Notes: Stow Bedon station was six miles north of Roudham Junction where the branch to Swaffham left the Thetford to Norwich main line. It was 2¾ miles south of Watton. It lay in an agricultural and wooded landscape where the Watton to Norwich road (A1075) crossed the railway about a mile and a half from the small village whose name the station carried. The Ordnance Survey 25in maps of 1882 and 1905 show the area around the station and the station name as Stowbedon as does the modern-day 1:25,000 series map. On the same maps the village name is shown as two words. The station nameboards read Stow Bedon.
The station platform and buildings were located to the south of the level crossing over the Thetford road, on the east side of the running line. The buildings were handsomely constructed of local Norfolk flint under a slate roof. The line was single through the station and served by one platform. The signal box was on the platform and some distance from the level crossing which was probably operated manually, rather than by a wheel in the signal box. There were no points north of the signal box but rods led from the box towards the crossing gates suggesting that they interlocked the gates and signals preventing the gates being opened manually without appropriate signalling. The northbound starter signal was on the platform beside the level-crossing. From late Great Eastern days onwards, before 1923, no tickets were issued at Stow Bedon station; passengers obtained them from the guard on the train.
The station buildings were, like those at Watton and other stations on the branch, part two-storey and part single with the roof-line of the higher building at right angles to the platform edge. On the platform there was a rudimentary shelter formed under the roof of the single-storey building and supported by a cast or carved column. Photographs show no evidence of platform lighting. Gardens on the west side of the line were neatly laid out, well maintained and the station name was spelt out in stone in a flowerbed. Public access from the road was through a station yard and small porticoed entrance. Beyond the station entrance the yard continued southwards, providing access to what was probably a coal merchant’s yard; further on there was a corn mill.
Immediately south of the platform a north-facing point gave access to a loop of track off which there was a bay siding along the rear face of the passenger platform that ran only as far as the signal box. At the south end of the short loop a facing point led to a siding with a platform on its east side, along some of its length, serving the corn mill. The loop was not set up to allow trains to pass on the single line: it was controlled by ground signals, one located directly under the southbound starter signal opposite the platform.
Kelly’s Directory for 1904 tells us that the station letter box was emptied daily, at 6.00 pm on weekdays and at 10.30 am on Sundays. Arthur Rump was serving as stationmaster at the time but Samuel Jackson Rice was in charge by 1900. Thomas Littleproud & Sons and Oldman & Sons were the coal, corn and seed merchants at Stow Bedon.
The last trains ran on 12 June 1964 departing towards Thetford at 7.38 pm and, finally, towards Watton and Swaffham, at 9.39 pm. The railway closed officially on 15th June 1964.
A Brief History of the Watton and Swaffham Railway - also known as the Bury and Thetford (Swaffham Branch) Railway
On 16 July 1866 the Thetford and Watton Railway was incorporated to construct a new railway that would leave the Norwich & Brandon Railway line at Roudham Junction, four and a half miles east of Thetford. It had an authorised capital outlay of £80,000. On 7 July 1869, the company had obtained an additional Act that allowed its trains running powers on Great Eastern tracks from Roudham Junction to Thetford and to form a junction with the Bury St. Edmunds and Thetford Railway at Thetford. That came to fruition on 15 November 1876.
North of Watton a nominally independent company, the Watton and Swaffham Railway was incorporated on 12 July 1869. It would construct a line to reach a west-facing junction with the former Lynn & Dereham Railway, now part of the Great Eastern, close to Swaffham. The line would be worked by the Thetford and Watton company.
At Roudham the junction faced west towards Thetford. The railway’s nine-mile route from the main line at Roudham Junction across an agricultural and partly wooded landscape was easy terrain, required no significant earthworks or gradients and the railway was opened through to Watton on 18 October 1869. It was a further six years before completion of the nine and a half-mile extension northwards to Swaffham: it is said that the extension cost £72,000 to build. Its construction was delayed and complicated due to difficult land at Neaton, just north of Watton. Here a deep depression had to be filled and compacted and an embankment formed to carry the railway. Earth was extracted from a pit beside the route. Part of the extraction site was flooded and became known locally as Loch Neaton, allegedly after the Scots navvies who built the railway. The name is still used today.
Goods services to Swaffham began on 20 September 1875 but it was not until nearly two months later that the supervising authorities were satisfied that the new embankments at Neaton were safe for passenger traffic to commence: it did so on 15 November.
Manning Wardle of Leeds supplied the company’s first locomotives after an offer from Robert Fairlie to test his ‘Fairlie Steam Carriage’ was rejected. The Leeds engines were 0-6-0 tanks with three-foot driving wheels. They were joined by a second-hand rebuilt 3ft 6in gauge locomotive whose. The engines were housed in a shed at Watton. In 1876 two larger Sharpe, Stewart & Co 0-4-2 tender engines joined the fleet, presumably because of the motive power needs of the new Swaffham extension.
Travelling south from Swaffham there were stations at Holme Hale, Watton, Stow Bedon, Wretham& Hockham and Roudham Junction. Although well provided with sidings for goods traffic the junction had no road access being simply a transfer platform for branch passengers using the Norwich & Brandon Railway’s trains to complete their journey.
