservation Era
The section between Holt, Weybourne and Sheringham, along with the section to Cromer was built by the Eastern and Midlands Railway and opened on 16th June, 1887. Unlike most other railways of the time it was built to exploit the rapidly growing tourist market rather than to serve the local communities. Initially the line was intended to go from Holt to Blakeney to serve the harbour there, with a branch to Sheringham, but when the directors realized the potential revenue from tourists visiting Clement Scott’s ‘Poppyland’ they abandoned the Blakeney scheme and built the line to Sheringham with a further extension to Cromer. Despite several further schemes to build a railway to Blakeney none of them came to fruition, leaving Blakeney as the charming undeveloped harbour it is today.
From its opening the line provided a successful service for holidaymakers and locals alike. With the coming of the Second World War the railway became of strategic importance, serving the military training camp and artillery range at Weybourne, carrying servicemen and supplies. Armoured trains patrolled the line during both world wars, ready to defend the area in the event of an invasion.
With changing holiday and transport patterns, revenue declined throughout the 1950s. This line survived the mass closure of the M&GN in 1959, it then succumbed to the infamous Dr Beeching, closing between Melton Constable and Sheringham in 1964. Sheringham Station was closed to the public in 1967 when British Rail built a platform on the east side of Station Road so that trains no longer had to use the level crossing to reach the station. The station was then leased to the M&GN Society, to become part of the North Norfolk Railway.
The Preservation Era
Out of the 1959 closure came the Midland and Great Eastern Joint Railway Preservation Society. Paper flyers distributed on the last day encouraged travellers to join the Society to help save the M&GN The early preservation schemes were to say the least unrealistic, with enthusiasm and idealism over-riding common sense. The schemes included the preservation and operation of: –
- The whole of the former M&GN.
- North Walsham to Great Yarmouth.
- North Walsham to Aylsham.
- Melton Constable to Norwich City Station.
- Melton Constable to Hindolvestone.
The Society was busying itself raising funds. A popular way of doing this was to run ‘last trip’ railtours over the already closed branches of the M&GN and GER before the track was lifted. BR had a hard-nosed attitude to preservationists at that time and it was hard to get them to take the Society seriously. A company, called Central Norfolk Enterprises had to be formed by the Society to buy the line. By 1964 their aims had become more realistic and when the section from Melton Constable to Sheringham closed sufficient funds had been raised to purchase the 3-mile section from Weybourne to Sheringham which included Weybourne station. Unfortunately BR’s determination to destroy the infrastructure meant that demolition contractors had already lifted the track through the station at Weybourne. They were also able to negotiate options to purchase the trackbed west of Weybourne to High Kelling, the trackbed south of here into Holt town was earmarked (and subsequently used) by the Norfolk County Council for the Holt town bypass.
Initially, the railway founded its headquarters at Weybourne, until British Rail moved out of Sheringham station in January 1967. The railway then took a lease on Sheringham station and transferred its activities there. On 4th June 1967 the Society’s rolling stock; two steam locomotives, two diesel railbuses, the ‘Quad Art’ coaches and the GE coach, arrived from storage at various locations around East Anglia across the level crossing that was still in situ then.
Central Norfolk Enterprises Limited, changed its name to the North Norfolk Railway Company in 1969 and went public to raise capital by offering shares, initially raising £14,000, a large sum at the time. This was the first time a preserved railway had raised money by offering shares to the public.
The early years were a struggle with minimal facilities. Maintenance had to be carried out in the open air, and track had to be re-laid at Weybourne before operations could begin. It was 1975 before the company could offer public passenger trains. The railway continued acquiring locomotives and rolling stock for use on the line making it necessary to lay extra sidings at Sheringham and Weybourne.
Initially, only members of the M&GNJRS could be carried and day membership was available at the ticket office. After a public enquiry the first Light Railway Order was granted to British Rail acting on behalf of the Company, this meant that after detailed inspection by BR of engines, passenger stock and operating personnel, members of the public were finally carried from July 1975. In 1976 the Department of the Environment granted the second Light Railway Order to the North Norfolk Railway making it responsible for its own operations.
In 1980 the railway purchased the overgrown trackbed to High Kelling. Between 1980 and 1989 volunteers toiled every weekend to clear the heavy undergrowth and relay the track. For some time railbuses ran from Weybourne to a temporary halt near Kelling Heath campsite. The railway was finally reopened to Holt on 19th March 1989. Initial facilities here were basic with just one platform, and a wooden coach body as a ticket office. Since then the Holt site has been considerably developed into a complete working country railway station.
In 2001 the railway received a bombshell with the news that the landlords of Sheringham station were proposing to evict the railway and redevelop the station site as a supermarket. Thanks to a hugely successful campaign and Heritage Lottery funding the station was not only saved, but sufficient funds were raised to complete the purchase and to fully restore the buildings, leaving them in better condition than they had been for many years.
Securing the future of one M&GN station was not enough! In 2002, Norfolk County Council donated the redundant M&GN station building from Stalham to the railway for reuse at Holt. Volunteers carefully dismantled the building brick by brick for transportation by road to Holt, where it was rebuilt.
Thanks to donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, two large sheds were built in 2007 near Bridge 299, giving the railway enough covered accommodation to house not only the restored rolling stock, but also items awaiting restoration, so preventing further deterioration, and tidying up the railway at the same time.
In 2010 the railway undertook one of its most ambitious projects, to rebuild the level crossing at Sheringham to reconnect with the national network. With the help of donations from enthusiasts, well-wishers and local government, volunteers and contractors toiled though one of the worst winters in decades to reinstate the crossing. Their hard work was rewarded on March 11th when BR ‘Britannia’ Class no. 70013 ‘Oliver Cromwell’ hauled a special train from London King’s Cross to Holt over the crossing, the first passenger train to do so in 34 years.
The Society and the North Norfolk Railway have won many prestigious awards over the years. This is due to the hard work and enthusiasm of the railway’s volunteers and staff over the past fifty one years, in transforming a derelict railway into the major tourist attraction it is today.