Notes: Fen Ditton was one of three halts on the Mildenhall branch. All three opened on 20 November 1922, survived until the line closed to passengers and were identical in layout; moreover each was on the up side of the line and on the up side of the adjacent road bridges. The halts were provided by the Great Eastern Railway in an attempt to stem losses from bus competition but to this end they were only mildly successful. The GER was in a difficult position and the provision of the halts was part of a wider scheme concerning the Mildenhall branch. We have seen in the main branch history that following World War I road competition increased as a direct result of large numbers of vehicles being sold off as surplus. WWI was a ‘learning curve’ where motor vehicles were concerned; many service personnel had learned how to drive, repair and maintain motor vehicles and following the end of the war demobbed personnel, finding themselves at a loose end, did the obvious and set themselves up as road hauliers. Often the acquired vehicles were adapted to serve as goods vehicles on certain days of the week and buses on others. In rural areas such enterprises were the first real threat to railway branch lines.
Following WWI the GER became concerned about the poor receipts, especially passenger, that the Mildenhall branch was generating and steps were taken to counter this. One solution was a drastic reduction of stationmaster positions; the Barnwell Junction stationmaster found himself also responsible for Quy, Bottisham & Lode and Swaffham Prior; the Soham stationmaster found himself transferred to Fordham and thenceforth responsible also for Burwell and, ironically, Soham; the Mildenhall stationmaster had it relatively easy, with only Isleham added to his empire. These changes took effect in 1921 and with those economies in place the GER looked at ways of increasing revenue or, rather, of limiting the amount of revenue lost to road competition and the result was the three halts.
Details of the trains adapted to serve the halts can be found in the Cambridge feature and in the Mildenhall Branch history.
Fen Ditton is a village on the north-eastern edge of Cambridge and housing developments along and off Ditton Lane mean today the two adjoin each other without any open land to speak of in between, other than Ditton Meadows. A century ago things were very different and much open land separated Cambridge from Fen Ditton. Maps, excluding that from 1964, on the Barnwell Junction page show the boundary between Cambridge and Fen Ditton was just east of the Cambridge - Ely railway. Indeed, Cambridge Airport was originally located on what is now the Whitehill Estate and that land was once also part of the parish of Fen Ditton. For many years there has been a bus service linking Cambridge with Waterbeach via Fen Ditton and Horningsea. It was never especially frequent but was enough to prompt the GER to open Fen Ditton Halt which was, in 1922, well away from the urban spread of Cambridge and its bus services. This situation is difficult to imagine today. As a result of boundary changes in 1928 much of Fen Ditton parish was swallowed-up by Cambridge, and over the following decades the urban sprawl of Cambridge reached Fen Ditton halt. These boundary changes made the Mildenhall branch the boundary between Cambridge and Fen Ditton and with the halt on the up side of the line it found itself placed just within the City of Cambridge. Today, frequent Cambridge city bus services* operate to Fison Road which is a few yards from the site of the former railway halt - all very different from 1922 when the halt really was 'out in the sticks'.
*For some mysterious reason the bus company chooses to mis-spell City as 'Citi'.
Fen Ditton Halt was at the summit of a 1:200 gradient from Barnwell, and beyond the bridge (No.2236) the gradient eased to 1:100 as the line curved north-eastwards. Having passed beneath High Ditch Road bridge (No.2237) which still standing at the time of writing, a lengthy, straight section of track extended through Quy to Bottisham.
In railway terms a halt is a small, unstaffed station; on other lines a halt may be provided with a proper, but rudimentary, platform and waiting shelter but Fen Ditton is typical of a number of ground-level halts which once existed across the country. This halt was provided with a cinder 'platform' which was faced by old sleepers some time after opening. It was 30ft in length with a nameboard, an oil lamp, a trespass warning sign and sloping pathway up the embankment, gated at the top end.
Several images of the halts on the Mildenhall branch show the oil lamps to be absent. It is likely that as no trains ran during the hours of darkness during the summer months, the lamps were removed and stored. It was the job of train guards to light and extinguish the lamps but who was responsible for filling the lamps with paraffin is not known. It has been said that later in the life of the Mildenhall branch, oil lamps at the halts (at least) were replaced with Tilley lamps but no photographic evidence of this has come to light.
