It’s hard to imagine that there used to be a Railway Terminus for passengers situated almost slap-bang in the very heart of our city centre, but this was the case up until 1916. At the very top of St Stephens and opposite what is now the Bus Station was the Great Eastern Railway-owned Victoria Station. It operated from this site for 67 years serving passenger links to London, but trains were to operate from here for much much longer than that. Victoria Station opened in 1849 and although the passengers stopped coming and going in 1916, the station evolved into a busy goods station enabling it to survive right up until 1966, and beyond. It actually survived even longer than that, albeit only as a coal depot and from the other side of the road where the Sainsbury’s supermarket now sits.
This perfectly-located Railway terminus was built on the former site of the Victorian Pleasure Gardens known as both “Ranelagh Gardens” or the “Victoria Pleasure Gardens” and a comprehensive history of it is covered in great detail in this fascinating piece by the brilliant Colonel Unthank.
It’s a shame that Victoria Station wasn’t chosen for the City’s main passenger Station as it’s location is almost perfect for passengers coming into and out of the very centre of Norwich, but hindsight is a wonderful yet pointless concept.
The site is now occupied by Victoria House, a large office building belonging to the large Insurance Broker, Marsh, and to the casual observer it would be quite a struggle to make the connection between this plain-looking structure and its 117-year history of bringing passengers and freight right into the very centre of Norwich, just going to prove what a handful of decades can do to cover over the past in an urban centre.
Now if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll have probably seen that I’ve written quite a lot about my obsession with the old Midland and Great Northern Railway located to the north of the city, skirting Mile Cross on it’s way, inspiring me to create the long-running “M&GN Ghost” series of re-photography; however, these aren’t the only railway-inspired ‘Ghost’ images I’ve been creating over the years.
Having been sat on my bottom for more than half of my life inside Victoria House, I’ve spent a fair bit of time gazing out of the window and wondering how the whole site must have looked before the somewhat aptly-named “Bland Payne” Insurance Brokers arrived in the City of Norwich with their 1970’s beige and rectangular monolith. Over the years I’ve managed to root out a handful of fairly-interesting images to help give me an idea of how this part of the city looked back in the days of the railways.
Now I will admit that these ghost images aren’t anywhere near as romantic as the M&GN ones, mainly because there aren’t an awful lot of early images of Victoria Station to be found. This is due to it being built well before photography was a thing, and that it had closed to passengers in the early stages of the 20th century (1916). On top of all this, the only fairly-interesting building on the site was a converted Victorian Pantheon that incorporated the ticket hall, and even that was destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
Luckily, there were at least two “Specials” to visit the station and these would have been loaded with railway enthusiasts armed with cameras, meaning that at least some of the heritage had been captured on film; however, these passengers into Victoria didn’t arrive until the original station had unfortunately long-since lost what little character it had had to begin with. That said, we do have a handful of fairly interesting images to look at and unlike the M&GN, I do at least have some memories of my own, some vague, visual connections in my own mind with there being an active railway line here. Almost the whole length of line running into Victoria was there to connect it up with the still very-much active Coal Yard, still in use when I was a young lad in the 1980’s. I was occasionally walked into Lakenham to visit who I think was my great grandmother, who if my memory serves me correctly here lived somewhere off Mansfield Lane. Unfortunately I have nobody left to fill in those details for me, but I do definitely remember occasionally being allowed to stop briefly on the footbridges at Hall Road and Southwell Road to watch a diesel shunter noisily getting on with its work beneath my little feet.
With all that in mind, and before I begin dwelling too much on my own past (as if…) let’s take a look at some of the images I’ve quietly accumulated and modified over the last decade alongside the more familiar M&GN series, of Victoria Station and its branch line as it heads out of the City and through Lakenham. ‘GER Ghosts’, if you will.
