tawviaduct - Trains no more across the River Taw #2

The second part of the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe railway feature! In the first we looked at the line’s background and the line’s services in its final years. This second instalment features online guide to what remains of the line today. Much of it is in fact walkable (or can be used by cyclists) in fact the section from Barnstaple to Georgeham gates is a public right of way (and forms part of the Tarka Trail) whilst that from Wllingcott to Ilfracombe is also a public right of way. Unfortunately the section of line (which constituted one of England’s more arduous railways with a six hundred foot climb in just six miles) between St. Brannock’s and Willingcott is not publicly accessible in large and parts of it has been obliterated or built over.

Next is a gallery of pictures showing what remains of the Ilfracombe Line today…. its by no means a complete and comprehensive detail of the line as it is now. I’m sure someone else could do a better job but hey, I’ll try my best! I’ve used Google Streets, Instagram and Twitter to illustrate the pictures. The sections covered are:

A) Barnstaple to Ashford.
B) Chivenor to Braunton.
C) Georgeham to Willingcott.
D) Mortehoe to Ilfracombe.

Barnstaple Junction to Ashford

We start off with a map. I devised three of these to cover the former railway route and utilised the media from Open Street Map for the purpose. The maps cover the sections as follows: a) Barnstaple to Braunton, b) Braunton to Willingcott and c) Willingcott to Ilfracombe. Dont ask me why I created three maps yet done four parts to the features – the maps don’t even sync with the different parts yep its confusing!

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The railway’s route (and in part the Tarka trail) from Barnstaple Junction to Wrafton and Braunton. Ashford limekiln bridge is about halfway along the route. This section is no doubt the better known part of the railway’s former alignment as it also constitutes an important public and busy shared path – part of the Tarka Trail – between the two towns. There’s a number of signals still standing plus gradient posts as well as overbridges and rails set into the roadways where there were crossings. This was a relatively easy graded route mostly alongside the Taw river estuary before passing the military base at Chivenor and featuring one intermediate station at Wrafton.

1) Barnstaple Junction to the river Taw

Barnstaple Junction station (39 and half miles from Exeter) no longer exists. Its simply known as Barnstaple and no longer a junction. This is one of those medium sized town stations that once had several platforms and a substantial layout – and one that now sports a single platform and the other whatsits which are obligatory in making sure its as barebones as can be. Fortunately there are still facilities including a ticket office, waiting room and cafe but it doesn’t make up for the huge rationalisations that have been implemented – and the fact it is essentially a bus stop style terminus.

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The main entrance to the station. Source: Twitter

Nevertheless there are some efforts by individuals or dedicated rail staff to show some of the station’s former glory. The other platform can be reached by the public in order to admire its gardens and there is seating upon which one can these days wonder how the station ever morphed from a major junction into the motley terminus it is today. The station has won awards for best station so clearly there is a desire to keep a sense of character at the station in spite of its adversity. Its really not the same though when one sees the pictures of it as it was in its heyday.

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The station as it is today with the gardens and public seating area on the island platform. Formerly the tracks headed straight on for Bideford and right for Ilfracombe. Source: Twitter

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A lovely view of Barnstaple station with a Pacer. Don’t we just love these! They’ve all gone from the rail system now much to the relief of many! A comparable view can be seen from Google Streets featuring a Pacer too if that is something one really wants! If one turns that Google scene round they’ll be looking across the station car park which is where the picture of that comes in. Source: Twitter

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The Barnstaple Town and Ilfracombe line split off immediately at the western end of the up platform (this being the current platform) although it too was served by track leading straight off platforms two and three. The track passed through the adjacent road bridge, now no longer extant – and the location is now the site of the car park adjacent to the station as the next view shows. The picture was taken in the days when the line to Meeth was still in use for freight. Source: Twitter

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Looking the other way from the station perimeter. The whole area here that is now a car park was once the ‘Y’ shaped junction (plus a small secondary goods yard to the right) for the lines to both Torrington and Ilfracombe. The Torrington route headed for the modern bridge visible straight ahead whilst Ilfracome’s headed towards the houses on the right. The cottage with white wall and chimneys can be better viewed in the picture below. Source: Google Streets

It might seem to the casual observer hereabouts there is absolutely no trace of the Ilfracombe line anymore but the line did in fact pass behind the terrace of houses on Sticklepath – and if one looks at Google aerial it can be seen the houses form an arc which formed a boundary alongside the railway itself. Here’s a picture of the alignment after the former railway had been turned into a small park.

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Before the new road layout and bridges were built the former Ilfracombe trackbed could be seen making its way behind the Sticklepath cottages. This view is from the old railway bridge circa late 1980s or early 1990s when the line to Meeth was still in use. Source: Twitter

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At the rear of the Sticklepath cottages the new road is actually on the former railway alignment looking in the other direction to the previous picture. Source: Google Streets

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View looking the other way towards the Taw River crossing. Source: Google Streets

Note the clip shown below from this 1970 film of somewhat poor quality showing a train in the line’s final days passing the houses visible in the modern scene above! Also the terracotta brick warehouse seen on the left is just visible at left in the clip too.

