South West England

PART 1

This month we are going to look at some of the scenic routes in Devon and Cornwall, in South West England, which are popular holiday destinations at this time of year. These counties are famed for their beaches, but there are also picturesque towns and rolling green countryside to enjoy from the comfort of a train.

We begin in the Cathedral city of Exeter which is the beginning of two scenic routes. Firstly the Tarka Line which runs for 63 kilometres between Exeter and Barnstaple (Table 113) and secondly the pretty Riviera Line to Newton Abbot (Tables 110/111/116). During August we will also be taking a look at the line from Plymouth to Penzance, taking in the main coastal resorts of Newquay and Looe in Cornwall and possibly the most scenic rail trip in Cornwall, the St Ives Branch line. There are also many wonderful heritage steam lines in the area.

Exeter is an attractive and historically interesting city with a magnificent Cathedral, imposing Roman wall and beautiful Quayside. GWR services for Barnstaple depart from Exeter St Davids, a historic station designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It takes approximately an hour and a quarter to travel between Exeter and Barnstaple following the scenic river valleys of the Yeo and Taw. The line offers many opportunities to stop at pretty market towns such as Crediton with its many craft and antique shops or to join one of the many walking or cycle trails. Beyond Barnstaple, the railway used to continue to Ilfracombe, and Instow and Bideford. The latter part of the route is now preserved as the Bideford & Instow Railway, while sections of both routes have been converted to a cycleway called the Tarka Trail. Bicycles can be hired from Barnstaple station or instead you could follow the well-marked walks of the South West Coast Path. Nearby is the Lynton & Barnstaple heritage steam railway, which is currently being restored and extended. Passengers can travel in the original L&B carriages between England’s highest narrow-gauge railway station, Woody Bay and Killington Lane Halt, but eventually, it is hoped to extend the line to Barnstaple once again.

PART 2
South West England – Table 113

Following on from last week’s journey along the Tarka Line between Exeter and Barnstaple, we continue our exploration of the branch lines of Devon and Conrnwall, this time focusing on the route from Plymouth to Gunnislake. Known as the Tamar Valley line, we will be treated to a 45 minute journey through rolling countryside with some spectacular riverside views along the way.

Plymouth is a port city situated on the south coast of Devon, approximately 60 kilometres south-west of Exeter and 310 kilometres from London. The River Plym is located to the east of the city whilst the River Tamar is situated on the western edge (which also forms the boundary between Devon and Cornwall). Both rivers enter the English Channel in a natural bay to the south of the city known as the Plymouth Sound. Regular international ferry services, provided by Brittany Ferries, operate from the Millbay ferry terminal taking cars and foot passengers directly to France (Roscoff) and Spain (Santander).

Like all railway lines in Devon and Cornwall, the route to Gunnislake is operated by diesel trains. It initially follows the banks of the River Tamar as it winds its way through the Plymouth suburbs of Devonport and St Budeaux with clear views of the Royal Navy Dockyard on the left-hand side. After crossing the mouth of the River Tavy the route heads inland before calling at Bere Ferrers station where the Tamar Belle Heritage Centre can be found. Here, bed and breakfast accommodation in ex-LNER teak carriages and Pullman-style dining aboard a former British Railways restaurant car can be found (advance reservation is essential).

The next stop is Bere Alston, a junction station on the former Southern Railway route between Plymouth and Exeter via Tavistock which closed in 1968. The train changes direction here before continuing towards Gunnislake and, after a few minutes, we cross the spectacular Calstock Viaduct, 37 metres high with twelve arches each 18 metres wide. Cotehele, a medieval house with Tudor additions, now owned by the National Trust, is visible from the viaduct and is a short walk from Calstock station.

The train takes 11 minutes to travel the last five kilometres as it has to stop briefly at two ungated level crossings before proceeding, if safe to do so, as we head to our final destination of Gunnislake, a charming former mining town just across the county border in Cornwall. Situated in the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is a popular destination for walking and cycling. This mining district straddling the Devon/Cornwall boundary is designated a World Heritage Site and is certainly well worth visiting.

PART 3

So far this month we have looked at the Tarka Line between Exeter and Barnstaple, and the Tamar Valley line from Plymouth to Gunnislake.

This week we look at the Plymouth to Penzance Cornish mainline. This journey of approximately 103 kilometres takes us from Plymouth to Penzance, directly serving Truro, St Austell, Bodmin (by a Parkway station), and Liskeard. There are also branch lines connecting Liskeard to Looe, Par to Newquay, Truro to Falmouth and St Erth to St Ives which we will cover later this month.

