In a departure from the usual subject of family history and ramblings of a genealogical kind, I’d come to realise that this great pandemic was writing it’s own family history for us; silently recording a silent gap of human interaction on the tape This is more about ramblings of the traditional kind round the countryside outside King’s Lynn, and the ramblings inside my head brought on by Coronavirus Confinement.
We’d been ‘locked up and locked down’ for a couple of days, then a few weeks, and by the time I’m writing this, close on a couple of months. With my work out of bounds, the Mrs running her business from upstairs, kids and grandkids, parents and friends all reduced to Facetime video chats, life was becoming distinctly odd. The sadness and madness of it creeps up on us all.
I was running out of ‘jobs’ to do round the house, and the low maintenance garden (bad idea in the circumstances!) had lost its interest. Even fishing was now a prohibited activity. The humour of bin day jokes and the endless stream of memes on social media began to wear thin. All of this not helped by the weather trolling us with continuous sunshine. Me and the Mrs had both had the odd very dark day when your head overflows. So what to do?
I looked at the dog, and she looked back. Our only escape was each other and the time we had between eating, reading, avoiding the news, and waiting for the Mrs to finish work upstairs. We decided to fill the time by walking. And looking.
We’re lucky to have easy access to the countryside on foot from home – the Gaywood Valley and Reffley Wood give a variety of routes, but much beyond was always blocked by busy roads and in particular the A149 – normally a thundering artery of traffic feeding second homers into the capillaries of north Norfolk. Beyond the thought of becoming roadkill on Caravan Alley lay the wilderness of Grimston Warren and Roydon Common. Just a short walk through the leafy ancient cool of Reffley Wood; but in the twenty or so years I’ve lived here, not worth the risk of being smeared on the tarmac by a day trader from Chiswick in his XC90.
It had always interested me that a long abandoned railway ran within a hundred yards or so of our house – not that you’d realise it was there today. So I decided to plod the bits I could get to on foot within the reasonable excuse of the daily State Sanctioned Exercise. A fascination with old maps showed me the history, but what did it look like today? I decided to avoid the urban bits because of elevated risks of human contact or being accused of taking the piss with my daily government allotted escape plans.
This was a bit of local industrial heritage that was almost literally on my doorstep, and which had been slowly melting into the landscape for over 130 years: a forgotten railway.
The above images show some of the rail network as it was in 1885, with the current station serving lines to London, Hunstanton, to Fakenham, Dereham, Norwich, and the dock spur. The docks had opened in the 1860s and were quickly connected to the rail network. The Midland and Eastern Railway merged with the others and became the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, but the amalgamation of Victorian railway companies is a complicated business, too much for here. Lynn had a second station back then at South Lynn (there was a third at Austinfields too, where Priory House is now) serving Wisbech, Sutton Bridge and the fens and beyond, as well as a spur to the riverfront wharves at South Quay via Hardings Pits, Whitefriars and Boal Quay. Around this time in 1885 a new loop opened, linking South Lynn to the Lynn & Fakenham Line at Bawsey Junction (more of that later).
The part of the line that interested me is that which was abandoned by 1885 having only been in use for twenty years or so, and was the original route out of Lynn to Fakenham. For the Lynners amongst you, you’ll see the line left the dock spur near the Long Pond at North End. It made its way by following the river towards Gaywood Junction where what is now literally the main building at Lynnsport stands, before dissecting the far end of the now fishing pond and heading towards Wootton Road. I’m not actually certain if the section between Long Pond and Gaywood Junction was in use for very long. It was certainly disused by 1884. Maybe someone will know the precise history.
This blog will take you to the various parts of the line within walking distance of where I live, and although it’s a circular walk, you’ll realise I approached it from either end due to the particular whim of the day, and due to the indirect access needed to reach the furthest points.
The line crossed Wootton Road at a level crossing next to what is now the Mace shop, before running beside the Gaywood River and towards the back of our house. Prior to this point, it’s impossible to see any trace of the original lines other than the Lynn & Hunstanton Line which is now part of the national cycle network as it passes through Lynnsport, although there is evidence of the bridgework over the Bawsey Drain behind the fishing pond if you know where to look.
The line today is a dog walkers track, private property, but use has long been tolerated. Locals call it the ‘Cockleshell Path’ because of the local habit of using the byproducts of the shellfish industry as aggregate on farm tracks. It follows the river closely at first, then drifts away into the fields towards Reffley Wood across what is now barely more than fen meadow. The route is truncated by the A149 racetrack, before disappearing completely into the fen soils on the other side. My route follows a path along the riverbank.
