Hyde Park Now-The Barnstaple & Ilfracombe railway #1

The Barnstaple & Ilfracombe railway #1

Trains do indeed still cross the River Taw in many places, eleven times this happens in fact. However a twelfth crossing was the biggest of all – and the one trains just do not use anymore. Yes you guessed – its the Ilfracombe line’s stupendous cast iron viaduct at Barnstaple. That was a rarity in terms of construction as well as a unique example of a curved steel built structure as far as the UK’s railways are concerned. This week is in fact the 50th anniversary of the line’s closure. The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway opened on 20 July 1874 and shut for good on 5th October 1970, the last train having in fact run two days earlier on the 3rd October. This was an eight car DMU forming the 19.55pm from Ilfracombe to Exeter carrying around 500 passengers.

The Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Railway was a quite spectacular route and despite being a fairly short line, six of its 15 miles entailed a climb of 600 feet. It had some of the steepest grades for a mainline in the country, with a 1 in 36 standing start from Ilfracombe station itself! Talking of spectacular, the line too linked to another impressive route which was the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple Railway.

The Ilfracombe railway was originally built as a single track line and was indeed classed as a light railway with a speed restriction of 25 miles per hour. The line’s classification as a light railway was removed in 1887 and work soon began to double the track. The first section of this to open was from Braunton to Mortehoe on 1st July 1889. That from Pottington to Braunton opened for service on 4th August 1890. The most difficult section of double track, from Mortehoe to Ilfracombe, opened last this being on 1st July 1891. Speeds on the line were raised where it was possible and some fast running could be gained between Barnstaple and Wrafton and also in the up direction from Mortehoe to Braunton.

Prior to there being double track on the line, the section from Barnstaple Junction to a point beyond Barnstaple Town remained single due to the Taw river crossing. Barnstaple Quay indeed had ‘double track’ in the early days but technically this section constituted a passing loop with single track at either end. When the line from the other side of Pottington bridge to Ilfracombe was doubled and Barnstaple Town station built the former loop track became a mere siding. In fact this film from 1898 from Barnstaple Junction to Pottington shows how the former layout had worked. At the time of the film the double track north from Pottington had been completed – what the track gangers were doing in the film was preparing the removal of the loop line itself and making it merely a siding. Here’s a PDF document from TrainWeb which tries to explain some of the stuff seen in this 1898 film. A considerably detailed explanation of the signalling arrangements at Barnstaple Town can be seen at TrainWeb.

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Celebrations in High Street Ilfracombe for the railway’s opening 20 July 1874. A pair of Triumphal Arches were built for the occasion, the one seen here and the other near Ilfracombe station.

The line soon became part of the London and South Western Railway – and of course the Southern Railway itself. It was part of the latter railway’s ‘Withered Arm,’ a term used to describe the lost railway lines to the west of Exeter, namely those beyond Meldon or Barnstaple and including Bideford, Bude, Padstow and the Plymouth line via Tavistock. In the heyday of these Devon lines celebrated express trains such as the Atlantic Coast Express and Devon Belle ran and the services from Waterloo to Ilfracombe were no exception.

From 1963 the line was transferred from the Southern to the Western Region – and although its future seemed fairly safe at the time and these highly esteemed expresses continued to run, the the line’s services were soon cut back, the goods yards at each station was closed. The track was then singled which meant any possibility of the flexibility of services had been lost. The rather pretty obvious outcome of all this – as has always been in these sad situations – eventually arrived and the line was closed altogether.

It does appear that one main reason the Devon lines were transferred away from the Southern to the Western Region was because it would be cheaper. It wasnt just because the Western already ran via Dawlish but rather that the Battle of Britain/West Country classes would not have to be used. Cheaper and easier to maintain diesel hydraulic locomotives would be the main driving factor (the fact these diesels were non standard and quite soon scrapped is something else altogether though…) What it meant was there was also no call for banking engines on the steeper parts of the Devon lines which meant fewer staff were in fact needed to run these services.

On the whole it did seem quite fortuitous because Ilfracombe continued to enjoy a good selection of express trains on weekdays. Ironically in the final year of full train services – this being 1967 – there were expresses from Paddington at 10.30, 12.30 and 14.30 on weekdays and arriving at Ilfracombe at 15.18, 17.56 and 19.37. By that time however British Railways’ and the Government’s minds had been made up. The line simply didn’t pay its way therefore it must be closed. It was said the line earned only £13,300 revenue, whilst operating costs totalled £93,300. Observers however criticised the accounting used to arrive at these figures as the loss was clearly hyper-inflated compared to previous years.

