The “Birmingham Railway Mafia” has left its fingerprints all over the early history of the rail-preservation movement in Britain.
From the early 1950s such individuals as the writer Tom Rolt (1910-1974), the photographer Ivo Peters (1915-1989) and the businessman Patrick Whitehouse (1922-1993), among others, were involved in saving the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog railways in North Wales and establishing the Tyseley Railway Centre in Birmingham.
Patrick Whitehouse persuaded British Railways to sell him a former Great Western Railway locomotive for £750, and with a Talylynn colleague, Pat Garland, sought a suitable branch railway on which to run it.
They secured the Totnes-Ashburton branch line in Devon, which still had track in place, and opened what was then the Dart Valley Railway – now operating as the South Devon Railway – in 1969.
There was, however, a catch in the deal.
For two years, the rail service ran the full length of the line and locomotives were stabled at the Ashburton terminus.
In 1971, however, the Ministry of Transport exercised its right to take over the trackbed north of Buckfastleigh and use it to improve the A38 trunk road.
The heritage line was permanently cut back to Buckfastleigh station, yet the historically significant Ashburton station with its overall roof, dating back to 1872, still remains intact, fifty years after the last train left.
It’s now a garage and is well-maintained, but the surrounding land has commercial development potential that could destroy its historic significance.
The adjacent Grade-II listed goods warehouse has been converted to offices by the architects Van Ellyn & Sheryn [Ashburton Listed Conversion – van Ellen + Sheryn | RIBA Chartered Architect – Devon], but none of the other surviving railway structures are listed.
The Friends of Ashburton Station launched a detailed and ambitious scheme to convert the passenger station as a prelude to a long-term plan to reconnect with the operational railway at Buckfastleigh, but the latest news on its website is dated September 2015: Friends of Ashburton Station.
Their Facebook page shows encouraging signs of life. The latest post there is July 2020, in the midst of the pandemic: Friends of Ashburton Station – Posts | Facebook.
It’s hard to tell how the railway could co-exist with the further planned improvements to the A38, but restoring a significant historic structure in the middle of Ashburton would be a benefit, and the careful detail of the 2015 scheme inspires confidence that the project has been carefully thought-out.