The final train, the branch goods, ran through Fen Ditton Halt on 10 June 1964 behind Brush Type 2 D5662. The track was lifted shortly afterwards, the bridge was demolished c1971 and the approach embankments levelled. As mentioned earlier, building has encroached upon the site and today the scene is totally unrecognisable. Beyond the site of the bridge, however, the trackbed survives intact as far as a point just beyond High Ditch Road but is heavily overgrown. It is then bisected by the A14 road, beyond which much of the route as far as Quy is now a farm track.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MILDENHALL BRANCH
The Mildenhall branch arrived relatively late on the railway scene and it could be said that its existence was owed in part to the ill-fated Newmarket & Chesterford Railway (N&C). In 1847 the N&C, with its main line yet to be opened, sought powers to extend beyond Newmarket to Thetford, linking up with the Norfolk Railway, and to Ely and Bury St Edmunds. Of those, the Thetford link was never built; had it been built it would have served the Mildenhall area.
This problem was frustrating Charles Allix (1842-1921) of Swaffham Prior House who approached the GER in 1867 with a view to the construction of a railway from the Swaffham Prior area into Cambridge. The GER rejected the proposal. The next proposal for a railway serving the Mildenhall area was for the ‘Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway’, the company's deputy chairman being none other than Mr Allix. This railway was incorporated by an Act of 1875 and a reasonable amount of information has survived about it. Had it been built it would have served the Fordham and Mildenhall areas, but nothing came of the scheme and it was formally abandoned in 1880.
Meanwhile back at Swaffham Prior, Mr Allix remained determined to see his region provided with a railway to help revive local agriculture which was experiencing economic hardship. It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, as Allix was soon to discover. The railway north of Cambridge and onwards to Brandon had suffered problems with flooding, and during 1878 serious disruption occurred once again. This time the GER 'brass' realized that Allix's proposal could, if built, help alleviate the problems, and thus the Mildenhall branch was finally born.
While plans to build the Mildenhall branch were stampeding ahead, the GER had meanwhile re-engineered the vulnerable sections of the Ely - Thetford line. The GER therefore viewed an alternative route, i.e. via Mildenhall, as no longer warranted and this was the reason that the branch never progressed beyond Mildenhall.
Back in the boardroom, the GER was inviting tenders for construction of the Mildenhall branch. With Royal Assent having been received on 18 July 1881, the relevant Act provided for three sections of railway: Barnwell - Swaffham Prior; Swaffham Prior - Fordham; Fordham - Mildenhall. Henry Lovatt, of Wolverhampton, won the contract for the entire route with his tender of £76,327 11s 8d. During October 1882 the contractor moved in to peg-out the course of the line, and on a cold and miserable Wednesday 3 January 1883 some GER grandees and Mr Allix assembled at – unsurprisingly - Swaffham Prior for the usual 'cutting of the first sod' ceremony. During 1883 the signalling contract was awarded to Messrs McKenzie & Holland with signal boxes costing £75 10s each, while local tradesmen were recruited for the erection of station buildings. The station building at Swaffham Prior was built in a somewhat different style from the others in order to mirror the design of Swaffham Prior House.
The 19m 3ch route between Barnwell Junction and Mildenhall had no fewer than 70 level crossings. To put this into a less dramatic perspective, only seven were on public roads with the remainder being foot or occupation crossings.
Major General Hutchinson inspected the Barnwell - Fordham section on behalf of the Board of Trade on 28 May 1884. Whilst the inspector found the general standard of construction to be high, a number of issues with fencing and signalling were noted. Permission was given for the line to open if these issues were dealt with quickly - which they apparently were. The inspector also required all trains to call at all stations. Inspection of the Fordham - Mildenhall section, on 28 March 1885, went well, with only a couple of issues at Fordham station. Otherwise, the inspector was impressed with the general standard of construction and gave his consent for the immediate opening of this section.
