The name Burwell is of Anglo-Saxon origin and means 'fort by a spring'. Sitting on the south-eastern edge of The Fens and on what was once an island 97 metres above sea level, evidence has been found of human activity in the area dating back to prehistoric times and specifically in the area now known as Burwell Fen, on the western edge of the village. The Mildenhall branch approached Burwell from Swaffham Prior across Burwell Swamp. Since 2006 this has been known as Pauline's Swamp, in memory of a member of the family which donated the swamp to the Parish of Burwell. It is now a nature reserve. The railway also passed over a number of underground streams which form springs or wells, hence the reference in the village's name. Burwell Castle once stood just north of the swamp; of twelfth century origin, it was never completed and today only earthworks can be seen.
Served by the B1102 and B1103 roads, Burwell is a relatively large village strung along a roughly north - south axis and a mere 4½ miles from Newmarket. Unlike other villages served by the Mildenhall branch, the population of Burwell generally continued to rise. For example, during the period the railway existed and taking into account ten year census intervals, the population of Swaffham Prior fell from 813 in 1881 to 634 in 1961. In contrast, the figures for Burwell are 1,949 in 1881 and 2,734 in 1961. In 2011 it had exceeded the 6,000 mark. Burwell and the surrounding area had a number of industries over the years; to name a few there was a manure and chemical works, a cement works, a brickworks and, of course, the famous cardboard factory adjacent to Burwell station and best known as Tillotson's. The cardboard factory was a major employer in the area but it no longer exists and the site is covered mainly by housing. There is, however, a small industrial estate close by on the Reach Road. Details of the rail connections to the former brickworks and cement works can be found in the Mildenhall Branch History but it is worth reminding readers that the brickworks was not connected to the Mildenhall branch as some sources imply. The Burwell Tramway, which served the brickworks, was connected to the Ely - Newmarket line. The cement works was served by Stephenson's siding, which did connect to the Mildenhall branch at a junction between Burwell and Fordham.
Burwell railway station was located at the southern tip of the village near the junction of Swaffham Road, High Street (both forming part of the B1102) and Heath Road. Technically it was Burwell's second station as Fordham, prior to the opening of the Mildenhall branch, was originally named Fordham and Burwell until 2 June 1884. The railway at Burwell was perhaps better known for the awkward bridge at the Fordham end of the station. Swaffham Road and the railway approached Burwell at an acute angle to each other and with the road on the up side of the railway. High Street was on the down side of the railway, meaning the road had to cross the railway. This it did by means of an awkward 'dog leg' with the bridge in its midst and set at a right angle to the railway. Things were made more awkward by the necessary approach embankments for the road and Heath Road forming a T-junction with Swaffham Road immediately adjacent to the hump-back bridge.
Roads are only as dangerous as the people using them but sometimes a road layout that was fine in the days or horse-drawn transport, or even in the early days of motor vehicles, was anything but as vehicles became larger and volumes of road traffic increased. This was the situation at Burwell. The replacement road, straighter and level, was built alongside the original road and in doing so cut through the site of the former station platforms. The bridge was then blown up in 1973; its remains, the original road and embankments were then removed.
Quy excepted, station buildings on the Mildenhall branch all bore a family resemblance. The single-storey range contained a booking hall, stationmaster's office, waiting room, toilets and staff room. The L-plan brick building included a two-storey stationmaster’s house with the single-storey range attached. On the two-storey section, facing the forecourt, the principal gable was under a half-hipped roof, and a slightly recessed section adjoining the office range was treated to its own pitched gable with timber braces. The door of the office range which gave access to the booking hall was sheltered by a gabled porch supported on brackets, and beyond it was a large unadorned gable. There was one doorway to the platform from the booking hall and waiting room with a second doorway serving as the Way Out from the platform. Gents' toilets were reached from the platform while access to the ladies’ toilets would have been from the waiting room. Separate brick lock-ups were provided, apart from at Quy where a smaller lock-up was provided within the building. Fireplaces were provided in each room with semi-ornate stepped chimneystacks on the roof. Although this broad description applied to all branch stations apart from Quy, the finer details varied from station to station as did orientation according to whether stations were on the up or down side.
