Swedes and Swimmers

Forncett Station

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!

Forncett was first connected to the railway in December 1849 when the Eastern Union Railway opened its extension from Ipswich to Norwich and built a station at Forncett. The station led to the growth and development of the Old Sale Yard, which handled particularly bulky goods like crops and even livestock like cattle and poultry. In 1851, the Railway Inn public house was also built on the station approach road: it was renamed The Safety Valve in 1861.

Thirty years after the opening of Forncett station the Great Eastern Railway (GER) decided to build a branch line from Forncett to Wymondham in order 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, with the new branch line, 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 included eight overbridges and ten underbridges, including a bridge over the river Tas between Ashwellthorpe and Forncett. The contractor was Henry Lovatt and the whole line was built at a cost of £49,788. Both Tivetshall and Forncett were considered as the possible location for the junction with the main line, but once Forncett was chosen, improvements at Forncett station (including a turntable, a footbridge and a waiting room) were approved at a cost of £3000. 

Map of the Wymondham - Forncett branch line

The line was constructed by Irish navvies and local labour. Most of the workforce lived under canvas and considerable amounts of beer were consumed at the local pubs, including the Safety Valve, The Chequers and the Kings Head in Ashwellthorpe. An on-track steam excavator was used for digging out the cuttings and horse-drawn wagons were also employed.

The line, which 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). It opened on 2nd May 1881, although some improvements at Forncett station (the 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 was constructed by Messrs William Bell and Sons at a cost of £3026. 

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 London 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 in Wells at 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.

Despite the original purpose of the branch, freight usage under the GER was light, 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 being transferred 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. 

Timetable in July 1939

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. In February 1952 the rail-over bridges were demolished and the track was lifted,  although the ballast remained.

At Forncett Station, freight, which for many years during the 1950s consisted of a daily pick-up freight train between Norwich and Stowmarket, was finally withdrawn on 28 December 1964. The last passenger trains called on 5 November 1966 when the Ipswich to Norwich stopping service was withdrawn.

Today nothing remains of the original station buildings, sidings etc., although the station master's house still stands. The Safety Valve public house was demolished in the 1970s and the site originally occupied by the Sale Yard is now a small housing development. Some sections of the railway line can still be walked, and anyone who is interested should read Julian White's excellent blog post which describes the route as it is today with photographic illustrations. 

Archie King's scrapyard

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. 

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 its becoming the target of souvenir hunters. 

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 the carriages were torched. In 1967 the North Norfolk Railway rescued the Gresley Quad set of coaches from this scrapyard.  Wymondham North Junction was removed on 3 August 1976 although the signal box had been closed at an earlier date

Great Eastern Journal article

A very detailed and interesting study of the Wymondham to Forncett line was written by Stanley Jenkins and published in the Great Eastern Journal in April 2004. A copy of the article can be read here (with the permission of the author and the Great Eastern Journal).

With thanks to Stanley Jenkins, Barry Jackson and Bernard Anderson (Great Eastern Railway Society), and John Magee (information on Great Train Robbery) for help with this page.

Railway Ron's "Swedes and Swimmers" stories

Railway Ron is a local railway enthusiast and collector. Between March 2010 and December 2012, he published a series of twenty-nine articles in the Forncett Flyer about the history of the Wymondham to Forncett branch line. These can be found by searching the Forncett Flyer index (https://www.forncett.info/forncett-flyer/flyer-index.html ) using the search term "Railway Ron".