By the beginning of August 2022 we felt like having a few days away. At that time of year we wished to avoid expensive flights and places full of people and hordes of kids, Steve now being a grumpy old man. So we settled on the UK, somewhere away from the main hotspots where we could indulge in having a beer or two and some train travel on railway lines new to us. After consulting maps and the Good Beer Guide we settled on spending four nights based in Colchester, visiting some Essex branch lines and a pub or ten along the way. And off we traipsed. This post is the result – as usual we’ve followed the main text with a few practicalities and some railway buffery.
Our chosen base for the trip was the George Hotel in Colchester High Street. We arrived by train from Durham via Peterborough and Norwich. This was a bit of a long way round to take in a stretch of railway from Norwich to Stowmarket which we had never travelled despite several visits to Norwich. It was not exactly the most scenic route but it was another line added to the map. That sounds so nerdy and sad. We eventually reached Colchester station (the official name – it is known by everyone including the local bus companies as Colchester North) and caught the bus up the hill to the town (now city) centre (see note 1).
The George Hotel is an historic coaching inn. Parts of the building are over 500 years old and it boasts of cellars dating from 60CE. We were allocated a room at the top of a very old and steep flight of stairs – a bit tricky with a wheely case and a walking stick but we made it up and down. The hotel room was comfortable and the generous breakfasts kept us going for much of the day.
We did manage to see some sights of Colchester apart from the pubs.
Today Colchester has a population of over 120,000 and is very much a town in its own right, as opposed to a London commuter settlement. As one can guess from the name it has Roman roots – it was known as Camulodunum, now the name of a pub in the high Street. It was the first major city in Roman Britain and its first capital until destroyed by Boudica in 61CE, then rebuilt with stout walls, fragments of which still remain. It later developed as a centre of the woollen cloth industry and many Tudor buildings remain from that period. We had a look at the
castle which nowadays sits in a park. The castle is an 11th century Norman keep built on top of the vaults of the old Roman temple. The hilltop defensive site of Colchester meant that the town’s water supply had to be pumped up. This led to the construction of the Jumbo Water Tower, which literally towers over the city centre. It dates from 1883 and was in operation until 1987. It has since been disused but is now leased by North Essex Heritage which hopes to turn it into a visitor centre.
Then, of course, there were the boozers. We visited all but one of the nine in the 2022 Good Beer Guide plus a few others. There’s a group of several excellent pubs in the Butt Road area to the south of the centre (through a horrendous underpass which should really be replaced by a pedestrian crossing on the surface to slow down the traffic on the Southway racetrack). The Fat Cat free mouse (sic), which serves several beers straight from the cask, and the Ale House are both on Butt Road The New Inn is a couple of streets away. All three pubs have won CAMRA awards. Not far away, through the old barracks (I had been warned that Colchester might be full of drunken squaddies but times have moved on – there is still a garrison but it doesn’t dominate the town), is the traditional and cosy Odd One Out. On the way to the (North) station is the award winning Victoria, a fine and friendly pub with house and local beers while beyond the station is the Bricklayers. In the city centre the Monkey Brewing Taproom brews its own cask and craft ales. In several of the pubs we tried and enjoyed beers from the Colchester Brewery including the Jack Spitty’s Smuggler’s Ale and Number One.
Note 1 – In the past Colchester lost out becoming a cathedral city to Chelmsford. However, in May 2022 it was announced that it would become a city as part of the platinum Jubilee City Honours, confirmed in letters patent from the then Queen dated 5 Sept 2022, and made public on 29 September.
Time to explore – we had three full days (a Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday) out and about, with good weather on all three, to explore the places reached by branch railway lines On day one we opted for the Braintree and Sudbury lines, both a few miles from Colchester in the direction of London, each of which head deeper into the Essex countryside.
The junction for the Braintree line is Witham, a dormitory town expanded in the 1970s for London overspill. We didn’t hang around for long before we caught the hourly train on Braintree, a through service from London. However, we had sufficient time at Witham to have a first look at the work of the local Community Rail Partnership and their station adopters which have provided and look after planters, station gardens, information posters on local history, and station signs. There are several examples of their work in this section. (Note 2).
