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


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.

Related posts:

Hidden Heritage: Mepal Airfield Part 2

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Thor Missiles at Mepal

Who realises that a modern industrial site just outside of Mepal hides so much history dating from the Second World War and that Mepal, Sutton and Witcham were in the front line of the Cold War and would have been a major Soviet target?

Project Emily

In 1957 a proposal from the USA was put to Britain to deploy Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) in the UK. The proposal was regarded favourably by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Final agreement on the deployment of Thor in Britain was reached at the Bermuda Conference in March 1957, when Macmillan and Eisenhower met to discuss key issues. On 1 April, Macmillan reported to Parliament that:

“The rockets will be the property of Her Majesty’s Government, manned by British troops who will receive their prior training from American experts. The rockets cannot be fired by any except the British personnel, but the warhead will be in the control of the United States – which is the law of the United States- and to that extent the Americans have negative control; but it is absolutely untrue to say that the President and not the British Government will decide when these missiles will be launched and at whom. So long as we rely upon the American warheads, and only so long, that will remain a matter for the two Governments”.

Project Emily was then born and twenty sites were chosen to house the new missiles. Construction started at Mepal in 1958 and was declared operational on 22nd July 1959 with the reformed 113 (SM) Squadron; the SM stands for ‘Strategic Missile’. Each site had three Thor missile pads and was part of a cluster of five sites under the command of one base. Feltwell was the first base to be operational in 9th January 1959 and Mepal was under its command. The missiles themselves were kept prone and invisible in specially made shelters such as the one in the picture below.


Thor missile shelter clearly shown. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at Airfield Information Exchange.

When the order came to launch, whether real or simulated, it would take up to 15 minutes to get the missile ready and the sequence needed the authority of both the British and Americans. The ‘dual key’ system meant that the RAF could initiate a countdown but the missile could only be launched after the Americans had armed the warhead. In fact the warheads (1.44 Megatons) were not even kept on site but  at Faldingworth, an old wartime airfield near Scampton, Lincolnshire.

Construction of the Thor missile hangar

Construction of the Thor missile hangar. Photo courtesy of the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Harrington.

The layout of a Thor launch pad

The layout of a Thor launch pad. Photo courtesy of the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Harrington.

The missiles were only put on a high state of readiness once in their history and that was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Thor missile in its launch position

Thor missile in its launch position. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at Airfield Information Exchange.

Thor missile deployment to the UK was scheduled to end in November 1964; however it ended in 1963 when the US deployed its Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)
and the RAF’s own ‘V Force’ had the Blue Steel standoff weapon launched from
Valiant, Victor and Vulcan bombers.

Evidence left on the ground

There is very little evidence left of both the WW2 and Cold War heritage of Mepal airfield but if you know where to look there are some interesting relics. Part of the runways and perimeter track are still visible on the Sutton side of the A142, while the Elean Business Park and the straw burning power station cover much of the Eastern side but some elements can still be seen. In fact many of the buildings and access roads to the domestic site can be seen around Witcham and the sewage works  built for the airfield is still in use today! Martyn Chorlton’s excellent book Airfield focus 47: Mepal and Witchford has many interesting photos and maps. I took this photo on the old Sutton to Mepal road, it is actually part of the North West to South East runway!

Part of the old runway

Part of the old runway

The Thor missile bases where broken up before the power station was built but part of the southern base (LE10) can still be seen at the north-eastern edge of the Cheffins Auction site.

An aerial photo of Mepal airfield taken in January 1959

An aerial photo of Mepal airfield taken in January 1959. From Airfield Information Exchange

An overlay of the missile bases and runways on a recent aerial photo

An overlay of the missile bases and runways on a recent aerial photo. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at the Airfield Information Exchange.

Another relic of the Cold War days is the trig point just off of the old road from Sutton to Mepal, each base had two of these built by the Royal Engineers Survey Squadron prior to construction as the missile pads had to be accurately surveyed. The second one has either been removed or more likely to be buried under the spoil dug out from the power
station when it was built.

Mepal South, Project Emily Trig Point.

