Swedes and Swimmers
Swedes and Swimmers
THE WYMONDHAM to FORNCETT RAILWAY was known as the "Swedes & Swimmers" from the staple diet of the navvies who built it: swedes being self-evident, and "swimmers" being the local Norfolk name for dumplings!
The Great Eastern Railway (GER) branch line was built to provide a route from the Ipswich line to the Cambridge line that did not go through Norwich, where it required turning of the engine. Although there was a line to Cambridge from Ipswich through Stowmarket, in those far-off days a lot of goods traffic was generated by the wayside stations north of Diss (all now disappeared). Similarly, goods to and from Swaffham, Dereham, Fakenham and Wells could go south without passing through Norwich, where the trains would have to reverse. Construction of the line started in April 1880 and opened on 2nd May 1881 although improvements at Forncett railway station (a footbridge and locomotive turntable) were not ready in time. The line was conceived principally for goods traffic, although passengers were also carried and anyone who wanted to go further had to change at Wymondham or Forncett. There was one intermediate station on the line at Ashwellthorpe which opened in 1881.
The line was built as double track throughout, was 6 miles 16 chains long, and was controlled by three signal boxes (Forncett Junction, Ashwellthorpe and Wymondham North Junction). The journey from Wymondham to Forncett took 13 minutes, including the stop at Ashwellthorpe. In 1882 the 1.50 pm departure from Wells arrived at Forncett at 3.08 pm in time to connect to the up express and arrive in Liverpool Street at 6.00 pm. In the opposite direction, a 5.50 pm departure from Liverpool Street would see an arrival of 9.15 pm.
In 1922 the passenger service was quite good. There were no Sunday trains, but during the week there were six trains in each direction, the earliest leaving Forncett at 7.34 a.m. on Monday morning, and the last train arriving at Wymondham at 8.18 p.m. When you add the goods traffic to these 12 passenger trains, the line was quite a busy one. For some years, around the turn of the century, one service included a through portion from London Liverpool Street to Wells, and following flooding at Flordon (north of Forncett) in 1912 main line passenger services were diverted via Wymondham (where they would have reversed) between 26 August and 2 October.
Freight usage under the GER was light, despite the purpose of the branch, and was limited to Ipswich to Peterborough and Beccles to Wells. However World War 1 saw the use of the line by heavy military traffic.
Following the passing of the Railways Act 1921 on 1 January 1923 the operation of the line and Ashwellthorpe station was taken over by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). Rationalisation at Forncett Junction followed with the abolition of the signal box and responsibility transferring to Forncett station signal box.
The July 1939 timetable showed six passenger trains each way along the line on a weekday with the first up and last down operating from/to Dereham. However, the outbreak of World War II saw the passenger service withdrawn on 10 September never to be restored. Goods traffic meanwhile continued with Ashwellthorpe being serviced by a daily freight and a small number of freight trains running over the line. Airfield construction, at RAF Hethel, saw additional construction traffic in 1941/42.
The availability of a line avoiding Norwich again proved particularly useful in the Second World War, when the city became a major target in the German bombing blitz. The cuttings at Hapton were used to shelter ammunition trains destined for the US bomber bases, and on at least one occasion the line into Norwich became impassable due to bomb damage and the alternative route was invaluable. However, from 10th September 1939 passenger services were suspended and never reinstated.
In the post-war period the growth of road transport made the continuation of the Swedes and Swimmers unnecessary. Following nationalisation in 1948 the line became part of the Eastern Region of British Railways. The passenger service had not been restored after the war and by the July 1950 timetable change the only remaining traffic was the weekday "as required" freight service typically worked by a former GER 0-6-0T. Freight continued until 4th August 1951 when the line was closed completely. The track was lifted in February 1952 and the rail-over bridges were demolished, although the ballast remained.
A short two-mile spur of the line remained at the Wymondham end at Hethel until 1976 and in December 1954 this was used to stable the royal train overnight. The spur was subsequently used by Archie King for scrap railway carriages, the wooden superstructures being burnt before the steel undercarriage was broken up. Eventually the scrap dealer realised that there was a market for the more valuable pieces of ornament in the carriages, and they were removed before being torched. In 1967 the North Norfolk Railway rescued the Gresley Quad set of coaches from this scrapyard. In 1970 the actual carriage that had been robbed in the Great Train Robbery seven years earlier was burned here, in the presence of police and Post Office representatives, in order to avoid it becoming the target of souvenir hunters. Wymondham North Junction was removed on 3 August 1976 although the signal box had been closed at an earlier date
A series of articles about the Swedes and Swimmers was published by "Railway Ron" in the Forncett Flyer and material from these articles will be reproduced here in due course.