On 21 July 1879 agreement was reached to lease the line to the Great Eastern Railway for 999 years, commencing on 1st March 1880. In 1897 it was fully absorbed into the Great Eastern Railway and became part of the London & North Eastern Railway at grouping of the nation’s railways on 1 January 1923.
Although not a large town, Watton has a long-established market having received its Charter in 1204 allowing a market to be held on Wednesdays. The coming of the railway invigorated business in the town and two large monthly cattle markets brought livestock traffic to the railway. Like many of East Anglia’s railways it was agriculture that generated much of the goods traffic. From Watton went poultry, butter, milk and eggs, principally to Cambridge and London markets. Coal and other produce not locally available arrived by train.
As regards tickets issued for travel, Mr T C F Vollacott wrote a short history of the two railways. He asserted that he did not know whether the Watton and Swaffham company had ever issued its own style of ticket: all that he found bear the name of the working company. Several distinct ticket types were issued: all were standard ‘Edmondson’ size. 1st Class singles were white, 2nd rose, 3rd green and ‘parliamentary’ buff coloured. 3rd class returns were green and buff. Early tickets had serial number and date on the face, right and left sides respectively: later ones had the serial number twice on the face and the date on the back.
Today, typically of many agricultural areas crossed by closed railways, some of the former trackbed has been ploughed and is indistinguishable from surrounding fields. However, for some distance north of Watton, the line can be seen as a wooded interruption to extensive fields of arable crops. In the parish of Saham Toney some length of embankment remains in view and, close by, substantial brick-built abutments of an overbridge survive on Long Road at Woodbottom Farm. A little further north a brick overbridge is intact crossing Hale Road. Immediately south of Watton little remains of the line in Thompson Parish except at Griston where the railway crossed a minor road. Here can still be seen the crossing-keeper’s hut and, beside it, a gatepost and the remnants of the personnel gate that was part of the level crossing. ‘The Gate House’, much rebuilt and modernised, still stands beside the crossing. Passing through Thetford Forest between Stow Bedon and Hockham Heath the trackbed is a Permitted Public Path before once more being obliterated by agricultural activity towards the site of Roudham Junction.
Throughout its life there was little change in the number and frequency of passenger trains on the branch. The 1906 timetable shows five southbound weekday (up) through trains and four down. There was no Sunday service. Additionally, at 8.30 am, a non-stop train left Thetford and terminated at Watton. On Wednesday only market-goers bound for Watton were catered for by a 1.20 pm departure from Swaffham: it set out on its twenty-minute return journey at 3.15 pm.
Steam-hauled passenger services ceased in 1955 when newly arrived diesel multiple units began work out of Dereham, where the steam engine shed closed at the same time. The 1953 steam-worked timetable shows six through trains with no extra services to or from Watton. Sunday saw two trains, both late in the day, the first activity being at 4.32 pm from Swaffham. Indeed, on weekdays, a traveller might reach Swaffham only as late as 9.44 pm, whilst on Sunday evening it was midnight exactly when the second train reached the town!
By 1960 no steam locomotives plied the line on passenger trains and the Sunday service had disappeared. Five Down trains ran throughout, supplemented by an 8.03 am Watton departure to Swaffham (the first up train made a long stop at Watton so may have detached a unit there to form the extra train). One, the 8.25 am from Swaffham, ran through to Ely: there was no corresponding down service.
Tickets for travel from intermediate stations, except at Watton, were issued by the guard. This had happened since Great Eastern Railway days, providing evidence of low numbers of passengers using the line’s smaller stations.
Steam locomotives worked out of Swaffham engine shed, a sub-shed of Norwich Thorpe (shed code 32A in BR days). Photographs from the 1950s show passenger work in the hands of D16 4-4-0s and goods trains hauled by various former Great Eastern 0-6-0 types. Latterly Class 03 diesel shunters were to be found working goods turns on the branch.
The final timetable in force before closure of the line to passengers shows five through trains in each direction. In addition there was an 8.00 am Watton to Swaffham service. An 8.20 am Thetford to Watton train returned from the market town at 8.49 am after a five minute stop. There was no Sunday service.
The British Railways Board published Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways on 27 March 1963. By 20 September of that year the Eastern Region had published proposals to close the Thetford to Watton Branch, allowing two months for consultation and objections. With what may seem like undue haste Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport, received a report on 9 January 1965 and gave his consent to closure on 27 February. The line closed on 15 June 1964. The last passenger service, the 9.21 pm from Thetford to Swaffham, ran on 12th June 1964 and was formed of a two-car diesel multiple unit with driver David Grant of Dereham in charge, carrying, it was reported locally, seventy passengers. Roudham Junction to Watton closed completely. The line north of Watton closed finally on 19 April 1965. The last train carried in coal and took away a sugar-beet harvest. Rails were removed soon after.
Route map drawn by Alan Young. Tickets from Michael Stewart and (0313) Brian Halford. 1961 Bradshaws from Nick Catford.
To see the other
stations on the Watton & Swaffham Railway click on the station name: Roudham Junction, Wretham & Hockham, Watton, Holme Hale & Swaffham