Mepal South, Project Emily Trig Point.

I’m sure many people have memories or stories to tell of the history of Mepal airfield, we would be delighted to hear from you and will update the Blog with any new information. We aim to carry out a dedicated project on the history of the airfield over  the next few years, watch this space for more details.

I would like to thank the Airfield Information Exchange and the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum for helping out with pictures and information.

Hidden Heritage: Mepal Airfield

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During World War 2 Mepal Airfield was an “expansion” airfield, the construction of which commenced in July 1942. It opened in April 1943 and it functioned as a sub-station for 33 Base in Waterbeach along with Witchford Airfield as part of No.3 Group Bomber Command.  Its design was the standard wartime 3 runway layout with the main runway 6000 feet long with two shorter runways approximately 4200 feet each; it had one B1 type hangar and two T2’s. The first aircraft to arrive was a DH82 Tigermoth flown by Squadron Leader G A Watt.

Aerial View of Mepal Airfield, 1943

Aerial View of Mepal Airfield, 1943

Mepal’s first unit was 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit that was originally based at Great Ashfield. It had 24 Stirling Mk1’s but only stayed for a week, before moving to Waterbeach.

75 (NZ) Squadron

The New Zealanders of 75 (NZ) Squadron Royal Air Force were the first operational occupants of Mepal Airfield in June 1943 flying Stirlings initially and then Lancasters. The Squadron was already very experienced prior to its move to Mepal and had completed almost 3500 sorties with over 100 losses. The first operational sortie was on 3rd and 4th July 1943 when 13 Stirlings attacked Cologne with no losses. The next few months were extremely busy for 75 (NZ) Squadron with missions being flown to Hamburg, Essen, Nuremburg, Turin, Munchen-Gladbach and Berlin. The last bombing missions for the Stirlings were in November 1943 when Air Chief Marshall Harris ordered that Stirlings would no longer operate over German targets. The Squadron continued flying the Stirling for another 4 months on other missions such as mine laying, attacking rocket sites and carrying out special operations.

75 (NZ) Squadron Stirling

75 (NZ) Squadron Stirling

On the night of 19th April 1944 an enemy intruder attacked Mepal dropping over 34 anti-personnel mines, but no injuries were reported. The same night 2 Lancasters were shot down in the circuit at Witchford.

The last Stirling left Mepal on 29th April 1944 which left 75 (NZ) Sqn with 26 Lancasters; at this point there were 123 Officers, 284 Senior Non Commissioned Officers and 853 Other Ranks based at the airfield. The next few months again were very busy for the Squadron included support for the allied invasion on D Day and many bombing missions with the new 8,000 and 12,000 lbs bombs. On 29th September Mepal was once again under attack, this time by a V1 ‘Doodlebug’ which missed the airfield and landed and exploded at Sutton Gault. In January 1945 Wing Commander C H Baigent DSO DFC + Bar took over command of 75 Squadron. He had been a Flight Commander in 1942 and had completed a second tour the previous November; he arrived at Mepal just before his 22nd Birthday!

Aircrew briefing for a bombing mission in 1943

Aircrew briefing for a bombing mission in 1943

The last bombing mission took off from Mepal on 24th April 1945 when 20 Lancasters left for their 739th mission to a raid on Bad Oldersloe.

From the 29th April to May 8th 1945 Operation Manna was launched from Mepal which involved 126 sorties to drop supplies to the Dutch in Western Holland; a truce was arranged with the German commander to allow the mission to take place safely. After VE day as part of ‘Tiger Force’ Nos. 7, 44 and 49 Sqns moved in to train for the war in the Pacific, but these were stood down after the Japanese surrendered on August 15th 1945.

At the end of the war 75 (NZ) Sqn were involved in the repatriation of prisoners of war. They also flew ‘sightseeing’ sorties over Germany for the ground crew and ‘Baedecker’ sorties to assess the effective of the bombing offensive. Belgium refugees were also taken home and by the end of May 1945 2,339 PoWs had been repatriated by 75 (NZ)Sqn Lancasters.

