FEATURE: The golden era of rail


Peter Foster can recall the days when he stood with his family on the platform at Alford railway station, waiting for the train to London.

Unfortunately, a sense of excitement wasn’t always the only thing in the air.

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If you were unlucky, the ‘Fish Express’ would come steaming through the station ahead of your train.

That ‘Express’ rushed fish – landed overnight by Grimsby’s fleet of trawlers – to the leading restaurants and hotels in London.

Peter explains: “The fish was packed in ice but it had already started melting by the time it reached Alford.

“If the wind was in the wrong direction, you got a strong whiff of fish as the train went by.

“I hate to think what it was like by the time the train reached Peterborough!

“You wouldn’t want to have been standing on the platform there!”

Peter made those journeys in the 1950s when Lincolnshire’s railway system was still pretty much intact.

Lines criss-crossed the county.

There was a direct service to London from Grimsby and Cleethorpes, passing through Boston.

Peter adds: “You’d catch the 7.29 from either Louth or Alford and be in London during the morning.

“There was plenty of time for sightseeing and then it was the 8.30 train back in the evening.

“We always made sure we had dinner on the return - no pre-packed sandwiches. It was a full three-course meal, cooked on the train with silver service. Great days…”

Few people knew it, but at the time the haunting spectre of closure was already hanging over many of Lincolnshire’s rail routes.

A golden era was coming to an end...

The railways had arrived in the mid-1800s.

Today’s super-fast London-Peterborough-Grantham-Doncaster line had still to be completed.

Instead, the route north was via Boston.

Back then, a ‘loop line’ from Boston to Lincoln linked with Doncaster... and on to Scotland.

Packed passenger trains also used to steam along the busy Boston to Lincoln line.

Some were crammed with anglers – many of them on day excursions from South Yorkshire, keen to try their luck in the River Witham.

Those trains stopped at stations like Langrick, Dogdyke, Southrey, Stixwould and Bardney.

Then, there were the ‘landed gentry’ who travelled by train to Woodhall Spa to ‘take on’ the waters...said to be the best available cure for gout.

Special excursions were laid on from London...members of the royal family were frequent visitors.

Woodhall Spa was on a branch line which terminated at Horncastle, then described as a bustling manufacturing town which came alive every year for the annual horse fair – the biggest in Europe.

Talking of Europe, it was also possible to travel on another branch line, this time from Bardney to Louth through the very heart of the Wolds.

The route took in spectacular scenery and the longest hand-dug tunnel in Europe...near Donington on Bain.

That tunnel is still there….but the track was taken up years ago.

In fact, all those stations - with the exception of Boston – have disappeared.

All that’s left are walkers and weeds... and memories and mementos which are apparently worth a small fortune to collectors.

Some of those mementos were on show during a talk by railway historian Mike Fowler in Horncastle recently.

The talk was organised by the town’s History and Heritage Society. The fact the function room at the Admiral Rodney was packed showed the massive interest there is in that by-gone era.

Before you ask, not everyone wore an anorak... nor was everyone male and over 70.

There was almost a tear in Mr Fowler’s eyes as he recalled the demise of the railways during the 60s and 70s.

He spoke with genuine love and affection about the many stations.

Photographs showed ornate Italian style buildings...imposing stationmasters’ houses, signal boxes and those cherished locomotives.

The story of that Horncastle branch line sums up the demise.

The line opened on September 26, 1855. It was an immediate success, carrying passengers and freight to Horncastle.

The station had a unique turntable. Wagons went through 90 degrees and were then attached to horses who pulled them to the many businesses in the town.

Pupils travelled to and from school, or to get to Boston and on to London.

The 9am would get you into Boston at 10.04.

By 1954, passenger trains to Horncastle had stopped. Freight trains continued until 1971 when the line closed completely and housing developers moved in.

Mr Fowler revealed that when the decision was taken to end passenger services, only 21 people a day travelled by train to Woodhall Spa. Around 300 made the same journey by bus.

Ten years after passenger services ended, Chris Bates was a rookie reporter sent by his editor to cover a special excursion which ‘chugged’ into Horncastle station.

The train was packed with enthusiasts.

As Chris recalls, hundreds of residents turned out. Children perched on the platform edge, legs dangling over the side.

September, 1964, really was the last time a passenger stepped from a train on to the platform at Horncastle.

Freight services rumbled on until 1971 when the last ever train chugged out of town.