diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 01, 2017

The least used station in... Norfolk
(Annual passenger usage: 134)

Thus far I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex, Bedfordshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Kent, each of them with fewer passengers than the station before. But Norfolk takes things to another level, with a station that averages less than three passengers a week, and is currently the 13th least used station in the entire country. You might have expected Norfolk's crown to go to Berney Arms, the isolated Broadland halt two miles from the nearest road, but that's seven times as busy as nearby Buckenham. Allow me to try to explain why, starting with the timetable.

 from Norwichto Norwich
Monday - Friday no trainsno trains
Sunday0949 1149 1549 1711 1018 1039 1239 1639 

Buckenham is a weekend-only request stop, with just one opportunity to visit on Saturdays and four on Sundays. It sits on the remote Wherry Line through the Broads east of Norwich, a few miles before it forks one way to Lowestoft and the other to Great Yarmouth. The River Yare meanders close by through open marshes, while a short distance away is the village of Buckenham, a cluster of a dozen buildings on what passes for a hill round here. Alone in the middle of a field stands the flint church of St Nicholas with its octagonal tower, and abreast the narrow lane leading down to the river is a station where almost nobody goes.

Two do-it-yourself level crossing gates block the lane, with a platform leading off to either side. The eastbound runs alongside the old station house, now a three bedroom bungalow with a bouncy trampoline out back, and very few nosey passengers to interrupt residential privacy. Look out for the ¾-milepost partway down, the yellow tactile strip protecting passengers from the rush of daily non-stoppers, and hoops for two bikes should anyone ever choose to use them. But a slow handclap for whoever turned up and replaced the timetable on the noticeboard last week, because it's for the line between Lowestoft and Ipswich, not this line, and hence of no use whatsoever.

The westbound platform is harder to reach, accessed two minutes up a trackside footpath leading off into the marshes. A small green shelter has been provided, plus a separate row of metal seats, between them sufficient to accommodate an entire month of Norwich-bound travellers. If you're here at dusk you can sit and watch the rooks and jackdaws rising from the wires to swoop above the woodland of Buckenham Carrs, although you should make sure you have alternative means of transport because you've probably missed the last train.

If searching for a reason why rail travellers might visit this isolated spot, one answer is the RSPB reserve alongside at Buckenham Marshes. Follow the lane half a mile down to the river's edge where a wooden hide looks out over acres of grazing land and drainage ditches. For the finest spectacle come in late autumn or winter to see England's largest flock of bean geese together with up to ten thousand wigeons. In May the main action is the herd of cows and calves lumbering beside the dirt track, and the steady procession of yachts and motor cruisers on the Yare enjoying a stately Broadland jaunt.

The RSPB have a larger reserve one mile up the road at Strumpshaw Fen. I say road, but again it's more of a lane, and blocked to traffic by a locked level crossing which is another barrier to raising passenger numbers. One further level crossing then leads back across to the visitor centre, where volunteers take your entrance money, flog badges and update sightings on the whiteboard. The first hide gives some idea of what to expect, looking out over an open lake surrounded by reeds, and perhaps a couple of marsh harriers freewheeling above the scrape.

A lengthy circuit heads down to the river's edge and back, via two further hides. Again the local duck population isn't at its peak at this time of year, but those that are here are noisy, and I did spot a Chinese water deer resting in the nettles. Much more exciting was the yellow flash I saw briefly above the fenland boardwalk, which belonged to the UK's largest native butterfly, the swallowtail. This very rare beast feeds off milk parsley, a delicacy only to be found in the Norfolk Broads, and takes to the wing in late spring and summer. How glorious then to spot a second in the long grass by the railway line, aided and abetted by a crowd of visitors surrounding it with large-lensed cameras.

Come to Strumpshaw on a Sunday between Easter and September and you can visit the Strumpshaw Steam Museum, a mechanical heritage collection in agricultural sheds round the back of a farm. Here you'll find traction engines, beam engines, threshers and 1930s fairground rides, plus a 28-seater North Sea escape pod because hell why not? The Christie Cinema Organ lights up and plays nostalgic tunes if there's an organist at the keys, while outside is a narrow gauge railway circuit pulled by a diesel disguised to look a steam engine. This is normal for Norfolk.

Come to Strumpshaw over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend and you get to enjoy the annual Strumpshaw Steam Rally, a three-day mass gathering of vintage vehicles and grease-faced enthusiasts. Traction engines of all sizes putter around the site and showground, their owners beaming broadly, and often with the wife or kids or dog in a trailer on the back. Meanwhile thousands wander between the stalls to track down tools or t-shirts to take home, or top up on ale and chips before returning to watch the parade. It is the very epitome of an English day out, and one more reason why Buckenham station deserves more than its handful of annual visitors.

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