Charlie Robinson: The man who brought the Flying Scotsman to Norfolk
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
We are sitting in the refreshment room of the old Dereham Station; green and cream décor hints at days gone by, old railway maps and 50s-style excursion posters adorn the walls as a line of burgundy coaches stands on Platform One.
This is the departure point for Mid-Norfolk Railway (MNR) heritage train services to Wymondham Abbey some 11 miles along the track via Yaxham, Thuxton, Hardingham and Kimberley through the rural Breckland countryside.
Opposite me is MNR chairman Charlie Robinson. With this backdrop, we could so easily be in another era. But this is 2021 and the mask-wearing MNR staff flitting by the windows remind us we remain in challenging times.
Nearby, on an October Monday morning, work continues in preparation for future services; particularly the fantasies of the Polar Express Christmas special departures.
Yet in the air, where there is normally a whiff of nostalgia - often pungently punctuated by the sulphuric aroma from steam locomotives – a whiff of euphoria still lingers from the hugely-successful ‘residency’ of the legendary Flying Scotsman loco at MNR.
Sipping his coffee, the chairman is buoyant, still brimming over a visit that firmly placed Dereham and the Mid-Norfolk Railway on the map with publicity that stretched beyond the region, and drew enthusiasts from across the country.
I ask him how such a famous steam loco came to take up residency at a Norfolk heritage railway.
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“We had always been interested in getting the Flying Scotsman to Dereham,” he tells me. “The original plan was to put in a bid, but in 2019 we received a letter saying there was a fixed price for a set number of days. We sent off a detailed application and they said ‘yes’.”
Money well spent
While the finer details of the finances and profits are still be tallied up, he concedes that MNR invested in the region of £130,000 to attract the loco, though his comfortable demeanour when discussing the project suggests it was money well spent.
Scotsman rolled discreetly into Dereham in the early hours of a late September morning - moving at night so as not to attract mass attention enroute and the accompanying disruption that brings to the rail network - and over the two-and-a-half weeks, thrilled thousands of visitors from as far away as Glasgow and Newcastle as well as enthusiasts from the eastern region.
“We have not finished working out all the costs and takings but it will provide a huge boost financially for Mid-Norfolk Railway,” he adds. “After COVID we needed all the funds we could get.”
But it wasn’t just one-way traffic, the presence of Scotsman was shared with the local community with talks, lectures, the opportunity to clamber on the footplate for school groups and enthusiastic pre-booked visitors, as well as the chance to take photographs and even blow the whistle.
During its stay, the Flying Scotsman ran five services a day on five separate days between Dereham and Kimberley carrying around 350 passengers per trip, including the ‘Frying Scotsman’ service with on-board fish and chip suppers on three evenings.
“From the point of view of the railway nationally, to have Flying Scotsman visit us was a huge bonus; it has increased our profile and standing enormously. Locally, the support we have had has also been phenomenal,” says former French teacher Charlie, who arrived as a volunteer eight years ago and has been MNR chairman for the past four.
The visit comes on the back of a challenging 18 months, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing a halt to many attractions, including MNR services, which ran its last pre-lockdown passenger service on March 15, 2020, and did not resume until July this year.
What has helped MNR navigate this period is other rail-related activities and services, including an arrangement with Greater Anglia to store its new fleet of trains in the sidings at Kimberley and Danemoor Bank.
“Gradually, as they went into service, the old trains came out of service and Greater Anglia paid us to decommission their carriages,” he says. “We also have a very good finance department and they were very much on the ball for potential grants.”
It is this diversification of services that has been key in helping MNR thrive and survive, from contracts with Greater Anglia, carrying out maintenance on railhead treatment trains, to even being a film set for a couple of Bollywood films and the biggest filming job for the BBC1 thriller Bodyguard.
With no services running, MNR also utilised lockdown to carry out track and bridge work, renew level crossings in Dereham and Kimberley, and repaint rolling stock and coaches.
Some of the old Greater Anglia coaches were bought by MNR, which found the white bodywork and red doors were apt for snow, Santa and the Polar Express services that start mid-November, with the carriages converted into seating formats with facing seats and tables suitable for serving cookies and hot chocolate along the journey.
While electricians prepared platform lighting and props were shipped in from America, actors rehearsed for the first departures.
Charlie explains: “A number of heritage railways run Polar Express, but MNR is the only one to employ professional actors. Our theatrical director, who is responsible for auditions, said that for 36 places he received 3000 applications, which took him an awful long time to work his way through because all the budding actors sent a video of what they were capable of and he had to watch them all. But he is very happy with the cast.”
MNR has considerable rolling stock and diesel multiple units, but does not own diesel or steam locomotives, though has access to visiting locos. For 2022, there are plans for a Steam Gala, a diesel event, and a Weekend at War – along the lines of the North Norfolk Railway event, which Charlie always visits with his wife Heather and acknowledges as a super weekend.
