Notes: Swaffham station had two passenger platforms. That on the south (up) side housed the main station buildings, the station yard and public access from the town. The stationmaster’s house was an unassuming, two-storey structure of pale cream brick under a hipped roof with a tall central chimneystack. This abutted the station building constructed of knapped flint with brick quoins and stone window surrounds. Biddle (Victorian Stations, 1973) notes the plain ogee gables and lozenge-latticed windows which ‘betokened a delightfully cosy simplicity entirely fitting in north Norfolk’. A near-flat awning with plain valance, supported by remarkably large and chunky brackets with trefoil motifs in the spandrels, was attached to the station building on the platform elevation. The up platform was linked to the down side platform by a footbridge at the east end of the station. There was a smaller building, little more than a shelter, on this platform facing the south platform; the pent roof of this structure sloped upwards towards the platform face and its angle was continued by the timber awning. There were no bay platforms: the line to the rear of the down platform formed a loop used for goods traffic. Pointwork at each end allowed trains to use any of the three lines whether from King’s Lynn to the west or either the Dereham or Watton lines in the other direction. The line to King’s Lynn became single track immediately after leaving the station area. Two sidings shunted from the east lay on the north side of the running lines and there was a long one on the south side.
Trains began running on the Lynn & Dereham Railway on 10 August 1847 after the line was extended from Narborough. Eastwards towards Dereham they ran, at first, only as far as Sporle from 26 October 1847: Sporle to Dereham opened on 11 September 1848. Swaffham became a junction station on 20 September 1875 when goods services commenced on the line from Watton and Thetford; passenger traffic started on that route a couple of months later on 25 November.
Swaffham Station signal box was at the east end of the Up platform, alongside the footbridge, controlling the station area with the crossing gates being hand-worked. To the east of the level crossing there were two sidings shunted from the station direction; these lay on the north side of the running lines. Opposite them was a two-road engine shed, opened with the line and entered by way of a locomotive turntable. The turntable line was reached from the signal box by way of west-facing points. The shed was closed by the GER in 1914. It remained a stabling point (including overnight at weekends in particular), with water, turning and basic servicing facilities, until final closure on 2 April 1962. A short distance beyond the engine servicing area a second signal box was later provided on the south side to control the junction of the Lynn & Dereham Railway and the Watton & Swaffham’s line. Both companies’ lines were double track at that point although each became single less than 100yd beyond the junction.
Stanley C Jenkins, in his book about the Lynn & Dereham Railway, gives us the names of many of the Station Masters in charge at various places and times. One post-holder of note at Swaffham was John Coker who supervised the no doubt large workforce required for a busy junction station for more than 25 years. He took up office around the turn of the 20th Century and stayed in post until after Grouping in 1923.
The timetable for 1866, nine years before the line through Watton opened, shows that Swaffham saw four up and four down trains each weekday and one each way on Sundays. An express left for Lynn and Peterborough at 8.25am, non-stop to Lynn. The equivalent down working called at 7.52pm. All of the other services called at all stations if required to do so. Of the intermediate stations only Dunham and Narborough had definite stops. Not shown in the tables, a train for Norwich and its market left on Saturdays only at about 8.40am. Market-goers returned on the 5.20pm from the city, changing at Dereham.
By 1882 the station was a much busier place. There was more activity on the main line, by that time part of the Great Eastern Railway and the branch to Thetford was, from 1879, worked by the same railway under a leasing agreement. Some integration had happened and one train ran through from Lynn to Thetford, going forward to Bury, except on Mondays. An evening train ran from Thetford to Lynn. Five trains left for Dereham, one more on each of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Eight up trains left for Lynn, including that off the Thetford branch.
In 1926 the LNER rationalised the signalling with a tall signal box beside the level crossing; it had three tracks in front and one behind. The Junction box was taken out of use at this time. The 56-lever Tyers 4" frame controlled extensive goods facilities on both sides of the line with the crossing gates being operated by a wheel.
The 1932 LNER Working Timetable showed a steady flow of passenger and goods traffic at Swaffham. There were five passenger workings each way on the Thetford branch and a daily goods worked from Lynn to Roudham Junction. On the main line there were six passenger trains in each direction plus one more on each of Tuesday and Saturday, these being market days in Lynn and Norwich respectively. One strange movement is shown. On Mondays and Fridays Swaffham sent out a light engine to Dereham at 6.00am. Shortly after its arrival a light engine set off from Dereham back to Swaffham! From this distance in time we can only speculate about why this was scheduled.
