The line that escaped the axe

A Suffolk railway line that escaped the axe is now celebrating its 150th birthday. Steven Russell meets folk who fought to keep it open - and hears how things have changed over the yearsLIFE wasn't half different in the past .

A Suffolk railway line that escaped the axe is now celebrating its 150th birthday. Steven Russell meets folk who fought to keep it open - and hears how things have changed over the years

LIFE wasn't half different in the past . . . less complicated and lots more common-sense. Take Albert Godfrey's 40 years on the railways. Summer Sundays were an important part of the working week, with train services running to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Albert for some time worked as a signalman at Saxmundham - a fair old hike from his house near Lowestoft. 'When I was late-turn on the Saturday night, I couldn't get home to Oulton Broad and back again for early Sunday morning, so I used to sleep in one of the coaches in the siding, ready for the next morning. It wasn't too bad, though it could be a bit cold at times. I used to walk up to Saxmundham Junction, cook my breakfast and do my duty,' he remembers.

Later, as a ticket inspector, he was also a magistrate in Lowestoft and on the board of visitors at Blundeston prison. Not surprisingly, folk he met during his voluntary duties often popped up later on the railways.

'They did often recognise me,' chuckles the 83-year-old. 'Some used to call me Your Honour! A lady who travelled the line very often without a ticket used to say 'You know my address, Your Honour - the photo booth at Lowestoft station!' That's what she used as her address.

'There was a man known as Dixie Dean, with tattoos all over his face. He was very often up before me for being drunk and disorderly. I found him on the train from Ely. He'd been released from Fulbourn.' (The therapeutic hospital just outside Cambridge dealt with mental health issues and conditions such as alcoholism.) 'He was all smiles and gave me his ticket. Of course, it was a single ticket between Lowestoft and Fulbourne. But I thought about it, bearing in mind where he'd just come from and that he wouldn't have any money, and just clipped the ticket and gave it him back.'

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The East Suffolk Line was born with great fanfare on June 1, 1859, when new track joined Ipswich and Halesworth. (The Halesworth-Beccles-Haddiscoe stretch had opened just before Christmas 1854 - a fairly basic railway initially laid, apparently, on shingle dredged from Lowestoft harbour.)

Before long there were branches connecting Wickham Market and Framlingham, Saxmundham and Leiston, and Beccles and Lowestoft. By the spring of 1860 the Leiston to Aldeburgh line had opened.

'I suppose the effect on the towns - Beccles, Halesworth, Saxmundham and Woodbridge, plus Leiston - must have been enormous, in terms of both the freight that would go in and out, and - for those that could afford it - the possibility to travel both to Ipswich and up to London,' explains Trevor Garrod, chairman of the East Suffolk Travellers' Association.

Its heyday lasted until about the Second World War. The Framlingham branch transported its last passengers in 1953, for instance. Then came the bombshell.

In early 1963 the Beeching Report proposed closing the 46-mile East Suffolk Line. Cue a long period of uncertainty and protest.

Albert Godfrey was secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen's Lowestoft branch. He recalls being invited to a town hall gathering of concerned organisations to decide a strategy to fight the proposal.

Shellshocked passengers and railwaymen alike spoke out. Farmer's wife Mrs P Holmes, also chairman of the East Suffolk Federation of the Women's Institute, said: 'I feel sorry that it is going to close down because we have no alternative transport to serve East Suffolk. We are going to feel it very much.'

In January, 1965, Saxmundham-to-London commuter EJ Lockett, a printer, claimed: 'All the bridges on the East Suffolk line were recently strengthened to take heavier locomotives and rail traffic. We were promised a more efficient service after these improvements; now they want to close the line. Further, in order to justify closure, they greatly reduced traffic by sending the Yarmouth trains through Norwich instead of Lowestoft.'

Donald Newby, prospective Liberal candidate for the Eye division and leader of the Fight to Save Your Railway campaign, called a protest meeting in Aldeburgh that September. Sir Peter Hutchison, deputy clerk of East Suffolk County Council, said closure could be described as the Great Train Robbery of East Suffolk . . . though, luckily, prior notice had been given.

Trevor Garrod says the line had certainly been busy in the 1950s: a period when most people could afford to go on holiday, and most stayed at the British seaside.

'It's often regarded as the Hi-de-Hi era - the time of the holiday camp. At the height of the season you could have up to 18 trains each Saturday from London to Lowestoft and Yarmouth. So for perhaps 12 weekends every year the rolling stock would be very busy, and then it would stand quiet for the rest of the year. That was the kind of thing Dr Beeching was critical of.'

The line was effectively all steam until about 1956/57, when the first diesel multiple units arrived - followed by the first diesel locomotives. Diesel was faster and cheaper, says Trevor, though the line was still labour-intensive because of multiple manned crossings, signal-boxes and staffed stations.

It wasn't until the end of September, 1965, that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee held hearings at Saxmundham to examine the closure plan. 'There were so many objections that after two days the chairman closed the hearing and said 'I've heard enough,'' says Trevor, whose family home was at Lowestoft. There followed an anxious nine-month wait. Trevor went off to university at Oxford that year. 'You went up by train at the beginning of term and wondered if there would be a train at the end of term.'

