Celebrating 175 years of first-class service
Unique, historic and bursting with colour and pride, the railway station at Downham Market is widely considered to be one of the most attractive and well-preserved stations in East Anglia
With its bright red benches and fabulous flower displays, Downham Market station is a pleasure to travel through – and even better to spend some time at. Commuters can’t help smiling as they enter the cheerful ticket office, catch sight of the friendly welcome signs and smell the sweet floral fragrance wafting from the platform’s wooden planters - though few travellers are aware of the history of this stunning Norfolk stop.
Built for the Great Eastern Railway after plans were approved for a line connecting King’s Lynn to Ely and London, the station was opened on October 27th, 1846 when passenger services began on the Lynn to Denver section of the line – and the Grade II listed main building has experienced little change since then. Built of local carrstone with pale brick dressings, Jacobean-style gables and diagonally-set chimney shafts, it’s a striking and distinctive element of the station.
Downham Market’s charming green and yellow signal box was Grade II listed in 2013. Built in 1881 its notched bargeboards and window sashes without horizontal glazing bars indicate that it’s of the GER type 2 design. The box has survived largely intact, with its original 1881 Saxby and Farmer rocker frame and almost all the original decoration to the operating floor. Still staffed 24/7 and fully working with old fashioned levers, it stands today as proudly as it did 140 years ago.
Though its buildings have experienced little change, the station looks very different to the way it did almost two centuries ago. The original platforms were much shorter than today, barely longer than the main building itself, although platform 2 (towards Lynn) was extended in 1911. The majority of the space in the station complex was taken up by numerous goods sidings situated at both approaches and in the Goods Yard and Office, now the site of the car park. There was also a turntable in the northeast yard which was used by horse-drawn wagons to transport freight offloaded from trains, and until the 1960s platform 1 was dominated by a large square water tower.
As well as its impressive buildings the station at Downham Market has had some moments in the spotlight. In April 1979 it was visited by Sir John Mills for the filming of an episode of Anglia TV’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ which dramatized many of Roald Dahl’s short stories. In addition, in 2011 journalist and broadcaster Michael Portillo featured Downham Market in an episode of his popular documentary series ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, describing it as “a charming station” and “a very special stop.”
And the station has become even more “charming” since, with a £64,000 heritage makeover in 2017 giving it the bright colours we see today. The station shines in its patriotic red, white and blue paintwork which was chosen to commemorate Network Southeast - the former British Rail division that operated across southeast England 30 years previously.
Andy Savage of the Railway Heritage Trust helped plan and fund the redecoration.
“There were proposals to re-use the colour scheme from the King’s Lynn station, which had a 1950s inspired makeover in 2014,” he says, “but we opposed that because there was no historic precedent to it. After much local discussion, the compromise everyone agreed to was the former Network Southeast livery. I have to say I like the effect, and there’s no doubt that Great Northern went the extra mile in doing a really good job.”
Soon after the refurbishment in February 2018, the Platform 1 café opened at the station, offering a large selection of food and drinks in addition to free WiFi, a large-screen television and comfortable seating. It makes waiting for your train a real pleasure, and it’s a fabulous welcome for everyone who arrives.
With its cheerful new colours and delightful floral displays (created and cared for by volunteers from the local Women’s Institute) Downham Market is without a doubt one of Norfolk’s prettiest stations - and its beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the 2020 National Rail Awards (dubbed the ‘Railway Oscars’) Downham Market was one of only two highly-commended
stations in the ‘Small Station of the Year’ category.
“What makes our station stand out is its unique character and charm,” says Darrell Gardiner, who’s worked on the railway for 30 years and is Great Northern’s full-time booking office clerk at Downham. “The WI does a wonderful job maintaining the gardens and flower beds, which make the place look very welcoming and colourful.”
But Darrell claims his favourite thing about the station is the passengers that pass through.
“We get on really well,” he says. “There are a couple of older ladies who’ve been quite lonely through lockdown, so I tell them to come and have a chat at any time.’’ His feelings are shared by part-time booking office clerk Joe Chapman, who’s worked at Downham Market station for the last 20 years.
“Being a smaller station allows us to offer a personal touch,” she says. “You feel more appreciated. Most of our regulars are really friendly, and I’ve always enjoyed helping them.”
Unique, charming and welcoming, Downham Market is a small station with a big heart and a bright future – and it’s still standing proudly after 175 years of service.
For more information about the station at Downham Market and the surrounding area, please visit Discover Downham Heritage Centre online at www.discoverdownham.org.uk
Photo credit: J. Watling (signal box and wagon turntable in 1966) & HMRS, Hilton Collection (the station in November 1911)