Steam-worked passenger trains ceased running through Swaffham at the end of the 1955 summer timetable after which all services was operated by DMUs based at Dereham. The main line saw a big increase in services: eleven up trains bound for Lynn stopped at Dunham, one more ran only to Swaffham where a change for Lynn was offered. Thirteen down trains stopped: one came from Thetford via Watton. The Thetford branch saw a more moderate increase. There was no Sunday service on either line.
Some steam turns continued on goods trains on the remaining lines to King’s Lynn and Dereham until Norwich Thorpe shed closed to steam on 2 April 1962. Probably the last steam train to be seen at Swaffham was on 31 March 1962 when the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society ran a final steam excursion along several East Anglian lines.
Despite BR’s modernisation attempts the end was signalled in Dr. Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways, published in March 1963 and closure of Norfolk’s branch lines began with some urgency. All passenger services to Watton and Thetford ended on 15 June 1964 although the final trains had run on 12 June. The last train to Thetford left at 7.16pm and arrived back at Swaffham at 10.01pm. Goods traffic continued on the line as far as Watton until 19 April 1965 and Swaffham lost all of its goods trains in 1966. Closure notices were served for the Lynn & Dereham line in 1968 and it closed to passengers with effect from 9 September 1968, with the last trains running on Saturday 7 September.
A Brief History of the Watton and Swaffham Railway - also known as the Bury and Thetford (Swaffham Branch) Railway
On 16 July 1866 the Thetford and Watton Railway was incorporated to construct a new railway that would leave the Norwich & Brandon Railway line at Roudham Junction, four and a half miles east of Thetford. It had an authorised capital outlay of £80,000. On 7 July 1869, the company had obtained an additional Act that allowed its trains running powers on Great Eastern tracks from Roudham Junction to Thetford and to form a junction with the Bury St. Edmunds and Thetford Railway at Thetford. That came to fruition on 15 November 1876.
North of Watton a nominally independent company, the Watton and Swaffham Railway was incorporated on 12 July 1869. It would construct a line to reach a west-facing junction with the former Lynn & Dereham Railway, now part of the Great Eastern, close to Swaffham. The line would be worked by the Thetford and Watton company.
At Roudham the junction faced west towards Thetford. The railway’s nine-mile route from the main line at Roudham Junction across an agricultural and partly wooded landscape was easy terrain, required no significant earthworks or gradients and the railway was opened through to Watton on 18 October 1869. It was a further six years before completion of the nine and a half-mile extension northwards to Swaffham: it is said that the extension cost £72,000 to build. Its construction was delayed and complicated due to difficult land at Neaton, just north of Watton. Here a deep depression had to be filled and compacted and an embankment formed to carry the railway. Earth was extracted from a pit beside the route. Part of the extraction site was flooded and became known locally as Loch Neaton, allegedly after the Scots navvies who built the railway. The name is still used today.
Goods services to Swaffham began on 20 September 1875 but it was not until nearly two months later that the supervising authorities were satisfied that the new embankments at Neaton were safe for passenger traffic to commence: it did so on 15 November.
Manning Wardle of Leeds supplied the company’s first locomotives after an offer from Robert Fairlie to test his ‘Fairlie Steam Carriage’ was rejected. The Leeds engines were 0-6-0 tanks with three-foot driving wheels. They were joined by a second-hand rebuilt 3ft 6in gauge locomotive whose. The engines were housed in a shed at Watton. In 1876 two larger Sharpe, Stewart & Co 0-4-2 tender engines joined the fleet, presumably because of the motive power needs of the new Swaffham extension.
Travelling south from Swaffham there were stations at Holme Hale, Watton, Stow Bedon, Wretham& Hockham and Roudham Junction. Although well provided with sidings for goods traffic the junction had no road access being simply a transfer platform for branch passengers using the Norwich & Brandon Railway’s trains to complete their journey.
On 21 July 1879 agreement was reached to lease the line to the Great Eastern Railway for 999 years, commencing on 1st March 1880. In 1897 it was fully absorbed into the Great Eastern Railway and became part of the London & North Eastern Railway at grouping of the nation’s railways on 1 January 1923.
Although not a large town, Watton has a long-established market having received its Charter in 1204 allowing a market to be held on Wednesdays. The coming of the railway invigorated business in the town and two large monthly cattle markets brought livestock traffic to the railway. Like many of East Anglia’s railways it was agriculture that generated much of the goods traffic. From Watton went poultry, butter, milk and eggs, principally to Cambridge and London markets. Coal and other produce not locally available arrived by train.
