Perfect result in the battle of Yarmouth railway station

IT might seem like only yesterday, but it was in the Eighties and Nineties that the urban part of the borough underwent drastic change with the construction of the long-awaited second river crossing – the Breydon Bridge – and the bypass over it, then linking with the new Gorleston inner relief road. Although that is comparatively recent history, sometimes it is difficult to recall the configuration of our roads before their arrival, largely following the route of defunct railways.

Spurred by a friend's 'sentimental short story' about a local highway black-spot caused by a railway over a century ago, I stretched my memory with a simple little exercise: totting up the bridges carrying trains across roads before our first major transport casualty, the closure of the Beach Station terminus and its Midland and Great Northern Line in 1959.

It took longer than expected, and this list might well have omissions: the junction of Beaconsfield and Caister roads, Lawn Avenue, Acle New Road, Harfreys Road, Burgh Road, Beccles Road, Shrublands Way and Links Road. The final one reminded me that decades ago I wrote about a mystery word – WALLBY, I think it was – that a graffiti painter had somehow managed to daub in large capitals on the side; he (or she) must have stood on the bridge and leant dangerously over the parapet.

All those rail bridges have long gone.

The short story black-spot was the T-junction of Caister Road and Northgate Street with Beaconsfield Road, and it became the subject of intense negotiations between Great Yarmouth council and the railway company at the turn of the last century. Retired Yarmouth registrar of births, deaths and marriages Trevor Nicholls chanced upon it when browsing through a volume of town hall minutes for 1900.

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He was so smitten that he penned a short story fancifully envisaging the scenario of a high-powered railway company executive with authority to act travelling to Yarmouth (first-class, of course) to negotiate single-handed with the local dignitaries. It might have been all call-my-bluff or poker!

The Caister-town centre road was becoming increasingly busy but users suffered long delays because priority was given to rail traffic between Beach Station and the North Quay tramway freight line with its sidings to business premises and extending to the Fishwharf; crossing gates were opened in ample time to permit trucks to trundle by unhindered. The council and road users were exasperated, and the problems were potentially going to be exacerbated by the impending provision of electric passenger tramcars along it.

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Naturalist and writer Arthur Patterson, a cartoonist for the Yarmouth Mercury, featured: 'The North End Nightmare,' in a 1900 drawing subtitled: 'The Delights of Newtown.' His caption said the crossing 'continues to be a source of vexation and blasphemy to many people.'

At that time this line was carrying only goods but the railway company was anxious to launch a passenger service between Yarmouth Beach and Gorleston, running alongside Beaconsfield Road, over that hard-pressed level crossing, the River Bure, Acle New Road, the Yarmouth-Norwich line from Vauxhall Station, and Breydon Water by a swing bridge, then sweeping across marshes to link with a line through Gorleston North and Gorleston Stations before heading to Lowestoft.

Horrified at the prospect of those level-crossing gates blocking the road traffic so often, Yarmouth council urged the railway to avoid possible danger and delay to 'carriage and pedestrian traffic' by building a bridge as a alternative. Newtown residents and local cab drivers backed the call. The railway refused, so there was a move in the town hall to oppose the formal Parliamentary Bill for the expansion or to have the provision of a bridge included in it. This threat appeared to jolt the railway company into being conciliatory, and its surveyor came to Yarmouth to meet councillors and officials to seek a compromise. He told them it was unfair to ask his railway to bear the whole cost of a bridge plus the long brick-faced rising embankment necessitated alongside Beaconsfield Road.

As for the borough expert claiming 16ft clear headway was necessary for traffic under any bridge, Parliamentary precedent said only 14ft was required, he argued. A complication was the fact that the new passenger trams needed 16ft clearance.

Asked what he thought Yarmouth Corporation should contribute towards the project, the railway representative replied that it should be in land facilitating it. Behind closed doors there was obviously some horse-trading, and eventually the council offered �5,000 towards the cost of building a bridge to eliminate the level crossing.

This offer was accepted, the council withdrew its threat to oppose the Bill in Parliament, and the bridge was duly constructed to carry the railway over the road. About half a century later, the line was closed.

Both sides appear to have emerged from the wrangle with a feeling of satisfaction, the railway to its shareholders, the corporation to the townsfolk relieved at the prospect of a bridge and resulting removal of the level crossing and its inevitable hold-ups. But the short story by Trevor Nicholls – which he describes as 'fanciful' - makes it clear that the railway company's adept trouble-shooter succeeded completely in getting what he intended.

He wrote: 'We cannot know what was said, and by whom, at that meeting. After several hours, the outcome was that the council got the bridge it was insisting upon (with a 16ft clearance). From one point of view the councillors – acting in the public interest as they saw it – had got the better of a large and powerful organisation well used to dealing with other large and powerful organisations.

'But this settlement came at a cost to the council. The (railway) man negotiated that the council would cede to the railway company a large parcel of land at North Denes which the company would otherwise have had to buy. In addition, the council would pay the company �5,000, a very substantial sum in those days.'

The speculative story claimed that unbeknown to the Yarmouth team, his superiors had empowered him to make almost any concessions to the council necessary for the new line to be built to schedule. But he had yielded little and gained plenty. In the words of the telegram he sent to his bosses: 'Yarmouth: perfect result.'

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