Fancy riding a late 20th century railway line where you can sit at the front and pretend you're driving the train? London has the DLR, but East Anglia has the MNR. And I'm nearer the latter than the former at the moment, so that's what you're getting.
The Mid Norfolk Railway runs from Wymondham to Dereham, in that central swathe of the county where Broadland tourists rarely pause. It almost links to the main Cambridge to Norwich railway but not quite - travellers getting off the train at Wymondham face a mile long cross-town walk. The connection was severed when passenger service to Kings Lynn closed in the 1960s, and the Mid-Norfolk Railway Preservation Trust haven't been able to link things up again. Instead the southern station is a halt in the Tiffey valley beneath the twin towers of Wymondham Abbey - the Norman monastery church where my brother got married [photo][photo]. Hang around on the platform for long enough and a train will eventually pull in, occasionally steam-driven but more usually a diesel. Beat the small children to the front seat and you can look out through the cab window straight along the tracks all the way to Dereham.
The river valley's pretty, if not outstanding, with a waymarked footpath alongside for the first miles or so. The first station is at Kimberley Park, formerly the halt for the local stately home, since converted to private domestic use. Grown men with flags and whistles keep an eye on each level crossing, closing the gates in the face of bemused traffic on rural lanes. At Thuxton there's a passing loop, plus a slightly more substantial station, but without any significant nearby population to make stopping services worthwhile. Cutting follows embankment on the scenic curve to Yaxham, which has the sort of station that period dramas hire for filming. And then, oh, a rather grim industrial estate and an gateless automatic level crossing beneath the concrete span of the A47 dual carriageway. Journey's end.
Dereham station has the air of a 1950s British Rail interchange, which is deliberate, from the luggage trolley on the main platform [photo] to the old white illuminated nameplate high on a concrete post [photo]. Your newly-arrived diesel railcar or steam train will blend in perfectly, although the illusion is likely to be shattered by a collection of Inter City coaches parked up alongside in a motley state of repair. Keeps the volunteers busy, all this restoration and renovation, while the shop by the ticket hall helps to keep the place ticking over and funded. They know their target audience in the shop - men who like buying books and models and DVDs about trains - but there's plenty of not quite so specialist stuff too if tea towels and fridge magnets are more your thing.
It is, perhaps, a mistake to visit Dereham on a Bank Holiday Monday. There's not much to see and do down the High Street, unless you fancy a shopping trip round Poundland or watching The Inbetweeners at the Hollywood Cinema. There is a town museum inside quaint old Bishop Bonner's Cottage, but that's closed on Mondays. Still, if nothing else, you can always escape by steam train.
Like the DLR, the MNR are planning a northward extension to an ill-frequented station in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the DLR, there's no chance of it opening anytime soon. The Mid-Norfolk Railway own the disused track through the northern suburbs of Dereham and out into the surrounding countryside as far as North Elmham. They hope one day they'll reach Fakenham, but the short-term target is County School where the line once split for Wroxham and the Broads. At the moment this lonely spot boasts a picnic site and rail museum, but you can only get here by car which isn't exactly ideal. 17 miles of track would make this one of the longest heritage railways in the country, and maybe even useful if only they could connect it up at both ends.
There is one decent sightseeing spot north of Dereham, and that's Gressenhall Museum of Norfolk Life. The attraction is based around an old workhouse, the largest in Norfolk, which visitors can wander round to explore various pauperish nooks and crannies. The displays are a disturbing reminder of how poorly the weakest in society were treated in the century before the welfare state came along, and were grateful for it. A host of rural exhibits fill two floors, from giant Victorian threshing machines to sharp implements for castrating cockerels. And across the road there's a full working farm, where Suffolk Punches still plough the fields and the harvest is brought in old-style. For the past couple of days Gressenhall has been hosting its annual Village At War event, where everyone pretends it's 1942 and dresses up appropriately. GIs camp out behind the cafe, Land Girls dance to the Chatanooga Choo Choo, vintage vehicles park up on the lawn and sergeant majors pressgang visitors to do drill in the courtyard. Even Winston Churchill pops by, to wander amongst the crowd and give the occasional motivational speech. It's all extremely well done, and a lot of fun for all the volunteers in period costume, which is how come I managed to spend five hours there yesterday. Mid-afternoon the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew over, which is the third time I've seen their Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster this year. All this, plus two rampantly rutting pigs in the upper field, made for a memorable Bank Holiday day out.