Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

Devon’s Railway Heritage

with Robert Hesketh on Thursday, 9 March 2023

Railways came to Devon in the 1840s and profoundly altered it. On the 9th of March, Robert Hesketh gave a talk exploring the rich and varied heritage of railways in Devon. We heard about Devon's two mainlines and four branch lines, as well as our excellent preserved railways, two cliff railways and the cycleways/walkways established on former track. The talk included over 130 images.

Robert was welcomed back having been with us in December 2017 for his Christmas quiz, and again in June 2021 for his talk on Exeter’s Tudor and Regency Buildings. Robert began his talk by introducing his extensive publication of local interest books and drawing attention to the one on which today’s talk was based – Devon’s Railway Heritage. I make no apology for using it to supplement the meagre notes I was able to take during his ‘whistle-stop” [pun intended!] talk of the current railway network, its heritage lines, disused lines, and those converted into cycleways and walkways. A Devon county slide showing these was the introduction to the talk and Robert went on to expand in more detail about each one.

Devon and Cornwall were remote before the coming of the railways but tourism later became the leading industry with the many coastal towns expanding to take advantage of seaside holidays. The original extensive network was significantly reduced by the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, but as Robert writes “Devon retains its two main lines and four very attractive branch lines, plus a fine collection of preserved railways where vintage locomotives and rolling stock are complemented by meticulously restored stations. Devon’s growing network of cycle/walkways using previously abandoned lines offers another way to discover the country’s remarkable railway history.”

Robert showed images of the earliest railways - Haytor Granite Tramway opened in 1820 operated with horses. It was 8.5 miles in distance, and used gravity on downward runs with horses to pull trucks back up. Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, the first with iron rails by 1826 was used until 1956. It is now a walking/cycleway. There were other examples of early tramways.

Robert talked about the National Railway Network, the main line to Bristol and London Paddington with trains reaching Devon for the first time in 1844, courtesy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His locomotive engineer, Daniel Gooch “drove the train on the first round trip from London Paddington to Exeter in one day – taking only four hours and forty minutes on the return.” The audience also learnt about the time difference between Devon and London where in the days of coaching Exeter was 15 minutes later than London and for railway timetables, time needed to be standardised. We also learnt about the engineering difficulties of tunnelling through hills and crossing rivers by way of bridges and viaducts. Robert gave a detailed description of Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway with its engine house at Starcross and explained the many difficulties experienced in operating it. It ran from September 1847 to June 1848 between Exeter and Newton Abbot before being abandoned. He also spoke about Brunel’s timber viaducts and his Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash “one of his greatest and most enduring triumphs” and which was constructed of “corrosion resistant wrought iron”. The book has an account of the construction of the bridge and concludes with “All told, the Saltash Bridge took six years to complete and was a massive engineering feat. The central pier alone took three and a half years and involved working at pressure below the water level.” [Information from the internet says: “The Royal Albert Bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Surveying started in 1848 and construction commenced in 1854. The first main span was positioned in 1857 and the completed bridge was opened by Prince Albert on 2 May 1859. Brunel died later that year and his name was then placed above the portals at either end of the bridge as a memorial.”]

An interesting place to visit is Newton Abbot and its GWR Museum with many artefacts and the Library, also a good place for research into railway history.

The Southern main line into Devon (the LSWR) opened from London Waterloo to Exeter via Salisbury in 1860. Robert explained about the variation of track widths. In his section on the Southern Line he writes: “LSWR’s new line also highlighted a major problem which was not resolved for over thirty years. The railway employed the widely used 1.44m gauge track (then called ‘barrow’ and later ‘standard’) championed by Newcastle engineers George and Robert Stephenson, with locomotives and rolling stock to match. Laying a third track within Brunel’s broad gauge on some Devon lines only partially solved the quandary of two systems. The inescapable logic of standardisation throughout the national network eventually triumphed and all remaining GWR broad gauge track was converted to ‘standard’ during one frenetic weekend in May 1892.”

Robert went into great detail about Devon’s branch lines to seaside resorts where population greatly increased because of tourism where cheaper travel changed the social structure. He described the various Branch and Heritage lines – the Avocet Line between Exeter and Exmouth; the Riviera Line connected to the national network via Newton Abbot and terminating at Paignton where passengers can take the ferry to Dartmouth to transfer to the Dartmouth Steam Railway; the Tamar Valley Line which runs for 14 miles from Plymouth to Gunnislake; the Tarka Line running from Exeter to Barnstaple; the Dartmoor Line with its restored line to Okehampton which had become a heritage line and now restored as a main line; the Plym Valley Railway with its “varied collection of restored locomotives, carriages and wagons.”

Robert showed various images of Devon’s tramways and cliff railways – the Seaton Tramway linking Seaton with Colyford and Colyton; the Lynton Cliff Railway; the Babbacombe Cliff Railway and explaining the principles by which they operate.

Much of Devon’s former railway track can now be explored on foot and cycle and you can see preserved stations, signal boxes, station houses along the way – the Tarka Trail; Instow’s signal box; Great Torrington’s former station house; Christow Station Goods Yard; Haytor Tramway; the trackbed of the Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway; the Granite Way, Plym Valley; the Wray Valley Trail from Bovey Tracey to Moretonhampstead; and the Ruby Way.

This account cannot do justice to the wealth of information and images which Robert showed during his talk and his book is to be thoroughly recommended.

Sue Jackson

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