The Nag’s Head, Braintree Market Place
The Braintree line is a short branch with only 3 intermediate stations and a journey time of 16 minutes. The ten coach train set off round a corner which has the speed limit is 10mph then sped up (a little) as it left the town. The first stop is White Notley, in the middle of nowhere – the first example of many stations we saw on our journeys which would have been closed many years ago in other parts of the country. Presumably a few London commuters are sufficient to keep it open. Cressing followed, then Braintree Freeport, a station serving not a freeport but Braintree Village outlet mall on the edge of the town. At Braintree the line comes to a single platform halt – the trackbed continues towards Bishop’s Stortford as the Fitch Way for walkers.
Braintree is a substantial market town of over 40,000 people, which grew up through the wool cloth and silk industries. We made our way to the Market Place, past the station bus stop which has an hourly bus to Great Yeldham which leaves a mere 47 minutes after the hourly train arrives – UK transport coordination for you – and a forlorn closed second-hand shop in need of a new owner. We only had an hour and, though it was still early, the Nag’s Head was open so we managed a pint before we returned to the station. Back in Witham we stopped for a pint in the Railway before heading for Marks Tey and the Sudbury Branch
There’s more about this branch line (and the others in this post) in the Railway Buffery section.
Note 2. The Essex and South Suffolk Community Rail Partnership is an active voluntary organisation which aims to increase the passenger numbers on the lines, promote community engagement with the railway and to improve the stations. They look after all the branches in this page (except Felixstowe) plus branches to Southminster and Southend Victoria in South Essex. For more information about their work see www.esscrp.org.uk .
The main focus of today’s trip is the Sudbury branch, branded and marketed as the Gainsborough Line after a train driver who did a bit of painting on the side. Marks Tey is not the most accessible of stations – there’s no ticket machine on the Sudbury platform so we hobble up and over an old footbridge then up more steps to the modern ticket office. The Sudbury line is self-contained, served by an hourly shuttle which pootles up and down the branch. However, there is a delay because of a speed restriction which may have been due to the hot weather. The train rolls in 12 minutes late – at only three coaches it is still too long for the branch platform. For some reason the delay causes a total information breakdown on both Rail Planner and Realtime trains – for the rest of the day neither know where the train is and when it is due. This is a bit tricky as we plan to stop off at both the intermediate stations – by guesswork we manage – all four journeys on the branch were about 10-15 minutes late.
A few of the exhibits at the East Anglia Railway Museum from the station platform
Our first calling point was Chappel and Wakes Colne. We’re there to go the Swan Inn, though the station is also home to the East Anglia Railway Museum (note 3). It is closed on the day of our visit but many of the exhibits can be seen from the platform – old rolling stock, a country signal box and, outside, an old steam loco. It is a bit of a walk down to the village (and an uphill hike back), with good views of the substantial railway viaduct as it crosses the River Colne, looking out of place in the not-very-hilly Essex countryside. The beer in the Swan is fine – Colchester Brewery again – but in mid-afternoon it is more of a food destination than a pub (the food looked good). There is a public bar but it is not open in the daytime, maybe at night, and the only day time entrance is from the car park – which immediately suggests that the pub doesn’t have any locals.
We guessed correctly when the train would arrive to take us on to Sudbury and en route we cross the River Stour into Suffolk. Sudbury station is another single platform affair – there is a reminder for train drivers to tell the signalman where they are, which is not very reassuring. Sudbury is a small market town of about 13000 folk – the retention of the railway is a miracle. Despite the inland location Sudbury was a port for a couple of centuries – horse drawn lighters pulled cargo down to the Stour estuary where it was transferred on to Thames barges. We’ve been in Sudbury once before, as an overnight stop on the 2014 Bus trip. This time, we walked through town to East Street and revisited the Mauldons Brewery Tap with a fine choice of beers – we had the tasty Mauldon Moletrap Bitter. Thankfully the pub is still there – there was a brief moment of panic on our approach as we could see demolition and rebuilding work ahead, but it was next door.