The route has a large number of viaducts, notably the famous Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash which was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened by Prince Albert in 1859. At Truro the viaducts give sweeping views of the city and River Fal, while further west the north coast can be seen near Hayle before the line swings onto the south coast, along the beach at Marazion looking out on St Michaels Mount.

Penzance is a port town, the most westerly major town in Cornwall sheltered in Mounts Bay, a large sweeping bay on the English Channel which stretches from the Lizard Point to Gwennap Head. It is within the large conservation area that includes the historic harbours of Newlyn and Mousehole. The seasonal passenger services aboard the famous RMV Scillonian III, operated by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, depart Penzance to the Isles of Scilly taking in the spectacular Cornish coastline.

One of only three sleeper services operated in the United Kingdom, the Night Riviera is operated by Great Western Railways offering a sleeper car service between London Paddington and Penzance for those wanting to travel on this Cornish Mainline from the capital. With a journey time of around 5 hours 30 minutes, sleeper berth passengers have access to the first class lounge at Paddington and the sleeper lounges at Truro and Penzance. Booking is recommended due to the popularity of this service.

PART 4

The Looe Valley Line is a 14 kilometre community railway from Liskeard (situated on the main line between Plymouth and Penzance) to the popular seaside town of Looe, following the picturesque valley of the East Looe river for much of the journey.

Liskeard is a town with fantastic architecture and much of the its centre was designed by Henry Rice during the Copper mining boom. The Pipe Well can be found in Well Lane, and is often referred to in old documents as “The Well of Lyskiret” or “The Well of St Martins”. It is probably the chief reason for the town of Liskeard being built.

The line is single track for the whole of its length and is worked by just a single train set each day. Trains leave Liskeard railway station from a platform at right angles to the main line platforms, initially running northeast away from Looe. Beyond the platform the line takes a long right-hand curve, passing the connection through the goods yard to the main line, and diving underneath the A38 road twice. It then descends steeply, now heading generally southwest, and passes under the Liskeard viaduct carrying the Cornish Main Line 150 feet (46 metres) above.

Curving right once more, the train joins the main branch line from Looe at Coombe Junction, and comes to a stand on a small level crossing. Most trains change direction here, the train’s guard operating the points, but two or three in each direction continue a short distance further to call at Coombe Junction Halt near the village of Lamellion. Beyond the platform the line continues further to Moorswater, passing under the main line again beneath the Moorswater viaduct, but this section only sees infrequent Colas Rail freight trains carrying cement.

With the driver and guard having now swapped ends, the train recommences its southerly journey, now running alongside the old Liskeard and Looe Union Canal and East Looe River. Another level crossing is passed at Lodge before the train arrives at St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, adjacent to the “Magnificent Music Machines” museum of fairground organs and similar instruments. The Holy Well of St Keyne is located near the village and is a ten-minute walk from the station. South of St Keyne the canal switches to the west side of the line for a while but, as the valley closes in, it disappears from view for a while where the railway was built on top of the redundant canal. One of the old canal’s locks can be seen at Causeland station.

After calling at Sandplace station the railway follows the east side of the river, now a tidal estuary which the line follows to its terminus. The line passes over one more level crossing, the unusual Terras Crossing, where the road approaches the crossing over a causeway that is liable to flooding at high tide, so the footpath is raised on boards alongside. As the crossing is ungated trains must come to a stand and sound their horn before proceeding.

After running further alongside the tidal estuary the line finally arrives at Looe station, opposite the point at which the West Looe River flows into the East Looe River to form the tidal Looe harbour. The town centre is a five-minute walk alongside the river and buses to Polperro stop on the road near the station.

The seaside town of Looe keeps visitors entertained all year round and is also still a working fishing port. Stand on the quayside in the evening and watch the boats return before dining on fresh fish in a local restaurant. The town prides itself on its fresh fish dining options and, be it award winning fish and chips near the river or gourmet menus in smart restaurants overlooking the harbour, your taste buds won’t be disappointed.

PART 5

We conclude our look at scenic routes in Devon and Cornwall with possibly the most beautiful coastal route, the St Ives Bay line.

The 6.84 kilometre branch line is single track for its whole length with no passing places. It runs alongside the Hayle estuary and then the sea coast and is promoted as a good place to see birds from the train. It has also been listed as one of the most picturesque railways in England.

The line starts at St Erth, the penultimate station on the main line between London Paddington and Penzance. A tranquil village centred around a pretty church and with a small river running through it, St Erth takes its name from Saint Erc, one of the many Irish saints who brought Christianity to Cornwall during the Dark Ages, and is at the old crossing point of the River Hayle.

