Why you should visit Halesworth Museum at the local railway station
PUBLISHED: 12:51 19 February 2019
Halesworth station is home to a fascinating unexpected platform with loads of local connections | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
Rural Suffolk railway stations are full of stories. Just think of all those daily departures and deliveries, those special first trips to the seaside and exciting days out.
The countless sweet home-comings and fond farewells. Most stations are bursting at the buffers with the stuff of life, but Halesworth has a track record like no other.
Step inside its old station building and the small, understated Halesworth & District Museum meets you with more than just memorabilia of railway days gone by.
Millennia old, locally made flint and fine bronze axe-heads, early medieval coins, bearded Germanic characters captured on imported Elizabethan era wine jugs, and clean-cut British boys in uniform, immortalised in precious black and white photos.
A neat array of fascinating finds and carefully collected artefacts tells centuries of tales about the life and times of a market town and its people.
It might seem rather a departure from the norm to find a town museum tucked into a railway station, but as a platform for journeys into the past, it’s somehow highly relevant for a community-focused museum with special outreach programmes and dedicated on-site facilities to train and assist people wanting to research family or property histories.
“Folk often pop in off the train,” says volunteer steward Pat Norris, poring over files of 1970s photographs at the welcome desk. “Whether they’re local or coming to Halesworth as a visitor, you’ll often hear people say, ‘Well, that’s interesting’, or ‘I didn’t know that’, when they’re looking at our Then & Now photo displays.
“Like the one of all the shop fronts – they may then take a real look when they go down into town. It gets them thinking.”
Even visitors set on discovering nuggets of railway history, can’t help but be thrilled by what this little station has to offer.
Admittedly, until recently the museum itself only had a modest collection of original signs and signal box instruments, track-workers’ lamps, model locos and technical fixings.
Today, an impressive ‘Halesworth for Southwold’ sign takes pride of place opposite the door, restored to its station home just last year when museum supporters rallied to acquire it from the Peter Punchard collection.
It’s a fitting tribute to the much-missed little railway which conveyed so many to the coast, just like the Holland Clarke museum room remembers the unfortunate stationmaster who, together with his wife and housekeeper, counted as Halesworth’s only local wartime fatalities when the building was bombed in 1941.
Yet it’s what’s on the station doorstep that really counts. The strange wooden boardwalk at the end of the platform, for instance, which seems to be part and parcel of the old crossing gates, now fixed in place to make the station approach a cul-de-sac.
It’s Halesworth station’s specially designed set of moving platforms, installed in 1880 a year after the arrival of the Southwold Line. In the absence of additional building space, they found an enterprising way to welcome longer trains.
Restored in 1922 by local company Boulton & Paul, the gates doubled the platform length when closed across Bungay Road and were regularly in full swing until a road bridge relieved them in 1958.
They were refurbished by The Railway Heritage Trust in 2000, and attract railway enthusiasts from far and wide. In the museum lobby, a working model brings the unique engineering solution to life.
The museum is dedicated to bringing local stories home. Temporary displays tell wartime tales of soldiers and red cross hospitals, a community cabinet shares personal collections, like ‘trinkets from Halesworth’ and the much-prized Dwile Flonking Cup, once proudly presented to Blyth Valley folk who successfully ducked a beer-soaked dishcloth, or caught it in a chamber-pot.
There are other trophies – Palaeolithic flint scrapers found at Wenhaston, a twisted Bronze Age bracelet, a Roman roof-tile where some local pooch left his paw-print, early medieval fishing weights and tools, buckles, rings and belt studs courtesy of local Tudor pin-maker Robert Clerk.
Some 3,000 years ago, the Bronze Age people of Wissett and Bramfield were using Irish copper and Swiss tin to craft top quality axe-heads, revealed when hoards were unearthed in the last decade.
You’ll find their fascinating stories and artefacts here, alongside early medieval coins from Upper Holton, probably buried around the time of the Black Death.
In more recent history, Victorian industry became bigger and bigger business for Halesworth as the railway steamed ahead. The market town was once East Anglia’s centre of commercial malt production and the little station sat high above mighty maltings, surrounded by sidings full of trucks.
Here the railway museum sends visitors down a different track, to the old maltings building, now the town’s arts centre. Up beyond the Malt Room Gallery, it tells the whole story, before offering one final Halesworth journey back in time – a chance to follow the Malt Heritage Trail around the town.
What & Where
Run by volunteers, Halesworth & District Museum showcases life across many millennia, from early sea creatures to a Singer sewing machine.
Display highlights include the Wissett Hoard, Argentein family and the mysterious carvings on Halesworth’s ancient house. The station’s moveable platforms can be viewed at any time.
- The Railway Station, Station Road, Halesworth, IP19 8BZ
- Open year-round Tues – Sat 10am -12.30pm, Weds 2pm-4pm (except Christmas to mid-Jan)
- Free – donations welcome.
- Wheelchair accessible.
- Find out more: halesworthmuseum.org.uk / 07552 508893
- The museum’s partnership project, The Malt Experience at The Cut (IP19 8BY) is free, fully accessible, open year-round (Tues-Sat 10am-4pm) and includes interactive exhibits and short films. halesworthmalt.org/visit/