The Railway

The Great Eastern Railway (GER) had an Act of Parliament passed in 1876 which approved a wide range of works to be undertaken within parts of East Anglia where the GER had an interest.

The part of the text which describes the scope of our branch line is very short and is shown here.

The passing of the Act formed the legal basis for the design and construction of this local line.

It was known as the ‘Swedes and Swimmers’ line. Please excuse the pun, but we don’t want to re-invent the wheel. An excellent write up about its construction and operation can be found on the Forncett History Group website – with other details are provided here. Instead, we have restricted ourselves to aspects specifically relating to Wreningham and other details not in their articles. Other pages on this website include information about how individual villagers engaged with the railway in their everyday lives.

Partly opened in May 1881, the line’s link with the Norwich/Diss line at Forncett took additional time. This final stage was not finished for a number of months – perhaps not completed until 1882.

The Great Eastern Railway had bought a continuous strip of the farm-land across Wreningham. Various Census pages list how the railway had provided immediate local employment opportunities, although most were relatively unskilled. The personnel responsible for operating the principal railway equipment are shown to have arrived from across the country.

Whilst introducing a modern and effective means for transporting people, the railway was an especially important way of despatching agricultural goods to a wider range of customers – or receiving other goods from long distances. Trains could also carry heavy loads and reach distant locations at speed. Tradespeople quickly realised the benefits and had already started displaying information about their proximity to the various local stations.

The single intermediate railway station on the line was at Ashwellthorpe – and just a brief walk away from the centre of Wreningham. Ashwellthorpe station was actually closer to the centre of Wreningham than the centre of Ashwellthorpe!

Since the line’s closure in the mid-1900s, the station has been transformed into the (very linear!) Ashwellthorpe Industrial Estate.

Following the opening, on the 29th June 1881, there was an auction in Wymondham for the sale of the railway contractors’ equipment. To the layman’s eye, it appears they were disposing of staggering amounts of construction equipment. The list includes: 220 tons of contractor’s rails, 3 tons of bridge rails, 15 tons of wheels and axles, a Scotch crane, mainline bogies, a powerful brick machine, 25 and 8 horse-power portable engines – in ‘splendid order’, through to 94 navvy and brick barrows. There were also 40 tons of ‘scrap’, 2 tons of ‘tested chain’ and ‘4 powerful draught horses’ with both ‘double and single carts’. Anyone wanting wood or brick huts, smithy and store houses – or the contents of store-houses and cartwright’s shops(!) could have been in luck, too. We have not seen any report about the success of this sale, although, for anyone else wanting to build a few miles of railway it must have been THE go-to event!

In November 1880, the Goods Manager’s Office of the Great Eastern Railway, at Liverpool Street Station, wrote to farmers in this area advising them of an offer. Other ongoing railway work had resulted in the GER being in possession of large quantities of alluvial mud – presumably dug from rivers and marshes. This mud had been analysed for its nutrient properties at the County Analyst’s Office, London Street, Norwich. A two-page report was attached to the letter, signed by Francis Sutton, Consulting Chemist to the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture.

The GER’s letter and report were essentially describing how alluvial mud was fantastic stuff. Full of nutrients, it would be excellent for use on fields in place of standard fertilisers.

The mud was for sale and would be available for delivery during the following spring. It would be dried, finely pulverised and delivered to the nearest railway goods yard for collection by the farmer.

The GER were urging farmers to buy some – although it needed to be ordered in quantities of ‘6 tons and upwards’. Did six tons of “dried and finely pulverised mud” represent the capacity of a small rail waggon? A copy of both the GER letter and the technical report were recently discovered at a Wreningham farm. There is no evidence the Wreningham farmer ever bought any! (A quick online investigation suggests it would have been most unsuitable for application on Wreningham’s wet clay soils, anyway.)

There is a newspaper article, describing the Wreningham wedding of William Bothway to Annie Quantrell, in 1890. Towards the end, the article tells us: ‘Immediately after the ceremony the happy couple departed by the 3 o’clock express from Ashwellthorpe Station to London to spend the honeymoon.’ The local railway had clearly become a regular part of the village’s way of life!

The line closed to passenger traffic in September 1939 and was finally closed to freight in 1951. The tracks were eventually taken up and the land was offered back to the farmers. This final stage of land disposal seems to have taken much longer than the original land purchase. Whilst Wreningham’s old railway land is generally understood to have returned to private ownership, surviving former railway structures such as bridges remain under under dedicated central control to ensure continuing safety.

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