Notes: Wretham and Hockham Station was located in the tiny hamlet of Stonebridge which lies mid-way between the two villages that gave the station its name. Wretham (pronounced ret-ham) is about a mile away to the south-west and Hockham (pronounced ho-kam) two miles distance north-east of the station site. Hockham was the bigger settlement of the two, offering its residents many more local services. When the station opened it was called Wretham; ‘and Hockham’ not being added until 1 November 1893.
The station facilities straddled the Thetford to Watton road, now A1075, and were separated by a gated level crossing. At this point on the branch line the railway was running very nearly due south to north. The station’s one platform was directly north of the road on the west (down) side. The signal box and facilities for goods traffic lay south of the crossing. A goods shed was located on the east (up) side of the running line on a siding shunted from the south. At the same place there was a loop of track on the west side, protected at each end by trap-points. Here there appears to have been a yard accessed directly off the roadside. It lay behind a smithy which still stands today as a house: in 1883 Henry Edwards was the blacksmith.
To the north the line was carried on a low embankment. To the south a higher embankment began at the south end of the loop and took the railway over two bridges, numbered 2393 and 2392 in the Great Eastern’s series, before it continued into flat open country parallel to Peddar’s Way, an ancient, possibly pre-Roman, road.
The station buildings followed a similar pattern to other stations on the Thetford and Watton Railway. A large station house and a small shed opening onto the platform each had their roof lines at right-angles to the platform edge. They were linked by a single-storey building that incorporated small sheltered areas on both platform and station yard sides. This building had its roof ridge parallel to the running lines. Each of the bigger structures had imposing chimneys built of brick over slate roofing. At Wretham and Hockham all three parts of the station were constructed of Norfolk flint. The platform was lit by several oil-lamps.
Immediately north of the platform the ‘Home’ (up) and ‘Starter’ (down) signals shared a post on the up side. The up ‘starter’ was located on the station side of the level crossing.
In 1906 Bradshaw showed four down weekday trains between 9.59am and 8.30pm and five up services, the first at 8.07am and the last at 7.28pm: there was no Sunday service. One down passenger train, bound for Watton, passed without stopping at about 8.45am. In 1953, two years before diesel multiple units replaced steam haulage, six down services paused at Wretham and Hockham between 8.19am and 9.13pm. The first of six up workings stopped at 6.41am and the last at 7.56pm. Two Sunday trains ran in each direction. The final timetable before closure offered passengers five trains to Watton and Swaffham and six to Thetford. A down train at 8.32am ran only to Watton: it returned immediately, accounting for the additional up journey. Sunday trains had ceased running. Although the station was staffed no tickets were issued, the train guard carrying out that task. The practice had begun in Great Eastern days in 1922 and continued until closure.
In William White's History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk for 1883 Thomas Bedford was recorded as Station Master. In Kelly’s for 1896 Walter Henry Overy had taken over the task. The Dog and Partridge Inn, about fifty yards from the station and still open in 2017, was run by Frederick Hudson who was also a farmer and cattle dealer.
The station closed to passengers, along with all others on the branch, on 15th June 1964. The last trains, composed of a two-car DMU, ran on 12th June, to Thetford at 7.44pm and for Swaffham at 9.33pm. Goods services ceased the same day.
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 (0438 & 0003) Brian Halford. 1961 Bradshaw from Nick Catford.
To see the other
stations on the Watton & Swaffham Railway click on the station name: Roudham Junction, Stow Bedon, Watton, Holme Hale & Swaffham