More than half a century on from the time when many of Britain's railway branch lines closed, we look back with nostalgia on the steam-hauled trains that carried a miscellany of goods and passengers, usually stopping at just about every station and halt along the way. They once served as the arteries of the country and almost every aspect of life depended upon them. But although our distant perspective may colour the old fire-breathing leviathans with a pastel wash of rose, not all were profitable, even in their heyday, and delays, breakdowns and inefficiency were probably even more of a plague than those faced by today's commuters. The old company names gave plenty of scope for gentle insult; far to the west, the Somerset and Dorset became known as the 'Slow and Dirty' while here at Reepham, the Midland and Great Northern was re-branded as the 'Muddle and Go Nowhere'.
The M&GN Railway and William Marriott
Together with the Great Eastern Railway, the M&GN served the main towns and ports of Norfolk, with competing lines crossing at Themelthorpe to the west of Reepham. Finally closed in 1981, part of the two routes has been brought back into use as a leisure trail; the 26-mile (42km) Marriott's Way, which runs between Norwich and Aylsham and forms the basis of this walk. It takes its name from William Marriott, the M&GN's first engineer, who adopted a very much a hands-on approach and involved himself in everything from choosing bricks for the bridges and buildings to designing the locomotives. Although based in Melton Constable, a small village that rapidly grew to be known as the 'Crewe of North Norfolk', he spent much of his time out on the track, working from a converted railway carriage. Marriott finally retired in 1919, having served the company faithfully for over 40 years.
Bracketed by the competing companies, Reepham had two stations, the one to the south on the M&GN line surviving as the home of the Whitwell and Reepham Railway and passed towards the end of the walk. Restored station buildings house a small museum, while relaid track shows off a growing collection of locomotives and rolling stock with steam or diesel engines running each weekend.
At Themelthorpe, the route passes seamlessly from the former Great Eastern line to the old M&GN along the Themelthorpe Curve, which was only built in 1960. By that time, most of the two lines had already closed, but the pre-cast concrete factory at Lenwade and the need to move coal and other freight between Norwich's two stations kept trains running. Although the Norwich stations were only a mile (1.6km) apart, trains between the two had to go all the way round via Cromer. The Curve reduced the trip by half and remained open until 1981.
Turn right out of the car park along Station Road, forking left in front of the Methodist church along Kerdiston Road towards Guestwick. After 650yds (594m), pass beneath a bridge and immediately double back left up steps onto Marriott's Way.
Follow the disused railway track to the right. Pleasantly wooded, it alternates between embankment and cutting, with occasional breaks giving a wider view across the countryside. After 0.5 mile (800m), mounds of earth encroaching upon the track are the work of badgers, which have dug an extensive sett into the embankment. Follow the track for another 1.75 miles (2.8km), eventually rounding the Themelthorpe Curve to emerge onto a road near the village.
Cross to the continuing track opposite, which is signed to Reepham and Lenwade. Every mile along the way is marked with a twisted piece of girder fashioned into a symbolic bench. After another 1.75 miles (2.8km), the track rises to the B1145. Exercise care in crossing as you are on a blind bend.
Continue with the ongoing Marriott's Way, passing through a cutting, which is home to another family of badgers. Some 0.5 mile (800m) further on, the tunnelling of yet more badgers threatened to bring down the embankment in 2013 and the path was closed for over a year while extensive repairs were undertaken to protect both the embankment and the badger sett beneath. Not far beyond there, the track crosses a bridge to Whitwell Station, home to the Whitwell and Reepham Railway, and which is open to visitors every weekend and weekday evenings.
Retrace your steps from the station over the last bridge. After 50yds (46m), drop off right beside a sign to Reepham Market Place onto a track below the embankment. Follow it left, swinging away from the railway. Reaching a junction at the top, go right, shortly joining a lane that leads out past Reepham High School to Whitwell Road. Turn left and walk for 0.25 mile (400m) to a crossroads by Reepham town centre. The Market Place and twin churches lie to the right, while the car park is just a short distance ahead along Station Road.
Trackways on former railway line
Under control and on lead through town
OS Explorer 238 Dereham & Aylsham
Car park on Station Road in Reepham
Behind Market Place in Reepham town centre
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
The North Norfolk Coast is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and probably the finest of its kind in Europe. Here you’ll find a string of quaint villages and small towns – Holkham, Wells-next-the-Sea and Cley next the Sea are 21st-century favourites, while Sheringham and Cromer are classic examples of a good old-fashioned seaside resort where grand Victorian hotels look out to sea. Further round the coast you'll find Great Yarmouth, one of the most popular resorts in the UK and packed full of amusements, shops and seashore entertainment. And let's not forget Norwich, the region's only city.
Norfolk prides itself on its wealth of historic houses, the most famous being Sandringham, where Her Majesty the Queen and her family spend Christmas. Many of Norfolk’s towns have a particular charm and a strong sense of community. The quiet market towns of Fakenham and Swaffham are prime examples, as well as Thetford, with its popular museum focusing on the TV comedy series Dad’s Army which was filmed in the area.