It reappears next, close to the ruined church of St James (or St Mary’s) at Bawsey. This would have been a level crossing on the ancient dirt road between Church Farm and Spot Farm. A neolithic settlement didn’t envisage steam trains, but the boggy valley bottom at least made a level route for the navvies. As an echo from the past, the settlement on the hill was enclosed by the local landowner for grazing by 1517 and abandoned as a viable place to live. Plague had swept through the Lynn area in 1516, so the ailing community were ripe for a land grab by the wool barons. St Michael’s at Mintlyn on the south side of the parish suffered a similar fate.
A gate now blocks the way as the line becomes Chilver House Lane as the route focuses the eye eastwards, and is private. If you want to avoid trespass, you need to divert north towards Spot Farm and follow the path to Grimston Warren and The Delfts. Next stop on the line would be Bawsey Junction and Bawsey Sidings.
The only way for me to get to this location without trespassing beyond reasonable limits, is to cross the ancient landscape of Grimston Warren. This place fascinates me too. It’s a landscape based on 130 odd million years of geology, but more recently shaped by glaciation dating back over 400 thousand years. As the ice lumbered forward from the west then retreated, it left a great mound of gravels and sands, surrounded by bogs and mire, with pockets of ironstone and other minerals that would all attract mankind. Ancient heathland would have seen grazing and iron working as far back as the technology existed; just one look today reveals human activities from across history – forestry, wartime military activity, and mineral extraction. You can’t get to the next section of the walk from the sidings without going to Pott Row – this description simply follows how the trains ran. The route for walking is at the end of the blog.
These maps show the expansion of the workings over twenty years until 1905. Below shows the same area, including Bawsey Junction, but as a modern LIDAR image.
It’s no longer possible to trace most of the tramway as per the maps above, but it intrigues me whether the quarry was a commercial operation supplying minerals for the locality, or whether the extractions were used in the construction of the line as it crossed the boggy ground of Roydon Common. I’ve not been able to find a source for the answer. Today it’s not possible to access the line from within the Warren at this point; as described you have to come at it from Pott Row or Spot Farm. It’s a great place to just stand and think about the men and horses who worked here all that time ago.
From here on, the journey would take you to Roydon, Hillington, Little Massingham, Rudham, Raynham Park and Fakenham West. Our last contact with the line on our Coronavirus walk gets us only as far as Common Road at Pott Row and the much renovated gatekeepers cottage where we turn west again and follow Sandy Lane back towards home.
So there we have it. It’s been my release valve from the pressures in my head. I’d not thought what my imagination would lead me to as the early stages of the lockdown kicked in, and I’m not sure when this living madness will end, but the one positive of my incarceration has been the time allowed to get out and walk in places I’d normally not bother with because it was too close, and just a bit too difficult to bother with. I’ve added short walks and long walks together, piece by piece, on hot days and cold. Some days I’ve just walked out there to clear my head and not thought about piecing the route together; on others I’ve gone just to take one specific picture, just to fill time.
The whole route, from my house, is about 14km. It’s not a simple circular walk because of the access problems getting onto the railway lines from the closest footpath, and on the section to the river bridge you have to retrace your steps. That’s not a bad thing considering how quiet and lovely it is, and how close you are to a Saxon/Medieval Tricket Mill or Tile Kiln – not that you’d realise today. At any point you can find a view across the fields or heath and valley floor and imagine Mesolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon or Norman civilisation when the landscape allowed little boats to come right up from Gaywood to the little hill settlements that nestled on the low mounds among the fens. Alternatively, you can listen for the echoes of the 4-4-0 steam trains rattling the farm produce to and from Lynn, or the sound of men and horses in the stone pits across the heath.
I’m sort of running out of ideas now, but the gadget I wear to confirm I’m alive tells me I’ve walked the dog over 400km since March 23rd, sometimes just for the sake of walking. If this had been over a century ago, I could have caught the train, but that’s progress for you.
I guess I’m lucky living where I do, but it makes me think that whatever (lack of) help we’re getting to cope with all this, we’ve all got our surroundings to look at. Maybe one thing this craziness will teach us is that if we all slow down a bit, open our eyes and walk as far as we can, there is always something to see that we hadn’t seen before that’s worth seeing, and it might just stop us all from going mad. If you’re one of those who can’t get out, I hope this has helped your mind to escape the bounds of your confinement, just for a little while.