Burwell was one of two stations on the branch to have a cellar, the other being Bottisham & Lode, and with the exception of platform length Burwell station was identical for most of its life to Isleham. At 9 miles 73 chains from Cambridge, Burwell was the second train staff station after Barnwell Junction and its signal box remained in use until closure. The station was also to retain its platform canopy (see below) until passenger services were withdrawn but was not to escape the rationalisation of stationmasters. As part of the scheme begun in 1921, Burwell lost its stationmaster in 1930 and thereafter came under the jurisdiction of Fordham. The down platform at Burwell contained the station buildings and was 350ft long. The up platform was 345ft in length and the loop through the platforms was 680ft long. The up platform was provided with an ornate waiting room of a style typical along the branch. It comprised a single-storey timber building with a pitched slate roof. The structure was painted white but with diagonal and vertical details picked out in black to give an attractive half-timbered effect. The central doorway was placed under a small gable and pairs of six-light windows are either side of the door. Brick chimneystacks were placed at each gable end, their tops stepped out to give them prominence. At an unknown date prior to WWII this building was shortened by the removal of its Fordham end beyond the doorway. The reason for this is not known but, as no such alteration was made to the other waiting rooms along the branch, it was probably the result of some kind of damage. The new end wall, which did not incorporate a fireplace, was of plain brick and no attempt was made to replicate the original ornate finish.
A canopy originally extended along the platform side of the stationmaster's house and was supported by nine columns. It was later cut back by removing the section beside the house, resulting in six columns remaining. This same modification was also applied to Isleham and Mildenhall sometime in the early twentieth century, possibly in 1921 when other stations lost their canopies entirely. The original wooden fencing around the station, which had been installed by the contractor, Lovatt, was replaced by the GER probably at the same time.
Burwell goods yard was located on the down side and at the Cambridge end of the station. It was one of two goods yards on the Mildenhall branch which were unusual in that they incorporated a scissors crossing, the other being Mildenhall. In theory this allowed the dock road to be shunted independently of the remainder of the yard but from plans it appears that the number of points and crossings in the yard as a whole was rather excessive and would have restricted movements somewhat. The dock road at Burwell was 150ft long and there was a 370ft loop within the yard and a 330ft down refuge road. The usual loading dock, cattle pens, weighbridge and loading gauge was provided. Two staff cottages were provided, on the up side and set at a right angle to the railway.
With the exception of Barnwell, Burwell was to become the final remnant of the Mildenhall branch to remain in use. It was served by a Whitemoor - Bury St Edmunds goods which tripped from Fordham to Burwell as required. Burwell finally closed to all traffic with the departure of the final goods train on Friday 16 April 1965. The station was demolished in October 1967, the land being required for expansion of the Tillotson's site but apparently used for only a couple of years as intended. In 1973, as described earlier, Bridge 2241 was removed and the road layout improved. With that, the last traces of Burwell station were obliterated. Today the station site is now covered mainly by housing, while the former entrance to the station is marked by a rather sombre plaque of the type so beloved of foreign tourists at the junction of Swaffham Road and Reach Road.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MILDENHALL BRANCH
The Mildenhall branch arrived relatively late on the railway scene and it could be said that its existence was owed in part to the ill-fated Newmarket & Chesterford Railway (N&C). In 1847 the N&C, with its main line yet to be opened, sought powers to extend beyond Newmarket to Thetford, linking up with the Norfolk Railway, and to Ely and Bury St Edmunds. Of those, the Thetford link was never built; had it been built it would have served the Mildenhall area.
This problem was frustrating Charles Allix (1842-1921) of Swaffham Prior House who approached the GER in 1867 with a view to the construction of a railway from the Swaffham Prior area into Cambridge. The GER rejected the proposal. The next proposal for a railway serving the Mildenhall area was for the ‘Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway’, the company's deputy chairman being none other than Mr Allix. This railway was incorporated by an Act of 1875 and a reasonable amount of information has survived about it. Had it been built it would have served the Fordham and Mildenhall areas, but nothing came of the scheme and it was formally abandoned in 1880.
Meanwhile back at Swaffham Prior, Mr Allix remained determined to see his region provided with a railway to help revive local agriculture which was experiencing economic hardship. It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, as Allix was soon to discover. The railway north of Cambridge and onwards to Brandon had suffered problems with flooding, and during 1878 serious disruption occurred once again. This time the GER 'brass' realized that Allix's proposal could, if built, help alleviate the problems, and thus the Mildenhall branch was finally born.
While plans to build the Mildenhall branch were stampeding ahead, the GER had meanwhile re-engineered the vulnerable sections of the Ely - Thetford line. The GER therefore viewed an alternative route, i.e. via Mildenhall, as no longer warranted and this was the reason that the branch never progressed beyond Mildenhall.
Back in the boardroom, the GER was inviting tenders for construction of the Mildenhall branch. With Royal Assent having been received on 18 July 1881, the relevant Act provided for three sections of railway: Barnwell - Swaffham Prior; Swaffham Prior - Fordham; Fordham - Mildenhall. Henry Lovatt, of Wolverhampton, won the contract for the entire route with his tender of £76,327 11s 8d. During October 1882 the contractor moved in to peg-out the course of the line, and on a cold and miserable Wednesday 3 January 1883 some GER grandees and Mr Allix assembled at – unsurprisingly - Swaffham Prior for the usual 'cutting of the first sod' ceremony. During 1883 the signalling contract was awarded to Messrs McKenzie & Holland with signal boxes costing £75 10s each, while local tradesmen were recruited for the erection of station buildings. The station building at Swaffham Prior was built in a somewhat different style from the others in order to mirror the design of Swaffham Prior House.
