The Southwold Railway – England’s premier three foot narrow gauge passenger line! This quirky little railway was in service for just fifty years and remained moribund for several decades after closure. Its still remembered with affection and there’s an ongoing project to restore parts of the railway at both ends of the line. This second part of the feature looks at the line from Wenhaston to Halesworth as well as its closure and the aftermath. Wenhaston was the next stop, there’s very little trace of this station even though it was a much pictured one. Here at Wenhaston too was the line’s one and only substantial road level crossing (although there were some minor crossings on other parts of the line.) The line crossed the River Blyth once again about half a mile west of Wenhaston station.
Lovely view of the signals at Wenhaston! All the Southwold’s signals were of the simple slotted type. Source: Twitter
Two lorry drivers from Beccles posing on the locomotive for the camera at Wenhaston. Source: Twitter
Wenhaston station prior to 1906. Source: Twitter
This photograph of Wenhaston station is one of the most notable – being one of the railway’s official pictures. That alone explains why its of such high quality. The engine is of course No.1 Southwold.
After the line had closed, this official picture was used as the subject for a real photo postcard, evoking reminders of the erstwhile railway. This is why one sees these words on the card: ‘Southwold Railway train. Sep 1879 – April 1929.’
View looking across the Blyth valley with a mixed train heading for Southwold. In a moment of so it would stop at Wenhaston station. Source: Twitter
As the line climbed towards Halesworth the more hilly terrain meant overbridges were necessary (although there was a small one in the Heronry.) In fact the line’s climb from Blythburgh (12 feet above sea level) was in the order of sixty feet and with the line’s summit at Halesworth station at roughly around the 72 foot mark.
Rather curiously Corner House bridge is never mentioned in the annals of the Southwold Railway ‘s history nor by most authorities on the railway – yet this bridge and its adjacent cutting can be seen on Google Streets. Here’s a tweet however from the HalesworthNGRS that shows it.
Descending Holton embankment no.4 Wenhaston is seen happily chugging its way to Southwold sometime in 1928. Source: Twitter
The section westwards from Wenhaston was more steeply graded and there were a number of embankments and minor cuttings to keep the line’s gradients as even as they could be. The final bit into Halesworth was on a 1 in 66 gradient – which caused problems sometimes when shunting operations were being undertaken.
No.1 Southwold heading along the hilly section of line to the west of Holton, having just left Halesworth. Source: Internet Archive
Although the larger of the overbridges along this section across the B1123 has gone (see tweet news article) the one a littler further east at Birds Folly is still extant. There is a bit of track on top of the bridge itself however this was laid down in 2000. Just beyond here the line meets the Great Eastern Railway and this final section into Halesworth is by all means the line’s summit. For a view looking from beneath the Great Eastern line itself towards Bird’s Folly bridge here’s this nice perspective from Google Streets.
Bird’s Folly bridge near Halesworth. Source: Flickr
In happier days no.1 Southwold is seen shunting at Halesworth.
And no.3 Blyth is seen arriving at Halesworth in September 1910. Source: Twitter
Right back in the early days of the railway, this is a picture of no.3 Blyth at Halesworth in charge of a Southwold train. Source: Facebook
The location in question with the Southwold’s shed seen in the 1880s. The tracks on the right are standard gauge. Note the horses used to shunt the railway wagons! Source: Twitter
The very end of the Southwold Railway at Halesworth ended right by this location on the other side of the fence where this 1952 photograph is taken. The station’s famed moveable platforms (this can be seen across the tracks at far left.) The narrow gauge goods shed had been pulled down some years earlier. Source: Twitter
The final Southwold Railway’s timetable can be seen from this entry in the January edition of my ABC Rail Guide for 1929. Generally it was four hours journey time from Liverpool Street including the change at Halesworth. The times of the services barely changed over the years except the later train 7.15pm ex Southwold and 8.00 ex Halesworth no longer ran.
The Southwold Railway closes just short of its half-century:
Inevitably the less happier days arrived… the final week of the railway. Here is Southwold’s station staff with A. B. Jenkins (at right) with his cine camera ready to record the railway’s last days of existence.