On the return journey to Marks Tey we call in at Bures. The village straddles the Essex-Suffolk border which follows the River Stour through the centre of the village. The boundary means there is one church but two civil parishes – Bures Hamlet in Essex and Bures St Marys in Suffolk. It was evening by now and we called in at the Eight Bells on the Essex side, a good local boozer with five or six real ales. Back at the station there was a working party from the Community Rail Partnership station adopters keeping the station garden and planters in shape. Then the train took us back to Marks Tey, where we changed for Colchester and up the hill to the hotel.
One Essex branch line we didn’t include in this visit runs from Shenfield in the Essex suburbs via Wickford to Southminster. Steve took that journey about 20 years ago and time constraints meant we couldn’t repeat it this time. I recollect a pleasant journey and a couple of beers in the weatherboarded Station Arms at Southminster, which remains inThe Good Beer Guide.
Note 3 – More details about the East Anglian Railway Museum, including opening times and admission prices are on their website www.earm.co.uk .
Clacton and Walton lines
On our second day trip we headed for the Essex coast – the lines from Colchester to Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze. We’re told these are branded and marketed as the Sunshine Coast Line – I couldn’t say we noticed though the weather lived up to the branding. On this trip we were accompanied by Nick, a friend of many years, who was already on the Clacton train when we joined at Colchester (North). The train travelled over the flatlands past Hythe, which was the port area of Colchester, and Essex University at Wivenhoe Park, founded in 1961 though even the newest buildings look like a Soviet housing estate. We pootled across the Tendring Hundred to Thorpe-le-Soken, the junction of the lines to the two resorts, where a large disused maltings was being demolished, (see note 4).
Clacton-on-Sea has now a population of 56000 and grew up after the arrival of the railway, which made it easily accessible from East London and the Essex suburbs for day trips and holidays, It remains a seaside resort and retirement town. On arrival we joined many of the other passengers and set off towards the seafront with our buckets and spades. By the time we had taken a couple of photographs of the pier and sea it was noon and the Old Lifeboat House, now a pub (surprise), had opened. We had time for a pint there before we returned to the station (actually the bus shelter outside) for the next stage of the journey.
The plan was to travel between Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze by bus (quicker than by train which would have involved a change at Thorpe-le-Soken) including a break halfway for a pint in Kirby-le-Soken. However, the hourly bus didn’t appear – so the bus service in Essex is as unreliable at present as in Durham. A quick look at timetables and WhatPub revealed another pub en route at Great Holland served by more buses, so off we went. The bus was busy with an average passenger age of somewhere in the 70s, helping each other on and off. The suburbs of Clacton and the adjoining settlement of Holland-on-Sea were revealed in all their glory – endless bungalows populated by elderly people enjoying retirement somewhere with no hills. We nearly missed Great Holland as the bus didn’t divert into the village from the main road. When we got there it turned out to be an inspired choice. The Ship Inn at Great Holland reopened in October 2021 after a battle to stop it being converted into housing. It was purchased via a community share offer and is managed and run by volunteers. The beer was excellent and the pub was well supported – it is the base for all sorts of village community activities. Well worth a stop when in the area.
The Ship Inn, Great Holland
After a longer break than planned we travelled on to Walton-on-the-Naze through more bungalows and reached a High Street full of mobility aid shops. I’m not mocking the inhabitants – I may be joining them in a few years and the bear doesn’t have the strength to push me around. Walton is also a seaside resort and retirement town though it has medieval origins. Serious coastal erosion (which continues today) means that the original village is now nine miles out to sea. We dodged Hells Grannies and their mobility scooters and visited the Queens Head , a pleasant though modernised pub, and the Victory, a fine traditional boozer, before it was time to catch the train back to Colchester. The train called at all the local halts then took the short branch into the other Colchester station, Colchester Town (formerly St Botolph’s). We alighted there as it was handy for some of the pubs we hadn’t yet visited….and the evening went suitably downhill from there.
Note 4. The origin of the Hundreds of Essex (there are about twenty of them) as administrative divisions seem to be lost in the mists of time. Soken comes from Soke, a word for an area of special jurisdiction.
