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The Station: Part 4
Not quite the end of the line!
by Stephen J. Bull

In recent issues of The Swavesey Meridian we have seen how East Anglia was once covered with a network of railways, and that Swavesey railhead was a product of the “railway mania” of the mid-1840s. Swavesey parish was approached from Cambridge via the G.E.R. line crossing the River Cam. The Eastern Counties Company Cambridge-St Ives branch line veered off at Chesterton Junction, progressed from Histon, Oakington and Longstanton, through a cutting below Over windmill and pushed across open country ignoring the boundaries of newly created fields, a result of the Enclosure Act in 1840. Crossing the present Station Road on a level crossing at Swavesey the line proceeded to St Ives on embankments across flood-prone fenland and over the Great Ouse before connecting up with the St Ives-Huntingdon branch line, both of which were opened the same day, on 17th August 1847.

'The effects and impact on the village
The effects on the village were minimal, the line close to both the Parish Church and Manor House, being a good half mile from the village. The impact, however you travel, was more dramatic with travel times 30-35 minutes by train from Swavesey to the “hopelessly inconvenient Cambridge station” (C.C. Taylor page 33), thus making commuter travel to London an attraction; and 6-7 minutes to the nearest market town, St Ives. The older and alternative way to Cambridge, similarly to St Ives, by horse would have taken 2-3 hours!

Steam at Cambridge; It is difficult to imangine trains like these departing for Swavesey 150 years ago


Although Swavesey was conveniently situated for middle-class people whose work was in Cambridge and St Ives, or even further afield, but who desired to live in the country, it didn’t become a commuter village. Interestingly, no development took place near the station, either residential or commercial, as was the case of Histon with Chivers’ Orchard Factory and the Shelford Corn and Coal Company’s premises at Great Shelford.

However, Swavesey boasted a “Railway Tavern (Hotel)” in Taylors Lane, opened sometime after 1840. Initially a thatched cottage it was damaged in the Swavesey fire and rebuilt in 1913. Today it is a private house named “Swan House” (Tim Phillips).

The benefits of the nearby railway and living near to the railway station are illustrated by the entry in the Swavesey Chronicle in 1880 as follows:-
“House to Let with rights of Shooting over 600 acres. Gardens, pleasure grounds, capital stable, loose box. Coach House and necessary offices. [A long entry] From 2 to 40 acres of fine pasture, a few acres of Arable land near to the house. Railway Station, Postal telegraph Offices within five minutes. Apply Mr. A.W. Richman.” (The Swavesey Chronicle: 14 August 1880)

Having the railway station on the doorstep proved an asset for the annual Horticultural Show in the grounds of the Manor House. The Eastern Counties Railway was commended for offering “every facility to travellers .....” (The Swavesey Chronicle: 9 July 1853). The close proximity of the railway enabled crowds of people from Cambridge to travel to Swavesey to enjoy ice skating only 200 yards from the railway station (The Swavesey Chronicle: 19 January 1867)

'Hiccups and heart aches
The fledgling line was soon to suffer from natural disasters due to the vagaries of the elements, crime and all too frequent accidents.

1947 Floods - looking towards Cambridge: Charles Edwards, plate layer: Edward Johnson, St Ives Station Master and Leslie Daniels, a moter trolley driver, inspecting the flood damaged track between Cambridge and St Ives


Having only operated for one year the line suffered serious flooding, which warranted mention in the Cambridge Chronicle in October 1848. The report read: “SWAVESEY. - The Flood. - The continued wet weather which we have had of late, ....... has again produced a very annoying state of things upon the Eastern Counties’ Railway. The waters have overflowed the line between Swavesey and St. Ives, and the traffic is temporarily suspended. At present Swavesey is the terminus in the direction of St. Ives, and passengers are conveyed to the later place from the former, in coaches and omnibusses (sic).” (The Swavesey Chronicle: 28 October 1848)

Serious flooding was also reported in subsequent years (1853, 1864, 1876) but we have no record of traffic having to be “temporarily suspended”. One year in which traffic was definitely “suspended” was during the disastrous floods of 1947. Older residents will remember the heavy snow and subsequent serious East Anglian flooding brought about by a combination of a quick thaw, high tides and hurricane winds. The Fens were inundated with a rushing torrent of water through the breach torn in the bank of the River Ouse at Over during the night of 17th-18th March (The Battle of the Banks: The Story of the Fen Floods around Ely 1947). Swavesey was badly affected (as will be seen in the final article) and the accompanying photographs tell their own story.


