Notes: The name 'Swaffham' is derived from Swabian; the people of the German state of Swabia (now defunct and divided between Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg), some of whom are believed to have come to Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. The town of Swaffham in Norfolk derived its name from the same source, as did the Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Bulbeck. The latter village is on the present-day B1102 road between Lode and Swaffham Prior and is worth a mention as it has something which puzzles railway enthusiasts and historians not familiar with the area - Station Road. Station Road leaves Swaffham Bulbeck in a north-westerly direction then turns south-west to become Long Meadow Road, and then Swaffham Road. It forms part of the B1102 and eventually becomes Quy Road at the southern end of Lode village - the opposite end of Lode to Bottisham & Lode station. Thus Station Road, Swaffham Bulbeck, led to no railway station at all. The road was named Station Road in the early twentieth century and the reason for this in not known. However, the road's former name, Gutter Lane, may yield a clue.
The two Cambridgeshire Swaffhams, Prior and Bulbeck, were reportedly referred to as Great and Little Swaffham respectively in Domesday Book but the present name of Swaffham Prior is said to have come about through its inhabitance by monks who originated from Ely. This, of course, was before the Church of England was formed by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Swaffham Prior's two churches are well worth a visit as is Foster's windmill which is open to the public at certain times and is one of the very few remaining working windmills. Foster was the family famous for the mill opposite Cambridge station and the bank in Cambridge city centre.
As outlined in the Mildenhall Branch History, Swaffham Prior was the birthplace of the Mildenhall branch as a result of the persistence of Charles Allix and the desire of the GER to have a diversionary route to avoid flood problems along the Cambridge - Ely - Brandon route. As things transpired, the Mildenhall branch was to serve as a diversionary route only for the Cambridge - Ely line as it was never built beyond Mildenhall.
The address of the Allix family was 86 High Street, Swaffham Prior; an address better known as Swaffham Prior House - a large country house set in extensive and much-wooded grounds. The Allix family continued to inhabit Swaffham Prior House until the 1980s.
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 entered from the platform while access to the ladies’ toilets would be 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.
The exception to this description was Swaffham Prior. Whilst it followed the general description it differed in detail in a number of ways, partly owing to the presence and involvement of the Allix family. The station buildings at Swaffham Prior were similar to those at Isleham but as the former was on the up side and the latter on the down side, the buildings at Swaffham Prior were of reverse layout. A further difference was that Swaffham Prior's buildings were a reverse layout to the other up side station buildings, namely Bottisham and Barnwell; at Swaffham Prior the stationmaster's house was at the Mildenhall end whereas at Bottisham and Barnwell it was at the Cambridge end. The reason for this, at all branch stations, seems to have been the location of the station approach road, so the first building one encountered on the approach road, staff cottages excepted, was the stationmaster's house. Evidence of the Allix family, or of GER attempts to please them, at Swaffham Prior was the tiled roofs with ornate crested ridge tiles. This detail was also included on the lock-up which had a steeper roof pitch, compared to sister buildings at other stations, to match the roof of the main station buildings.
The gents' toilets, at the usual location at the opposite end of the building to the stationmaster's house, were of a more substantial design and were apparently fully enclosed (as opposed to having the once common semi-open type of urinal). The brick lock-up was further away from the main buildings than at Bottisham. These two features were found at all branch stations apart from Quy and, as mentioned, Bottisham.
It is possible that, in the early years at least, there was a private waiting room for the Allix family. However, no conclusive evidence of this has been discovered and the station building seems to have contained the same standard facilities as at other stations along the line. The signal box was unique to the Mildenhall branch in that it had a steeper pitched roof. This was a nod to the Allix family, and the roof pitch matched those on the other station buildings. A rather odd-looking structure, the 22-lever signal box was one of those abolished in 1935 but it remained standing until the line was dismantled. Swaffham Prior was another branch station at which the stationmaster's position was abolished in 1921, thereafter coming under the jurisdiction of Barnwell Junction. The platform canopy was removed around the same time.
Swaffham Prior station was located some half a mile to the north-west of the village and alongside the northern boundary of the grounds of Swaffham Prior House. A tree-lined private avenue connected the house with the station. The avenue still exists today.
There was a level crossing, No. 27, at the Mildenhall end of the station on Station Road and close to which once stood the Allix Arms public house; this was east of the level crossing and on the up side. It ceased trading in 1975 and is now a private residence. Set back from Station Road, it now looks nothing like a public house. West of the level crossing and on the down side of the railway some staff cottages were provided - three it is believed. These were given the same crested ridge tiles as the station and are still inhabited today. One might reasonably assume the crested ridge tiles were also applied to the signal box and crossing keeper’s hut but this does not appear to have been the case in respect of the signal box at least.
The station itself had a single platform, 360ft long, and an 850ft goods loop. As at Quy, this loop was removed in 1935 and left the same peculiar kink in the running line as it turned in to serve the platform. Signals were also removed at the same time due to the abolition of the signal box. Also as at Quy, Swaffham Prior signal box was switched in only when the yard needed to be shunted and / or when there was a need to use the goods loop. The latter appears to have been rare, so the lifting of the loop and abolition of the signal box made good sense. Goods facilities were at the Cambridge end of the station and on the up side. This was another feature peculiar to Swaffham Prior. Provided were a 100ft refuge road; a 200ft dock road; a 180ft coal road and a 50ft headshunt. The coal road was south of, and parallel to, the dock road where two cattle pens were provided. There was also a weighbridge, on the south side of the yard and close to the coal road, plus a loading gauge. Access to the goods yard was via facing and trailing points from the platform road. When the goods loop through the station was in situ there was a further set of points from the loop and facing in the down direction. After 1935 a ground frame was installed, unlocked by Annett's key with train staff and ticket.
One little oddity concerning Swaffham Prior station and which existed throughout its life was the rendering of its name. The signal box nameboard and the station signage presented the name correctly, i.e. Swaffham Prior, but paperwork, such as timetables (and the route map, based on timetable practice, drawn to accompany this article) tended to present the name incorrectly as Swaffhamprior. Tickets were even worse; of those which have been seen the GER and LNER printed the name as one word and in block capitals. BR did a little better, with some tickets showing the one word block capital version but others showing the name as two words albeit again in block capitals. The use of block capitals, on any tickets, usually applied to the destination station, with the originating station being in lower case after the initial capital letter. However, even this was inconsistent with some tickets showing both originating and destination stations in block capitals.
As a point of interest, soon after leaving Swaffham Prior in the down direction the line entered a 120ft wide cutting. It was at this point where the line cut through the Devil's Dyke, one of several ancient defensive earthworks in the region (see the Newmarket and Newmarket & Chesterford pages). Nearby, the remains of a Roman villa were discovered complete with its near intact hypocaust (a form of underfloor heating used by the Romans). The trackbed and cutting are, at the time of writing, intact at this point but the site of the villa has long since been covered over again.
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 full 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, Burwell, Exning Road Halt, Fordham, Isleham, Worlington Golf Links Halt & Mildenhall
See also Cambridge