End of the line for Southwold to Wenhaston heritage railway dream?

Volunteers restoring original fencing at Wenhaston

Volunteers restoring original fencing at Wenhaston - Credit: Archant

A Suffolk charity last night insisted its dream of reinstating a Victorian-era train line would not be derailed by a government inspector’s decision to reject a major part of the project.

An engine on the Southwold to Halesworth line, which ran from late 1879 until the spring of 1929

An engine on the Southwold to Halesworth line, which ran from late 1879 until the spring of 1929 - Credit: Archant

Southwold Railway Trust (SRT) had hoped to overturn local refusal of its plans to build a 450 metres of track, replica station, engine shed and 40-metre platform in Wenhaston.

But a top planning official dismissed the appeal, calling the project potentially harmful to the environment and lives of nearby residents.

The charity, which bought the land before submitting its scaled-down version of a previously rejected proposal, called the decision “unfathomable” but vowed to persevere in its “moral and legal duty” to restore the railway.

The decision came a day after neighbourhood consultation ended on separate plans for a visitor centre, engine shed and workshop to build a heritage train, and a small nature reserve, near the original trackbed at the old gas works site in Southwold – the final destination for the line from Halesworth until it closed 80 years ago.

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The narrow gauge railway ran from 1879 to 1929, with stops in Wenhaston, Blythburgh and Walberswick.

Last April, Suffolk Coastal councillors went against the recommendations of planning officers and threw out SRT’s plans to build on 2.14 acres of the originally proposed 14-acre Wenhaston site.

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Suffolk Coastal said it was in the wrong place and would not bring tangible economic benefits. The proposal had received 98 letters of objection and 51 letters of support.

Planning inspector, Nick Palmer upheld the council’s decision, saying noise from the operation of trains, combined with general disturbance from visitors and vehicles, would be intrusive for nearby residents.

He said development would be “very disruptive” to wildlife using the site if not carefully managed.

Although Mr Palmer acknowledged the railway would enable public appreciation of its relationship with the landscape, he said the potential cultural benefit would not overcome his concerns.

He said proposed flooding mitigation measures did not overcome his concern that the development would pose an “unacceptable risk to public safety”.

SRT chairman, James Hewett, who is also a local parish councillor, but was not permitted to vote on the initial planning application, last night said: “The Trust is naturally disappointed by the recent decision of the inspector to uphold the refusal of Suffolk Coastal District Council (SCDC) to allow the restoration of the historic Victorian branch line to start at Wenhaston.

“We do not agree with the conclusions, and may consider challenging them, as we feel insufficient weight was given to the fact that the SCDC’s own planning officer recommended approval, to the fact that the Environment Agency had no objection to the flooding mitigation plan, and to the importance of tourism to the economy of East Suffolk, and the project’s strategic place within that economy.

“We are particularly sad that the sterling efforts of our many volunteers, who give their time unstintingly in all weathers to their chosen charity, have been seemingly set at naught by this decision.

“Our 374 members, and several thousand supporters, will feel that the “powers that be” are – for some unfathomable reason – against them.

“However – the Trust is by no means daunted by this temporary setback. We have only been trying to rebuild the railway for a few years, while other heritage railways struggled in the same way for a lot longer. The Welsh Highland Railway, for example (which runs through the Snowdonia National Park, and suffered very similar opposition), took over fifty years from conception to completion, and a massive seventy-four years between closure and re-opening. It is now a much-loved and integral part of Gwynedd, and contributes several millions a year to the economy.

“Our proposal is modest – but then so were all the other 201 heritage railways in the UK, when they started.

“It is the moral and legal duty of the Trust not to give up on our charitable aim – to restore the railway. This is particularly true at Wenhaston, where the land was bought for the Trust by sponsors for one purpose only – to rebuild the 1879 Wenhaston Station in its historic landscape context.”

Mr Hewett said SRT had four “achievable” new plans for the land – plans which he said would be publicised “when appropriate”.

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