The Earl of Leicester vs Wells Harbour Railway

The debacle involving Holkham Estate and Wells Harbour Railway is the latest example of the cultural erosion of British towns

Artillery Row

In the small port town of Wells-next-the-Sea there sits a glorious remnant of a simpler, happier time. Almost 50 years old, the Wells Harbour Railway is the joint Guinness World Record holder of the globe’s narrowest gauge railway (just 10.25 inches, for those counting) to operate a scheduled passenger service (alongside the nearby Wells and Walsingham Light Railway).

This quirky, oddball element of nostalgic simplicity is a huge attraction, deeply loved by visitors and residents, and like the Crystal Palace dinosaurs or the Hull East Park Splash Boat or the Beaulieu Motor Museum monorail, it’s an eccentric example of true local identity in what could so easily be a generic visitor experience. Of course the landowner wants to destroy it.

The current proprietors of the railway (which holds a lease on the land that’s ending next year) are Gary and Alison Brecknell, only the third in the railway’s history. After the bludgeoning of the past year, they’re looking to retire (and who can blame them?), and back in October they contacted the Holkham Estate to enquire about renewing the ten-year lease so that the railway could be sold on as a going concern.

This is where the stories start to differ.

Holkham would be wise to listen to the mob on this one

According to the estate, the “Holkham team” is keen to find an “easier and safer experience” for those looking to travel the quarter mile or so to the shore that the little railway covers, and unfortunately, “renewing the lease on the existing track for another 10 years would delay the opportunity to resolve these matters, which isn’t ideal.” They’re all so enthusiastic and eager to “involve Wells Town Council and other stakeholders in discussions about this opportunity to improve the visitor experience” and they insist that, in spite of it all, “there is definitely the possibility of an extension to the existing railway operation.” So far, so blandly predictable and corporate. If you try hard enough, you can just about hear the PowerPoint presentation on how to spin an effective press release in the background.

The Brecknells, however, have been given private confirmation from Holkham Estate that, regardless of what’s being publicly spouted, the lease will not be renewed. The “Holkham team” have no intention whatsoever of buying, maintaining or continuing the railway beyond next year. In a recent statement the Brecknells said:

With huge regret and very much sadness on our part the Railway will need to be removed from Holkham land before the end of the lease. At no time has Holkham had any discussions with us about moving where or when the railway runs. We hope to run the Railway for the remainder of this year but the trains, etc. will now need to be sold to salvage what’s left of our business.

The dissonance between these two versions of events has become all too predictable in the dealings of faceless, corporatized, investment landowners with the communities they begrudgingly allow to exist on their fringes. Holkham, however, is still the “very much lived in, family home” of Thomas Coke, the 8th Earl of Leicester.

This is what really sticks in the craw. An aristocratic estate like Holkham has a clear and active obligation to operate in the interests of the local culture and community they claim to be custodians of. Regardless of the specific system they’ve set up for management of the asset, they are no mere company (in any real, de facto sense), but remain a familial concern that is tied to the land and its people and will forever have a responsibility to them. They should not behave like arms-length board members or corporate committees or faded New Labour council leaders. They should not be prioritising the bottom line and worshipping a bank balance like some grubby little gangster capitalist. Noblesse still obliges.

This situation is just one microcosmic example of a rising cultural pandemic

The jaded locals are generally sceptical of whatever claims the “Holkham team” make. Most are assuming that the estate has some back-room plans to pass the land over to a developer for a quick buck, with no regard to the impact on or interests of the community. One Angela Craig echoed the sentiments of the bulk of commentators when she opined: “The Holkham estate are just money grubbing. They’ve done away with camping and just extended the hideous caravans, now they are going to remove the train. Wells will lose all of its charm soon.” When reading the bland sentiments of the Holkham Hall website, it is hard to disagree. You can read the same nonsense on countless company websites and an infinity of glossy, high end investment portfolio literature.

Hopefully the general uproar and dismay that this blunt little act of narrow-mindedness has caused will be enough to encourage Holkham into a U-turn; if nothing else they are now making quite the show of nodding thoughtfully and stroking chins as they “engage with their stakeholders”. What’s more likely, however, is that they are hoping for the short attention spans of the social media crowd to peter out during the many months of “consultation” that will no doubt be dragged on for as long as possible.

It’s all too probable that they will simply play the waiting game and let the current operation collapse in the ongoing murk of uncertainty, whereupon it will simply no longer be “viable” for a replacement railway to start from scratch with new trains and new infrastructure. The “Holkham team” will then just shrug, talk about how much they loved the trains, and what a great shame it is that they can’t operate any more, and hey, get a load of this new investment opportunity.

This might seem like a parochial concern — that’s because it is. But it is more than that. It is a microcosmic example of a rising cultural pandemic, whereby the character of British towns and villages is gradually, consistently eroded away in the name of corporate presumptions about what makes an area desirable. For post-aristocratic estates that have historic and cultural obligations beyond the financial to behave as if none of that really matters anyway, whilst still reaping the rewards of that history, is unacceptable. Holkham would be wise to listen to the mob on this one. Banish the Wells Harbour Railway and banish all the world.

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