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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archive
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