First up, the original building fronting the passenger booking hall. As you can see, it was a relatively small building which was partly down to the fact that it wasn’t originally built for the railway. You can just about make out the earlier pantheon roof in the background from it’s past as a pleasure gardens. You can also make out the two covered platforms that ran in a V-shape either side of the main booking-hall. This fairly unassuming building managed to conceal the fairly large operations going on behind it, from this angle at least:
There is a small nod to the site’s former past still to found by the road here today; the pair of gate-posts predating the offices and leading up towards theses steps are made from bullhead rail. A small detail that I imagine is lost on the thousands of people who walk (or walked) past this every day on their way into or out of the City Centre:
This next image is taken facing the other way, looking back towards the City and through the long-demolished passenger buildings. You can see that the site is now just a plain-looking goods yard with no passenger platforms remaining. These were demolished along with the rest of the passenger facilities after the second world war after they had been mostly destroyed by enemy action. This busy-looking scene was most likely taken in the 1960’s and it shows a special passenger steam visiting the site in anticipation of the station about to be closed for freight activities and ending the 117-year history of rails almost reaching our City’s Walls. The tall Chimney seen in the background belonged to Caley’s, now the Chapelfield Shopping Centre; highlighting what a perfect spot this would have been for rail passengers visiting the city today:
The next two images, one in black and white and one in colour were taken from the bridge that crossed the station and it’s yards at Brazengate. The lines leave the station under another bridge at Southwell Road heading south to a junction with the current London main line at Sandy Lane. The scene here is dominated by the extensive coal yards that operated from here up until about 1986 when the coal depot was finally closed. The branch line was then made into the Lakenham Way footpath:
In the 1978 colour image we can see a diesel shunter working the line and one of the sets of buffers showing where the line now ended, no longer passing under the bridge. Note the Southwell Road bridge that you know have to drive under twice to be able to escape from Sainsbury’s:
This 1972/2014 image is taken from that Southwell Road bridge and it shows the large quantities of coal the yard was dealing with, almost obscuring the large bridge at Brazengate. The roof of the former station goods sheds can seen peering over the top of the bridge and a car can be seen leaving the Sainsbury’s car park and underneath/through the station’s signal box:
And from a similar position in 1975. We now have a better view of the bridge at Brazengate, but behind it the scene is dominated by a new arrival; Bland Payne’s new office block, the aptly-named Victoria House. In the lower centre of the image we can spot a coal yard worker sat having a rest, completely unaware that he’s sitting next to a Sainsbury’s of the future:
If we were able to borrow this chap’s chair for a bit we’d greeted with a similar view to the one below. Note how the road of today climbs up towards the span of the bridge at Brazengate. This scene is dominated by a well-used shunter which is busy blocking the entrance to the Sainsbury’s car park:
So what happened to the bridge at Brazengate? Well it was demolished, sort of, to enable vehicular access to the new Sainsbury’s. One side of the bridge was kept, giving the road a rather unusual-looking camber. The Victoria side of the bridge still in situ:
And if we take a look at the bridge from the car park at Victoria House, we can see that the whole northern-western side of the bridge has been kept and is in fairly good condition, a nice little reminder of the railways influence here:
Back to following the Victoria branch as it leads south away from the city centre and towards the London mainline. I’m stood on the Southwell Road bridge again, looking the other way at a shunter from the past and some homes from the future being built on the former yard’s sidings. This photograph was taken in both 1981 and 2015 and it shows quite well that the homes bordering Victoria would have been more-than-used to smoke and fumes from the railway that they were built next to. According to Matthew Williamson, this particular part of Lakenham would have been brick-fields before the railway turned up:
A hundred or so meters further South and we encounter yet another another bridge, the third in quite a short stretch of track. I’m stood on Mill Close bridge, named after the nearby windmill; and I’m looking back at the Southwell Road bridge. From here we can see the massive retaining wall put in by the railway company to stop a large portion of Lakenham sliding into the large cutting here and a Steam Special of the 1960’s making a final visit to Victoria. The two teenagers from the future seem completely oblivious to the danger they were in, albeit 60 years ago:
I’m going to follow the same route that the pair of blissfully unaware teenagers just took and head south under the bridge and a few hundred meters along the Lakenham Way. From here I can look back towards the City to photograph a shunter no longer working the line and the bridge I was recently stood on. Behind me are the remains of a set of buffers, now covered in brambles and to the left of the shunter we can see that some things haven’t really changed in 43 years; back in the future some ‘brains of Britain’ has sprayed “NCFC” on to one of the supports the nearby bridge. Back in 1977 – presumably their granddad – has written the very same thing on the ‘STOP AWAIT ORDERS BEFORE SHUNT’ sign:
As the branch line moves further out and through Lakenham on it’s way to the mainline it goes underneath Hall Road and along the backs of the houses that are no longer there on Mansfield Lane. It’s my 4th Birthday (1981) and what must be the last ever passenger train is making it’s way into Norwich, but it will only make it as far as the coal yard where Sainsbury’s now is. A council contractor from the future is about to be splattered in the past, if he’s not too careful with his litter picking:
The last ghost image taken in 1978 shows us a shunter at Mansfield Lane, moving a mixed train of passenger and stock carriages recently bought and restored by the North Norfolk Railway along Mansfield Lane from their Stock restoration siding at Victoria to Crown Point so that it can then be moved up the line to Sheringham. The bridge in the distance is carrying the inner link over the track-bed:
The track continued south from here, down towards and under Barret Road and on to Sandy Lane joining up to the mainline at Trowse Upper Junction. A spot where trains are still very much running back and forth into and out of Norwich’s remaining Station, Thorpe, but no longer into the City Centre.
So there it is, the Victoria Branch in all its, er, splendour. Thanks again for looking at the images and reading my ramblings, it’s helping to keep me sane in these very strange times.