It is interesting that Thomas Bowen’s map, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1765, clearly shows that the main London - Cambridge - King’s Lynn road was situated to the west of the Ouse north of Littleport and that the river was crossed at Southery Ferry onto the eastern bank. John Cary’s map of 1794 shows the road on the eastern side of the river from Littleport, crossing the Little Ouse at Brandon Creek as it does at the present time. Whether both are accurate or not, the A10, as it became designated, remained unchanged in its course until the straightening of the early 1980s and the subsequent improvements at Brandon Creek associated with the new bridge. Until then, the ever-increasing road traffic passed through the village centres of Southery, Hilgay, Fordham and Denver.

Part of Downham’s development is due to its location at an intersection of the London – King’s Lynn route and those taking an east-west course between Norwich and the Midlands.

Opened 09 Feb 1879 and replacing a wooden bridge, the new bridge was 210 feet in length. At one end was the toll house and, at the other was the Bridge House Inn. The photograph was taken from the west bank looking north east towards the town across the houses of Downham West. The present bridge was built in 1964. Many histories of the town include the tale of how seventeen huge fish, varying in length from 20-27 feet, were caught near the bridge over the Ouse in 1568. Of course, they may have been much smaller and grown over the years; you know what fishermen are!

Please go to for Elizabeth Howard's excellent history of Downham's bridges.

Main roads were not metalled until the 19th century and minor roads not until much later. Turnpike Trusts operating toll gates were set up to raise revenue for improvements. We are all familiar with the straightness of Roman roads and their cobbled all-weather surfaces. The Fen Causeway through Denver, and westwards across the fen on a raised roddon of silt for much of its route, is well known locally. We also know that these roads deteriorated after the Romans left (c400AD) and that road travel was difficult, depending on the season, for the next 1400 years or so. It is not surprising that much greater use was made of river transport – even as late as 1925 sugar beet was taken into the new sugar factory at Wissington by barge. Barges required horses for power and horses required towpaths. River banks had to be built up to prevent flooding so horses atop river banks pulling barges was a common sight. Sometimes the barges had to be poled where obstacles, especially bridges, prevented the horses being used continuously. If the towpath changed banks the horses would cross by bridge of they would wade or swim across to the opposite bank. This is the origin of Waterman’s Lane in Hilgay.

Thus, the Stoke River, or Wissey, and the Brandon River, or Little Ouse, were important thoroughfares. The relationship between Stoke Ferry and Hilgay was much stronger 1750-1850 than at present because of the river. Subsequently, these links were perpetuated by the building of the railway branch line from Denver through Fordham to Stoke Ferry. The existence of the Waterman’s Arms at Redmere on the Little Ouse is testament to the amount of waterborne traffic since there were few houses nearby to generate sufficient trade.

Back in the Middle Ages there is evidence that canals were dug to facilitate drainage and transport. One can be traced in Fordham though it is a little difficult to appreciate the gains in relation to the energy expended.

The arrival of the London – King’s Lynn railway in 1847 dramatically changed transportation in the area. Five local stations were opened, Stow (‘Bardolph’ being added in 1923), Downham market, Denver Road Gate, Hilgay Fen and Ouse Bridge, although the last was only to remain open until 1864. Initially it was ‘Ouze Bridge’ but was renamed by the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1854. Hilgay Fen station became ‘Hilgay’ in 1896. Hilgay and Stow Bardolph both closed in 1963.

Downham Market station c1907. The water tower on the right was removed in early 1960s but the signal box remains.

Initially, the operating company was the Lynn & Ely Railway but it became part of the East Anglian Railway almost immediately and then the Eastern Counties Railway took over the running in 1852. In 1862 the EAR was absorbed into the Great Eastern until the LNER was formed in 1923. Other important dates include the single-tracking in 1984 and electrification in 1992. The volume of commuter traffic has increased dramatically over the last 30 years.