Of course the first steps in any line closure would be to instil an air of dereliction and neglect in the hope passengers would soon find other ways of travelling – and give more urgency to the idea of shutting down a railway. In fact a whole two years after first publicising its intent to get rid of the Ilfracombe line the Government finally had its day. On 31st December 1969 the Minister of Transport, Fred Mulley announced the Barnstaple to Ilfracombe line would close. Ironically it was a Labour government that had both entertained the idea of closure and then sounded the death knell – and even more ironically the Minister of Transport who made the closure announcement had himself opted not to use a car!

Hyde Park Now-The Barnstaple & Ilfracombe railway #1

This rather crude rendering which was in fact British Railway’s map of the future (published 1967) shows how those lines in the south west would look after considerable rationalisation. Ilfracombe disappeared as did others and this was two years before closure was announced. Source: Railway Archive

Almost exactly ten years after the line had closed, in fact this is forty years ago now, the chance arose of a free week’s holiday in Ilfracombe and I jumped at it. Some people I knew couldn’t make their booking and they offered it to me. It was very short notice but I had never been to Ilfracombe – but it would be an opportunity to explore the railways and the visitor attractions in the area – not forgetting Lynton’s famous cliff railway. Getting to Ilfracombe or exploring North Devon wasn’t a problem as that was during the eight years I owned a car.

The big surprise for me was just how much of the Ilfracombe line’s stations still remained ten years after its last trains. Yes Ilfracombe’s station had been demolished five years earlier but the others, Barnstaple Town, Wrafton, Braunton, Mortehoe, remained and there were complete level crossings with rails still embedded in the roadways. There were complete signals that still remained en route – all of this as if things were somehow waiting for the next train to arrive! But that was generally the case in those days – one could find complete stations about the country that no longer had trains. The Ilfracombe line however seemed stuck in a time warp because the trackbed was so complete as were the stations and that made the whole experience more sobering.

Not only that the pair of single bore tunnels at Slade and the entire formation down into Ilfracombe was already walkable – it had become a sort of unofficial public footpath giving excellent views of the adjacent reservoirs and towards the coast with South Wales visible on a clear day.

There’s lots of pictures of the derelict stations on the internet of either Wrafton or Braunton which means no doubt many will remember these railway stations as they existed for quite a few years without any train services of any sort – its even more sobering when Braunton’s happened to be right in the centre of town! The level crossing gates remained although by the time of my visit the gates had been smashed up and were half missing and anyone could wander the trackbed between the platforms. At both Braunton and Wrafton the platforms, lamp posts, seating, the signal boxes, the lamp posts, signal posts, the actual signals, the cranks and rodding, you name it, everything was there! It was quite weird really.

Following that holiday I acquired a certain fondness for the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe route (because it too was a Southern route) and have looked out for books or magazine articles about it. In memoriam of the line’s closure – which no doubt angered a lot of people because it was a waste of a good railway – here’s a gallery of images compiled from various sources as a tribute to the line on the 50th anniversary of its closure.

Gallery of the line from Ilfracombe to Barnstaple

  1. Ilfracombe to Mortehoe.
  2. Mortehoe to Barnstaple.

The station site at Ilfracombe as I found it in 1980 had largely been cleared however a couple of outbuildings and other things such as steps, fencing, lamps remained. The area was used for coarse storage – unlike the specialist depot that can be found on site these days. The station itself stood high above the town itself with the shortest route for pedestrians being via a flight of steps and it is thought that this contributed to the line’s decline, much like a number of other similar locations such as Ventnor and Lynmouth – although I suspect there was a secret desire of sorts in this country that existed to ensure these spectacularly engineered sections of line with their impressive routes were viewed as an anachronism and that railways should by and far be as low down in elevation and as level as possible. There is of course a certain truth to this because there was additional costs in maintaining these considerably more spectacular lines and the less people that used these the more chance these lines could be got shot of.

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The penultimate Bulleid locomotive – 34109 Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory – departs Ilfracombe with the Atlantic Coast Express in August 1959. Just eleven years later the line would shut. Source: Flickr

There’s loads of lines in the UK that could well have had it made on the back of tourism alone (some did get special publicity – such as the Borders, Ruabon-Llangollen-Ffestiniog-Llandudno, and the Scarborough-Whitby lines) but both the time period itself plus the vested interests in both the pro-roads Government and in British Railways itself simply were not conductive to any sort of progress and the operative view was clearly that anachronisms should make way for the car.

