THERE USED TO BE QUITE A LOT of railway lines in East Anglia.
Here’s how many there were in 1907:
And here’s how many there are today:
A few weeks ago I took the train from London to Sheringham, one of the few destinations on the East Anglian coastline it’s possible to reach directly by rail.
It wasn’t too far to go by way of an away day round-trip; I’d never been to that part of Norfolk before; and, to my surprise and delight, it only cost £8 there and £8 back. Well, £12 back to be precise, as I decided to “treat” myself to a first class seat from Norwich back to London, but I could’ve done the whole thing, there and back, for just £16.
Now this isn’t a plug for National Express trains (though I guess in a way it is), but that same £8 wouldn’t have got me from Euston to Watford Junction. I’d have needed another 30 pence for starters. Such is the bonkers system of ticketing and fares on our beloved discombobulated, denationalised railways.
Anyway, as chance would have it good weather, a preponderance of what a regional news magazine would call “colourful characters”, and an unexpected row of cliffs (yes, in Norfolk! Who knew?) conspired to make the day more than the sum of its fiduciary parts.
I’d forgotten, for instance, that the main line out of Liverpool Street runs right past the Olympic stadium, giving me my first ever glimpse of the newly-finished giant sugar bowl:
My train appeared to my untutored eyes to be a barely-refurbished InterCity 125, until Robert tweeted to point out they didn’t run out of Liverpool Street. I should have guessed, given there wasn’t really that much room to, in the words of Sir Jim, “stretch out and move about”.
On the way up to Norwich gentle eccentricity abounded. I overheard a fellow passenger declare: “But I must get to Saxmundham with haste!”, which made me feel as if I’d slipped unnoticed into a Fry and Laurie sketch. Signs on the platforms at Colchester proclaimed it was “MORE than just Britain’s oldest town”. I’d have thought that was merit enough; why the implied shame?
Norwich station gained points for its airiness but lost them all for having cash machines that were incredibly hard to find. So hard in fact that I failed to spot them at all on my outward journey, only discovering them while having a bit of time to kill on the return leg.
Like several rural lines I’ve been on since I started this blog, it turned out the service from Norwich to Sheringham had a nickname: the Bittern Line.
This charming image was a little compromised by the charmless tendencies of some of the people with whom I shared a rattling, under-furnished carriage: kids, single mums, old men in flowery shirts and nosey parkers.
The last of these was represented by someone sitting directly behind me, who I suddenly sensed was repeatedly peeking his face between the seats to see what I was up to.
I presumed the offender was a child. I was unnerved to discover it was a businessman.
He then began coughing painfully every few seconds, occasionally interrupting these outbursts with disconsolate sighs. The man got off the train before too long, sparing me the impossibly embarrassing task of nonchalantly moving as far away from him as I could manage.
Outside, however, were unobtrusive, silent and cough-free colourful patchworks of countryside, and I remembered what had first enchanted me about Norfolk on family holidays as a child. I also remembered what had annoyed me: the absence of things to run or climb up, and to run or roll down.
It was all the more pleasant, therefore, to find my destination bookended by actual cliffs. Sheringham is a very well to-do town with an admirable awareness of its own past…
…and an equally admirable sense of what a seaside town is Meant To Be Like:
But it’s chief appeal, for me at least, were those cliffs, which I scrambled up and which, while dodging the marauding seabirds, afforded me a view laughably at odds with that I spend most of my waking days staring at:
While I was there I took a ride on the steam train that runs between Sheringham and Holt along part of one of those lines so much in preponderance in 1907. I’m no great fan of steam trains in and of themselves, but I am partial to a bit of nostalgia for a time I never knew. The North Norfolk Railway, or Poppy Line, served up just such a sensation in spades.
After that it started to rain – my parents always used to say “never trust the North Sea” – and it was time to come back. Back, via a first class carriage in which even the free wi-fi didn’t show up, to fusty skies and flickering screens and people who keep themselves to themselves.
ON SATURDAY my friend David and I went on a trip to Weymouth.
It’s three hours by rail from London, with no changes, courtesy of South West Trains. We sat in first class, along with an old man who spent the entire journey listening to music, a young woman, and – towards the end – some SWT employees who gossiped loudly about staffing issues and shift patterns.
We’d gone for first class because it was only a couple of pounds more than standard class and on the assumption we would be treated to a slightly more refined service.
We were not.
Aside from slightly larger seats and a tea towel slung over each of the head rests, there was no difference whatsoever.
But what was most irksome was the absence of freebies. Or to be even more precise, the fact it was one of the coldest days of the year and yet there was no complimentary hot drink.
For any poor bastards in the front carriage of standard class, there was no complimentary heating either. The train manager reassured passengers that “the other carriages are toastie warm”. I know she was trying to sound colloquial, but instead she ended up sounding twee and a bit over-familiar.
She actually had a bit of a torrid time, this train manager. Half an hour into the journey she had to appeal several times for “the owner of the black BMX bike that has been left by the buffet car” to remove said vehicle, then an hour or so after that she pleaded for “the owner of the tartan wash bag” that had been left in the ice-cold front carriage to collect said item before it was “removed and destroyed”.
There was no such excitement on the return journey, save for when the driver announced “CCTV is in operation throughout the train; this is especially directed at the passengers in the rear carriage”. This wasn’t us (we were at the front), but rather a group of teenage girls who had been shouting and mithering on the platform and were presumably still shouting and mithering on the train.
As for Weymouth itself, we didn’t exactly catch it at its best. It was so cold on the beach that I lost all feeling in my fingers as soon as I removed my gloves off to take a photo.
Then we were more or less turfed out of a branch of Costa Coffee when an old woman pointedly parked her walking frame by our table and proclaimed “I’ll be back in a few minutes”.
Meanwhile the amount of flags on display throughout the streets inferred the town had already started celebrating the royal wedding.
Still, it’s clearly in an agreeable location and on anything other than a day with temperatures below freezing it’s probably quite charming.
The train line’s pretty agreeable too, passing through the New Forest before hugging the south coast and tottering round the edge of Poole harbour.
Just make sure you keep your tartan wash bag close and carry a flask of hot drink at all times.