It’s Christmas in Norfolk. It’s a year between 1989 and 2001, and a small gauge railway near a village is about to be inundated, usually with people, excited families, but on one year, the powers that be decided to paint the ground white with snow.
Come with us and spend a day at the Little Melton Light Railway Santa Specials.
May we in the Little Melton Light Railway tribute team extend Christmas greetings to all of our readers? We hope you’ve enjoyed our reminiscences, and that those who remember the LMLR feel that we’ve done the railway justice. This is the last planned blog entry, we will add further information should any arise, but it is likely smaller amendments would be to the existing entries. Our next issue will be a photo gallery from pictures not yet published. This will be at some stage in 2017, but this is the last scheduled written LMLR recollection.
Santa Claus came to town on many occasions.
Usually the Santa specials were over the entire weekend, very close to Christmas. The railway would be prepared beforehand. All trains would depart from Melton Wood Junction, and would travel the entire circuit via the Vine Cottage route. The Old Piggeries station was closed off, the Tea Room would provide hot drinks (tea, coffee, mulled wine), and the running shed would be decorated: but we’re not there yet.
Locomotives had decorations, Melton Wood station was lit evocatively, the stove in the waiting room warm against the cold, and crews would be known to have the odd festive adornment to uniforms, probably a holly sprig on the cap. The footbridge would be closed, the gate before the station open and the left hand platform road roped off to allow a level route from the car park to the station. All trains left from the right-hand road.
Don’t ask me the ticket price: I was guard punching the tickets, or in the tunnel as the intermediate block section. The children’s ticket price included a gift from you know who.
The train – and let’s be blunt, they were packed – rattled round the circuit, adults and children enjoying the ride (we hope – one year it snowed) via the Vine Cottage route to the running shed. One year, rather than trains queuing outside the running shed, we held trains in the tunnel for entertainment from two local girls playing carols, with which you could join in. Nevertheless, soon (or maybe not soon enough for the younger passengers) the sound of a departing train from the running shed allowed the train in the tunnel to leave, roaring away up the hill towards Point Cottage.
There is something other worldly and special about being in that tunnel as light fades – we had lanterns, but being away from modern electric light, the colour emitted from lanterns made that weekend very special. I remember we had a discussion about how to pronounce the word “film” (it’s strange the things you recall: “film” or “fil-um”).
I can’t describe effectively how evocative and different being outside as the light declined, it’s not so much a memory as a feeling, one you can only experience by going camping in the countryside without most modern comforts. It must be analogous to being a country stationmaster of the past: silence, awaiting a train, just working and chatting to your staff, and then hearing the approaching noise and hub hub of the train, being busy and on duty, looking forward to the peace and quiet again, the activity and noise of the departure, of a train full of excited, expectant people, the roar of the train climbing and then the gradual return of the silence, the quietude of the country station at night, and the anticipation of the next train, or of sixteen bells and the closing of the signal box.
It’s also quite spooky after dusk in that tunnel. I was pleased to have company.
From about half past three until five o’clock, the trains ran in near darkness. We’d rattle along, and it was an absolute contrast to the normal running sessions. Trains would pass Vine Cottage as cars arrived or departed, headlights blazing, occupants excited with anticipation or with the memory of their trip. Our train curved to the right, into the running shed, and the engine note faded.
The interior of the shed had Christmas decorations, and one of the stables was decorated more elaborately to be Santa’s grotto. Santa would emerge to greet the train, and would work his way along the train, talking to the children, and bringing presents. Santa had helpers, from inside the grotto but outside, Santa had an elf to assist. Some of the animals sported Christmas decorations, too.
There was a rumour that it wasn’t Santa, and it wasn’t a proper elf. Names were mentioned. I don’t accept these rumours, as why wouldn’t Santa and his helpers want to come and play trains for a while?
Once everyone had been seen, the train would depart, but occasionally the following train arrived, headlight illuminating the dimness of the inside of the shed entrance, engine noise echoing around the chamber. The train with the now gift clutching passengers would continue the short distance to the excursion platform, where the passengers would disembark and head to their cars or, hopefully, to the tea room. When empty, the train would move on back to the right-hand platform at Melton Wood Junction, to collect another consist of excited visitors.
Eventually we reached close of play: Melton Wood Junction looked splendid lit as it was, and the welcoming stove in the waiting room would be extinguished. Empty trains would rattle around the circuit to be put to bed – and there is something truly wonderful about being the guard on an empty-stock narrow gauge train running in near darkness – and Santa and his helpers could stand-down and retire to the tea room, once the public went home. Mike could switch out the signal box, the main shed could be closed, and then all of us would inhabit the tea room to warm up and have a brew, and I could anticipate my fifty mile drive home through the dark south Norfolk and East Suffolk countryside, or at my first event, returning to an almost deserted university campus – rather eerie. Everyone knew we’d run in January, only it wouldn’t be the same.
Those are some of my memories of the Little Melton Light Railway: Melton Wood Junction in a warm, yellow, gas-lamp-like glow, the purple-grey light of the dusk during those Santa specials, and the crowds both for those and for the superbly marketed packed events in the warmer, lighter months. There was shoving Thunderbox’s train uphill to keep to time (or ‘train surfing’ because we needed an extra seat), the roar of the engines of all of the machines and happy, happy people loving their ride on the LMLR. There were sad times, there were times I wondered why I was there, there were times I wished I was there, but here is not the place for those.
Instead, have a peaceful and enjoyable time this Christmas, and if you have LMLR pictures, memorabilia or memories, please find the time to contact us, and share – don’t forget to give your permission for us to publish. The LMLR meant a lot to many people, and we trust that this brief internet based excursion is an effective tribute to the railway.
‘Recreational Railways’, LMLR volunteer 1995-1997, 1999-2001.
Here are more photos of our Christmas Specials.