In the early days the booking office for train tickets was in the Swan Inn in the centre of town. The map shows some of the industrial development that took place in the area around the station and is indicative of the large number of jobs created. Apparently, some 30 women were employed in the goods office at one time, for example. Cattle pens were located on Fairfield Road from whence cattle were taken to Lynn market on Tuesdays. Ashville House, formerly Station Villa, carries the date 1904 but this is when substantial remodelling took place after the death of John Lee Bennett in 1903 (his son, John Rose Bennett took over) and the original structure is earlier. Former occupation was by John Goodchild, born Ramsey (1829) and farming in Ten Mile Bank in 1851. The family moved into Bridge Road prior to the 1871 census when Mrs Christanna Goodchild is described as a retired farmer’s wife; her parents, Thomas & Jane Bates, live next door – Thomas, a retired wheelwright, is 83. They lived there until after 1891. Christianna, a Hilgay girl, died in 1917, had moved to London Road by 1901. John Goodchild died in 1900.

1903 map. There were sidings on both sides of the track up to the point where Fairfield Road crossed over to the east side of the railway. Note the railway turntable allowing wagons, drawn by horses, to reach east of Bennett Street.

Hilgay station looking north from the level crossing on Long Drove in 1927. All the buildings are now gone. (Courtesy Middleton Press) Hilgay station is actually three miles from the village centre and, for the first three decades after its opening, a journey by train also involved crossing the Ouse by ferry. It was opened as Hilgay Fen on 25 October 1847 and renamed Hilgay in 1896. It was closed, along with Stow Bardolph, in November 1963.

Ouse Bridge station was closed on 1st January 1864 but can be seen here in 1947. The buildings have now been demolished. (Courtesy Cambridge Central Library). It originally opened as Ouze Bridge station but was renamed Ouse Bridge in April 1854

Ten Mile Bank Bridge was opened in 1880, replacing a ferry service, and demolished in 2004. There appears to have been a Ferry Boat public house in Ten Mile Bank as well as the one in Southery. Tolls for the bridge operated until 1929 and were collected by the landlord of the Windmill public house to the south east of the bridge. The Windmill was demolished to make way for the new bridge. (Copyright Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service)

No account of Hilgay station would be complete without mention of the accident that occurred in June 1939. A London bound train collided with a lorry on the Cross Drove level crossing just north of the station. The derailed engine careered into some freight wagons in an adjacent siding before coming to rest just short of the station platform. There were four fatalities.

4-4-0 ‘Super Claud’ 8783 was repaired and remained in service until 1958. Based at King’s Lynn, its green livery was always maintained to the highest standard as it was one of two engines reserved for royal train duties. This picture comes from the Cambridge Daily News courtesy of Middleton Press.

Not all railways in the area were part of the big rail companies such as the Great Eastern nor did they all use steam locomotives. Hiam’s Tramway joined the main line from the west at Hiam’s Junction between Black Horse Drove and Hilgay. It was built by Sir Frederick Hiam (1872-1938) to facilitate the marketing of agricultural produce from his large holdings west of the Ouse. The narrow gauge trucks were horse-drawn up to the main line and then the produce was loaded onto standard gauge wagons in Hiam’s Siding to complete their journeys, particularly to London, although many tons of sugar beet was delivered to Wissington. The tramway commenced at Home Farm, Welney, and then followed a zigzag course past Martin’s Farm before running parallel to, and about one kilometre south of, Long Drove. The tramway has long since been taken up. Frederick Hiam Ltd still farm about 8000 acres at Ixworth Thorpe near Bury St Edmunds. Frederick’s grandson is managing director.

Hiam’s Siding. Opened in 1914, it survived until 1965. (Middleton Press)

The branch line to Stoke Ferry, which left the main line at Denver close to the Sluice Road level crossing, was opened in 1882. It was seven miles one furlong and four chains in length and included two intermediate stations called Ryston, near the centre of Fordham village, and Abbey, at West Dereham. The line, the work of Sir William Shelford (1834-1905) was more a success for freight than for passengers and was closed to the latter in 1930. Freight continued after World War II but the section from Abbey to Stoke Ferry was closed in 1965. Beet traffic ceased with the end of the 1981-82 Campaign and the line closed shortly thereafter. Level crossing gates and track were incorporated in the rerouted A10 at Fordham in the early 1980s but were never operational. The gates were removed and the track uplifted shortly afterwards. It remains interesting to follow the old course of the railway and the bridge over the Cut Off channel remains, as does the bridge over the Wissey at the sugar factory. Paye’s book ‘The Stoke Ferry Branch’ is an excellent and most informative read as is ‘The Downham and Stoke Ferry Railway’ by Cyril Marsters & Pam Bullas – Pam’s father being a former stationmaster at Abbey Station. The latter publication, available from the West Dereham Heritage Group, contains detailed reminiscences of life in West Dereham during the 1950s and ‘60s as well as a thorough history of the branch line itself and the Wissington railway.

