The ancient port of Southwold adjoins marsh and heathland on the Suffolk coastline, twelve miles south of Lowestoft (the farthest eastern point in England). The once important harbour declined during the 18th and 19th centruies in favour of Lowestoft, accentuating the need for tourists and trade, although there was still some fishing. In the 1850's, the East Suffolk Railway had taken a westerly course from Lowestoft to Ipswich, thus passing through Halesworth and Darsham, leaving Southwold 9 miles from a railway line. A once-daily horse-drawn omnibus service from Darsham was woefully inadequate. The ESR, and then GER, refused requests for a branch line and by 1875 local opinion had reached a peak. The Southwold Railway Company was formed with the help of local people (who bought many shares), a 3ft gauge chosen and the Halesworth-based Board set about raising the money. They had difficulties, were replaced by another Board, and meetings transferred to new Chairman Richard Rapiers London Offices. Local people (who had set the scheme up) were less than amused and there was an element of local ill-feeling when the line opened on 24th September 1879, despite the object of the exercise being achieved.
The 8.75 mile line commenced at Southwold Station, near Buss Creek on the edge of Southwold and proceeded over Southwold Common and marshes, through a cutting and across the River Blyth on a 146ft swing bridge, the only sizeable engineering structure on the line. Next came Walberswick Station, some half a mile from the village (a constant source of complaints). The site now has a SRS seat on the station site.
From there, the line carried on through the heath and the heronry area to Blythburgh station. The section between Southwold and Blythburgh is for the most part eminently walkable, with the track formation still visible (the SRS has an annual walk along this section after Christmas). Blythburgh station site is near to the White Hart pub and the magnificent 15th century church overlooking the Blyth estuary. The line then followed the river Blyth over fields to Wenhaston Station, which had the only set of public level crossing gates on the line. The last two miles to Halesworth Station passed Wenhaston Mill (and siding), a quarry and engine shed, and then followed the East Suffolk main line before swinging over a girder bridge and into the station. Halesworth sation was next to the GER/LNER main line station, connected by a girder bridge.
The Southwold Railway was single track throughout, worked on the one-engine-in-steam principle, although later the line was sectioned. Trains were almost invariably mixed, with shunting at intermediate stations. With a 16mph speed limit, this shunting must have added to the tedium of a 9 mile journey which took around 35 minutes. It was possible to cycle the journey quicker! The line was built on gently sloping countryside, so there were few notable earthworks and apart from occasional flooding in the marshes, the operationw as generally uneventful.
When opened, the Southwold Railway had three Sharp Stewart engines, 2-4-0T's imaginatively called "Southwold", "Halesworth" and "Blyth". No 1 "Southwold was returned to the makers in 1883 and replaced with a 2-4-2T in 1893, also called "Southwold". In 1914, a much larger Manning Wardle 0-6-2T was obtained.
Rolling stock included six 6-wheel coaches, some 6-wheel coal trucks (some owned by Moy, thus being the only privately owned wagons on an English narrow gauge railway), 2 goods vans and a selection of 4-wheel trucks, many with distinctive curved ends.
The Southwold Railway gradually developed and in 1900, the SR carried 100,00 passengers, 90,000 tons of minerals and 6,00 tons of general merchandise. Expansion was considered, including the mile-long harbour branch, a branch to Lowestoft (or Kessingland to meet a proposed GER branch there), to meet the mid-Suffolk Light railway in Halesworth or Laxfield, or to convert to standard gauge. Priority was given to the standard gauge conversion, which proceeded slowly and eventually lack of finance led to abandonment. The railway was thus left virtually the way it was when it opened. The harbour branch was eventually built, but the fishing trade was already in decline and the only advantage of the branch was a grant which allowed the purchase of the fourth engine.
The line became a bit of a joke locally. Although it provided an important link with the outside world, the eccentric coaches, engines and gauge and the noted unreliability of the Southwold Railway led to a series of now well-known postcards by local cartoonist Reg Carter, poking fun at the line. One is reproduced below.
After the First World War, financial depression caused a general decline in the fortunes of the line. Up to 1925 the line showed a profit, but when the end came, it was sudden. Busses started outside Southwold in 1926, the railway responded with increased service and reduced prices, but when the busses collected from within Southwold in 1928, even harsh cuts did not save the line. Essentially, the Directors gave up and decided to cut their losses by closing the line rather than investing in an already out-dated railway.
On April 11th 1929, after one weeks notice, the line closed. A Pathe News film exists of the last trains. So abrupt was the closure that the line had to carry on for a further ten days to clear the goods backlog. If a Southwold transport crisis was hoped by the management (who had received little support from Southwold Corporation), it failed. Two separate plans to quickly reopen the line split the support, and that was that. An abandonment order was applied for and, extraordinarily, was only eventually granted in the 1990's!
Due to this, the company existed for many years and no one was able to do anything about the line. When closed, it was just left. Scrap metal recovery for the Second World War provoked a last-ditch attempt to save the line (which failed of course), and in July 1941 the line and engines were cut up for scrap.
A few items remain of the line: