Category Archives: Railways of Devon

Ashburton: railway station

Former Ashburton railway station, Devon (2017)

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 detail of the 2015 scheme inspires confidence that the project has been carefully thought-out.

Steaming to Dartmouth

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway:  British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway: British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

The Dartmouth Steam Railway is part of an exceptional heritage-railway enterprise which operates as a full commercial operation, with a small amount of volunteer help at one of the five stations.

The original railway, the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, opened between Paignton and Churston in 1861 and to Kingswear in 1864.  The Kingswear terminus connected by ferry with Dartmouth, where there remains a railway station that has never seen a train, like the former station at Hull (Corporation Pier).  An independent branch line three miles long, the Torbay & Brixham Railway, opened from Churston into Brixham in 1868.  The two railways were absorbed into the Great Western Railway in 1876 and 1883 respectively.

Both branches carried heavy passenger traffic until the 1960s, when the Brixham branch closed in 1963 and most through trains to Kingswear were cut back in 1966.

Complete closure was avoided when the Dart Valley Railway Co Ltd, which had been set up to run what is now the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh, agreed to purchase the Paignton-Kingswear line directly from British Rail.  The last BR train ran on December 30th 1972 and the first service by the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, as it was then called, began on January 1st 1973.

The £250,000 cost of the purchase was balanced by the sale of surplus land, including a hotel in Kingswear, and astute management has kept pace with demand from holidaymakers as well as rail enthusiasts ever since.

While the Dartmouth Steam Railway has developed as a commercial enterprise, the former Dart Valley Railway, now the South Devon Railway, has remained a volunteer operation, successful enough to purchase the freehold of its trackbed and premises from the Dartmouth Steam Railway PLC in 2010.

There’s more to the Paignton-Kingswear railway than trains.  As the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company it runs a fleet of river boats between Kingswear and Dartmouth, and between Dartmouth and Totnes, and its vintage bus service no 100 connects Totnes Quay with the rebuilt GWR-style railway station at Paignton (Queens Park) so that, tide permitting, it’s possible to make a full circuit within the day.

The railway also opened Greenway Halt in 2012, providing direct access to the Agatha Christie estate, Greenway, a National Trust property.

The combination of glorious seaside, heritage transport and the beauty of the River Dart and its estuary make the Kingswear peninsula a magnet for visitors.

All this is accessible by means of the Round Robin ticket [], as well as a variety of other options to suit individual visitors’ inclinations.

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The branch line that Beeching opened

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Dr Richard Beeching could open the heritage railway then called the Dart Valley Railway with a clear conscience, because it was not one of the railways that his now notorious Report had closed.

The branch line from Totnes to Ashburton, opened in 1872, had never made a worthwhile profit.  The company that built it, the Buckfastleigh, Totnes & South Devon Railway, eventually sold out to the operator, by then the Great Western Railway, at a huge loss in 1897, and by the 1930s the three stations were between them selling less than twenty tickets a day.

The last passenger train ran on November 3rd 1958 and freight continued until September 1962.  Although Dr Beeching had been appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961, the first of his two reports, The Reshaping of British Railways, came out in 1963.  Dr Beeching returned to his substantive post at ICI in 1965.

The branch line reopened as the Dart Valley Railway in April 1969.  Because service trains had always used the main-line platform at Totnes station, rather than a bay platform, access to heritage trains at Totnes remained a problem for years, until the specially constructed riverside station short of the main-line junction, Totnes (Littlehempston), was linked by a pedestrian footbridge in 1993.

Since 1991 this charming little line has been operated by the South Devon Railway Trust.  It carries far more passengers – around 100,000 a year – than it ever did as a commercial railway.

In the early days, until 1971, the Dart Valley Railway trains operated all the way to Ashburton, but an upgrade of the A38 trunk road blocked the trackbed and the terminus ever since has been Buckfastleigh.

That might seem to be the end of the matter, but Ashburton station remains intact, and the Friends of Ashburton Station [] have put forward a business case for retaining the station’s environs and restoring the rail connection with Buckfastleigh.  Their report itemises nine such unlikely reinstatements, ranging from the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways to the linking of the two Great Central Railway lines at Loughborough:

The South Devon Railway Trust has committed to supporting this venture, though the process of enlisting local community support is delicate: (see January 16th 2017 post).

The chairman of the Trust, Allan Taylor, provided a statement of his board’s position under the heading ‘Background information’ at

In the meantime, on high days and holidays, there is a rail replacement bus service between Buckfastleigh and Ashburton:

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

If ever there’s a need to restore the old L&SWR main line between Exeter and Plymouth, perhaps because the present route past Dawlish becomes unsustainable, there will be a problem at the Meldon Viaduct, three miles west of Okehampton.