Passenger services on the branch were never frequent although in the early years they were more or less on a par with other rural branch lines. Despite the possibilities offered by the connection at Fordham with the Ely line, the original timetable offered only four Cambridge - Fordham (and return) services stopping at all stations conforming to the Board of Trade inspector's requirements. Later that year, 1884, this was increased to five return journeys, Thursdays excepted. On that day, Ely market day, advantage was taken of the connection at Fordham and one train continued to Ely, the 12.30pm ex-Cambridge, which returned from Ely at 3.30pm.
With the opening of the Fordham - Mildenhall section the following year, five return journeys travelled the full length of the line although on Thursdays one did not operate between Cambridge and Fordham, and vice versa. Tuesdays and Thursdays saw an additional Mildenhall - Fordham (and return) service but at different times on each of those days. Timetables do not indicate that these trains continued to/from Ely so they were probably connecting services. By 1890 there were additional Thursdays-only/excepted services plus one mixed train. Things then trundled on in much the same fashion until the first decade of the twentieth century.
Despite increases in traffic, especially following the opening of the Fordham - Mildenhall section, the GER was perpetually worried about poor traffic receipts for the line. In 1914 the GER's James Holden decided to experiment with Push - Pull trains as a cost-cutting measure. He borrowed drawings from the London, Brighton & South Coast railway of their Westinghouse (compressed air) Push - Pull control system and converted Y65 2-4-2T No. 1311 and two clerestory bogie coaches into a Push - Pull train with further conversions following later. This train operated trials in service on the Mildenhall branch from 5 October 1914 but the experiment was not considered a success.
The First World War brought considerable extra goods traffic to the line as a result of the government urging farmers to produce more food, but otherwise the war had little effect.
By 1922 the timetable showed just three trains per day operating via Burwell, with the first down train not departing from Cambridge until 10.30am. There was, however, an earlier service to Mildenhall via Newmarket which left Cambridge at 6.47am.
In an attempt to encourage more business, on 20 November 1922 the GER opened three halts on the line at Fen Ditton, Exning Road and Mildenhall Golf Links. They were on the up side of the line, i.e. on the left side of Cambridge-bound trains, and on the Cambridge side of adjacent road overbridges (Bridges 2236, 2242 and 2257 respectively). They were rudimentary affairs: a footpath led down the embankment from the road to end at a low cinder 'platform' faced with what appears to have been old sleepers.
The Railways Act of 1921 saw the GER become part of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) on 1 January 1923. On this date Mildenhall Golf Links Halt was renamed Worlington Golf Links Halt. The ‘Halt’ suffix appeared in timetables and on tickets but not on the halt nameboards. As the halts had no proper platforms, the GER introduced carriages fitted with retractable steps. Initial conversions were of increasingly antiquated 6-wheeled stock. Because the halts lacked booking facilities the GER introduced ‘conductor-guard’ working, and for this purpose the carriage stock had to be modified to allow the guard to move through the train. Tickets from Quy were also issued on the train.
The LNER viewed the former GER system it had inherited as something of a millstone around its neck and considered the withdrawal of a number of branch passenger services in the east of England. At around the same time the LNER made further economies by reducing the status of Quy and Swaffham Prior signal boxes to shunting frames. In 1935 these two boxes were abolished altogether and at the same time the goods loops through these stations were lifted.
World War Two broke out in September 1939 and this brought some increase in traffic to the Mildenhall branch. As with the First World War, the line saw an increase in agricultural traffic and, as indicated above, of military personnel using the line. Goods traffic vital to the war effort was generally routed from Cambridge via Newmarket during the night. Nevertheless, the need for the railways to focus assets where they were most needed meant that services on the Mildenhall branch remained infrequent. For the duration of hostilities there were still three trains per day each way with the first down train operating via Newmarket. Two goods trains per weekday were provided, one of which commenced from sidings at Coldham Lane Junction, Cambridge.