After the line goes through a short cutting and underneath two road bridges which carry the A30 roundabout outside the station, the line follows the western side of the estuary past Lelant Saltings. Beyond Lelant railway station the line enters a cutting and climbs onto the sand dunes above Porth Kidney Sands, where you’ll find an RSPB bird sanctuary, an important habitat for sea birds.

The South West Coast Path crosses the line here and then follows close by all the way to St Ives. The railway continues to climb up and onto the steep cliffs at Hawkes Point, about 30 metres (98 feet) above sea level. Soon after the line comes around the headland at Carrick Gladden and into Carbis Bay.

Carbis Bay beach is 1 mile of award-winning golden sands surrounded by sub-tropical plants and lapped by turquoise waters. The beach rarely gets surf so is very safe for families.

The line then crosses along Carbis Viaduct and continues on the cliff’s edge until it emerges at Porthminster Point, from where it drops down across the St Ives Viaduct to reach St Ives railway station which is situated above Portminster Beach, from where you can make your way to the town centre via the jumble of cottage lined streets known as ‘the Warren’.

St Ives is on the western shore of St Ives Bay, its harbour sheltered by St Ives Island (a headland) and Smeaton’s pier. Close to the harbour, in the old part of the town, the streets are narrow and uneven while its wider streets are in the newer parts of the town on rising ground. The town has four beaches: Porthmeor a surfing beach, Porthgwidden a small sandy cove, Harbour by the working port and Porthminster which has almost half a mile of sand. The opening of the Tate Gallery, together with the Barbara Hepworth Museum, has had a knock on effect in St Ives, leading to the opening of many more galleries and studios and an art scene that continues to flourish.

Rail routes of Wales

This week, in celebration of St David’s Day we are taking a look at some of the very fine rail journeys to be found in Wales. Full of beautiful rivers, lakes, rolling hills and scenic mountains it is easy to explore this great country by rail. Here are some of our favourites:

Firstly there is the historic ‘Heart of Wales’ line which celebrated its 150th-anniversary last year. Said to be one of the most picturesque journeys in Britain, the track travels from Swansea cutting diagonally across the rolling hills of mid-Wales to Shrewsbury, passing sights such as the viaducts at Cynghordy and Knucklas, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Britain. (Table 146)

Our second choice is the short ‘Conwy Valley Line’ which runs from Llandudno on the North Wales Coast to the Heart of Snowdonia at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The journey provides views of historic castles, wildlife-rich estuaries and crosses the dramatic Gethin’s viaduct as well as great views of the rugged peaks of Snowdonia national park. (Table 160). The line also allows you to connect to the heritage Ffestiniog Railway to continue your travel south.

For a view of the country from south to north, you can travel in style from the capital city Cardiff all the way to Holyhead aboard the ‘Gerald of Wales’ which features a restaurant car (one of only two trains in the UK that still has an onboard chef cooking full breakfasts and three-course dinners), so you relax and dine as you are treated to the stunning country and coastal views. (Table 149)

Finally, the picturesque Cambrian Railway which is made up of two lines, one running west from Shrewsbury through rugged mountain terrain, quaint market towns, and castles to Aberystwyth on the western coast. At Machynlleth, the line connects into the Cambrian Coastal route which runs north to Pwllelli offering spectacular views, coastal walks and places to visit along the length of the Gwynedd coast.

TABLE 218: Glasgow – Fort William

(Part 4)

Our final leg of this journey begins in Fort William where, between April and October, you can hop aboard the famous Jacobite steam engine to carry you on the remaining 41-miles to the end of the line at Mallaig which many regard as the most beautiful part of the entire route.

After leaving Fort William we pass Loch Eli where there are some wonderful views back towards Ben Nevis. Next, at Banavie, the train passes over the Caledonian Canal. Look out for Neptune’s Staircase, an amazingly engineered staircase of 8 locks built by Thomas Telford. Just before the train reaches Glenfinnan station, it crosses the now world famous Glenfinnan viaduct which has been featured in the Harry Potter films. The best views of the train passing over its 21 arches are from the left-hand side as the track curves around. You can also catch sight of the Glenfinnan Monument, a statue of an anonymous highlander erected in commemoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie raising his standard here in 1745. At the station itself, there is a wonderful museum located in the station building as well as a dining car and railway shop.

The next stop is Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station, in the tiny village of Arisaig. Here there are views of the small Isles of Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna. Then it’s on to the final destination, the busy fishing port of Mallaig. The population of this village swells considerably with the arrival of tourists on the railway but there are plenty of options for visitors requiring refreshments or accommodation as well as a heritage museum and visitor centre on the pier.  Mallaig is also a ferry terminal where you can extend your journey into the Isle of Skye or other nearby small islands.