It’s a spectacular piece of engineering, 120 feet high, crossing the West Okement River on a curve.  The initial single-line crossing, which opened in 1874, was duplicated by an identical structure, spliced to the original, in 1878.

Designed by the company engineer W R Galbraith, it has five wrought-iron piers which support cast-iron Warren truss spans, and as such is a unique survivor and a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Even more spectacular examples of this type of construction have vanished – the Crumlin Viaduct (200ft high, built 1857, demolished 1965) in south Wales and the Belah Viaduct in Cumbria (196ft high, built 1861, demolished 1963).

The nearest equivalent is the much longer but lower Grade II*-listed Bennerley Viaduct on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, which has lattice-work spans rather than Warren trusses.

The trackbed across Meldon Viaduct, having been used as a roadway for lorries serving the construction of the Meldon Dam in 1970-2, is now part of the Granite Way, which links Okehampton with Lydford.

This presents a difficulty if there’s ever a need to restore the railway because apart from being a Scheduled Ancient Monument the viaduct is no longer strong enough to support the weight of trains.

The easiest way to visit Meldon Viaduct and to clamber down steps to see it from below is by riding the volunteer-operated Dartmoor Railway from Okehampton station to Meldon Quarry station.

A single dining car from an electric multiple unit serves as a café with a spectacular view of the viaduct as the walkers and cyclists cross to and fro.

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Railways round Dartmoor

Okehampton railway station, Devon

Okehampton railway station, Devon

The premier rail route to the South West has always been the Great Western main line, the first to open and the best-known.

It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who visualised his line from London to Bristol should be extended to New York by means of steamships, the first of which was Great Western (1838), followed by the celebrated Great Britain (1845).

Beyond Bristol, a series of railway companies, either sponsored or taken over by the Great Western Railway, extended the line through Devon and Cornwall via Exeter (1844) and Plymouth (1849) to Penzance (1852).

Brunel chose to direct this route across difficult, spectacular country along the south coast:  that was the reason for his failed atmospheric experiment, his magnificent Royal Albert Bridge (1859) and his long-vanished timber viaducts.

The early rail route from London to Southampton grew into the London & South Western Railway, which reached Exeter in 1860 via a southerly route through Andover, Salisbury and Yeovil.

The only way the L&SWR could penetrate into Devon and Cornwall was by taking the opposite route to the GWR, round the northern fringes of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock, reaching Plymouth in 1876.

This line was severed in 1968, and regular services from Plymouth now run only to Bere Alston (for Gunnislake) and, from November 20th 2021, from Exeter to Okehampton, via Coleford Junction, where the Tarka Line branches off to Barnstaple..

Okehampton Station has been maintained by the Dartmoor Railway, a volunteer-led group.  Track remains along the former L&SWR main line to a quarry three miles beyond Okehampton which closed in 2011, the Dartmoor Railway continued to run trains as Meldon Viaduct until 2019.  A new organisation, the Dartmoor Railway Association (DRA) was formed in May 2021 to preserve the railway heritage of the line. 

Increasing concern about the sustainability of the Great Western main line through Dawlish, particularly after a washout in 2014 which halted services completely for three months, has led to suggestions that the L&SWR line through Okehampton should be reinstated to Plymouth as an alternative route.

The plan to reinstate the line from Bere Alston to a new station at Tavistock West is at least a step in implementing this proposal.

Network Rail’s consideration of the options to safeguard the rail route into Devon and Cornwall can be found at

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Not one of Brunel’s best ideas

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

To modern eyes the atmospheric railway, with its leather flaps and rats in the pipes, seems a Heath Robinson contraption, but when it was devised by a gas engineer, SamueI Clegg, and the brothers Jacob and Joseph Samuda and patented in 1839 it attracted the serious attention of the brightest brains in the engineering profession.

The idea was to evacuate the air from a tube between the rails, so that the vacuum in front of a piston underneath the train would cause air behind the vehicles to propel them forward at speed, without the weight of a heavy locomotive and the fuel it had to carry.  The slot that admitted the piston was sealed by leather flaps that maintained the vacuum before and after the train passed.

This worked quite well on a 1¾-mile extension of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in Ireland.  This former horse tramway had an average gradient of 1 in 110, and opened in 1843.

Trains carrying up to two hundred passengers weighing 38 gross tons were propelled by the vacuum in a tube between the running rails at speeds of up to 40mph.

On one occasion the piston carriage set off without its train, and covered the entire line in 75 seconds at an average speed of 84mph.

The London & Croydon Railway ran trains using the atmospheric system between Dartmouth Arms (now Forest Hill) and Croydon from January 1846.