Abbey station, West Dereham

Parliamentary approval for the Downham & Stoke Ferry Railway was granted in July 1879. The original directors of the company formed an impressive list of local landed interests – Sir Henry Bedingfield (whose family interests included Oxborough Hall), Hugh Aylmer (Abbey Farm, West Dereham), ERM Pratt (owning 3500 acres centred on Ryston Hall) and Major Stocks of Woodhall, Hilgay. Also on the Board were Charles Henry Parkes, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway – who gave his name to Parkeston Quay at Harwich, opened in 1883 – and his Vice Chairman Lord John Hamilton, MP. Of the various appointees, Edward S Copeman, solicitor of Downham Market, was part of the Copeman family mentioned in connection with the Revd Clem Hall in Southery.

The line took just fourteen months to build using 150-250 navvies. There were, in the early days, plans for an extension of the railway through to Gooderstone but these were never fulfilled.

Very much tied into the fortunes of the Stoke Ferry branch was the station at Sluice Road, Denver. It was first known as Denver Road Gate when it was opened in 1847 but its name was shortened to ‘Denver’ later the same year. It was first closed to passengers on 01 February 1870 but reopened in 1885, but only for passengers using the line to Stoke Ferry. The final closure was on 22 September 1930 when passenger trains on the branch line were discontinued due to competition from buses. This meant that the branch line could, after a public enquiry held in Downham Market, be downgraded to Light Railway status and significant economies could be made by the LNER in the costs of operation. At West Dereham, for example, the level crossing gates were removed, the signal box dispensed with and the gatekeeper’s house became that of the stationmaster. The Great Eastern Railway had formed part of the London and North Eastern Railway in the amalgamations of 1923.

Denver station in the 1920s looking north. The branch to Stoke Ferry leaves to the south east, behind the cameraman’s right shoulder (Middleton Press) The station was closed on 1st February 1870 but was reopened on 1st July 1885. It was finally closed on 22 September 1930.

Ryston Station. The track was lifted in the early 1980s when the A10 was improved (and the crossing gates removed here - the gate posts remain - and on the A10). Just east of the station, and shown on old OS maps, was 'Squire's Siding'.

Stoke Ferry station in better times

The opening of the branch line to Stoke Ferry made possible the construction of the Wissington Light Railway that remained operational south of the sugar factory until 30 June 1957. Under the entrepreneurship of Arthur Keeble it was opened on 30 November 1905 to help harness the productive but rather isolated soils between the Wissey and Little Ouse rivers – there were no metalled roads in the area apart from that between Southery and Feltwell. The line extended some 4.5 miles from Abbey station to Poppylot on the Southery to Feltwell road from where there were branches to Sedge Fen, Feltwell Anchor, Whitedyke and Shrubhill. Another branch served Methwold Severals and joined the line from the east about one mile south of the River Wissey. The Wissey was crossed by a rail bridge just west of the factory site which, until the road bridge was opened in February 1946, was the only route across the river for pedestrians.

The railway bridge at Wissington. The route for pedestrians is on the right. The gates prevented animals straying onto the bridge (Roger Darsley)

The network in the 1920s (Roger Darsley)

Go to for further information. The Feltwell website is excellent.....

The private Wissington network joined that of the Great Eastern Railway (renaming took place in 1897 when the GER took on the ownership as well as the operation) at West Dereham just east of Abbey station. The connection was facilitated by the lease of land from Col Frederick Custance, now at Abbey Farm. Considerable traffic was generated and the agriculture of the whole Wissington Estate served by the light railway changed dramatically – it even caused problems at Downham and extra shunting space had to be provided in 1910 to avoid lengthy delays at the level crossing on Railway Road.