As regards tickets issued for travel, Mr T C F Vollacott wrote a short history of the two railways. He asserted that he did not know whether the Watton and Swaffham company had ever issued its own style of ticket: all that he found bear the name of the working company. Several distinct ticket types were issued: all were standard ‘Edmondson’ size. 1st Class singles were white, 2nd rose, 3rd green and ‘parliamentary’ buff coloured. 3rd class returns were green and buff. Early tickets had serial number and date on the face, right and left sides respectively: later ones had the serial number twice on the face and the date on the back.
Today, typically of many agricultural areas crossed by closed railways, some of the former trackbed has been ploughed and is indistinguishable from surrounding fields. However, for some distance north of Watton, the line can be seen as a wooded interruption to extensive fields of arable crops. In the parish of Saham Toney some length of embankment remains in view and, close by, substantial brick-built abutments of an overbridge survive on Long Road at Woodbottom Farm. A little further north a brick overbridge is intact crossing Hale Road. Immediately south of Watton little remains of the line in Thompson Parish except at Griston where the railway crossed a minor road. Here can still be seen the crossing-keeper’s hut and, beside it, a gatepost and the remnants of the personnel gate that was part of the level crossing. ‘The Gate House’, much rebuilt and modernised, still stands beside the crossing. Passing through Thetford Forest between Stow Bedon and Hockham Heath the trackbed is a Permitted Public Path before once more being obliterated by agricultural activity towards the site of Roudham Junction.
Throughout its life there was little change in the number and frequency of passenger trains on the branch. The 1906 timetable shows five southbound weekday (up) through trains and four down. There was no Sunday service. Additionally, at 8.30 am, a non-stop train left Thetford and terminated at Watton. On Wednesday only market-goers bound for Watton were catered for by a 1.20 pm departure from Swaffham: it set out on its twenty-minute return journey at 3.15 pm.
Steam-hauled passenger services ceased in 1955 when newly arrived diesel multiple units began work out of Dereham, where the steam engine shed closed at the same time. The 1953 steam-worked timetable shows six through trains with no extra services to or from Watton. Sunday saw two trains, both late in the day, the first activity being at 4.32 pm from Swaffham. Indeed, on weekdays, a traveller might reach Swaffham only as late as 9.44 pm, whilst on Sunday evening it was midnight exactly when the second train reached the town!
By 1960 no steam locomotives plied the line on passenger trains and the Sunday service had disappeared. Five Down trains ran throughout, supplemented by an 8.03 am Watton departure to Swaffham (the first up train made a long stop at Watton so may have detached a unit there to form the extra train). One, the 8.25 am from Swaffham, ran through to Ely: there was no corresponding down service.
Tickets for travel from intermediate stations, except at Watton, were issued by the guard. This had happened since Great Eastern Railway days, providing evidence of low numbers of passengers using the line’s smaller stations.
Steam locomotives worked out of Swaffham engine shed, a sub-shed of Norwich Thorpe (shed code 32A in BR days). Photographs from the 1950s show passenger work in the hands of D16 4-4-0s and goods trains hauled by various former Great Eastern 0-6-0 types. Latterly Class 03 diesel shunters were to be found working goods turns on the branch.
The final timetable in force before closure of the line to passengers shows five through trains in each direction. In addition there was an 8.00 am Watton to Swaffham service. An 8.20 am Thetford to Watton train returned from the market town at 8.49 am after a five minute stop. There was no Sunday service.
The British Railways Board published Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways on 27 March 1963. By 20 September of that year the Eastern Region had published proposals to close the Thetford to Watton Branch, allowing two months for consultation and objections. With what may seem like undue haste Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport, received a report on 9 January 1965 and gave his consent to closure on 27 February. The line closed on 15 June 1964. The last passenger service, the 9.21 pm from Thetford to Swaffham, ran on 12th June 1964 and was formed of a two-car diesel multiple unit with driver David Grant of Dereham in charge, carrying, it was reported locally, seventy passengers. Roudham Junction to Watton closed completely. The line north of Watton closed finally on 19 April 1965. The last train carried in coal and took away a sugar-beet harvest. Rails were removed soon after.
Route map drawn by Alan Young. Tickets from Michael Stewart (except 1527) Brian Halford. Timetables from Alan Young .
Click here for a brief history of the Lynn & Dereham Railway
See other stations on the Lynn - Dereham line: Middleton Towers, East Winch, Pentney & Bilney, Narborough & Pentney, Sporle, Dunham, Fransham, Wendling, Scarning & Dereham (EAR Station)
To see the other
stations on the Watton & Swaffham Railway click on the station name:
Roudham Junction, Wretham & Hockham, Stow Bedon, Watton & Holme Hale