After the war things returned to pretty much the way they had been previously. On 1 January 1948 the Mildenhall branch became part of the Eastern Region of British Railways. Bradshaw for that date shows three trains each way: down trains at 6.33am, 10.28am, and 4.27pm; and at 7.42am,11.50am and 5.48pm in the up direction. The 6.33am ex-Cambridge omitted the halts, but did call at Quy, and all trains ran via Burwell. By the 1950s there were four passenger trains per day, the final departure being at 9.00pm from Mildenhall, omitting Worlington and operating via Newmarket to Cambridge. The BR 1954 timetable tells us the service had reverted to that of January 1948, as outlined earlier, apart from slight re-timings.
From November 1955 diesels made their first appearance when two brand new sets of Metropolitan-Cammell 79xxx DMUs were sent to Cambridge for timing trials: E79047+E79263 and E79051+E79278. These trials included the Mildenhall branch, commencing on 20 November. By this time more Mildenhall services ran via Newmarket, plus the occasional service from Ely to Mildenhall which involved a reversal at Fordham. From 7 July 1958 diesel railbuses were introduced on Mildenhall branch services. These vehicles lacked retractable steps, as did the DMUs. For the halts, therefore, sets of portable wooden steps were provided and were usually left at the lineside to await their next call of duty.
Goods traffic prior to 1962 was much as previously, with one train per day. By this time, goods trains were usually hauled by Brush Type 2 (Class 31) locomotives with J17 steam locomotives still putting in occasional appearances.
The Mildenhall branch closed to passengers on and from Monday 18 June 1962, with the final trains running on Saturday 16th, there being no Sunday service. On the final day the first down train and its return up working to/from Mildenhall was operated by a 4-car Cravens DMU. A 2-car Wickham unit sufficed for the remainder of the day. The Wickham unit, E50416/E56171, operated the 4.21pm ex-Cambridge and this was the last passenger train along the Barnwell - Fordham section. This train then departed from Mildenhall at 5.15pm to Cambridge via Newmarket. The same DMU then operated the 5.56pm to Mildenhall via Newmarket and the corresponding 7.31pm Mildenhall - Cambridge via Newmarket; this was the final passenger train to and from Mildenhall.
Following the end of passenger services, Isleham and Mildenhall signal boxes closed with immediate effect. The once-daily goods train continued to run, but in the up direction only between Fordham and Cambridge; the down goods ran from Cambridge to Mildenhall via Newmarket. The train was withdrawn on 13 July 1964, the final run being on Friday 10th. This left the Fordham - Burwell section which continued to enjoy a goods service until it was withdrawn on 6 April 1965. Fordham station and its neighbour, Soham, closed on 13 September 1965, and Fordham signal box closed on 28 October 1973.
The Burwell & District Motor Service, having suspended its Mildenhall - Cambridge Service 11 at the outbreak of war, had reinstated the service at the cessation of hostilities but truncated it to operate only between Cambridge and Isleham, and it ran only on Saturdays and Sundays. Following withdrawal of the Mildenhall branch passenger trains, B&D modified Service 11 to operate daily and thus it became the rail replacement bus service.
Tickets from Michael Stewart, except 1034 David Pearson. Route map drawn by Alan Young. Totem from Richard Furness.
Click here to see a 17 minute colour film of a steam locomotive travelling from Cambridge to Mildenhall in 1959. Includes all the stations on the line, Fron Cambridge Community Archive Network.
Click here for a fuller history of the Mildenhall branch
Click here for special feture: Last Train to Mildenhall
- Quick, Michael Railway passenger stations in Great Britain: a chronology (RCTS 2009)
- The Great Eastern Railway (Cecil.J.Allen, Ian Allen 1955)
- The Mildenhall Branch (Peter Paye, Wild Swan 1988)
- Burwell & District Motor Service (Written and published privately by Jim Neale c.1979)
- The London Gazette, November 28th 1879 (Abandonment of Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway)
- The National Archive (Information on the Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway)
- http://landedfamilies.blogspot.co.uk/ (Information on the Allix family)
See other stations on the Mildenhall branch:
Barnwell Junction, Quy, Bottisham & Lode, Swaffham Prior, Burwell, Exning Road Halt, Fordham, Isleham, Worlington Golf Links Halt & Mildenhall
See also Cambridge