Hidden Heritage: the disused Ely and St Ives Railway

LogosIt seems a long time ago that I wrote for the Ouse Washes LP blog, but in fact it was only last summer when I was working with Mark as a summer placement on the development phase of the scheme. I wrote some articles on the hover train and the airfield at Mepal and to continue the theme of hidden heritage I thought I would look at the disused Ely to St Ives railway.

1860s: construction of the Ely to Sutton line

The line opened between Ely and Sutton in on 16th April 1866 and was the idea of two local landowners, Frederick Camps of Haddenham and Oliver Claude Pell of Wilburton. The original route was to, logically, go along the ridge from Ely to Sutton via Witchford, but due to the fact that the two main backers were from Haddenham and Wilburton that route was dropped in favour of one that went south of the ridge. This change proved to be a vital factor in the lack of success of the line; more about this later.

The Ely, Haddenham and Sutton Railway Act was passed on 23rd June 1864 and the construction contract was given to W.S.Simpson, Park Farm, Ely for the sum of £48,000. Great Eastern Railway was contracted to run the service and provide the rolling stock and manpower for 50% of the gross receipts. A third class return fare from Sutton to Ely was 2 shillings and at the time was around one fifth of the average farm worker’s wage. In the first year income was very low with twice as much being earned from freight than from passenger services.

1870s: extension of the line to St Ives

In 1875 an application for an extension of the line to St Ives was put to parliament and permission was given on 7th April 1876, construction started in that year and the extension was opened on 10th May 1878.

The new line was originally due to have just one station between Sutton and St Ives at Bluntisham but an extra station was built at Earith on the request of a local landowner who sold the land at a reduced rate. The line opened on Friday 10th May 1978 although passengers did not take advantage of the new service until the following Monday when St Ives market was on!

Even after the new line was opened passenger traffic remained low and freight was the mainstay of the railway. The lack of passengers was probably due to the position of the stations; Stretham, Wilburton and Haddenham stations were all at the end of the village or considerable distance away, the same can be said for Earith as it was at the Hermitage where the marina is now.

The line running through Earith

Earith Station, with the rail line running around Earith

Post WWI: Falling passenger numbers

Freight increased during the First World War due to home-grown produce being carried but after the war passenger numbers decreased dramatically, which was also not helped by a bus service that started in 1919.

The numbers continued to fall during the 1920s and the service for passengers was finally closed in 1931, although goods traffic continued. There were some special passenger services put on for excursions; Mepal resident Roly Ransome, for instance, remembers day trips to Hunstanton from Sutton station on Sundays during the summer.

Closure of the line

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The Second World War saw an increase in freight to service the airfields at Mepal and Somersham, but after the war road transport became cheaper and more widespread and eventually the line closed from Sutton to Bluntisham in October 1958. Goods such as sugarbeet and vegetables continued to be carried from Sutton to Ely but the amount decreased and the whole line was shut in July 1964.

What’s left in the landscape?

There are still remains of the track bed and stations but much of it was put back to arable land and the stations became private dwellings or commercial premises. The line was always affected by a lack of income and was really only supported by the freight traffic for many years.

I wonder how popular a line from Sutton to Ely would be today?

Please let us know if you have any memories or stories of the line.

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One thought on “Hidden Heritage: the disused Ely and St Ives Railway

  1. Really interesting reading your article on the disused Ely-St Ives railway and the experimental Hover train.
    Shame we can innovate and develop new ideas , but never appear to capitalise on them, instead to concentrate on short term investment gain.

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