The Mid Suffolk Light Railway may not have been a huge success as a working rail line but through the dedication of an army of volunteers, the ‘Middy’ museum in Wetheringsett has managed to return the magic of steam to rural Suffolk.
Originally planned as a way of linking farming communities in the centre of the county, work on the line began in May 1902.
The Light Railway Act had been passed just six years earlier making it easier to build railways - by reducing the speed and weight of the trains, rules on fencing, level crossings and signalling were less strict.
Edmund Crosthwaite, who has volunteered at the Middy for more than ten years, said the rail line’s creation was a bit of a disaster.
“It was originally supposed to go from Haughley Junction and continue through Mendlesham,” he said
“It was then supposed to stretch all the way to Halesworth with a branch leading off to Westerfield - but it didn’t quite go to plan.
“They reached just past Laxfield and realised the ground was too boggy to lay the track - and it had taken an awful lot of money to get there.
“The line bankrupted a lot of people.
“The initial idea was to lay 52 miles of train track - it was a grand plan but the line ended up just over 19 miles long.”
Edmund said the line opened for goods in 1904 and for passengers in 1908.
“Although it didn’t quite take off in the way they were hoping, it did still serve a job linking the farming communities in the area,” he said.
“The line’s best period was actually during the Second World War where it was used to carry bombs and supplies to the local airbases.
“But after the war the rail line declined dramatically and much of the track was removed by 1953 - it’s final service was in July 1952.”
The track and stations were left for almost 40 years, many of the buildings used as storage or chicken coups by farmers.
But in 1990 founder Paul Davey and a small group of rail enthusiasts had an idea to turn the quarter mile track and Brockford station building at Wetheringsett into a museum - and landowner Tony Alston fell in love with the idea too.
Edmund said they had to do the best with what was left at the site.
“They gathered a few people from modern railway clubs and moved onto the site in 1991,” he said.
“There was little of it left - just a platform and a little piece of track. The original idea was to have it as a static museum - a place where people could just have a look around.
“But as things moved on we wanted working steam trains too. We had our first running steam train in 2002 - we borrowed an engine from the North Norfolk Railway, a J15 goods engine. North Norfolk had the only working engine of its kind - we finally had it for eight steaming days in 2002, almost 50 years from the day the railway closed.
“Since then we have increased our engine running times, we went from eight to 20 to 30, which is what we have now.
“The idea of the museum is to recreate the Mid Suffolk line as it was more than half a century ago.”
The museum is entirely funded through open days, donations, heritage money grants and funds collected from memberships.
But what really keeps the Middy on track is the raft of around 70 volunteers who tirelessly work to maintain the carriages, stations, outbuildings and grounds.
“Our volunteers are crucial, they keep the museum going.
“The Mid Suffolk couldn’t function without them and without them it wouldn’t exist.”
One such volunteer, Geraldine Smith, has been helping out at the railway every Wednesday for seven years.
She said it is the open days that keep her coming back. It is nice to make people happy. People go home having had a nice day out,” she said.
One of the projects the volunteers are currently working on is the renovation of a Great Eastern horse box dating back to 1869.
Edmund said it may be the oldest of its kind in the world.
He said: “We got a grant of £1,000 from the Transport Trust and some private donations to restore it.
“The Middy did have horse boxes on it so it will fit in very nicely on our track.
“There were a lot of horses that were transported on the original track with Newmarket being so close - it is a very East Anglian vehicle.
“I think it is possibly the oldest railway horse box in the world.
“It should be ready to go on the tracks next year.”
The museum is now seeking donations to restore its own train - a Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0 saddle tank locomotive built in 1928. Originally a static exhibit, the train will take £100,000 to restore.
For more information on the Middy visit www.mslr.org.uk