It was rued by some the railway did not even reach its 50th birthday. The line shut five months short of that anniversary. The end came very suddenly – the most notice any of the staff had was just two weeks.
These were the years of the depression and its perhaps no surprise the railway suddenly threw the towel in. The previous two summers, 1927 and 1928, had been dismal in terms of passenger loadings.
The railway did not even bother with any closure notices. It very late in the day that newspapers got wind of what was happening.
The Southwold railway in Suffolk closes on the evening of Thursday next. Arrangements have been made by the London and North Eastern Railway Company to preserve through communication with Southwold by an agreement with the Eastern Counties Road Car Company, whose service of ‘buses will run between Halesworth station (L.N.E.R.) and Southwold market place in connection with all the principal trains calling at Halesworth.
Source: Manchester Guardian Tuesday 9th April 1929.
The last passenger train was in the evening of April 11th 1929, doing the usual round trip from Southwold to Halesworth and back. This would have been the 5.23 from Southwold and the 6.41 from Halesworth. The last train had about 150 passengers on it. The return from Halesworth was considerably delayed when it was found none of the lamps in the train’s carriages had any wicks! This meant the train could not proceed until new wicks had been sourced and the carriages lit up for that very last trip to the coast. Many well-wishers waited in the cold and dark at Southwold in order to pay their respects to the late running final passenger train ever to run into the town’s station.
Southwold’s Station Master, Mr VC Girling, shakes hands with, John Stannard, the driver of No.3 Blyth, on the very last day of operation, April 11th 1929. Source: Twitter
Yes that was the last passenger train – but not quite the final train on the line. Like a lot of the narrow gauge railways in these isles which had officially closed down (but still had matters needing attending to) the Southwold too soldered on just that little a bit longer in order to wind up its affairs properly.
No.4 Wenhaston was employed for a further week and half to help sort final goods consignments including coal supplies for customers and clear all outstanding stock from the stations and sidings.
Once this had been done, all of the railway’s rolling stock was moved to Halesworth. The job was completed on the morning of Saturday 20th April 1929 with Wenhaston returning to Southwold engine shed and everything being locked up for the last time.
Two of the railway’s staff took up new careers managing garages servicing the railway’s successors – those new fangled cars and motor buses – whilst the engine crews found work at the local mills. The older men found little or no work, this being the years of the depression and employment wasn’t easy to find.
After the line had closed these humorous cards (two sets in all) poking fun at the erstwhile railway entitled ‘The Sorrows of Southwold’ were drawn by one of the Beano’s early cartoonists Reg Carter, a native of Southwold. I have the two full sets. Source: Twitter
Forty years of dereliction and decay:
After closure the line remained derelict for the next twenty years or so. There were moves to reopen it, none of which came to fruition. Most of the route’s track remained until the early forties. The army blew up part of the Blyth bridge thus the line was severed and that preventing any possible reopening.
The most positive move towards reopening of the line had in fact taken place during the latter half of 1929. It was said by Modern Railways a Mr Ronald Shephard of Wimbledon was in negotiation with the railway’s owners and the LNER (for access through their station.) Mr Shephard’s plans were for it to reopen in March 1930 with new carriages used instead of the old.
Derelict Wenhaston station in the 1930s. Source: Twitter
Mr Shephard is well known for having taken a considerable number of photographs of the railway in its dereliction throughout the thirties and some of these are featured in books on the railway and on the internet. He returned to Halesworth for the last time in 1942 to take some final pictures. By that time however any remote prospect of the railway reopening had vanished because of the Blyth bridge’s demise.
As the forties drew into the fifties, the railway’s remains were gradually reduced, and by the mid fifties, most of it had gone. The locomotive shed at Halesworth was demolished leaving the one unfortunate locomotive (Blyth) open to the elements and it was slowly taken apart, no doubt for much needed scrap as the war itself drew on.