The state of the flood damage after the floods had partially receeded. The tops of the rail fence are just visible.

[The Swavesey floods in 1998, when the Colvill’s Drain bank was breached and flood waters seeped through the railway sleepers in Mow Fen, and the more recent fen-floods in January/February 2003, gave the younger/new village residents an idea of the extent of flooding in 1947.]

Trespassing on the line in the early days would appear to have been a common occurrence, sometimes with serious consequences. In May 1848, within nine months of operation, two men were charged with trespassing on the railway line at Swavesey with one of them being “charged with biting Constable John Negus, of the St. Ives Cambridge Railway” and fines 30/- (£1.50) each (The Swavesey Chronicle: 27 May 1848).

In 1879 one “W.T.”, a porter at Swavesey Station, was committed for trial “charged with stealing a pair of mens (sic) boots, value 14/-, some gooseberries. value 7/9, about 8lbs of suet worth 5/-. the property of G.E.R.” (The Swavesey Chronicle: 6 September 1879) Quite a haul - but then considering the paltry wage a railway porter would have earned it wasn’t surprising!


Tragic accidents involving railway staff and the general public were all too frequent. The first incident reported involved Richard Cross, a porter, who received serious injuries and was conveyed to Addenbrooke’s Hospital by a “special train” (The Swavesey Chronicle: 27 March 1852). (It is interesting to note how the railway company cared for the welfare of its staff.)

One of the most bizarre accidents involved a horse and cart at Swavesey railway station. The Cambridge Evening News reported the incident as follows:-
“A horse and empty cart belonging to Mr Jabez Day, farmer and fruit grower, was standing near the ‘up platform’ when the horse backed the cart into a large pile of baskets of fruit, upsetting the contents, and then fell on the line, dragging the cart with it. A train was rapidly approaching the station and the leading coach struck the horse and cart. The coach was derailed, the cart reduced to fragments of splintered wood and the horse so badly injured that it died in a short time.” Etc. (C.E.N: July 1927)

Sadly railway accidents continued throughout the history of the line.

Seen inspecting the track between Swavesey and St Ives with water streaming through the sleepers the Station Masters motor trolley (funny engine - on the right) with driver and plate layer.


'“Thank’s for the memory”
As very young children we were often treated to a walk with our parents to the railway station “to watch the trains”. This obviously made an impression upon me and explains my interest in, and affection for, the railways - real life and ‘00 gauge’. (The writer is reliably informed that by the age of three years he was already drawing steam engines!) The highlights of a typical afternoon (c1945) were:-
to watch long freight trains of (usually empty) wagons with “wheels screeching and buffers clattering”, slowly making their return journey to a off destination in the Midlands;
the sight of the workmen's/platelayers’ motor trolley (known by children as the “funny engine”) - see accompanying illustration - chugging into the station and being manhandled/swivelled into its short siding, in order to allow for a train to pass;
being treated by a cheery wave by a friendly engine driver while passengers alighted at the station. (It’s little wonder that so many boys wanted to be engine drivers!).

Being an agricultural worker, father only managed a one week mid-summer holiday before the harvest season started in earnest. Purchase of the equivalent to the pre-war “Ten Bob” tickets*¹ was put to good use throughout the week and included outings to Hunstanton on alternate days.

At the age of 15 the writer used the train service to Cambridge regularly (for some eight years) in order to attend the “Tech” (The Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology). Cycling to the station in the morning to catch the “School Train” cycles were hurriedly deposited in the nearby hedge for the whole day - and were still there on our return! (A cycle shed was available for locking one’s cycle but a limited number of passengers used it.) During cold winter mornings a few of us were allowed into the small porters hut to warm ourselves over a blazing fire. (Somehow the staff hadn’t got around to lighting the fire in the waiting room!!!)


A R.D.S. 'special' and passengers waiting to alight - 23rd June 1990

'“The train on platform four is for Fen Drayton”' *²
No! this announcement at Cambridge station was not a mistake, but was for a ‘special’ run by the Railway Development Society terminating at the Fen Drayton gravel-pits. In 1990 the RDS ran three special passenger services to try to prove the need for the introduction of a regular train service.

