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WEEKEND WEB: Our lost railway heritage

Glimpses of the area's railway history can still be spotted, including these crossing gates at Willow Tree Fen.
Glimpses of the area's railway history can still be spotted, including these crossing gates at Willow Tree Fen.

GEMS FROM THE ARCHIVE: A monthly column by DR MARTIN BLAKE, of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, looking at interesting artefacts from its museum

Within living memory, Spalding was a major railway hub with lines radiating to all points of the compass, and most villages had their own station: a fond memory for those unhappy about the sparse rail service in our area today.

A flyer promoting the proposed Noriwch to Spalding railway in 1852.
A flyer promoting the proposed Noriwch to Spalding railway in 1852.

Several items of railway memorabilia in the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society’s collection are stamped with the initials M&GNJR. These illustrate the history of what started as a series of rural branch lines, but grew to be an important cross-country route during the golden age of steam – the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway.

In the mid-19th century, Britain was gripped by railway fever. Hundreds of small companies competed to capture the new markets the railways were opening up, many going bankrupt within a few years or being swallowed by larger neighbours.

In the Society’s collection is a large-scale survey, dated 1852, for a proposed Norwich to Spalding Railway (see photo below). The project was less ambitious than it seems, since it involved the construction of new track only from Spalding to Sutton Bridge; trains would then cross the River Nene via the swing bridge (see photo, right) and run into Norfolk on existing tracks owned by other companies.

The surveys had to be detailed as the construction of every new line required an Act of Parliament, not least because of the extensive compulsory purchase powers involved. The survey therefore notes the ownership of each piece of land along the way. By 1858 the section from Spalding to Holbeach was completed, with intermediate stations at Weston, Moulton and Whaplode. Sutton Bridge was reached in 1862, with further stations at Fleet, Gedney and Long Sutton.

The swing bridge across the River Nene at Sutton Bridge.
The swing bridge across the River Nene at Sutton Bridge.

In the other direction, the Spalding and Bourne Railway opened its line in 1866. Despite passing through sparsely inhabited farmland, it provided three intermediate stations, at Twenty, Counter Drain and North Drove.

Within a few years, however, the whole route had been taken over by bigger players, the Midland Railway and the Great Northern.

In 1893 they set up a joint company to run it, the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GNJR). The Midland extended westwards to link up with its main line from London to the East Midlands, and soon through trains were running from Nottingham and Leicester to the Norfolk coast. In 1936, the M&GNJR was itself absorbed by the mighty London and North Eastern Railway.

The line’s importance declined between the wars as road traffic took over, but it enjoyed a brief revival in the 1950s due to the upsurge in leisure travel to the east coast.

However, several bridges along the route were by then in need of costly repairs, and in 1959 passenger services were withdrawn, freight following in 1965.

Today, much of the route has been built over. The swing bridge at Sutton Bridge is still in use for road traffic. The girder bridge across the Welland remains in place, but Spalding’s once extensive sidings are now mostly given over to housing and retail outlets.

Gatehouses and station buildings have been taken into private ownership or left to crumble. However, the discerning eye can still occasionally spot crossing gates, including alongside the nature reserve at Willow Tree Fen (see main photo, above), and in places the route of the old line can be traced, like a ghost in the landscape.

The Society holds open days at its museum in Broad Street, where visitors will be able to view our eclectic collection, including M&GNJR and other railway memorabilia.

For more information, visit the SGS website: sgsoc.org or the Society’s the Facebook page.


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