The River Blyth bridge probably 1938-39. The photo can easily be dated because Southwold’s art deco water tower seen in the distance was not built until 1937. The army destroyed the main span in 1942 for reasons of wartime defence. Source: Twitter
Southwold possibly 1943 as the track has now disappeared. The station sign said ‘Southwold for Reydon and Wrentham.’ The Station Hotel is just visible behind the trees. Source: Twitter
This is what it had once looked like! Note the Station Hotel in the background. Source: Twitter
Similar recent view of the Southwold station site. Compare this with the above pictures. The station was where these houses are, at an angle to the road. The Station Hotel is very clearly visible. Source: Google Streets
By the sixties the remaining road bridges including the large one on the A12 at Blythburgh (replaced by an embankment, now removed too) had gone and most of the station buildings had vanished. However the goods shed at Blythburgh remains and is ‘the last remaining Southwold Railway building left on the planet.’
The goods shed at Blythburgh in 2009. Source: Geograph
There were still traces of the railway into the early seventies, and this included a part of Southwold station, the railway cutting with its footbridge, the remaining half of the bridge across the River Blyth (this was the fixed span that was not blown up by the army), much of the old Harbour and Blackshore Quay track remained and considerable sections of the old alignment were now a footpath.
There were also a good number of traces of the line at Halesworth until perhaps the early 1950s. Rolling stock was on show in a very derelict state until the end of the forties, despite those attempts by Ronald Shephard to revive the line as a tourist attraction. Until the late 1970s the famous station name’s sign proudly declared it as being ‘Halesworth for Southwold.’ Here’s a number of pictures of the Halesworth end of the line as the railway lay disused after closure.
The railway’s other engine shed was at Halesworth too, on the side of the bridge towards Wenhaston. A siding also existed to serve the nearby gravel pits nearby. It is at this engine shed where no.3 Blyth languished for many years after the railway closed. By the time of WWII the shed had gone completely and Blyth was being taken apart bit by bit.
The bridge across the B1123 at Halesworth in the late 1930s with its huge advert for the railway still extant. This and the next two were taken by Ronald Shephard, who was one with an interest in reviving the line as a tourist attraction. Sadly as time passed the opportunities for that slipped by thus Mr. Shephard visited the station just to take photographs of the decaying railway and perhaps dwell on what could have been.
See this Twitter post from the Halesworth & Southwold NGRS for a picture of the bridge’s removal in 1962.
The derelict railway at Halesworth, probably 1942. Source: Twitter
Trains no more. Halesworth’s narrow gauge trains and station waiting for the inevitable. Source: Twitter
Bramblewood Way is on the east side of the railway station. The bus lay-by is exactly where the carriage and small station building seen in the previous picture once stood. The trees and the grassed area between Bramblewood Way and the existing Ipswich-Lowestoft line (just visible behind the trees) was once where the narrow gauge goods yard stood. Source: Google Streets
The most enduring section of track that remains from the railway has to be those bits that consisted of the harbour branch. The track lies alongside Blackshore Quay complete with buffer stop. However its in a delicate state and likely wont last many more years.
The remains of Southwold station in 1966! Source: East Surrey N Gauge blog
Southwold station in 1966 with luggage van No.14 present. The van is now at the East Anglian Transport Museum. Source: East Surrey N Gauge blog
My own photograph of the one and only footbridge in July 1971 – seen 42 years after the last trains had passed beneath it. This structure was actually built from rails belonging to the Southwold Railway. The former gasworks can be seen in the distance and this is where the new museum and operations to rebuild the railway is currently based.
A news cutting I saved around 1974/5, possibly from the East Anglian Daily Press. Luggage van no.14 was of course displayed at Southwold for a number of years after having been found.
Luggage Van No.14 at the East Anglian Transport Museum. Source: Flickr
Special 100th anniversary postcard to commemorate the opening of the railway in 1879.
This video at the East Anglian Film Archive shows the celebration of the Southwold Railway’s centenary in 1979. Mr Barrett Jenkins is present as well as the railway’s former station master, Bert Girling, who rings the original station bell.
The Southwold Railway Trust is committed to restoring part of the line in Southwold itself.
The Halesworth to Southwold Narrow Gauge Railway Society is restoring parts of the former route at the Halesworth end of the line.
The original 2019 Southwold Railway feature was split into two parts, and this, the second part, was updated with additional pictures and information during January 2020.