The 19m 3ch route between Barnwell Junction and Mildenhall had no fewer than 70 level crossings. To put this into a less dramatic perspective, only seven were on public roads with the remainder being foot or occupation crossings.
Major General Hutchinson inspected the Barnwell - Fordham section on behalf of the Board of Trade on 28 May 1884. Whilst the inspector found the general standard of construction to be high, a number of issues with fencing and signalling were noted. Permission was given for the line to open if these issues were dealt with quickly - which they apparently were. The inspector also required all trains to call at all stations. Inspection of the Fordham - Mildenhall section, on 28 March 1885, went well, with only a couple of issues at Fordham station. Otherwise, the inspector was impressed with the general standard of construction and gave his consent for the immediate opening of this section.
Passenger services on the branch were never frequent although in the early years they were more or less on a par with other rural branch lines. Despite the possibilities offered by the connection at Fordham with the Ely line, the original timetable offered only four Cambridge - Fordham (and return) services stopping at all stations conforming to the Board of Trade inspector's requirements. Later that year, 1884, this was increased to five return journeys, Thursdays excepted. On that day, Ely market day, advantage was taken of the connection at Fordham and one train continued to Ely, the 12.30pm ex-Cambridge, which returned from Ely at 3.30pm.
With the opening of the Fordham - Mildenhall section the following year, five return journeys travelled the full length of the line although on Thursdays one did not operate between Cambridge and Fordham, and vice versa. Tuesdays and Thursdays saw an additional Mildenhall - Fordham (and return) service but at different times on each of those days. Timetables do not indicate that these trains continued to/from Ely so they were probably connecting services. By 1890 there were additional Thursdays-only/excepted services plus one mixed train. Things then trundled on in much the same fashion until the first decade of the twentieth century.
Despite increases in traffic, especially following the opening of the Fordham - Mildenhall section, the GER was perpetually worried about poor traffic receipts for the line. In 1914 the GER's James Holden decided to experiment with Push - Pull trains as a cost-cutting measure. He borrowed drawings from the London, Brighton & South Coast railway of their Westinghouse (compressed air) Push - Pull control system and converted Y65 2-4-2T No. 1311 and two clerestory bogie coaches into a Push - Pull train with further conversions following later. This train operated trials in service on the Mildenhall branch from 5 October 1914 but the experiment was not considered a success.
The First World War brought considerable extra goods traffic to the line as a result of the government urging farmers to produce more food, but otherwise the war had little effect.
By 1922 the timetable showed just three trains per day operating via Burwell, with the first down train not departing from Cambridge until 10.30am. There was, however, an earlier service to Mildenhall via Newmarket which left Cambridge at 6.47am.
In an attempt to encourage more business, on 20 November 1922 the GER opened three halts on the line at Fen Ditton, Exning Road and Mildenhall Golf Links. They were on the up side of the line, i.e. on the left side of Cambridge-bound trains, and on the Cambridge side of adjacent road overbridges (Bridges 2236, 2242 and 2257 respectively). They were rudimentary affairs: a footpath led down the embankment from the road to end at a low cinder 'platform' faced with what appears to have been old sleepers.
The Railways Act of 1921 saw the GER become part of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) on 1 January 1923. On this date Mildenhall Golf Links Halt was renamed Worlington Golf Links Halt. The ‘Halt’ suffix appeared in timetables and on tickets but not on the halt nameboards. As the halts had no proper platforms, the GER introduced carriages fitted with retractable steps. Initial conversions were of increasingly antiquated 6-wheeled stock. Because the halts lacked booking facilities the GER introduced ‘conductor-guard’ working, and for this purpose the carriage stock had to be modified to allow the guard to move through the train. Tickets from Quy were also issued on the train.
The LNER viewed the former GER system it had inherited as something of a millstone around its neck and considered the withdrawal of a number of branch passenger services in the east of England. At around the same time the LNER made further economies by reducing the status of Quy and Swaffham Prior signal boxes to shunting frames. In 1935 these two boxes were abolished altogether and at the same time the goods loops through these stations were lifted.