Harwich and Felixstowe
Our final day out took us back to the coast and into Suffolk once more. The first train took us from Colchester (North) northwards for a few minutes to Manningtree, junction for the line to Harwich. The train was a couple of minutes late so we had to hobble quickly across to the branch platform – the connection is tight at the best of times. I’ve been on this line before as far as what was then known as Harwich Parkeston Quay on the boat train from London on our way to and from Amsterdam in 1977 and 1988 and to Hamburg in 1989, in pre-cheap-flight days. On the final occasion our train from Hoek van Holland included coaches for Moscow and the restaurant car was East German. It sold excellent bottles of beer at East German prices – though the coffee had never seen a bean and made Camp Coffee smell enticing. Beyond the port station, the final stretch to Harwich Town was new to us.
We passed through Mistley station, where there was another derelict maltings and Wrabness. We wondered what the large building across the river was – it turns out to be the Royal Hospital School, a boarding school with naval connections. Parkeston Quay is now Harwich International – there was no ferry around when we passed but plenty of lorries and containers waiting for loading. We dropped off passengers at all the stations and by the time we trundled through Dovercourt and arrived at Harwich Town there were only two humans and one bear alighting. Outside the station is the bus station, which was also deserted. Across the road we were ‘welcomed to historic Harwich’ by a couple of interesting erections outside the gents toilets, one of which is an old lighthouse, the other a work of art.
Harwich grew up as the only safe anchorage between the Thames and the Humber and was a Naval Base since 1657. The harbour remains the focal point of the town and the focus of activity. Our first stop was the Redoubt Fort (pictured), a circular hilltop fort in a prime position guarding the harbour (we knew of its existence from a student friend’s project). The fort was built in 1808-10 to protect the area from Napoleonic invasion, used as gun emplacement during WW2, then neglected. The entrance is now hidden away between two houses but in recent years the Harwich Society has carried out restoration work and opened it to the public.
The town was deserted – the only sign of life was the queue at the chip shop as we made our way to the Alma Inn – a fine pub with good beer and food, which was busy with a large group. We then wandered round to the Quay and discovered where everyone was. After a look round we managed a pint in the Pier Hotel at the outrageous price locally of £5 before our next adventure.
Somehow I had discovered that in summer there is a pedestrian ferry from Harwich Harbour across the estuaries of the Rivers Stour and Orwell to Felixstowe in Suffolk and we had arranged a ticket. It is a small boat with limited space – there were about fifteen people on our journey (plus dog and bear) and it looked about half full. The poor dog was very reluctant to board and had to be manhandled aboard. However, once we set off the dog, Ted and I all enjoyed the trip. The estuary is permanently busy with everything from small pleasure boats to large ferries and container ships. On the opposite bank from Harwich are Felixstowe Docks. They may not be pretty but it was fascinating to watch from the ferry containers being thrown around (carefully) as ships were unloaded and loaded.
The ferry lands near the Landguard Fort which protected the Felixstowe side of the harbour, hence the name. There is no pier here and the boat beaches itself on the shingle and we hop off from the front of the boat. Nearby are the fort, a nature reserve by the dunes and a café but not much else except for the docks. However, there is a lonely bus terminus and once an hour a double decker trundles in and takes people into town (and on to Ipswich should you wish). It is a useful link as it is quite a way to the town centre – the bus takes 15 minutes, though there were only three people and a bear on our journey. Felixstowe was a hamlet until the railway arrived then became a fashionable resort. Today with a population of 24,500 it is the largest container port in the UK – the seaside attractions are round the corner and out of sight of the port. There is a distinct lack of real ale in Felixstowe, though WhatPub assisted once more and we managed to find our way to the Grosvenor for a pint before heading for the train station.
An hourly train potters back and forward between Felixstowe and Ipswich. It is not a busy line for passengers and the station is hidden behind a half empty shopping centre. However, it is a key line for freight heading to and from the docks. On our 26 minute journey to Ipswich we passed several freights in loops or waiting to leave the docks. Throughout our visit we had noticed the number of freight services through Colchester and the bulk of them are heading to or from Felixstowe. Bizarrely the line remains single track and unelectrified – there have been various plans over the years and some limited improvements but it remains very restricted for such a major route.
A small selection of containers at Felixstowe Port
We changed trains at Ipswich onto the main line back to Colchester. There was a plan to call at Manningtree, where the station buffet has real ale. However, we were taking it easy after yesterday’s excesses and tomorrow’s journey home so didn’t stop. However, we spotted the pumps on the bar as we called at the station. By Colchester we had decided we could cope with a couple more pints on our last final evening.