The receiver struggled to get the Wissington Estate back on its feet through the years of WWI but just when local farmers should have been benefiting from war time food shortages and higher prices there were three successive years of floods in 1915-1917. Thus, the amount of freight finding its way onto the GER at Abbey station was not as great as it might have been. In 1918, William Abel Towler took on the Wissington Estate and was keen to develop the light railway to its full potential. Towler was born in Norwood around 1866 and moved to Littleport about 1897. In a way this was a bit of a homecoming since Thomas, a gardener, his father was born in Cockley Cley in 1829. The 1901 census shows Towler junior as a potato merchant and farmer living in Victoria Street, Littleport.

Towler planned to open up a further 14000 acres of uncultivated land in Feltwell Fen by extending the railway south of the Feltwell Road and bringing it to a total length of 18 miles. He was greatly assisted in his plans by the arrival of the sugar factory in 1925 and the increased demand for sugar beet led to extensions of the line to Common Dyke, Sedge Fen, almost up to the A10 road, Feltwell Anchor, Shrubhill and almost to Feltwell itself being completed in 1929. (see map below)

Beet was also brought into the factory by barge along the Wissey. The factory owned three diesel tugs named Wissington, Hilgay and Littleport that could be loaded direct from farmland either side of the river. Each vessel could carry about 20 tons of beet which was loaded into crates that could be lifted out by crane at the factory.

Beet also came in to the factory by rail along the Stoke Ferry branch from an extensive area so much so that considerable congestion was created at Abbey station and extra sidings were needed.

The history of the Wissington light railway was dominated by the sugar factory during the 1930s, Towler, in turn, having called in the receivers in 1932. The lines, being laid on bare earth rather than ballast, had deteriorated considerably and the British Sugar Corporation (formed in 1936) sought closure in 1940. Apart from the uproar caused amongst farmers this was wartime and all efforts had to be made to maximise agricultural production. Thus, the railway was requisitioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and, instead of being closed, was upgraded. After the end of the War the railway suffered increasingly from competition by road transport and serious damage was done to the track south of the Feltwell road by the floods of 1947. Final closure was inevitable and came in 1957 save for the section from Abbey station to the sugar factory.

During the years that the Wissington light railway was in operation a somewhat laissez faire approach was adopted towards the carriage of passengers that would have horrified those responsible for health and safety today. Of the many small locomotives used on the railway ‘Wissington’, which saw service 1938-1978 is now working on the North Norfolk Railway.

Wissington’ crossing the Cut-Off Channel heading for Abbey station from the sugar factory in 1964 (Ivo Peters)

Wissington Light Railway c1940 (Middleton Press)

The private extension at Shrubhill is of interest since there was an early horse-drawn tramway that ran from Shrubhill brickworks to the main line from Ely to Norwich. The two lines never overlapped since the latter, opened by 1867, was closed in the 1880s due to the agricultural depression. The course of the tramway was marked on old 6inch OS maps and parts of the original causeway can still be seen. It left the main line midway between Lakenheath and Shippea Hill stations and crossed the Little Ouse at Botany Bay close to where the river turns north westwards at Decoy Fen. A later development was the private road bridge crossing the Little Ouse at Redmere.

For those that are interested, the local area also boasted a 24 inch narrow gauge railway from Lakenheath to Feltwell aerodrome just south of Methwold during the First World War.

A little has been written about locomotives used on the Shrubhill branch but there are no known photographs. The first of these was probably 'Ariel's Girdle', first on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Initially it was a 2-2-0 locomotive with a passenger coach attached. A contemporary artist’s impression of this unit was scanned from a book published in 1910 (which credits the unit as the first ‘railmotor'). The drawing exhibits the problems some early artists had with perspective on railway subjects. It looks broad gauge but was in fact standard gauge. It should also be noted that engines were then rather smaller, the main driving wheel on the locomotive were about five feet in diameter. First engines on the Eastern Union Railway (1856) were light green. In 1865, after absorption into the GER, the colour of locomotives was changed to darker green. Ariel’s Girdle probable operated at Shrubhill 1868-1872. It was then rebuilt at Stratford and transferred to the Millwall Extension Railway before being withdrawn from service in 1879.

