Norfolk Railway Tunnels: Barsham.

By Haydn Brown.

 The Barsham parish is located north of Fakenham and south of the pilgrimage centre of Little Walsingham in North Norfolk. This parish includes several small villages, that of Houghton St Giles, West Barsham, East Barsham and North Barsham. For those who have a liking for such things, the name Barsham means ‘homestead or village of a man called Bar’. We are not sure, but ‘Bar’ may derive from ‘boar’ and may even be a nickname. The Domesday survey itself identifies a man called ‘Toki’ as owning land there prior to 1066 after which, around 1087, a certain ‘Hugh’ owned the land. This area around the Barshams is rich in archaeological finds and contains some particularly splendid churches and monuments related to pilgrimages to nearby Little Walsingham.


The area is also well known for its ‘Barsham Tunnel’, as once was – the only other standard gauge tunnel (apart from the Cromer Tunnel – see previous blog) to be built in Norfolk during the 19th century as part of the rush to lay down railways.

A Fakenham-bound train crosses the trestle viaduct at East Barsham in the mid-1890’s. Beneath, work is in progress to replace the 40 year-old timber structure, embankment and culvert. Picture : Norman Faircloth courtesy of the FCA.

The railway which ran through the Barshams linked Wymondham, Dereham, Fakenham and Wells-next-the-Sea. The Wymondham to Dereham section opened in February 1847 as the Norfolk Railway. This was followed the following year by a second section that was to run towards Fakenham, but the Company ran out of funds and had to wait until the independent Wells & Fakenham Railway, finally filled the gap in 1857. Just five years later in 1862, all local railway companies merged into one network, named the Great Eastern Railway (GER).

Barsham (Map)
Illustration showing Norfolk railways, both past and present. Photo: Wikipedia.

For just over a century all was well, until road transport began to take passengers and goods away. The M&GN (nick-named the ‘Muddle & Get Nowhere’ railway), which crossed a large part of Norfolk from Gt. Yarmouth to Kings Lynn and beyond, closed in February 1959. Then along came Dr. Beeching and his draconian nationwide closures which, invariably, included many lines in Norfolk. The Wells to Dereham section, on which the Barsham Tunnel was situated, closed in 1964 followed, in 1969, by the Dereham to Wymondham section. Some parts of former routes however still operated as either Heritage or Narrow-Gauge Railways -see map above.

wells-walsingham-light-railway-train (
The Wells & Walsingham Light Railway. Photo: Discover Norfolk.

One of these is today’s 4-mile narrow gauge Wells & Walsingham Light Railway; its line reduced from the former standard 4ft, 8.5inch width to just 10.25inch width. This railway opened to the public in 1982.

The Barsham Tunnel. Picture: Courtesy of the FCA.

It was towards the Walsingham end of the old Wymondham to Wells-next-the-Sea railway where the track passed through a tunnel – the Barsham Tunnel, which was originally built to pass through Barsham Hill, as indicated on the 1838 first edition 1-inch O.S. map. During construction, and in order to comply with safety regulations, the 200-yard-long and slightly curved Barsham Tunnel had refuges (or portals similar to those of the Cromer Tunnel) cut into its walls for staff to ‘hide’ from passing trains when working in or near the tunnel.

The open Barsham Cutting where the tunnel once stood. Photo: Owen Stratford. Courtesy of FCA.

However, on 22nd November 1892, the London Gazette advised that conversion of the tunnel into an open cutting with a solid embankment, would follow during the following year; this was because structural problems were discovered and, consequently, the tunnel’s roof was removed, leaving just the base of the walls and an exposed deep cutting instead – as still seen today. The tunnel walls had been built with soft ‘Norfolk Red’ bricks and later clad, in a concrete screed, by British Rail. In 1912, the spoil was taken away and dumped to form an embankment across a nearby valley which had previously been crossed by a trestle viaduct over the River Stiffkey.

The Wells to Wymondham Branch Line
The branch line was one of the longest lines in East Anglia, running from Wymondham Abbey to Wells next the Sea, through four major Norfolk towns. Here was where the line ran through the area of the former Barsham Tunnel.
© Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Work-in-progress on the trestle viaduct that once carried the Fakenham to Wells railway over the River Skiffkey at East Barsham. The timbers of the viaduct were buried as an embankment was formed. The spoil came from the opening-out of the nearby Barsham Tunnel which, by the mid-1890’s had become unsafe. Picture: Peter Boggis courtesy of FCA.
Barsham4 (Peter Boggis)
A Wells bound goods train left stranded at  North Barsham after the bridge over the River Skiffkey was washed away during the great flood of August 1912. Picture: Peter Boggis, courtesy of the FCA.
The bridge at North Barsham being rebuilt after the original was destroyed in the August 1912 floods. Picture: Courtesy of the FCA.
Barsham (River Skiffkey)
River Stiffkey
The River Stiffkey is a chalk stream running through north Norfolk, from its source near Swanton Novers to flow out into the North Sea on the north Norfolk coast near the town of Stiffkey. The river is 18 miles long.
The river’s source is a small wooded lake just north of the village of Swanton Novers, after which the river passes close to Fulmodeston, then north to pass through the village of Great Snoring. From Great Snoring it runs south past Thorpland Hall, then north-west through East Barsham, North Barsham and Houghton St Giles to the town of Little Walsingham.
From here it flows north past Great Walsingham, then through Wighton and Warham before passing through the village of Stiffkey and out to its estuary on Stiffkey Salt Marshes.
© Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

After closing on 5th October 1964. The Walsingham station building was purchased three years later by members of the Russian Orthodox Church and transformed into a small monastic community house, including St. Seraphim’s church. So today, they have timetables of a different kind!

The Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: Christopher Weston.

FOOTNOTE: On a final note about Norfolk tunnels, there is today a third tunnel to mention – and still used today! However, this was only created in 1990 with the arrival of the Bure Valley Narrow-Gauge Railway that follows the route of another former ‘standard-gauge’ railway line which ran between Hoveton and Aylsham, and beyond – but not anymore. When the Aylsham Bypass was built, the old level crossing was demolished and a short Tunnel passing under the A140 built. So when anyone says that Norfolk is too flat for tunnels – then the answer must be Rubbish!

Bure Valley Narrow-Gauge Railway Tunnel. Photo: Evelyn Simak


Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archive

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

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