Wells-next-the-Sea seems remote, even in 1999. But 150 years ago it was even more isolated, surrounded by marsh and sea.
However, Wells had a fishing fleet with a total of sixty-seven registered boats. During the 1840s many new boats were built and launched and the town developed a thriving shipbuilding industry. In 1885, 330 coasting traders sailed in with cargo and 222 left laden.
The Hull Trading Company's ship called in once a fortnight during its passage to and from London. Landward communication consisted of the stage coach, 'Hero' which travelled to London and back, the omnibus to Lynn, the mail cart to Lynn and the slow carriers' carts which travelled to Barney, Binham, Bircham, Norwich and London.
In 1844 the population of Wells reached 3504, an increase of 1000 since 1801. The town started to buzz and in 1845, Lord Leicester and Lord Sondes applied unsuccessfully to Parliament to build a Wells & Thetford Railway. Meanwhile, the Norwich & Brandon Railway, led by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, was built from Thetford to Fakenham.
Eventually in 1854 the Wells & Fakenham Railway was established and the line to Wells opened on December 1st 1857 amidst tremendous celebrations.
A branch line from the station to the quays opened two years later, as there were hopes that the Wells fishermen would gain a market in London, although this did not happen.
The West Norfolk Railway was incorporated in 1864. The line ran from Heacham to Wells and the Prince and Princess of Wales used it to get to Holkham Hall some months before it officially opened. In 1874 the West Norfolk Railway merged with the Lynn & Hunstanton Railway and in 1890 became a part of the Great Eastern Railway.
Until 1874 there was no connection at Wells station between the West Norfolk trains under the roof and the Wells & Fakenham trains out in the rain. Service on the West Norfolk was sparse and the curves meant the trains had to have a friendly shove sometimes to get them up the hill if the rails were wet and the load heavy.
In 1939 there were sixteen passeng trains a day to and from Norwich and Wells and two goods trains each way. There were only six passenger trains on the West Norfolk line, but two extra on Saturdays and one extra on Thursdays. There was also one goods train each way.
The trains were very antiquated, delightful to enthusiasts but uncomfortable to travellers interested in getting only from A to B. Ancient carriages were hauled by 19th century 0-6-0 and 2-4-0. On the Fakenham line there were also bogie coaches hauled by GER4-4-0, 'Claud Hamilton' and 'T19' classes.
Wells station saw a lot of 'Pilgrim' trains from the 1930s. The empty coaches came into Wells after the pilgrims had dismounted at Walsingham. These would stop on the hill above the station, have the engine detached, then the guard would release his handbrake and let the coaches gravitate into a siding.
The West Norfolk Railway was closed to traffic on June 2nd 1952 but the 'main line' to Fakenham, Dereham and Wymondham saw diesel cars from 1955. The line from Dereham to Wells finally closed on October 5th 1964.
However, in 1982, the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway opened, following the course of the standard gauge Wells & Fakenham Railway. The railway was an immediate success, both as a tourist attraction and as a means of transport for local people. In fact, more coaches and more locomotives were quickly needed.
The journey starts at Wells station and climbs a gradient up to Warham, past the remains of Leicester Lime Works, a wood and through a'tunnel'. After.Warham there is a long straight section of track passing through a cutting and a graceful three arch bridge. Later Warharn Camp can be seen, the remains of an Iron Age Fort.
The railway climbs through Wighton Halt and then descends past old Wighton Station (now Seton's Halt). Another climb and then a descent past Walsingham sewage works, where the village of Great Walsingham can be seen in the distance.
The steepest climb on the railway is at Barnard Cutting, where the engine and driver have to work hard to lift the train over one of the steepest sections of any railway in the country.
The train soon enters Little Walsingham (which is actually bigger than Great Walsingham!) where the station is only three minutes' walk away from the famous Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines, the ruined abbey and the village itself.
Another journey which steam enthusiasts should not miss is the North Norfolk Railway, known as the'Poppy Line'. This is a full size railway which follows the coast from Sheringham to Weybourne before heading inland to Holt. The station at Sheringham is just across the road from the Bittern Line scheduled service to Norwich.
At Holt you can catch a horsedrawn bus into the town centre, while at Weybourne there is a buffet and family picnic area. From here you can take a circular walk through Weybourne Woods and Sheringham Park or walk down to the sea and take the coastal footpath to Sheringham.
At Sheringham station there is a museum and souvenir shop, as well as static locomotives and carriages, a signal box and a buffet.