The interior of the pipe was sealed by a mixture of tallow fat and beeswax which melted in hot weather and attracted rats, whose corpses were regularly evacuated each morning.

In frosty weather the leather flaps froze stiff and broke away and snow, instead of rats, got into the tube.

The system was so unreliable that it soon gave way to steam locomotives and the tube was dismantled after May 1847.

Brunel was attracted to the apparent advantages of the atmospheric principle so that he could take the South Devon Railway around the south coast from Exeter to Newton Abbot, where the gradients and tight curves were challenging to contemporary locomotives.

He was unconcerned when questioned about the wisdom of adapting the workings of a 1¾-mile branch line to a fifty-mile main line.

Daniel Gooch, the young locomotive engineer of the Great Western Railway, remarked, “I could not understand how Mr Brunel could be so misled.  He had so much faith in his being able to improve it that he shut his eyes to the consequences of failure.”

The first atmospheric passenger trains between Exeter and Teignmouth ran on September 13th 1847 and to Newton Abbot on January 10th 1848.  The entire service was operated by atmospheric propulsion from February 23rd 1848.

The new system was much admired for the lack of noise, smuts and smoke, and in the first few months barely 1% of atmospheric trains were more than ten minutes late.  A 28-ton train could reach an average speed of 64mph over three miles.

On January 18th 1848, however, cold weather froze the leather and no trains ran until the afternoon.  Increasingly, the leather flaps tore away from their fixings, allowing air leakages to diminish the partial vacuum.  The underpowered steam pumping engines broke down repeatedly and coal consumption was excessive.

Everyone was aware that the London & Croydon Railway had given up on the atmospheric system in May 1847, and through the summer the directors and Brunel himself backpedalled.

The last atmospheric train ran on September 10th 1848.

The most visible reminder of the atmospheric railway is the pumping station alongside Starcross station which was used as a Methodist chapel from 1867 to 1958, while the boiler house became a coal store.

The entire building opened as a museum of the atmospheric railway in 1982 and is now the headquarters of the Starcross Fishing & Cruising Club.

Preparatory work for a road scheme has discovered the remains of a hitherto unsuspected fragment of the pumping station:

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

One of Brunel’s best ideas

Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, Devon

Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, Devon

The career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) is punctuated by two great bridges.  His first major project was the Clifton Suspension Bridge, begun in 1831 but completed posthumously in 1864.  Towards the end of his life he devised and constructed the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, to carry the railway across the Tamar into Cornwall.

Throughout his working life his professional rival, Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), was also a close personal friend and ally.

Brunel supported Stephenson at the enquiry into the Dee Bridge collapse in 1847, which first exposed the weakness of long cast-iron girders to support railway locomotives.

The two of them regularly discussed how to bridge wide waterways at height as Stephenson designed the High Level Bridge in Newcastle-on-Tyne (1849) and the box-girder bridges at Conwy (1849) and Menai (1850).

A suspension bridge such as Brunel’s design at Clifton was useless to carry a railway, because the weight of the locomotive would cause the chains to deflect dangerously.

When Brunel took the South Wales Railway across the River Wye at Chepstow in 1852, crossing from an abrupt cliff to a flat flood plain, his solution was to brace the suspension chains with circular tubes.

His great bridge across the wide Tamar estuary, linking Devon and Cornwall by rail, had to leave 100 feet of headroom for passing ships.  Its approaches had to be on curved viaducts.

So his freestanding central spans combine the three classic types of bridge – beam, arch and chain.  He developed the Chepstow design by changing the circular tube to an oval profile, bowed in the form of a convex truss to brace the vertical suspension chains.

Each span was fabricated in turn on the Devonport bank of the river, floated out into the stream and then jacked into position, three feet at a time, as the piers were built.

Brunel conducted the complex positioning of the first, western span in a two-hour process, watched by thousands in complete silence until the Royal Marines Band struck up ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ to signal success.

By the time the bridge was finished in 1859 Brunel was so ill that he missed the royal opening ceremony.

He only once saw his great work in its completed state, when he was drawn gently across the bridge in a coach secured to an open rail wagon.

He died on September 15th the same year, and his friend Robert Stephenson followed him a month later on October 12th.  Both of them suffered from what was then called Bright’s disease.

The Cornwall Railway subsequently added the tribute ‘I K BRUNEL – ENGINEER – 1859’ to each end of the bridge.

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Haytor Granite Tramway

Haytor Granite Tramway, Dartmoor, Devon

Haytor Granite Tramway, Dartmoor, Devon

In the days before the steam locomotive made railways the obvious means of moving heavy loads at speed, guided transport was often based not on rails but on angle plates which controlled the direction of carts with plain wheels that could also run on roads.