75 (NZ) Sqn flew 8,017 sorties (the highest total for the whole of RAF Bomber Command) on 739 operations, losing a total of 193 aircraft (the second highest loss rate). There is a very interesting and comprehensive website for 75 (NZ) Squadron at http://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com , well worth a look and gives lots more information than I could possibly hope to publish in this blog.

75 (NZ) Squadron and Lancaster 1945

75 (NZ) Squadron and Lancaster 1945

After WW2

 In July 1946 the last Lancaster left Mepal; the airfield was earmarked to be a Transport Command base but this never came to fruition and it was put under care and maintenance. The last ever aircraft movement at Mepal was in 1949 when a Meteor F4 from Duxford made an emergency landing; the pilot had failed to switch fuel supplies and as a result both engines flamed out followed by a ‘wheels up’ landing; he was apparently reprimanded for his carelessness!

The airfield remained closed until July 1959 when it became an important strategic base at the heart of the Cold War! There will be more about the intriguing history of the Cold War base in Mepal in a future Blog!

All photographs are courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network.

Hidden Heritage

Heritage Lottery Fund The Hovertrain

English: Signpost in Earith

English: Signpost in Earith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since I heard stories about the Hovertrain at Earith I have been fascinated by the project, how it came about, what exactly is was and what happened to it. As Hidden heritage is one of our themes on the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership I thought I would do some research and tell the story. When I first looked on the internet several years ago when the Hovertrain was first mentioned to me there was very little information available, not even a single photograph. I am relieved to say that much more is available now including some really good film footage on YouTube.

So how did the project start?

Professor Eric Laithwaite was working at The University of Manchester and developed the Linear Induction Motor (LIM) whilst researching the field of Linear Motion. By 1961 he had built a small demonstration system consisting of a 20-foot-long (6.1 m) LIM reaction plate and a four-wheeled cart with a seat on top. In 1962 he started consulting with British Rail (BR) on the idea of using LIMs for high-speed trains. LIMs are basically stretched out electric motors, using the same principle of the interaction of magnetic fields repelling each other which rather than turning a motor propels a metal plate along. During this time a company called ‘Hovercraft Developments Ltd’ became interested in the concept of LIMs to propel  high speed trains and built a test rig at Hythe, Kent in 1963.

“HOVERTRAIN” 1963 (links to the British Pathe website)

TRAIN OF TOMORROW 1966 (links to the British Pathe website)

Their concept was refined until in 1966 a scale model was demonstrated at ‘Hovershow 66’. While the Hovertrain was being developed, BR was running an extensive research project on the topic of high-speed wheeled trains at their newly opened British Rail Research Division in Derby, such a train could use existing rail infrastructure at lower speeds. BR’s thoughts at this time were turning away from the Hovertrain concept due to high costs but the development continued. In 1967 a company called Tracked Hovercraft Ltd (THL) was formed and was given a £1 million pound grant to develop a single prototype vehicle (RTV 31) and a short section of test track. It was at this point that Laithwaite left BR due to his frustration at the lack of funding  and joined THL as a consultant. Interestingly during this period the French were also developing a similar concept called ‘The  Aérotrain’, Laithwaite managed to secure another £2 million of funding at this point after persuading the government that they were about to lose out on the burgeoning field of high-speed transit!

Earith Track

Construction started on the test track in the early seventies with the first section of the track running from Earith to Sutton Gault, the original plan was to build 20 miles of track running all the way to Denver although funds only existed for the first 4 miles. Rising costs then limited this to just a 1 mile section.  The track was a concrete box section about 1.8 metres above the ground.  All that remains of the track today is the concrete foundations where the track ran across ‘The Gullet’


Aerial Photo of the test track.


The Gullet, North of Earith on the Old Bedford river. http://www.geolocation.ws


RTV 31 Hangar, now part of an industrial estate. wikipedia

A great photo of the track being constructed (Courtesy of Sutton Feast committee, from the Sutton Gault fair)



Ex-BR 3’0″ gauge ‘ED10′, a Ruston and Hornsby-built class ’48DS’ 4-wheel diesel mechanical (works No.411322 of 1958) along with two Rolls Royce-engined Austin Champs that were used as ‘prime movers’ and maintenance vehicles.