Dr Beeching's threat prompted Olga Awty, living in Southwold, to learn to drive. The Slade-trained artist, now in her early 80s, says of the plan: 'It was obviously such a stupid thing to do. If you cut off the 'feeders', you threaten the main.'

She'd initially moved to Suffolk in 1949, taking an assistant teaching post at Saint Felix School, and then came back to Southwold in about 1960, after living in London. The train was integral to life. 'You got the bus to Halesworth at 7am and the 7.50 train to platform nine at Liverpool Street, pulling in at 10.04am.'

Olga got son John, then about six, to speak at the Saxmundham inquiry, though she doesn't recall exactly what he said. 'All I remember is they had to get a chair for him to stand on to reach the microphone,' she smiles.

The hearing was heated at times, remembers Albert Godfrey - 'especially when it was reported that the general manager from Norwich had arrived by car rather than train!'

The verdict, which finally came the following July, was worth waiting for. Transport minister Barbara Castle decided the line should remain open between Ipswich and Lowestoft, though agreed passenger services could be withdrawn between Saxmundham and Aldeburgh.

Mrs Castle recognised that the roads - one of British Railways' suggested alternatives if the line closed - were not a palatable alternative.

Donald Newby had highlighted the disadvantages the previous summer, when he ran a coach from Lowestoft to Ipswich, picking up en route. 'Needless to say, the bus ended up taking far longer than British Rail had predicted - and people turned up with bicycles they couldn't take on,' says Trevor. The journey took 67 minutes longer than expected - 'and the point was made that this bus had run in excellent weather, but it still failed to keep the time'.

Albert says: 'There is one thing I admire Beeching for: he had the courage to put it all on paper so you could see exactly what would happen if your line closed. South Norfolk and north Suffolk would have been without a train service. So that was one good thing he did: people could see easily the damage that would be done.'

Though the battle was won, the money issue wouldn't go away. British Rail warned in the September of 1966 that the line ran 'at a substantial financial loss'. Through-trains to London would be cut and local stations would become unstaffed halts.

Gerry Fiennes, BR's regional general manager, 'was the man who, allegedly, did some calculations on the back of an envelope and came up with the idea of a basic railway, where you would have unstaffed stations and your tickets would be issued on the trains', says Trevor.

So how is the railway in the 21st Century?

'I think we find it playing a role fairly different from what the Victorian promoters would have expected,' says Trevor. 'Firstly, of course, it is not carrying any significant freight, whereas originally it carried large amounts of agricultural freight, domestic coal, fish from Lowestoft, and to some extent from Southwold and Aldeburgh as well. But we've had Sizewell A and Sizewell B - probably Sizewell C and Sizewell D to come - so there will almost certainly be a role for the line as far as the nuclear industry is concerned.

'Today it is predominantly a passenger railway. Those original pioneers from 1859 would probably never have imagined in their wildest dreams that you could do what I've done: get on a train at Lowestoft at a quarter to seven in the morning and walk down the Stra�e des 17. Juni in Berlin at 10 o'clock that evening, having gone by train all the way. With the Channel Tunnel, it's opened up all sorts of possibilities they couldn't have imagined.'

There are more commuters to London, and strong weekend tourism and holiday-home traffic. 'Darsham becomes virtually Southwold Parkway on Sunday afternoons!' laughs Trevor. There's still the traditional seaside daytripper, too.

The goal now is increasing passenger numbers by running an hourly service. (It's basically two-hourly, with more in peak times.) That is hampered by 16 miles of single track between Halesworth and Oulton Broad, but would be made possible by a passing loop at Beccles that could be built by 2011.

'Our Victorian forebears had a monopoly once they'd built the railway. Operators today have to bear in mind that they compete with the private car and commercial coach operators,' says Trevor. 'They've got to continually be looking for ways to keep their service attractive and ultimately gain a bigger share of the market by having more capacity and a more frequent service. In some ways, we're nearly there.'

OLGA Awty and Albert Godfrey are both founder members of ESTA - the East Suffolk Travellers' Association - which was formed about six weeks after the 1965 inquiry. Both octogenarians were VIPs at last weekend's anniversary bash: lunch at the Bell Hotel in Saxmundham, followed by the ESTA AGM in the Market Hall next door.

How did Olga get involved with the independent campaign group for train and bus users? 'I don't honestly know,' she smiles. 'There might have been an advertisement in the paper. I know I was then on Southwold council, so I became its representative on ESTA, but I'd been on the founding committee before then.'

The railway is still vital, she insists. 'It's crucial because for many people there is no easy way of getting out of this immediate area without it.'

Albert, who served as ESTA chairman in its early years, was made president during the celebratory weekend. He'd worked on Trinity House lightships for three years, but long periods at sea weren't great for a newly-married man and so he resigned in 1949, the year after his wedding to Nancy.

His first job on the railways was as a porter at Oulton Broad South. In all, he spent 20 years as a signalman and two decades as a revenue protection/travelling ticket inspector before retiring in 1989.

He still lives in a former railway house where his wife grew up as a child; her father was a signalman. Albert took over the tenancy in 1953, and bought the property in 1985 for �14,500.

There's talk of it now being worth �200,000 but he has no intention of leaving. Once a railwayman, always a railwayman. The sound of a train passing every couple of hours is part of life. 'I automatically look at my watch,' he chuckles. 'I like to see them running on time . . .'