Ariel’s Girdle

Ariel’s Girdle appears to have been replaced by the 2-2-0 locomotive ‘Cambridge’ in 1872. Built in 1849 by William Bridges Adams at the Fairfield Works in Bow, it was converted to a stationary engine when withdrawn from service.

Readers wishing to learn more of the Wissington Railway should refer to Roger Darsley’s excellent book on the subject, published by the Industrial Railway Society in 1984.

60007 Sir Nigel Gresley at Downham – the first A4 Pacific to visit the station? This locomotive bears a plaque testifying to the fact that this engine holds the post war record for a steam locomotive at 112 mph recorded on 23 May 1959. She was saved from the scrapheap in 1966. (13 December 2009)

The Wisbech & Upwell Tramway was opened in 1883 and reached Upwell the following year. There were three 0-4-0T Great Eastern Railway G15 class engines designed by Thomas Worsdell. Six passenger trains ran daily to Wisbech and, with speeds limited to 8mph, the journey took an hour. The W&UT passed to the LNER in 1923 by which time the permitted speed had risen to 14mph but this was insufficient to ward off completion from coaches and passenger services ended in 1927. There were two bogie tram coaches (Nos 7&8) which were transferred to the Kelvedon & Tollesbury Light Railway until the closure of that line in 1951. No 8 was used as a buffet coach in the film The Titfield Thunderbolt but was broken up for scrap by 1954.

The route of the Wisbech & Upwell Tramway by Andrew C Ingram. The proposed extensions to Friday Bridge and Welney never materialised.

Photograph from the collection of the Revd WV Awdry

Another photograph from the Revd Awdry’s collection taken from the Isle Bridge and facing Church Terrace

The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry (1911-1997) was Rector of Emneth from 1953-1965. His series of stories about Thomas the Tank Engine were first published in 1946. One character, Toby the Tram Engine drew inspiration from the local tramway.

Awdry’s Toby the Tram Engine

Titfield, National Railway Museum, York

The Titfield Thunderbolt was a 1953 British comedy about a group of villagers trying to keep their branch line operating after British Railways decided to close it. The film was written inspired by the restoration of the narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway, the world's first heritage railway run by volunteers. The cast included Stanley Holloway and John Gregson and was directed by Charles Crichton. The film was produced by Ealing Studios and was the first Ealing comedy shot in Technicolor - and one of the first colour comedies made in the UK.

Outwell from the tower of St Clement’s looking north along the Wisbech Canal c1900

The Wisbech Canal formed part of the ‘canal mania’ that swept Britain in the 1790s. Canals came as a breakthrough in the transportation of bulky goods towards the end of the 18th century as Britain embarked on the early stages of its industrialisation. Each canal required an Act of Parliament to approve its route and the necessary legislation for the Wisbech Canal, including plans to reopen the Well Creek for navigation between the Nene and Ouse, was passed in 1794.

Construction work took place during 1795 and the first tolls were collected at Outwell Sluice in the January following. £341 15s 0d was collected in the first year and this had doubled by 1805. Tolls during the first three quarters of the 19th century generally fluctuated with the trade cycle but the opening of the tramway in 1883 predictably saw a rapid and terminal decline although initially there was a boost as coal brought in by rail was distributed deeper into the fen by barge. No dividend to shareholders was paid after the tolls in 1895 had fallen to £56 10s 6d and what little commercial traffic continued to use the canal ceased around 1922. Thereafter, the history of the canal is a sad one. It became a stagnant dumping ground for large quantities of rubbish and the decision to infill came in the 1960s; the work completed in 1970. The canal had always been a difficult one to maintain. Unlike its counterparts in hillier inland areas, the canal level could only be topped up at high tide from the Nene at the Wisbech end with considerable silting as a consequence. Contrast this with the Grand Union Canal, for example, as it crossed the Chilterns where it is fed by four naturally fed reservoirs at its summit near Tring. The 1960s was a decade of considerable change for the village of Outwell with the filling of the canal, the uplifting of the tramway tracks and the demolition of Beaupre Hall.