Longer term plans include a new station building and platform at Wymondham Abbey to improve facilities, and ultimately extending the track north to run trains through Hoe and the current passenger limit of Worthing Crossing up to North Elmham, and eventually County School station, which was the original base of the railway. It closed to passengers in the 1960s, though stayed open for goods trains until 1989.
With 25th anniversary plans shelved from last year, the hope is to celebrate the milestone in 2022, as more immediate plans take form to ensure the route from Dereham to Wymondham is in good shape and to develop Dereham Station and offer more for visitors to do between departures.
Plans include turning the old Goods Shed into a museum with classroom and interactive elements, a railway-themed children’s playground, restoration of the last remaining Great Eastern stable block, as well as installing a turntable.
There are also hopes for promotional brown tourist signs on the A47 and A11. MNR is already a major Norfolk tourist attraction, receiving up to 50,000 visitors a year, and has a positive impact on other local facilities such as shops, restaurants and hotels.
Keeping on track
But there are challenges. With permanent staff roles that include general manager, traction and rolling stock manager, restoration manager and yard manager, there are also 340 volunteers who work regularly at MNR.
As a heritage railway with a 25mph speed limit, MNR is still subject to inspections from the Office of Road and Rail for rolling stock and track, Breckland Council for catering, and there are strict health and safety requirements.
“Heritage railways were founded by people who had a real interest in keeping old trains running but nowadays it has changed,” adds Charlie. “We have to run the railway as a business otherwise we will fail.”
Charlie worked as a teacher in Hertfordshire before moving to Ayrshire in Scotland, where he met and married Heather some 30 years ago and has a stepson and two grand-daughters.
He traces his lifelong fascination with trains to his great grandfather who was Swiss and brought rack and pinion railways to Europe from the USA, building the first near Lucerne in the 19th century.
“Railways have always been a passion; as far back as I can remember, I had a model railway set and still have one,” added Charlie who was a member, and chairman, of the Ayrshire Railways Preservation Group when he lived in Scotland.
When he retired from teaching, Heather suggested moving to Norfolk as they had holidayed in the county.
“I did say that when I retired, I needed something to do,” he continues. “I could not sit at home and do nothing. We bought the house in North Elmham on the railway and I came down to pick up the keys on a Friday. Heather was coming down on the Monday with the removal company so I had the weekend to have a look around and spent it here at Mid-Norfolk Railway and thought, this is the railway I want to work for.”
Charlie began volunteering immediately, still with packing cases in the garage from the move.
“I am perhaps spending more time here than I was expecting to but I love it, it is absolutely brilliant. I love being around trains, and steam trains in particular,” adds Charlie.
“It is just the whole ethos of the railway, everybody is so keen to push it forward. I have a huge amount of support from the volunteers and the paid staff, there is a lot of discussion goes on before we decide which way we are going to go, it is just incredible fun.
“What attracted me to the railway in the first place was its huge potential. Over the last few years, we have been able to put up a maintenance shed where we do all the coach repairs, but there is still so much that we can do and that is the whole crux of the matter as far as I am concerned.
“It is not going to be a case of standing still. I am extremely lucky that the team I work are all like-minded, always looking for ways we can improve the railway or do things differently and looking for new ideas and new events to make things better but at the same time making sure that the infrastructure is up to standard. I just love this job.”
From a half-a-mile of track with a small steam engine in Ayrshire, running MNR is a different challenge, with eight to nine coach trains running on the longest standard gauge heritage railway in East Anglia, and with another 3-4 miles heading north, the dream of reaching County School will eventually take it to 16-17 miles.
Flying Scotsman highlight
And the highlight of his tenure so far?
Without hesitation, he replies: “The Flying Scotsman without a doubt. The second would be Polar Express. When we started doing it in 2017 there was a feeling that something like Polar Express would have been beyond our capabilities but we pushed ahead and it turned out to be brilliant.”
From 12,500 visitors in 2017, there is an expected 30,000 this year with 95 per cent of the tickets already sold.
“The most challenging aspect of the role is how we keep the railway running and the key to that is being able to finance all of the things that we want to do. There is no room for complacency but we are lucky that we do have a lot of people who have a lot of good ideas,” says Charlie, who away from MNR, enjoys walking on the North Norfolk coast with Heather, ten-pin bowling, and visiting National Trust properties.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important the team for the whole railways is, not just at Dereham, but at Wymondham Abbey and in the various departments - catering, ticket office, track, signalling, rolling stock, and general maintenance and painting.
“It all comes together, and the point is that the people who are here are all here because they want to be and that is what makes the difference; it is because people want to see the Mid-Norfolk Railway succeed.”