The Bure Valley Railway

The Bure Valley Railway

The nine mile long Bure Valley Railway opened on Tuesday 10th July 1990 and soon it became one of the country’s premier fifteen inch gauge lines. It was constructed on a ready made alignment (which would in part become an adjacent footpath) that consisted of the former British Railways freight route from Wroxham to Norwich City via the sixties built Themelthorpe curve.

The Bure Valley follows the example of the nearby Wells and Walsingham Railway which too repurposed a former stretch of main line railway for leisure use including existing overbridges and underbridges. The BVR however wasn’t the first fifteen inch gauge railway in Norfolk with the honour going to Bressingham, nor the first miniature railway in Wroxham – this being the delightful Barton House Railway of 1963 vintage. Nevertheless the BVR does have some firsts to its honour.

The most substantial of those is that its the biggest fifteen inch gauge system to be built since the days of La’al Ratty and Captain Howey. Its the second longest fifteen inch gauge line in the country (nine miles or 14.5 km) and is also the only railway line in Norfolk that currently uses a tunnel. Not only that its the only fifteen inch line I know of which crosses roads too, there being five of these with the most substantial of these across Mill Street in Buxton. And finally, its been voted as one of the top five narrow gauge lines in the UK by Country Magazine.

The opening of the new line was conducted by the television personality and writer Miles Kington who presented a number of programmes covering various lines around the world as well as the BBC series Steam Days. Many of the photos of the opening were taken by R.S. Joby, a university lecturer and noted railway historian.

Opening ceremony at Aylsham in 1990. Miles Kington is third from right. Photo by R. S Joby for the BVR.

A brief account of the official opening was recounted in the line’s first ever guidebook, published 1991:

“Trains operated for staff training a few days before the grand opening ceremony on 10 July 1990 when the official double headed train hauled by Samson and Winston Churchill carried the board of the BVR, the chairman and some councillors of Broadland District Council, and Lord and Lady Suffield, Lord Suffield being a descendant of the Lord Suffield who launched the East Norfolk Railway in 1864.John Snell, general manager of the RH&DR, came with other guests, crowding into a very full inaugral train.”

“Children waving Union Jacks were lined up at the termini and intermediate halts in true Victoria railway-opening style. Unfortunately, in full view of television cameras, there was trouble with the air brakes, a delayed start and then further trouble at Coltishall where there was a lengthy wait in or to get things right and summon the help of the diesel hydraulic. Arrival at Aylsham was over an hour late, but taken in good humour as caused by teething problems of a new venture and following in the tradition of past railway openings.”

The Bure Valley Railway struggled with various aspects of its operation in the early days, including ownership and management of the line and a lack of suitable motive power for the quite steeply graded route (the problems of which became apparent on the opening day itself) – but it has overcome all these and more to become an established narrow gauge railway.

I visited the Bure Valley Railway on its second day of opening (as well as undertaking a number of successive visits and lineshot shots at various locations en route.) As some will no doubt be aware the line’s motive power in its early days was borrowed from the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. All the following photographs are mine.

RH&DR No.9 Winston Churchill on the turntable at Wroxham. Note the footbridge in the background in the above image. This gives a direct pedestrian link from the main line station. The semaphore signals were replaced in 2000. The signalbox was moved six metres and is now a local heritage structure.

As will be evident from my pictures the BVR opened to the public with barely any motive power of its own save for its one diesel. It borrowed locomotives from Kent’s Romney line for the entire 1990 season. The RH&DR’s excellent locomotives however found the gradients of the Broadland route somewhat taxing compared to their usual route across Romney marshes. These locomotives weren’t really built for such a heavily graded route although they did manage very well. Evidently the Bure Valley would need far more sophisticated fifteen inch gauge locomotives.

In terms of elevations Wroxham station’s at 35 feet and Aylsham 95 feet and there’s five line summits in between – it might not seem a lot however 5 miles from Wroxham the line crosses the River Bure at just 19 feet above sea level. That’s after having to climb three summits in a row. It also means the full ascent to Aylsham from that lowest point is in the line’s last 4 miles.

RH&DR no.9 waiting for the off at Wroxham. 12 July 1990. Note the bunting and flags left over from the earlier official opening.

The BVR’s own locomotive at the time of opening – the one diesel built in 1988 had initially been used for the line’s construction. The locomotive, no.3, still performs sterling work today. Naturally the line now has its own fleet of superb fifteen inch gauge locomotives but for this feature its just photos of the diesel and Winston Churchill. The other locomotive, RH&DR’s Samson, was not in service on this particular day.

RH&DR no.9 passing BVR no.3 at Coltishall.

On the way to Aylsham.

The BVR has a tunnel under Aylsham by-pass. Its said to be Norfolk’s second ever railway tunnel, the other can be found with some difficulty on the former line to the Great Eastern’s now closed station known as Cromer High.

RH&DR no.9 Winston Churchill at Alysham station 12 July 1990.

The large terminus at Aylsham, no doubt modelled in part on New Romney. This is the area where the BVR’s opening ceremony took part. The area to the right now has an additional siding (see pic bottom of page!)

RH&DR no.9 waiting to return to Wroxham.

Running parallel to the Bittern (Cromer/Sheringham) line as the return working approaches Wroxham.

I visited the line on a couple of other occasions and by then it had acquired several other locomotives either on a temporary or permanent basis. One example was Sian from the Fairbourne Railway & pictured below.

One of several lineside shots I did a couple of years later. This is Beulagh Green crossing. (See Google Streets.)

The Fairbourne Railway’s former ‘Sian’ was sold to the BVR and its styling changed somewhat. It became the BVR’s no.4 from 1991 to 1994 before moving on elsewhere. More details here.

Below is shown the first ever BVR guidebook. This was published in 1991 and depicts the RH&DR engine on its cover.

BVR guidebook from author’s collection.

As well as Winston Churchill, the other RH&DR engines on the line in its first year were Samson and Black Prince which visited the BVR during its October 1990 gala weekend along with Mannertreu from Bressingham and Northern Rock from Ravenglass.

These engines (and more) have paid at least several visits to the BVR since those early days for gala and special event weekends. These and other locomotives contributed towards the designs the BVR eventually sought for a dedicated fleet of locomotives.

Its ages since I last visited the BVR – probably 25 years or so – however its evident from pictures that Aylsham station changed has compared to 1990. There’s an additional siding next to the platform area. No doubt there have been other changes too and of course a much larger fleet of steam and diesel locomotives complement the BVR.

Aylsham in 2019 showing the siding at left. The locomotive at right is based on the Leek & Manifold Valley Light Railway. Source: Twitter

Wroxham’s miniature railway websites:

Bure Valley Railway Website / Twitter

Besides the BVR, Wroxham also has another miniature railway system which isn’t as well known as its bigger sibling. The Barton House Railway was a much earlier railway, having been set up in the sixties to display artefacts of the recently closed Midland and Great Northern Railway system, and a three & half inch gauge railway forms its centrepiece. There’s also a newer seven & quarter inch gauge system and these are set in an attractive location sited by the River Bure in Wroxham.

Wroxham’s first – the Barton House Railway! Website / Twitter

Wroxham Signalbox Trust – restoring the main line signalbox. Website / Facebook