'The once busy line with East Anglian ‘fruit trains’ and off-peak heavy goods trains using the St Ives-March Loop line saw rapid decline after W.W.II and the Cambridge-St Ives line finally became a victim of Dr. Beeching’s branch closures on Saturday 3rd October 1970 following many efforts to retain the service. Beeching could only have guessed at the huge volume of heavy goods traffic which was going to burgeon in the next 25 years and had he known what its volume would be, he would surely have devised a means of keeping it on the railways (The Guardian: Geoffrey Taylor).

The 07.50 Fen Drayton - King's Cross sand and gravel train passing through Histon railway station: 1982


The line had remained open to Fen Drayton, however, for transit of mineral traffic from the gravel pits into the 1980s.*³ The rumbling and hoot of the 07.58 Fen Drayton-Kings Cross Goods hauled by a Class 37 diesel hauling a rake of sand hoppers became a familiar sound for Swavesey residents. Much to the annoyance of travellers during the morning ‘rush hour’ the level crossing gates would be closed for an interminably long time to allow the train to proceed through the station


Just practicing - a fireman rescuing a 'train spotter' as part of a disaster exercise

“Rail disaster - all in the line of training”: 1987
One Sunday in 1987 the morning calm of Swavesey was disrupted by a dramatic scene of carnage on the railway line (C.E.N: 21 September 1987). A length of the line close to the station, normally plied by the sand and gravel train, was used for a massive exercise for Cambridgeshire’s emergency services.

The Fire Brigade, Police, Army, ambulance service and medical teams and MAGPAS were all in it and as they raced to Swavesey, all but those ‘in the know’ thought they were heading for a major disaster - and dealt with more than 200 ‘mock’ casualties (and a few real ones!). The horror of the ‘train crash’ was gruesome enough to sicken the most professional crews, who thought it was genuine! ‘Casualties’ were ferried to Addenbrooke’s and Hinchingbrook hospitals and as far away as Peterborough. Inevitably, some parts of the exercise did not go as smoothly as others, the emergency task having been severely hampered by the poor access road to the track. Swavesey could, however, claim its 24 hours’ of fame - having hosted the “biggest ever operation of its kind in Britain”!!! (C.E.N: 21 September 1987)

'The future of the Line
Since the branch line’s closure local government authorities and focus groups have considered how the ‘track’ could best be used - in order to improve the transport infrastructure and help alleviate the congestion on the A14. A number of options have been put forward including:-
the reinstatement of the Conventional (Heavy) Rail;
a Light Railway network;
a Bus Lane;
a Road with limited access;
a Bus-way
a Cycle Path/Nature Walk;
the introduction of the Rapid Transit Guided Bus (SuperCAM) - as proposed by CHUMMS (Cambridge to Huntingdon Multi-Modal Study) consultation; and
letting the “Steam Buffs” take the line over!

In the concluding article I propose to discuss briefly the proposed ‘options’ which have been put forward for utilising the ‘mothballed’ Cambridge-St Ives railway track.


  1.   The “Ten Bob” ticket, purchased for 10 shillings (50p), allowed unlimited travel for one week in a clearly defined area in East Anglia, which included Cambridge, Ely, Norwich and Hunstanton (C.E.N: Cyril Gotobed);
  2.   Refer to The Station: Part two (The Swavesey Meridian: April/May 2003 pages 42-43) for a more detailed description of the ‘Specials’ run by the pressure group Railway Development Society in 1990.
  3.   Thousands of tons of Fen Drayton sand and gravel have been used in building construction in Southern England, and are now buried beneath Britain’s motorways (Modern Branch Line Album page 15).



  1. “The Battle of the Banks: The Story of the Fen Floods around Ely 1947”: Published by the Rotary Club of Ely - reissued 1982;
  2. “Branch Lines Around Huntingdon: Kettering to Cambridge” by Vic Mitchell, etc. (1991);
  3. “The Cambridge Evening News”: Cyril Gotobed - one time Signalman at Somersham, date unknown;
  4. “Domesday to Dormitory: The History of the Landscape of Great Shelford”; Ed. C.C. Taylor;
  5. “The Guardian: Making tracks for the railways’ return journey” - Article by Geoffrey Taylor, date unknown;
  6. “Modern Branch Line Album” by J.A.M. Vaughan (1980);
  7. “Swavesey History - Public Houses, Inns and Beer Retailers” by Tim Phillips 19 October 1998;
  8. “The Swavesey Chronicle”: Extracts from “The Cambridge Chronicle” relating to the Village of Swavesey 1776-1899 compiled by H. Hepher (1982);
  9. “The Victoria History of the County of Cambridge the Isle of Ely (V.H.C.) Vol. II.