The final part of the online guide to the Barnstaple & Ilfracombe Railway. This is the final section of the route again its taken up by the Tarka train and constitutes a public shared pathway through to Ilfracombe itself. Here’s another map to illustrate the route in question from Mortehoe to Ilfracombe. Its difficult to do the line justice however it must be said its route at near 600 feet above sea level gave the line’s passengers unique panoramas right across the Bristol channel unparalleled by any other railways in the area or even those in South Wales. The gradients along this section were extremely challenging too with Ilfracombe station immediately at the bottom of a stiff climb of 1 in 36 towards Mortehoe.
Mortehoe to Ilfracombe is a spectacular route for it offers great views of the sea en route where the land falls away to the north towards Lee, before entering the steeply sided valleys with the Ilfracombe (or Slade) reservoirs to one side of the railway. The whole area to the north west of the railway is indeed designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. There’s a short tunnel and then the railway is on a ledge high above the valley as it approaches the town with spectacular views across the sea.
Mortehoe to Ilfracombe
Map of the old line between Willingcott and Ilfracombe. Its part of the Tarka Trail these days.
There’s not really a lot of coverage of this particular section thus its quite difficult to cover it to any good extent. Some You Tube videos do feature it but sort of miss out on the spectacular scenery! There’s a bonus however – a picture I took of the line in 1980 when it was still clearly a railway alignment complete with ballast!
Aerial showing the route between Mortehoe (top left) and Ilfracombe. As will be seen from this much of the route is within the steeply sided wooded section that is the picturesque Slade valley with its reservoirs. Most of the station site at Ilfracombe is now an industrial estate.
1) Mortehoe and Shaftsborough Lane bridge
Mortehoe station itself was just over 51 miles from Exeter. The milepost denoting the fifty one miles stood right at the southern extremity of the station perimeter.
Not very much recognisable as a former transport stop these days but these much altered buildings are Mortehoe & Woollacombe station. Source: Google Streets
Just part of the old railway bridge parapets can still be seen at Mortehoe Station Road. The cutting beneath has been filled in and the Tarka Train crosses the road on the level. Source: Google Streets
National Cycle Network sign at Mortehoe Station Road bridge. Source: Twitter
Immediately upon leaving Mortehoe the former line gave quite unparalleled views over the coast and sea – and this from the top of a hill – a rarity in England! Source: Twitter
Shaftesborough Lane bridge from the trackbed. Source: Twitter
The same bridge from the roadway with the former line heading towards Slade and Ilfracombe. Source: Google Streets
The next bridge is at Campscott and in fact this is the last bridge over the line. Pictures of it are hard to come by however. The next substantial structure of any kind were the tunnels at Slade – at least these do feature on social media.
The rail workers hut at Campscott from a You Tube video (have lost the link to that video).
2) Slade reservoirs and tunnels
The up service to London passing the upper Slade reservoirs on 27 July 1963 in the care of both WR & SR engines, these are Mogul 6346 and 34079 141 Squadron respectively. Source: Twitter
Vista of the reservoir and the former railway at the same location as the 1963 aerial. I created this specially from a You Tube video (link lost) by merging two different views.
Just before the twin Slade tunnels the Ilfracombe distant signal is still extant as an evocative reminder of the former railway. When I walked the line in the 1980s the signal was there too with the trackbed still quite clear at this point.
This is a photograph I took of the old Ilfracombe railway in 1980 whilst walking along the line. Its taken from one of my slides – but havent found a way to pull good quality images off my slides – the scanner I use isnt very good…
Looking from the north end of Slade tunnel with the second railway worker’s hut which can be seen on this section. Source: Visit Ilfracombe
The north end of the tunnels as evidenced from this 1980 picture I took which is on one of my slides. The trackbed was still as it had been left after the lines had been ripped up some five years earlier.
The twin Slade tunnels, one of which is now blocked off. Source: Tarka Trail
Spectacular views as the former railway line approaches Ilfracombe. Source: Twitter
How the scenery looked by rail during the 1930s! Source: Twitter
National Cycle Network sign near the site of Ilfracombe station. Green is a homage to the Southern Railway! Source: Twitter
There is an information board on the railway but its vandalised and very dirty here’s an image of it as when it was new. Source: Combe Rail
The same information board as it is today. Dirty and unkempt after years out in the open. Source: Twitter
Ilfracombe railway station was fifty four and half miles from Exeter as evidenced by the milepost which stood by the location where the tracks began to fan out for the station and goods yard.
Even though Ilfracombe station site is now a distribution depot, its said some of the rail infrastructure still exists within the industrial park including steps, handrails, lamp posts and cabling posts.
A little further down Station Road was a pedestrian only entrance, which ascended to the station by way of a flight of steps. The steps are still there in the undergrowth, however as this view shows, the concrete posts forming the entrance to this and a Southern railway concrete lamppost can still be seen. Source: Google Streets
A final look at Ilfracombe station as it was in the sixties before the line was rationalised. Source: Twitter
The derelict station site in about 1972. Source: Flickr
How it sadly all looked in the end – just waiting for the demolition men… Source: Twitter
Artists’ impression of how the former steps leading to the station off Station Road could look complete with an information board. Source: Combe Rail
1960 Runabout ticket which permitted travel across Devon including Barnstaple to Ilfracombe. Source: Twitter
A picture at Railscot shows the demolition of Ilfracombe station in September 1976. These show the main station buildings already half demolished and the canopy no longer extant & the station nameboard thrown on the ground.
Did the Class 52 ‘Westerns’ ever reach Ilfracombe? Despite the axle loading and restrictions on the Barnstaple line beyond Yeoford Junction (the Plymouth line was passed for 52s however and the class could be seen on Meldon Quarry ballast trains) it seems at least one Class 52, D1012 Western Firebrand, is recorded as having reached Ilfracombe in lieu of a failed Warship – surprising but perhaps someone knew the 52s could just about reach Ilfracombe with care… There’s a picture of D1012 on the return trip at Braunton in 1968 which can be seen in one of Combe Rail’s newsletters.
I found a couple of items on Twitter related to the early attempts to revive the Ilfracombe Line. As mentioned in the first of posts on this feature, the North Devon Railway Preservation Society tried to prevent the lifting of the track on the line however British Rail would only stop its work provided a sum of £20,000 was paid the next day!
The North Devon Railway Preservation Society. Their plans floundered as we saw in the first part of this feature. It was due to British Railway’s insistence £20,000 be paid by 9am the next day if the society wanted to stop British Railways’ contractors ripping up the tracks. Source: Twitter
The North Devon Railway’s headquarters in Barnstaple during the 1970s. Source: Twitter
Combe Rail is currently active in its objectives to preserve and even reopen parts of the line. Plans have been put forward for a section between Barnstaple and Braunton as a fully fledged light rail system with nine main stops. Its been featured in the press (see Devon Live) and is supported by local politicians. A bid was made to the Government’s reopen a railway scheme for a grant. There is a website dedicated to the project: Taw-Link
How the Taw-Link light rail could look, serving communities along the Taw between Barnstaple railway station and Braunton. Source: Facebook
An interesting aerial picture of Barnstaple taken after the closure of the Ilfracombe line and landscaping of the former railway alignment beyond Barnstaple Junction is evident. The Taw viaduct still stands however awaiting demolition. Twitter
A scene seen no more. 34107 ‘Wadebridge’ on the Taw Viaduct sometime in the early sixties. Picture from Railway Reflections magazine 1983 – cleaned up and colour corrected by me.
R.I.P. Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Railway 1874 – 1970.