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March 6, 2011

France to Skeggy (via Nocton) in 100 yrs

A short history of Nocton Estate Light Railway

Back in the late 1800's the owner of Nocton Hall, Lord Ripon urged a friend, George Hodgson (then Chairman of the Yorkshire Bank Co) to use his influence in pressing for the opening of a railway line linking Lincoln with Sleaford. The line was opened on 1st August 1882 with Nocton and Dunston sharing a "new" station which would see passenger trains stop here until the station was closed forever in 1955. But... this was not to be the only railway system that would be an integral part of life in this thriving community.

In 1889-90 Lord Ripon sold the hall and estate to his great friend George Hodgson and he and his descendants ran the community for almost 30 years. It was the last of the Hodgson family, Norman, who passed the hall into the hands of the Americans as a convalescent home for commissioned soldiers in 1917, during WW1. Norman Hodgson and his family, having vacated the hall, took up residence at Embsay House on the outskirts of the village but then at the end of 1919 he decided to sell the hall and estate to Messrs W H Dennis. Up to then much, if not most of Nocton estate, had been farmed by tenant farmers for almost a century and a half, as they gave their loyal support to the lords of the manor.

Mr W.H. Dennis, however, had different ideas on the farming policies of his land and one by one the 26 tenant farmers were given notice to quit so he could manage the entire land himself. Systematically, farm houses on the estate, from the edge of the Lincoln Heath to the Fens, were to be left empty and then in time totally demolished, changing the idyllic Lincolnshire countryside forever. Mr Dennis's actions continued to make him less than popular in the community as woods and hedgerows too were cleared as he increased his arable land to some 8,000 acres, to become one of the major producers of beet, potatoes, wheat and barley in the country. The fact that Nocton Station was on his doorstep was a great advantage to him as his produce could be transported to all points from here.

A problem which became paramount to him however, was the movement of the produce from his land to the railhead but his Estate manager, Major Webber, came up with an inspirational idea of creating a railway system across his land (possibly the first such system in the country). Major Webber, no doubt, got the idea from the actions of the British Army during the Great War, who used a narrow gauge railway system to transport troops and supplies to the front line in the trenches of France.

Sections of this self same narrow gauge line became available from an Army Surplus Depot in Arras, France in 1921 and Mr Dennis quickly made his purchase. Initially just 4 miles of track (1 foot 11 and a half inch gauge) were laid in the low lying fenland to the east of Wasp's Nest but because it was such a success the Nocton Estate Light Railway (N.E.L.R.) system was gradually connected to the railhead, adjacent to the Lincoln to Sleaford railway line and in some places its evidence can still be seen to this day.

Having reached the railhead, workshops, a mill and a greenhouse were constructed. By 1926 much of the 8,000 acres of Nocton Estate had the railway system going across its land from the edge of Waddington Airfield in the west to Bardney and the river Witham in the east. Construction continued to take place at the railhead and more and more rolling stock was purchased including wagons, open bogie wagons and box wagons, which had been used as military ambulances during their life in France.

Come 1936 Mr Dennis was to sell the estate to Smith's Potato Crisps Ltd and the estate passed into a period of great harmony as the new land agent, John Iverson and his wife turned the community into one that will be remembered with great affection forever with social activities, galas, sports days, cricket and football teams making for a typical country life of the time.

As the 2nd World War progressed however, life was to change for the Estate and Hall for ever as they would sever joint connections after some 1,900 years' association of being one and the same.

The Air Ministry was to take ownership of the Hall and its 200 acres of parkland in 1940.
By 1936 the railway system had grown and grown, until it covered an estimated 30 miles of the estate (the largest such rail system of its kind in the country). Almost every field on the estate was reached, allowing produce to be harvested directly to the trucks and then to the railhead. Six Diesel Locomotives operated across the estate, predominantly transporting potatoes, to the railhead. Here the potatoes would be loaded onto the Smith's Potato Crisp lorries and transported to their depot which was then on Newark Road in Lincoln. But the rail system was not only for collecting produce as it was also used to transport water to all the outlying farmsteads, food stock to the animals and one of the "passenger" coaches was even converted into a game wagon called "Queen Mary" to transport "Game-shooting" parties to all points of the estate on shooting days. At its peak, the estate was using 220 working horses, had 1,000 cattle, up to 3,000 pigs and 2,000 sheep with the train system used to feed them all.

The movement of the traffic across the estate became so intricate that a huge green baize covered board of the entire area and its railway routes was created in the Mill at the railhead. Each field was numbered and each wagon number was identified by a pin. Every wagon movement was noted by a traffic controller including the crossing of the "old" B1188 road (which some people will recall then ran from the railway station to Nocton village and beyond at this point, the rail system even went into the villages, with one, such destination being the pig sties located in Hall's Yard at Dunston.

By 1948 the life of the "horse" as a farm work animal was coming to an end as the tractor had taken over but the rail system was still used to transport fuel to them, thus saving time returning to the depot. By the early 50s over 30 tractors had taken the place of the previous 200 or so work-horses. Then as the 60s came, road transport had moved on too with rural roads improving, thus allowing articulated lorries to gain access to most areas of the estate.

By 1960, almost all fields were accessible by road, thus sounding the death knell of the Nocton Estate Light Railway. It was finally to close in July 1969. Nocton Estate, under the ownership of the trading name of Smith's Crisps, ended in 1975 and the "good old days" for many of the local people was just something they can now only reminisce about.

Some of the old lorries stood idle to rot or be turned into four wheel trailers, shelters for potato gangs or game carts, but for some of the railway rolling stock and engines they were to have another life elsewhere. Some found their way to The Lincolnshire Coast Light Railway now based at Skegness Water Leisure Park at Ingoldmells. Originally they could be found at Humberston, south of Cleethorpes. Between 1960 and 1985, they had transported holidaymakers from a bus terminus to the Fitties Holiday Camp and Humberston Beach.

Since the mid-1990's, following the closure of the original LCLR, a small group of volunteers (LCLR Historic Vehicles Trust) have continued their restoration work. The company's initial locomotive, "Paul", was a four wheel "Simplex" diesel built in 1926 which had operated on Nocton's railway system. This was given a new all over metal body when purchased by the LCLR. They now have four other similar diesel locomotives including "Nocton" (built 1920).

Nocton Estates Light Railway - Paul

The importance of the vehicles owned by the LCLR Historic Vehicles Trust has been recognized by the Science Museum and the Transport Trust, who have contributed to the cost of their restoration. For many years they were displayed in the Museum of Army Transport, including the only surviving ambulance van built for the WW1 trench railways "Queen Mary", the passenger carriage from the Nocton Estates Light Railway and as previously stated, had been used to transportshooting parties and for inspection of the estate.

After closure of the Nocton system, it was then used as an office until its new life on the East Coast. The Skegness Water Leisure Park railway line re-opened in May 2009 after twelve years of reconstruction by this dedicated band of volunteers. To think nearly 100 years before this they had made the transition from the West Front in WW1 to Smith's Crisps at Nocton for a further 50 years or so, now to see their lives out in retirement at the seaside.