Passing by waterways, historic villages and coastal views, Anthony Lambert takes the train through the East of England

A pinhead of yellow appeared in the distance down the dead straight track, but it was some minutes before the two-car train drew up at the tiny platform to collect me, the only passenger. This was hardly surprising, as Berney Arms between Norwich and Great Yarmouth is one of the very few train stations in Britain that cannot be reached by road. It was somewhere I had wanted to visit for years, and its isolated beauty seemed a world away from the concourse at London's Liverpool Street station where I had departed only a few hours earlier.

I had been the only passenger to get off at Berney Arms, too; it's such a rare occurrence that you have to ask the driver or guard to stop there. The name comes from an equally remote pub, kept in business by the boats that pass by at the western end of Breydon Water. On the east bank is such a timeless cluster of buildings around the church at Burgh Castle that the scene resembles a painting by one of the Norwich School of artists. Nearby is the largest of the windmills that dot the Berney Marshes, an RSPB reserve of 148 hectares where the clock has been turned back to re-create an environment that will entice wildfowl to return.

The lines east from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are known as the Wherry Lines, and water - or a startling triangle of disembodied sail across the fields - is seldom out of sight on either route. Boats are built beside the station at Brundall, its platforms kept colourful with hanging baskets and flower tubs by one of the community railway groups that care for the lines and organise walks from stations.

I was making for the coast to see the new Time and Tide museum of Great Yarmouth life, housed in the buildings of the only surviving herring curing factory, which closed in 1988, the industry killed off by overfishing. It still offers an olfactory sensation as well as an insight into life in the famous Yarmouth rows: alleyways so narrow that two bicycles could barely pass. There were once 145 of them, and the museum has reconstructed a street with excellent aural commentaries by their varied "occupants".

The maritime theme is continued in the nearby Norfolk Nelson Museum, imaginatively presenting the life of England's great naval hero with lots to divert children: dressing up in wigs, games in the garden and spinning wooden blocks to discover the origin of such nautical sayings as "son of a gun", "the bitter end" and "the cat's out of the bag". The area around historic South Quay has three other museums as well as the sight of the bizarre vessels that service the North Sea oil rigs.

Returning to Norwich I turned north to take the Bittern Line to Cromer and Sheringham, busy with commuters and schoolchildren making their way home to market towns and villages.

Boats were as thick on the water at the Broads' "capital" of Wroxham as in 1934 when Arthur Ransome set sail for a holiday that inspired the story of Coot Club. A footbridge links the station with the 15-inch gauge, steam-operated Bure Valley Railway to Aylsham. Passed clapboard level-crossing cottages and remote stone churches big enough for urban congregations, the Bittern Line makes a straight course through a gently undulating, wooded landscape that gives the lie to those who think of Norfolk as flat.

The cliffs around Cromer are high for the Norfolk coast, so once clear of the town passengers enjoy views over the sea. To the south lie the extensive woodlands of Felbrigg Hall and Beacon Hill, at 329ft the highest point in the county. Close to West Runton - voted Britain's "Best unstaffed station" in the 2004 One Railway award scheme - is the Norfolk Shire Horse Centre, which demonstrates the farming uses of draft horses and ponies. The opening of the railway in 1887 encouraged the construction of numerous hotels along the coast, including West Runton's turreted Links Country Park Hotel and Golf Club, which opened in 1899; close to the station, the hotel's period exterior has been sensitively retained.

The train passes the isolated clifftop church of All Saints at Beeston Regis before dropping down into Sheringham, where the line terminates opposite the station of the North Norfolk Railway. This largely steam-operated heritage railway runs trains from the original station in Sheringham as far as the attractive market town of Holt.

I stayed the night in North Walsham at the Beechwood Hotel, a delightful small hotel with a busy restaurant that tries to use ingredients sourced within a 10-mile radius. In the morning, I joined commuters, as I retraced the rails as far as Reedham and the junction for Lowestoft. It's worth pausing at Reedham for the chain ferry and picturesque riverside pubs before pressing on across the swing bridge and over Thurlton Marshes, which is dissected by reed-rimmed watercourses and devoid of life but grazing livestock and birds.

The last timber-built drainage mill is passed before reaching Somerleyton station, close to Somerleyton Hall and Garden, which was once the lavish home of Sir Samuel Peto, builder of the Houses of Parliament, and now is open to visitors (see page 5). The Blue Flag beaches of Lowestoft are not far from the town's station from where direct trains to Liverpool Street depart over the East Suffolk line.

This meanders through a succession of attractive market towns and villages and all the stations, bar Wickham Market, are in or close to the town centres: Beccles with its octagonal town hall; colour-washed Halesworth with its famous 9th-century "Danestones" in the church; Darsham from where you can take a pre-booked journey to the RSPB reserve at Minsmere by CoastLink vehicle, or hire a bike to pedal there; Saxmundham for Aldeburgh; Melton from where there's a walk along the river to the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site and exhibition at Sutton Hoo.

But the climax of the line is Woodbridge, one of the East of England's loveliest towns, with a delightful shoreline on the Deben estuary and a tide mill rescued by a lady who passed it on the train each day and watched its worsening dereliction with such regret that when she came into some money she restored it. An excellent café occupies an adjacent granary and the town has plenty of good pubs and restaurants as well as such unusual businesses as a violin-maker.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

"one" customer services (0845 600 7245; www.onerailway.com). National Rail enquiries (0845 748 4950). Wherry Lines ( www.wherrylines.org.uk). Bittern Line ( www.bitternline.com).

GETTING AROUND

For exploring, Anglia Plus passes for one day (£10) or the 3-days-in-7 (£22) offer unlimited travel in the area bordered by Ipswich in the south and Cambridge in the west. Up to four accompanied children can travel for just £2 each on either pass. The passes can be used at weekends and Bank Holidays or after 8.45am Mondays to Fridays. They also cover free bus transfers between the station and the centre of Norwich, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Bury St Edmunds. Bikes can be carried (£1 supplement); reserve space to avoid disappointment (0845 600 7245). CoastLink (01728 833 526).

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at Beechwood Hotel, North Walsham (01692 403 231; www.beechwood-hotel.co.uk). Doubles from £90.

VISITING THERE

East of England Tourist Board (0870 225 4800; letsgoeastofengland.com).

Tide and Tide, Blackfriars Road, Great Yarmouth (01493 745 526; www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk). Norfolk Nelson Museum, 26 South Quay, Great Yarmouth (01493 850 698; www.nelson-museum.co.uk). Bure Valley Railway (01263 733 858; www.bvrw.co.uk). Norfolk Shire Horse Centre (01263 837 339; www.norfolk-shirehorse-centre.co.uk). North Norfolk Railway (01263 820 800; www.nnr.co.uk). Somerleyton Hall (0871 222 4244; www.somerleyton.co.uk). Sutton Hoo (01394 389 714; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

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