Calling at Shippea Hill, Lakenheath, Harling Road, Eccles Road and Spooner Row

The trunk roads that connect Norfolk with the rest of the country are beginning to assert themselves on this blog as something of interest to me. How does rural architecture, both rural and industrial, manifest itself when there is no topography to speak of? How do domestic landmarks evolve alongside major highways? In order to maintain some editorial balance, it’s time to consider how Norfolk is connected not by road, but by rail.

Traveling by train to Norwich is, generally speaking, only marginally more enjoyable than driving. If the A11 and A17/A47 are there to punish drivers, then Greater Anglia and East Midlands Trains (EMT) are there to punish rail passengers. Greater Anglia, at least, have comfortable old fashioned (or just old) intercity carriages providing half-hourly conveyance to and from London, but they are motivated by locomotives drawing power from unreliable and easily collapsed electric wires. EMT does, at least, connect Norwich hourly with some of the bigger cities in the north of England, but it uses two carriage Sprinters to do so. By the time you arrive in Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool, your torso will have adopted the baseline resonance of the Cummins diesel engine suspended beneath your seat.

Greater Anglia’s route map (above, ripped without apology in recompense for many hours of delays) uses a vertical line to illustrate Norfolk’s single mainline railway, connecting Norwich with London Liverpool Street. A handful of rural lines radiates from Norwich, including the Breckland Line to the next London-bound line at Ely.

On the map, the Breckland Line has been smoothed out to a horizontal line. In reality, it is absurdly twisty. It passes, for instance, not once, not twice, but three times under the A11 dual carriageway around Thetford. The line isn’t electrified, and a number of speed restrictions either side of half barrier level crossings hampers journey times. It takes eighty minutes to cover the sixty or so miles between Norwich and Cambridge, and that’s only possible by avoiding some of the lesser used stations. On the Breckland Line, there are five notable omissions. From west to east, with their annual estimated passenger numbers for 2010/11, are Shippea Hill (812), Lakenheath (404), Harling Road (3,494), Eccles Road (1,676) and Spooner Row (640). Most see only one or two trains a day each weekday and nothing on Sundays. Lakenheath is a strange inverse, with no weekday service at all, and weekend trains calling on request to provide access to the nearby RSPB reserve.

Above: Spooner Row railway station (Wikipedia)
Above: Spooner Row railway station (Wikipedia)

In each case, these are small unmanned halts that somehow (see their respective Wikipedia pages, linked above, for potted histories) avoided closure. Today they continue to exist in a state of limbo, in the closed circle of not generating sufficient passengers to warrant increased service, but not having sufficient service to attract additional passengers. With the competitiveness of rail journey times between Norwich and Cambridge already questionable, it’s no surprise that they have been sacrificed to appeal to intercity traffic.

In June 2013, the average price of a house in Cambridge was in excess of £350,000 (source). In Norwich the average was below £170,000 – less than half that of Cambridge (source). While Norwich may not appear to have the commuter draw of Cambridge, the city maintains almost five thousand park and ride parking spaces, supporting a veritable daily influx of commuters and day trippers. Between them, the five least popular stations on the Breckland Line, and the three (Harling Road, Eccles Road and Spooner Row) that shadow the path A11, might provide the infrastructure for a string of sustainable rural developments situated between the cities of Norwich and Cambridge.

Could it happen? Perhaps. Look to the top left of the route map above, and the twin grey lines connecting Ely with the East Coast Mainline at Peterborough. With the opening of additional platforms at Peterborough later this month, the remote Fenland halt of Manea, between March and Ely, will shortly be added as a request stop to most services on the two-hourly Peterborough-Ipswich train. Currently, up to six passenger trains an hour pass through Manea, but only four stop every day (and only then if a passenger requests it).

Above: Manea Railway Station (Wikipedia)
Above: Manea Railway Station (Wikipedia)

Like the five halts on the Breckland Line discussed above, Manea station is a forgotten remnant of the railway before Dr. Beeching. For years, it has languished without much attention on the edge of a village of 1500 people. Yet from 28 December, it will go from having four to twenty-nine daily trains to its nearest cities.

Soane in Norfolk

Above: Burnham Westgate Hall (1783)
Above: Burnham Westgate Hall (1783)

Earlier this autumn I was invited to deliver a short talk on the work of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1787) for the Norfolk Association of Architects’ Wednesday Forum. Soane’s presence has been acknowledged since the inception of the BA(Hons) Architecture course at Norwich University of the Arts, and passing references are made to his contribution to the region’s architectural culture in our course documentation. Aside from one visit to the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London with our first cohort of students (to study the way in which Soane adapted three adjacent properties on Lincoln Inn’s Inn Fields to house his collection of paintings and artefacts) my experience of Soane’s work is limited. I was reassured that my talk would be limited to just twenty minutes, and that I was expected to prompt a discussion rather than present a coherent piece of research. I am particularly grateful to a number of significantly better informed members of the audience for their contributions, which both individually and in total put mine to shame.