Note 5: for more information about the work of the Harwich Society and the opening hours and admission prices to the Redoubt Fort see their website www.harwich-society.co.uk .
The following morning it was time to return to Durham, via Ipswich, Cambridge and Peterborough. Once again this was not the most direct route but took in a stretch of railway line new to us – from the junction with the line to Ely near Newmarket to Cambridge. Another trip over.
Steve was just recovering from a flare-up of arthritis which limited his mobility. The trip proved that, with the help of a walking stick, we might not be able to go on long country walks anymore but could get still around. This led to the decision to traipse from pub to pub by train rather than on foot. Even so, on each day we totalled more than 10,000steps walking between station and pub. It would have been good to include a couple of decent walks. Essex may not seem classic walking country but there are plenty of options – for example on the Sudbury branch there are marked paths that follow the Stour and Colne valleys. Also, some of the coastline, for example, Mersea Island and the Naze looks on the map to be like interesting walking territory.
The train services are frequent – hourly on the branch lines and more frequently on the Great Eastern Main Line from London to Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich. The operator is Greater Anglia, which managed to renew its fleet before the pandemic hit revenue. On the main line trains the internal screens showing which carriages are busier and which toilets are occupied are useful. There’s no rover-type ticket that covers this area so we relied on singles and off-peak day returns (remembering that you can break the journey on singles and the return journey on returns). Colchester station has gates, ticket machines and a ticket office where the staff were helpful when a machine decided to act up. There are machines at the branch line stations and, if necessary, conductors can sell tickets on board. Colchester station sometimes appears to be laid out to deliberately confuse and maximise the walking distance to trains – particularly the London-bound platform side where two platforms join up end to end with a total length of 620m.
Umpteen bus routes make the journey between Colchester North station and the city centre – there is a bus every few minutes, and even in the evenings one shouldn’t have a long wait. Taxis seemed to be few and far between at the station. Most bus services are operated by First Bus (details at www.firstbus.co.uk/essex/ ) with some by Arriva and a few by Hedingham.. At the station the bus stops are on the main road to the south (London bound) side of the station. The city centre is a loop of one way streets – from the station buses set down at various stops along the High Street and to the station buses leave from Head Street. The buses between Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze are operated by Hedingham and Chambers services 97 and 98. These are the names of two former local bus companies, taken over by Go-Ahead but retaining the names. Information and times at www.hedinghamandchambers.co.uk . The bus from Landguard Fort into Felixstowe is the number 77, operated by First Norfolk and Suffolk. Timetable information is at www.suffolkonboard.com .
The ferry between Harwich and Felixstowe is operated by Harwich Harbour Ferry and runs six times daily from April to October. Limited space means that it is better to book in advance on the site – www.harwichharbourferry.com . The adult single fare in 2022 was £5.
Pubs and accommodation
The Old Lifeboat House, Clacton-on-Sea
As usual we depend on the Good Beer Guide and the WhatPub website and app to find pubs with real ale. We’ve mentioned almost all we visited in the text and more details can be on these sites. One not mentioned eleswhere is the Royal William, in a back street close to Stowmarket station, where we called in on our way to Colchester, which has a good selection of beers poured straight from the cask.
The George Hotel is at 116 High Street, Colchester CO1 1TD. Our double room for single occupancy was comfortable (maybe a bit small for a couple) and there was plenty of choice at breakfast. It can be booked directly though we used booking.com.
The map shows the local railway network as at 1985, with open lines in red and former lines and stations in black.
Please note that all passenger entry/exit figures are from 2018/19, as at the time of writing all subsequent figures are affected by Covid 19 restrictions.
Colchester station is on the Great Eastern Main line from London to Norwich which reached Romford in 1839, Brentwood in 1840, Colchester in 1843, Ipswich in 1846 and Norwich in 1849. All the lines in this page are branches off this main line. It follows closely the line of the old Roman Road from Colchester via Chelmsford to London, which in due course became the (pre-bypasses) A12.