The original ‘hangar’ that housed the Research Test Vehicle 31 (RTV 31) Hovertrain is still at Earith and is now used by an engineering firm. RTV 31 went through several designs before its final version due to some problems with double sided LIM’s at high speed, it was decided to use single sided LIM’s. This led to another redesign of the Hovertrain guideway as a square box girder with the LIM stator attached flat on the top of the box, and the electrical pick-ups below on either side of it. Power pick-ups extended from the rear of the “wings” on either side of the vehicle, and the sparks they threw during operation are easily visible on test runs.

On 7th February 1973 RTV31 attained a speed of 104 mph on the 1 mile section of track with an 20 mph headwind. This was heavily publicised and footage was shown on the BBC news.

The towing hook and lifting pad can been seen in this picture.

The towing hook and lifting pad can been seen in this picture. http://www.disusedrailways.co.uk

Beginning of the end

By the time construction had started on Tracked Hovercraft’s test track, British Rail was well advanced on their plans for the steel-wheeled Advanced Passenger Train (APT). The government found itself in the position of funding two different high-speed train systems whose proponents were quick to point out problems in the competing system. To gain some clarity, they formed an interdepartmental working party that studied several potential inter-city transit solutions on the London–Manchester and London–Glasgow routes. The options included buses, Advanced Passenger Train, Tracked Hovercraft, and VTOL and STOL aircraft. Their December 1971 report strongly favoured the APT. Another nail in the coffin for the Hovertrain was the development of Maglev technology, I could go on about the scientific and engineering differences but suffice to say that Maglev was deemed to be more efficient and cheaper! Only a week after the successful test run the project was cancelled by the government, Michael Heseltine who was the minister responsible at the time and stated that the project was too costly to continue and there was no prospect of a system being installed before 1985.  Laithwaite tried to get funding to convert the test track to a testbed for his Maglev design but nothing ever came of it. Laithwaite’s work would eventually be used as the basis for the Birmingham Maglev, the first operational maglev system.

RTV 31 ended up being stored outside at Cranfield University for 20 years before being transferred to Railworld museum in Peterborough where it remains to this day.


RTV 31 rests at Railworld, Peterborough. flickriver.com

If you have any memories or pictures that you would like to share of the Hovertrain, we would be delighted to hear from you.    

Volunteering for the Ouse Washes LP

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I have been working on the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership Scheme for two weeks now as a summer placement volunteer. My main role has been working on the community consultations to find out what you know about the area and how it is used by both locals and visitors. We are already beginning to see some trends and it will be interesting to see whether they continue as we visit more local communities. If you would like to be involved then we have an online survey that can be found at;

Here are some of the quotes that we have so far:

‘’On a day like this it is lovely, in the winter it is dismal and grey’’

‘’It is good for walking and clears my head’’

‘’Not much of a view I am afraid’’

’Public transport is not just poor it is non-existent’’

‘’I think it is unique but it would be far better if people knew about it and opening it up would attract more people’’

‘’The birds are lovely to see and my children love spotting the bugs and lizards.  It’s great to be able to walk for a few minutes from my house and I’m in the countryside’’


How do you use the Ouse Washes landscape? Fill in the survey and let us know. Image by Pete Johnstone for Cambridgeshire ACRE.

What do you think?

We would really like to know what you know about the Ouse Washes area and how you use it, and just as importantly how you would like to use it in the future. Here’s the link again to the online survey:


During the delivery phase there will be lots of exciting projects that you can get involved with that will enhance the area, its communities and help to highlight and conserve its unique heritage.

Hidden heritage

One of the themes of the project is ‘Hidden Heritage’, we would like to know of any local ‘gems’ that you know of that you think others would be interested in. It may be the stories of someone who has lived in the area for a long time or a landscape feature that has a local story, or anything that you think is interesting. Let us know.

I am looking forward to meeting more of you out in the local communities and to hear your stories and views on the area.