One of the greatest advancements and fastest progressions for agriculture in British history was surely the birth of steam.
Britain’s countryside has long been rich in agriculture, but in earlier times when people lived by daylight hours and the changing seasons, land could only be farmed by manual labour and horsepower. With the advent of steam, however, horses were gradually replaced. Furthermore, although the existing canal systems had been efficient for the transportation of crops, goods and commodities, they were now failing; much too slow for Britain who would not be held back as the great Industrial Revolution was taking off.
The introduction of the Victorian-era railway systems during the 19th century was a much faster and more popular transportation means; not only for goods and commodities, but for passengers too. Railway networks were transforming the country.
In 1848 a new branch line in Essex was opened, linking Braintree with the ancient market town of Maldon, via Witham. Two stations located in between served the three rural villages of Wickham Bishops, Langford and Ulting, offering a new and needed passenger service for these small communities.
For over 100 years, the line provided a successful and valuable link between the port of Maldon, as well as many farms across mid-Essex, and the markets of London. But as old steam engines were being replaced by new diesel ones throughout the 1950’s, the Witham to Maldon branch line was struggling to be profitable. The closure of the line was inevitable following recommendations by Dr Richard Beeching, who had written reports on both the reduction and the re-structuring of the British railway system. It was in September 1964 that the line’s passenger services came to a final halt, although not without protest; and although the freight service continued for a further two years, the end of the line finally came in April 1966.
After the tracks were removed in 1969, most of the rail track bed was purchased and maintained by Essex County Council. The line, now a linear park known as The Blackwater Rail Trail, is abundant in birdlife, fauna and flora; the arrival of spring brings blooms of wild primroses and violets. During summer months, greater stitchwort and red campions grow freely along the embankments.
The halt at Langford and Ulting, once covered in over-grown vegetation, still stands, having recently undergone a sympathetic restoration project by volunteers from Friends of the Flitch Way and Associated Woodlands. A replica of the old station sign has been erected on the platform and new benches will soon be placed along the pathway.
Friends of the Flitch Way is a registered charity, formed in 2005. Volunteers work closely with Essex Country Parks who have responsibility not only for The Blackwater Rail Trail, but also The Flitch Way, another disused railway line between Braintree and Bishop’s Stortford. The volunteers work hard to help maintain and improve the environment, working closely with Essex Country Parks and the Rights of Way teams. The project was grant-funded with a little help from Tesco and their Bags of Help scheme.
In 1995, extensive restoration work was carried out on the only surviving timber trestle railway viaduct in Britain. The bridge is situated close to the Wickham Bishops Station (which is now a private home), and is listed as a ‘Scheduled Ancient Monument’.
The stations and bridge can be seen in a short film which was made by Edward Thorp (British Film Institute Archive) in 1957, capturing the Witham to Maldon East railway line, as the old steam train passed through Wickham Bishops and Langford and Ulting, before arriving at Maldon. This rare footage features the very essence of the steam era in the Essex countryside and highlights the need to preserve our local and national heritage.
With my grateful thanks to the following people for their permission, time and knowledge:
Irene Allen and Jenny Clemo – Langford Parish Council
Stan Davies – Friends of the Flitch Way
Angela Graham – East Anglian Film Archive