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The white cottage on the right is clearly evident here as are the other houses behind. Source: You Tube

The main road A3125 lies on part of the route, however what comes next is how the road layout quite innocently appears to pay homage to the former railway. If one looks at the bus stop and how the pavement and road markings are set out, these practically follow the alignment of the railway as it approached the Taw viaduct.

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The aforementioned warehouse is promient here. This point was where the line switched direction in order to approach the crossing over the river. Very fortunately North Devon Council have unintentionally painted the white road markings in such a way they denote the actual alignment of the railway itself! Source: Google Streets

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The railway line ran immediately adjacent to the main road as it approached the river. There was once a foot crossing at this point that gave access to the area seen in the background and its interesting the location is sort of commemorated by this modern footpath and crossing! Source: Google Streets

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Aerial I created from Google Earth showing the railway’s exact alignment between Barnstaple Junction and the river. The perspective makes the route look a little squashed compared to how it looks as a near perfect ‘S’ on the Ordnance Survey maps. The purpose however is to show where the line stood in relation to the modern road layout.

Of the river crossing itself there is barely anything to signify its former existence. On the north side of the river a widened section of quayside still denotes the northern end of the viaduct. This soon passes the original Barnstaple Quay station which was later replaced by Town station.

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The site of the Taw bridge/viaduct. Part of the southern brick retaining wall can still be seen just behind the roadway. The other end of the viaduct can just be seen where the northern quayside widens out a bit. This is a composite of two images from Google Streets

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A couple of years ago North Devon Council put forward proposals for a new footbridge over the river. The various options are touted on this plan. Call me biased but I’d certainly go for Option C! Source: Twitter

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No surprise why I’d choose that of of the five options! This is the original Option C! Source: Barnstaple History

2) Barnstaple Town to Pottington

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On the other side of the Taw and the bit where the quay widens out was in fact where the northern end of the Taw viaduct joined the land. Source: Google Streets

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Tucked away down at the side of Castle Quay is the former signal box for Barnstaple Town station. A rather incongruous location! Source: Google Streets

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A view of Barnstaple Town’s signal box as it looks today. Source: Twitter

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On the road behind the signal box (its roof can just be seen at left) is the station’s main frontage – the building nowadays is a school. Similar view at Google Streets. Source: Twitter

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At least they do show it was once a railway station and Southern malachite green signs are used throughout the building. Source: Google Streets

Barnstaple Town was exactly forty miles from Exeter.

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The station’s canopies have been partially retained and incorporated into the school itself. Source: Twitter

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Although the platform still exists in part the site of the railway tracks is now a lawn and rest area for those walking along the quay/the Tarka Trail. Source: Google Streets

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How it all looked then – Barnstaple Town station with a narrow gauge Lynton train waiting for a main line connection! Source: Twitter

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Looking in the opposite direction along the quay with the large car park that forms an adjunct to the Civic Centre (aka North Devon Council headquarters building.) Source: Google Streets

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Pottington Bridge over the River Yeo. The railway swing bridge is now replaced by this modern affair. Along the Yeo to the left was a branch line to Rolle Quay and opposite that was Pilton Yard, the centre of operations on the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple line. Source: Google Streets

The modern Taw road bridge (constituting part of the Barnstaple Western By-Pass) is quite prominent along this stretch. It wasn’t there of course when the railway was operational! Ironically it was opened almost exactly thirty years after the railway’s own viaduct was demolished.

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Great aerial view of Barnstaple showing the former Ilfracombe line’s alignment alongside the river. Barnstaple (Junction) station can just be seen in the distance at top centre. Source: Twitter

3) Pottington to Ashford

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Its straight ahead for Ilfracombe or right for Torrington (via the new Taw road bridge!) The lengthy concrete wall that forms the boundary between the former railway and the river is strongly evident in this view. The same location on Google Streets showing a wider view of the shared paths’ junction. Source: Twitter

From Pottington the former railway alignment has a concrete wall alongside for most of its length as far as Ashford. Its a substantial wall which I assume was to protect the railway form the ravages of the river estuary. Its without a doubt the most enduring piece of the entire Ilfracombe line, and there are also some rail related items to be found, such as a number of gradient posts and a couple of overbridges.

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Gradient post 1456 – 868 just past Pottington – looking back towards Barnstaple. Source: Google Streets

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Better view of the gradient post at Pottington. Source: Twitter

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Nice view of the old railway alignment at Ashford on a summer’s day, looking in the direction of Barnstaple. Here’s the location on Google Streets. Source: Twitter

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Level – 474 gradient post. Source Google Streets

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Ashford Limekiln bridge with small arch at left by river bank. Source: Google Streets

There was once a limekiln here which explains the rather curious arrangement seen in the picture and explains why the bridge appears to have two different arches. The end bit is the limekiln itself and an early contemporary view of the site before the railway was built can be seen at The Pilton Story. Here’s a closer view of the limekiln bridge on Google Streets. There too was a weir nearby, one of several dotted around the area. These weren’t weirs in the normal sense but fish traps in fact stretched across a good part of the river. The area had become very overgrown and personnel from Chivenor recently held an effort to clear up the site and provide new access paths, see North Devon Gazette.

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Beautiful sunset as viewed from the old railway alignment near West Ashford. Source: Twitter

This continues in the section covering Chivenor to Braunton

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