World War Two broke out in September 1939 and this brought some increase in traffic to the Mildenhall branch. As with the First World War, the line saw an increase in agricultural traffic and, as indicated above, of military personnel using the line. Goods traffic vital to the war effort was generally routed from Cambridge via Newmarket during the night. Nevertheless, the need for the railways to focus assets where they were most needed meant that services on the Mildenhall branch remained infrequent. For the duration of hostilities there were still three trains per day each way with the first down train operating via Newmarket. Two goods trains per weekday were provided, one of which commenced from sidings at Coldham Lane Junction, Cambridge.
After the war things returned to pretty much the way they had been previously. On 1 January 1948 the Mildenhall branch became part of the Eastern Region of British Railways. Bradshaw for that date shows three trains each way: down trains at 6.33am, 10.28am, and 4.27pm; and at 7.42am,11.50am and 5.48pm in the up direction. The 6.33am ex-Cambridge omitted the halts, but did call at Quy, and all trains ran via Burwell. By the 1950s there were four passenger trains per day, the final departure being at 9.00pm from Mildenhall, omitting Worlington and operating via Newmarket to Cambridge. The BR 1954 timetable tells us the service had reverted to that of January 1948, as outlined earlier, apart from slight re-timings.
From November 1955 diesels made their first appearance when two brand new sets of Metropolitan-Cammell 79xxx DMUs were sent to Cambridge for timing trials: E79047+E79263 and E79051+E79278. These trials included the Mildenhall branch, commencing on 20 November. By this time more Mildenhall services ran via Newmarket, plus the occasional service from Ely to Mildenhall which involved a reversal at Fordham. From 7 July 1958 diesel railbuses were introduced on Mildenhall branch services. These vehicles lacked retractable steps, as did the DMUs. For the halts, therefore, sets of portable wooden steps were provided and were usually left at the lineside to await their next call of duty.
Goods traffic prior to 1962 was much as previously, with one train per day. By this time, goods trains were usually hauled by Brush Type 2 (Class 31) locomotives with J17 steam locomotives still putting in occasional appearances.
The Mildenhall branch closed to passengers on and from Monday 18 June 1962, with the final trains running on Saturday 16th, there being no Sunday service. On the final day the first down train and its return up working to/from Mildenhall was operated by a 4-car Cravens DMU. A 2-car Wickham unit sufficed for the remainder of the day. The Wickham unit, E50416/E56171, operated the 4.21pm ex-Cambridge and this was the last passenger train along the Barnwell - Fordham section. This train then departed from Mildenhall at 5.15pm to Cambridge via Newmarket. The same DMU then operated the 5.56pm to Mildenhall via Newmarket and the corresponding 7.31pm Mildenhall - Cambridge via Newmarket; this was the final passenger train to and from Mildenhall.
The Burwell & District Motor Service, having suspended its Mildenhall - Cambridge Service 11 at the outbreak of war, had reinstated the service at the cessation of hostilities but truncated it to operate only between Cambridge and Isleham, and it ran only on Saturdays and Sundays. Following withdrawal of the Mildenhall branch passenger trains, B&D modified Service 11 to operate daily and thus it became the rail replacement bus service.
Following the end of passenger services, Isleham and Mildenhall signal boxes closed with immediate effect. The once-daily goods train continued to run, but in the up direction only between Fordham and Cambridge; the down goods ran from Cambridge to Mildenhall via Newmarket. The train was withdrawn on 13 July 1964, the final run being on Friday 10th. This left the Fordham - Burwell section which continued to enjoy a goods service until it was withdrawn on 6 April 1965. Fordham station and its neighbour, Soham, closed on 13 September 1965, and Fordham signal box closed on 28 October 1973.
Tickets from Michael Stewart. Route map drawn by Alan Young. Bradshaws from Nick Catford.
Click here to see a 17 minute colour film of a steam locomotive travelling from Cambridge to Mildenhall in 1959. Includes all the stations on the line, From Cambridge Community Archive Network.
Click here for a fuller history of the Mildenhall branch
Click here for special feture: Last Train to Mildenhall
- Quick, Michael Railway passenger stations in Great Britain: a chronology (RCTS 2009)
- The Great Eastern Railway (Cecil.J.Allen, Ian Allen 1955)
- The Mildenhall Branch (Peter Paye, Wild Swan 1988)
- Burwell & District Motor Service (Written and published privately by Jim Neale c.1979)
- The London Gazette, November 28th 1879 (Abandonment of Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway)
- The National Archive (Information on the Ely & Bury Saint Edmunds Light Railway)
- http://landedfamilies.blogspot.co.uk/ (Information on the Allix family)
See other stations on the Mildenhall branch:
Barnwell Junction, Fen Ditton Halt, Quy, Bottisham & Lode, Swaffham Prior, Exning Road Halt, Fordham, Isleham, Worlington Golf Links Halt & Mildenhall
See also Cambridge