The Soane Museum records Soane as having known to have worked on a somewhat staggering 335 projects between 1779 and 1831, the duration of his professional career. Summerson (1983) divides Soane’s career into five periods: his student period (1776-80, aged 23-27), his early practice period (1780-91, aged 27-38), his middle period (1791-1806, aged 38-53), his picturesque period (1806-21, aged 53-68) and his last period (1821-33, aged 68-80). Soane was a pupil of the architects George Dance (1741-1825) and Henry Holland (1745-1806). He was awarded the Royal Academy’s Silver Medal in 1772 and the Gold Medal in 1776, and a traveling scholarship in 1777 which enabled him to embark on a Grand Tour with Robert Furze Brettingham (1750-1806) in the following year. Soane returned in 1780, penniless and in debt. A handful of tentative job opportunities emerged, leading Soane to travel to the north of Ireland (where he was briefly engaged in the possible redesign of Downhill House) and thence to Scotland.

Out of my hurried research into the talk came an interesting discovery. Soane worked on 25 projects in Norfolk. What is remarkable is that they are all dated between 1783 and 1792 – in other words they were completed or worked upon entirely during Soane’s thirties, the period in which Soane finally began to establish his practice. After all, architects are still considered young until they turn forty. That such a significant British architect should have worked on so many projects here in Norfolk, all before his more renowned commissions, suggests that we have in this county the possibility of discovering something of the young Soane.

It is recognised that a series of mostly domestic commissions established Soane’s career. The Sir John Soane’s Museum has published a comprehensively researched list of known projects on its website. Tantalisingly, and what seems to have been only of passing interest to architectural historians to date, is that a number of these early projects in Norfolk have now been lost or (in one or two cases) not yet identified. I have highlighted some of the more interesting projects below.

Above: Letton Hall (1783)

Of the extant buildings, most famously, Soane designed an entirely new building at Letton Hall (1783). This has subsequently been remodelled, and I have been persuaded over a pint or two with one the aforementioned better informed members of my audience that the alterations could legitimately be seen to have been intended to make an otherwise unremarkable house appear more ‘Soanian’. Perhaps more impressively, at Burnham Westgate Hall (1783 – marketed two years ago for £7,000,000), Soane worked on a number of alterations to the house and stables, some new farm buildings and designs for an unrealised a tower.  Soane is known to have worked on a house in Cockley Cley for a MR. J.R. Dashwood (1784) and some drawings are in the Sir John Soane Museum’s collection. In the grounds of Costessey Hall (itself demolished shortly after the end of World War I), just outside Norwich, Soane designed a single range of stables and a dove house (1784). The former was partially destroyed by fire in 1996 and remains in a ruinous state. I am informed that planning permission is being sought or has been granted to redevelop them. Saxlingham Rectory (1784), built for the Reverand John Gooch also survives, with a fairly remarkable nineteen seventies pavilion-style extension by (if I recall correctly) Fielden and Mawson. The house is currently being refurbished and reconfigured by the Wymondham practice Lucas Hickman Smith. Soane also designed a notable garden music room at Earsham Hall (1784) as well as at least one gateway and pair of lodges at Langley Park (1784), now a private school.

Of the unexecuted or unidentified projects in Norfolk, the Sir John Soane’s Museum lists designs for a house in Hetherset (1788), alterations and additions to a house possibly in or around Melton Constable for Jacob Ashley (1788), Gawdy Hall for the Reverand Gervase Holmes (1788, demolished 1939), the County Gaol at Norwich Castle (1788, demolished 1825), designs for a new house at Wreatham Hall for William Colhoun (1788) and for one final tantalising moment, an unlocated house in Norwich for Alderman Crowe (1792). Soane made some alterations to a house and designed a new gamekeepers lodge at Tofts (1786), but these found themselves within the exclusion zone of the 30,000 acre Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in the Breckland of west Norfolk and were demolished (or rather, they were bombed during an Army training exercise) in the nineteen fifties.

What does this rapid chronology of Soane’s early work in Norfolk tell us? Currently – very little. But, as an architecture academic in an arts university, it is tantalising that apparently very little considered research has been conducted into the young Soane’s work in Norfolk. Constructing a quick literature review for the NAA Wednesday Forum, I discovered a general insouciance towards Soane’s early work, it being dismissed out of hand as the work of an immature young designer whose greatest work was yet to come. I might be wrong, but I sense that there might be some fruitful digging to be done (if that interests you as well, you know where to find me).

To view my working map of Soane’s twenty-five projects in Norfolk, click here. If you have any corrections or updates, please drop me a line in the comments.

Shift – now live on Kickstarter



Yesterday we (Carys O’Brien, Stephen Jarvis and myself) launched a call for funding on Kickstarter. The project – Shift: new photography in the Norfolk landscape – will run through the summer and provide the framework for us to prepare a new body of work and present an exhibition of new photography during the Festival of Architecture in Norwich & Norfolk.

You can read all about our respective interests on the Kickstarter page, but the above image by Carys will give you a small hint of what she’s interested in. Stephen also has an eye for concrete, but of a more defensive nature. You may already have read my post on Combine Architecture from April entitled Gaz Bar Blues. The work outlined in that post will be developed as an academic paper at the Visualising the Rural conference at the University of Cumbria later this week, and that will in turn inform a bit of writing in the exhibition catalogue.

If you’d like to pledge something to enable this collective project, please visit the Kickstarter page and read about the various tiers of rewards we will offer our backers. Everyone who pledges something will be invited to attend the private view of the exhibition on Thursday 17 October. Thanks for your support!