The Haytor Granite Tramway is a highly unusual – indeed, almost unique – alternative that arose from the remoteness of Devon from the rest of England before the age of steam railways.

Dartmoor granite, hard-wearing but workable, was in great demand in the early nineteenth century:  Sir Robert Smirke favoured it for his extension to the British Museum (1823-31) and the General Post Office at St Martin’s-le-Grand (1825-9) and John Rennie used it for his London Bridge (1825-31).

George Templer (1781-1843) linked the Haytor quarries to the Stover Canal at Ventiford by means of a tramway quite unlike the plateways that prevailed in the north of England and the Midlands.  Whereas such plateways or gangroads guided smooth-wheeled wagons by means of cast iron flanged rails secured by stone blocks at regular intervals, the Haytor Granite Tramway dispensed with iron from outside the region and instead used the indigenous granite.

The track of the Tramway consists simply of granite blocks, shaped so that an upstand, 4ft 3in across, guided the iron-wheeled wagons along the route.  Where turnouts were needed, “point tongues” were provided, made of either iron or wood.  Apart from one short section at the exit of Holwell Quarry, the entire seven-mile length of the route from the quarries down to Ventiford was a downgrade, so that the teams of horses hauled the empty trains uphill, and followed the loaded wagons downhill presumably to provide braking.  A train of a dozen wagons was handled by a team of eighteen horses.

The total fall in altitude along the seven-mile main line was 1,300 feet.  There was an additional two or three miles of granite track serving half a dozen quarries around Haytor.

The tramway was out of use by 1858.  It was practically superseded by the broad-gauge Moretonhampstead & South Devon Railway when it opened in 1866, but substantial lengths of the granite track remain in situ and can be followed across the moor and down into the Teign valley

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Morwellham Quay

Morwellham Quay, Devon

Morwellham Quay, Devon

Devon and Cornwall lie far from the industrial heartlands of England, so in the period before the railways supplies of coal and iron were costly and difficult to transport to the mines, quarries and manufactories of the South West.  Yet the products of the region – tin, copper, silver, lead, manganese, arsenic, fluorspar, china clay, pottery, slate and granite – were periodically in high demand in the rest of Great Britain and overseas.

Morwellham Quay was the northern limit of navigation of the River Tamar, 23 miles inland from the sea, and linked with the stannary town of Tavistock by the 4½-mile Tavistock Canal and an inclined plane that drops 237 feet down to the river, powered by a 28-foot-diameter overshot waterwheel.

The canal was practically superseded in 1859 by the opening of the South Devon & Tavistock Railway, connecting Plymouth with Tavistock, and was eventually sold to the 9th Duke of Bedford for £3,200 in 1873.  It continued in use as a water-supply channel for local industry until 1930.  Three years later the West Devon Electric Supply Co Ltd took the canal over to generate hydro-electricity in a power station adjacent to Morwellham Quay which continues in operation in the ownership of South West Water.

Mining in and around the Tamar valley was subject to great fluctuations both in the availability of ore and the strength of the markets.  The area was boosted by the discovery in 1844 of a huge lode of copper ore, four miles away at a site that was named Wheal Maria.  The lode “was said to span the entire floor of the 10 foot by 10 foot shaft forming a carpet that glittered like gold”.

The Devon Great Consols company was founded in 1846 to develop the mines on the Devon bank of the Tamar Valley.  Such was the excitement that £1 shares traded at up to £800 each.  The landowners, Francis, 7th Duke of Bedford and his son William, 8th Duke, received a total of £182,036 9s 2d in dues, most but not all as an 8% royalty on the extracted ore.

In 1856 the mines yielded 28,836 tons of ore, and were only limited by the capability of the quay to send the materials away.

Latterly, as the stocks of copper declined in the 1870s, demand for arsenic increased, so that Devon Great Consols became the world’s largest supplier, using the arsenopyrite deposits up to six feet thick which had previously been left as valueless.  Arsenic was in demand for use as a pigment and an insecticide.

By the end of the century, however, trade declined and the mines closed in 1901 and were abandoned in 1903.

During the First World War some of the mines reopened for mining arsenic, tin and tungsten and arsenic production continued for a few years after 1918.  The Arsenic Chimney of 1922 at Wheal Fanny dates from this final phase of activity.

Morwellham Quay and the New Quay downstream were abandoned until the 1970s when Morwellham was developed as an educational and tourist attraction and New Quay’s derelict buildings were consolidated.

A battery-operated mine railway made possible public access to the George and Charlotte Mine, and allows the public to view the New Quay site without having to walk down the valley.

In 2010, when Devon County Council withdrew its funding support for Morwellham Quay, the site was taken over by Simon and Valerie Lister, the owners of Bicton Park Botanical Gardens near Budleigh Salterton:

The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.