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Salad days at Ilfracombe station August 1965. From 1967 the layout would be rationalised and the line singled. Source: Pinterest

One did not see in the sixties a concertinaed effort to encourage more people to these particular lines. Rather it seems quite preferrential that an air of some dereliction would in fact turn potential passengers away. The authorities could turn round and say ‘well look, nobody uses this railway, it needs to close.’ That mentality explains in large why these islands off the coast of mainland Europe have lost nearly all of those spectacular lines. I mean not anywhere in the UK whether its England, Scotland, or Wales, or even over in Ireland will one find a single railway still in existence like Ilfracombe’s or others that have gone to the wall.

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Ilfracombe’s station and railway approach in their spectacular location. There was a stiff 1 in 36 climb immediately from the station. The Welsh coast can be seen. Source: Visit Ilfracombe

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Panoramic view of Ilfracombe station. This is a colourised image of a b&w picture from one of my Southern books.

The process of eliminating railways, or at least converting them to a ‘bus-stop service’ was well recognised in those days. Railway Modeller for October 1964 indeed has a step by step guide on how a railway could possibly be retained (and ultimately presented in model form) provided the layout was ‘rationalised and operated on a shoestring budget.’ A DMU was of course necessary for this type of line. Where possible buffer stops that once ran right to the end of the platform should now be placed half way along the said platform, thus saving the expense of having to maintain what transpires to be largely a useless length of considerable platform and track! The ticket offices would be closed and the train guard instead given a ticket rack in order that passengers could pay on the train. Of course the station windows should too be boarded up. One of the major redeeming features of such lines as Railway Modeller noted, was the all too important ‘derelict air‘ the unfortunate passengers had to face!

Hyde Park Now-The Barnstaple & Ilfracombe railway #1

34072 on the turntable at Ilfracombe in July 1963. Note how the turntable is cut into the rockface.

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The Devon Belle’s observation coach being turned ready for the return journey to London. Prob late forties or early fifties.

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Poster for the Devon Belle 1953. It left Waterloo at 12 noon and arrived in Ilfracombe at 17.32pm. Source: Twitter

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Ilfracombe in August 1967 – the line’s final summer of double track operation. Source: Flickr

Of course, with the policy of slash and burn in those days as it was, the really strange thing about it all is, being a product of the late sixties desire for public transport cuts, Ilfracombe wasn’t even a result of Dr. Beeching! It was the very mentality that had existed before Beeching and the very same mentality that had existed after Beeching which indeed was something quite unique to the British Isles when it came to its railways. Beeching was simply an intensive period in the application of this unique British illness and that contrived thinking means we in the UK, once the world’s leaders in railways are now paying the price – especially when one considers global warming, its destructive effects, and the pressing need for alternative forms of transport.

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Looking quite miserable… that exact ‘derelict air’ a station had prior to its services being terminated for good. This is Ilfracombe station on a Saturday in its final years as a ‘Warship’ waits at the head of a train for either Exeter or Paddington. Source: Twitter. (Tweet no longer available.)

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Ilfracombe on 11th May 1970. A loop was retained for locomotives on excursions or through trains from London and used mostly on Saturdays in the final years of the line. Source: Flickr

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The final locomotive hauled excursion to Ilfracombe on 30 August 1970. D6588 and D6566 headed the special train. It is said this was the first and last ever visit for the Class 33 to Ilfracombe. Source: Facebook

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Fifty years ago on Saturday 26th September 1970 the final locomotive hauled service left Ilfracombe. This was the 13.55 to Paddington with D810 Cockade in charge. It was the following Friday after this that the line closed. Note the spectacular vista upon leaving the station. Source: Facebook

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The final train at Ilfracombe on 3rd October 1970 – it would form the 19.55 to Exeter. Source: Facebook

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Derelict Ilfracombe station two years after the last train. Source: esngblog

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Ilfracombe station just before it was demolished. October 1975. Source: Flickr

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No. 30402 ‘Salisbury’ entering Slade tunnel in May 1963. Source: John D’s Chasewater Blog

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34057 just above Slade tunnels on an up train managing the stiff 1 in 36 climb without a banker. July 1955.

Its said Bulleid designed the light Pacifics in order that trains could manage the severe Devon and Cornwall gradients better, and indeed one line in particular was that to Ilfracombe. The severe banks on the line was pause for Bulleid to consider a pacific locomotive powerful enough yet light enough for the West Country branches (plus the Dartmoor main line) in deference to the much heavier Merchant Navy class which couldn’t use these lines anyway. In a bizarre turn of events the rebuilt pacifics were originally banned from the Plymouth via Tavistock route but eventually they were permitted. As for Ilfracombe, Bude, Padstow, it would always be an unrebuilt Battle of Britain or West Country class locomotive because of the restrictions on weight and the severe curves encountered along these routes.

Continued in Part Two – Mortehoe to Barnstaple.