The War Years
North-West Norfolk was considered to be vulnerable to enemy attack during World War II, and for this reason the exposed coastline between King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth was rapidly equipped with a line of coastal defence batteries, each of which would have been garrisoned by around 100 men. The branch line also served an artillery range on Scolt Head Island.
As well as these defence batteries there were also two nearby operational airfields – RAF Bircham Newton, and RAF Docking. With such a large military presence in the area, the West Norfolk branch was given an enhanced service with five trains each way per day. Troop trains and additional goods trains were also run as required carrying men, equipment and ammunition. An armoured patrol train, which usually ran along the line at night, was also added to the network.
Being so close to two airfields – in fact the line actually ran along the southern boundary of RAF Docking – the track and the station at Docking were particularly vulnerable to damage or attack. There were many times during the war that aircraft or bombs did indeed come down close to the line and the station, causing a temporary closure, but fortunately no serious damage was done.
The End of the Passenger Service
By 1950 local travellers were enjoying one of the best services that the branch line had ever offered, but this also came at a time when road transport was improving and government policies were poised to do irreparable harm to the rail industry as a whole. Passenger numbers fell and the decision was taken that the West Norfolk branch was to lose its passenger service. The last passenger train left Wells on 31st May 1952 travelling to Heacham, making its return, and final ever, journey later that day. A newspaper report of the final passenger journey is on our Newspaper Archive webpage.
The signal box at Docking station on the last day of the passenger service. A flag is flown at half-mast and an effigy in railway workers uniform carried the message “Death of Heacham-Wells passenger train, May 31st, 1952”.
After the passenger service had finished a bus service began, travelling from Wells to Heacham calling in at each village along the route of the railway. Called the “Rail Bus” by many it was probably the first rail replacement service.
Goods Service and the End of the Line
After the passenger service ceased, the West Norfolk branch was left with just a single goods train travelling from Heacham to Wells and back each day. The service through to Wells only lasted a few months though. On 31st January 1953 a flood tide, driven inland by one of the worst storms in living memory, broke through the sea defences and severely damaged the line between Wells and Holkham. British Rail did not consider it worth repairing the washed-out tracks so the line was closed between Wells and Burnham Market.
The goods service continued to use the remaining 11 mile stretch of line between Heacham and Burnham Market. During the 1960’s, incoming goods at Docking consisted mainly of coal for the coal merchant at Stanhoe, Mick Ayres, and fertiliser for the local farmers. There was not much in the way of goods going out apart from Sugar Beet during the autumn and winter, of which there was quite a lot.
The last stationmaster at Docking, Ray Wardale, recalled how officials from the railway used to travel round to try and find more work for the railway. Ray said,
“I remember not long after I arrived, I had a visit from what the railway used to call townsmen. They came from King’s Lynn and it was their job to canvass for traffic to go on to the railways. I can’t remember who used to visit but he came to see me and I remember he took me out to lunch at the Le Strange Arms at Hunstanton on his expenses.
Nevertheless, I used to talk to the farmers and felt it part of my responsibility to get extra traffic if I could. I tried to get some market garden produce to go to the markets at London. But the problem with that was the railways weren’t that reliable and they tended to lose wagons, or they would arrive a day late. Of course, if the farmer was sending something up to market to be sold the next morning, a day late was no good for perishables, so I was fighting a losing battle”.
A diesel goods train in Docking station in the later years of the branch line’s life. Signalman Bob Smith hands the token for single line working over to the driver.
With an ever-reducing amount of goods being carried on the line, its future was limited. The end finally came in December 1964 when the railway was closed in its entirety, bringing an end to the West Norfolk branch line after 98 years of service.
Soon after the railway closed, the tracks were taken up and many of the buildings were left to fall into disrepair, some eventually being demolished.
The old “Up” side waiting room and stationmaster’s house at Docking looking very neglected.
Although much of the West Norfolk branch has disappeared, there are some buildings and pieces of infrastructure still evident today. Sedgeford station and Stanhoe station are now private residences, as is the stationmaster’s house at Docking, where a small section of platform remains in the garden.
Other structures also still remain such as bridges, or their supports, and level crossing houses. The route of the line can still be traced from the air by following hedge and tree lines, so although the West Norfolk Junction Railway may be gone, it isn’t forgotten.