The Witham to Braintree branch is 10.3km (6 miles and 30 chains in railway-speak) long, with 3 intermediate stations and a journey time of 16 minutes. It opened in 1848 as part of a line from Maldon and was extended to Bishops Stortford in 1869. The line beyond Braintree closed in 1952. It is electrified and since 2020 is operated by Greater Anglia Class 720 trains. The least used station on the branch is White Notley with 12046 passengers in 2018-19 whilst Braintree is most used with 727982 passenger entries/exits.
The Marks Tey to Sudbury branch is 18.7km (11 miles 53 chains ) long, with 2 intermediate stations and a journey time of 19 minutes. It was part of the Stour Valley Railway which extended to Shelford on the line to Cambridge and opened in 1865. The line beyond Sudbury closed in 1967. It is single track and unelectrified and since 2020 is operated by Greater Anglia Class 755 bi-mode trains. It is marketed as the Gainsborough Line. The least used station on the branch is Chappel and Wakes Colne with 39360 passengers in 2018-19 whilst Sudbury is most used with 334274 passenger entries/exits. The Chappel Viaduct (pictured) has 30 arches with a maximum height of 23m (75 feet).
The Colchester to Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze line is 29km (18 miles) long, to both termini. It was opened as the Tendring Hundred Railway Line and, from Colchester, reached Hythe in 1847, Walton-on-the-Naze in 1867 and Clacton-on-Sea in 1882. A short branch leads to Colchester Town station, known as St. Botolphs until 1991. The line is mainly double track with the branch from Thorpe-le-Soken to Walton-on-the-Naze single track. It was electrified in 1959 and re-signalled in 2009. It is marketed as the Sunshine Coast Line. The principal services run London Liverpool Street to Clacton and Colchester to Walton. The least used station on the line is Weeley with 34908 passengers in 2018-19 whilst Clacton-on-Sea is most used with 799344 passenger entries/exits.
The Manningtree to Harwich Town branch is 18.02km (11 miles 16 chains ) long, with 4 intermediate stations (there were previously others linked to War Department facilities) and a journey time of 22 minutes. It was opened in 1854 and double-tracked in 1882, though now operated as a single track beyond Harwich International (formerly Harwich Parkeston Quay). It was electrified in 1985 and is marketed as the Mayflower Line. There is a basic hourly service on the branch, whilst boat trains run from London Liverpool St to Harwich International in connection with ferries to and from Hoek van Holland. The least used station on the branch is Wrabness with 30348 passengers in 2018-19 whilst Dovercourt is most used with 177752 passenger entries/exits.
The Felixstowe branch from Westerfield near Ipswich is 19.4km (12 miles 5 chains) long, with a journey time of 26 minutes from Ipswich. It was opened in 1877 with stations at Felixstowe Beach and Felixstowe Pier (near the ferry landing). The current Felixstowe station opened as Felixstowe Town in 1898 , the Pier station closed in 1951 and the Beach station in 1967. The branch is largely single track and unelectrified though passing places have been added to benefit freight traffic. Numerous proposals have been made over the last 100 years to double track and electrify the line, because of the importance of Felixstowe in the past as a holiday resort, the growth of freight traffic to and from the port, and military traffic during the World Wars. Improvements in recent years have been the extension pf passing loops and resignalling in 1999, the opening of the Bacon Factory Curve which allows freirght trains heading for the Midlands and North to avoid a reversal at Ipswich in 2014 and a short stretch of double-tracking at Trimpley in 2019. There is an hourly passenger service on the branch to and from Ipswich, operated by Class 755 bi-mode trains. The Port of Felixstowe has its own internal rail network which has expanded as the port has developed.
Photographs and Maps
All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following: Chappel Viaduct is by Chappel Parish Council, http://www.chappel.org and Steve and Ted at Clacton-on-Sea was taken by Nick Atkinson. The map showing current and closed lines at 1985 is from British Railways Maps and Gazetteer 1825-1985, Fully Revised Edition, C J Wignall, Oxford Publishing Co., 1985. The two track layout diagrams are from TRACK Atlas of Mainland Britaiun, TRACK Maps, 2009 edn.
The Fat Cat free mouse, Colchester.
Thanks to Nick Atkinson for the benefit of his company and his knowledge of the area, and for reading the draft.
Copyright: (c) Steve Gillon 2022.