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Passengers flock to North Norfolk’s Poppy Line heritage trains

The Poppy Line's carriages are strung with Christmas coloured lights for the festive season
The Poppy Line's magical Norfolk Lights Express - a traditional steam-hauled train lit up for the festive season

Railway journeys can be fun, especially if your 100 year-old carriage is being pulled by a steam locomotive puffing and wheezing its way through North Norfolk’s stunning countryside.

And it is even more fun if the train is covered in miles of coloured lights for a nightime ride full of adventure. This is the Norfolk Lights Express which runs from November to January and is just one of the many events run during the year by North Norfolk Railway - East Anglia’s premier heritage railway.

Ticket offices and platforms are open and booming with passengers on the railway known as The Poppy Line which runs along a five-and-a-half miles track between Sheringham and Holt.

The heritage railway is a major tourist attraction handling 165,000 passengers a year. Passenger numbers are growing as people jump aboard for a trip down memory lane on a steam or diesel engine.

A steam train stops at Sheringham station platform
The trains are popular with enthusiasts and holidaymakers

The North Norfolk Railway is run mainly by volunteers and railway enthusiasts. Many wear authentic uniforms to tend to their rail tasks as drivers, engineers, porters or ticket office staff. Others beaver away behind the scenes ensuring the track and rolling stock are maintained.

It was given its name 'The Poppy Line' after the influential 19th Century poet, theatre critic, and travel writer Clement Scott coined the term “Poppyland” referring to the unspoilt coastal area of North Norfolk around Sheringham where poppies grow in abundance.

The railway runs passenger trips 250 days a year giving travellers an experience of six decades of railway transport with vintage engines and carriages. Its events calendar is packed with special weekends throughout the year broadening its appeal from railway buffs to a wider group of families, car enthusiasts, and other interest groups including period re-enactment such as the Roaring Forties or Swinging Sixties.

Passengers wait to board the heritage diesel train at Sheringham station
Passengers wait to board at Sheringham station

The special weekends, which attract ‘guest’ locomotives, include steam and diesel galas, Forties and Sixties weekends in fancy dress with live music, trade stands, historical displays and car rallies to add to the period atmosphere all centred on the railways. And, at Christmas there are Santa Specials and the Norfolk Lights Express – a magical highly-illuminated train journey through the countryside in the darkness operated in the run-up to Christmas.

The Norfolk Lights Express, first run in 2019, has a historic steam locomotive pulling restored carriages covered by thousands of colour-changing lights connected by two and a half miles of cable. It is truly spectacular. Fields alongside the track are illuminated in static displays and festive light-shows as is Sheringham station.

A separate treat for families and children is the Santa Special running from Sheringham to Holt with elves on board to entertain passengers.

The North Norfolk Railway is run by Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway Society one of the first railway preservation groups in the UK. It is a charity and the major shareholder in the line which was built originally in 1887 and closed in 1964.The society works to preserve, display and operate a wide range of historical artefacts which include four steam and three diesel locomotives and many unique carriages and wagons on the North Norfolk line.

A volunteer in authentic rail employee uniform sits on the station platform
Volunteers wear authentic uniform

Restoration of the line began in 1968 but it was not until 1975 that this line was re-opened to the public.

The railway’s headquarters are in the Victorian seaside resort of Sheringham, one of four stations on the line which goes to the Georgian town of Holt. The other stops are at Weybourne and a request halt at Kelling Heath.

The main engine sheds and workshops for restoring rail stock are at Weybourne. They include a former locomotive shed from Norwich with room for four standard length British Rail carriages and six large steam or diesel engines.

Weybourne is a passing place and often two trains will be in the station at the same time.

New carriage storage sheds, with room for up to 18 carriages, have been built near Holt with £308,000 of Heritage Lottery funding. Holt also has a museum with artefacts from the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway.

Trains stand in front of the main engine sheds at Weybourne
The main engine sheds are at Weybourne

Holt’s station building was originally built 27 miles away at Stalham in 1883. It was moved, brick-by-brick in 2002, and re-erected in Holt. The Holt signal box is more than 100 years old.

The Holt station also has a rebuilt 'carriage house' which shows how old railway carriages were converted into homes for families. This began after the 1914-18 war and continued as a cheap housing solution into the late 1940s.

The North Norfolk Railway has won numerous heritage railway awards and in 2022 was given the Queen’s Award for voluntary service recognising its outstanding voluntary work in the community.

It has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in replacing track almost worn out after 50 years of use. And it has been awarded another National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to look at possibly improving visitor facilities at Holt station which is the starting point for about half the passengers using the line.

The character and quality of the rolling stock and buildings on the North Norfolk Railway has led to it frequently being used for filming. Scenes from BBC’s Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Hi-de-hi!, Sherlock Holmes, and All the King’s Men were all shot in North Norfolk.

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