(Part 3)

This time we travel on the northbound branch out of Crianlarich station towards Fort William. After passing through Upper Tyndrum the track enters a section known as the ‘Horseshoe Curve’ which was constructed when the railway builders didn’t have enough money to build a viaduct across the valley. The line enters, circles and leaves the glen around the base of Beinn Dorain.

The next stop is Bridge of Orchy, a tiny village which sits directly on the West Highland Way with some wonderful (but very steep) paths starting beside the railway station itself. Then the landscape empties into the broad wilds of Rannoch Moor, one of Europe’s largest expanses of wilderness. The moor is predominantly a peat bog so when the West Highland Line was built the tracks had to be floated on a mattress of tree roots, brushwood and thousands of tons of earth to prevent the heavy steel tracks sinking! Relish looking out of the train window on this part of the journey where you will see nothing but mountains and moorland for miles around. Rannoch station is very pretty and has a tearoom and visitor centre and is at least accessible by road, unlike the next stop, Corrour, which is both the most remote and highest mainline station on the UK network. The nearest road is a 10 mile walk away so unsurprisingly the station is unstaffed, but there is a cafe next door and the former signal box has been converted into a three bedroom holiday let!

Finally, we reach the official end of the West Highland Line at Fort William which sits at the bottom of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. The town has a lovely West Highland museum and being the ‘Outdoor capital of Scotland’ it offers a wide range of outdoor activities and experiences

(Part 2)

Having reached Crianlarich where the line splits, we travel westwards on the remaining section of the former Callander and Oban Railway. The first stop is Tyndrum Lower, this tiny village is the smallest settlement in the UK with more than one railway station, (it’s other being Upper Tyndrum on the Fort William line). Next, we travel through Glen Lochy and onwards past the edge of Loch Awe where you can see the ruins of Kilchurn Castle on the north-eastern end of the Loch. With its stunning mountain backdrop, this is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. The castle is open to the public in the summer months with pedestrian access under the railway viaduct if the water isn’t too high!

The next station is Falls of Cruachan which is a request stop at the foot of Ben Cruachan mainly used by hikers in the warmer months as well as visitors to the nearby hydro-electric power station. Trains then continue through the Pass of Brander to reach Taynuilt on the shores of Loch Etive. If your timing is right you may be able to witness the frothing rapids at the Falls of Lora which form for a few days around the spring tides.

The final part of the journey takes us to the ‘Gateway to the Isles’ Oban with its busy ferry terminal offering links to several Hebridean islands such as Mull and Barra. The modern station is a great starting point for exploring the town which in recent years has also become known as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’ for its remarkable number of award-winning restaurants. The town’s most outstanding feature is McCaig’s Tower, a Colosseum-like building built by a local banker which stands on Battery Hill overlooking the town. It contains pleasant gardens and provides spectacular views over Oban and the neighbouring islands.

(Part 1)

Just three ScotRail trains a day link Glasgow Queen Street with Fort William and Mallaig, fewer on Sundays, in addition to the London-Fort William sleeper train. It’s not a fast journey but there is plenty of scenery to enjoy, it takes just under 4hrs for the 197km from Glasgow to Fort William or approx. 5hrs 30mins for the 264km from Glasgow to Mallaig.

The journey begins at Glasgow Queen Street station, the smaller of the city’s two main line railway termini. Beyond Queen Street Tunnel, the line diverges from the main line to Edinburgh and follows a north-westerly course along the Clyde through the suburbs to Helensburgh, an attractive small seaside town set in beautiful scenery. The town was once a popular Victorian holiday area and is worth exploring; particularly worth a visit is its most famous landmark Hill House, an interior design masterpiece by famous Scots architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The route then continues north via Garelochead, this section is where the West Highland Line is generally accepted to begin. Here you can see high-level views of Gare Loch and Loch Long before emerging alongside the north-westerly shores of Loch Lomond. Try to sit on the left-hand side of the carriage for the best views northbound.  Next, the railway climbs to Crianlarich station where the line to Oban branches off. On Mondays to Saturdays there are six services to Oban, three to Mallaig and one service to Fort William northbound. Crianlarich is the point at which the train typically splits into two parts, with two carriages continuing north on the West Highland Line, and two carriages heading west towards Oban. It is interesting to get off the train and watch it being decoupled (or recoupled), but don’t stay off too long – it’s a while till the next train!  Or you may decide to stop off for an afternoon tea and explore the hills and nearby footpaths of Strath Fillan and Glen Falloch, a haven for keen walkers.

(Intro)

Throughout April we are going to be focusing on Britain’s finest rail route. This route has previously been voted as the World’s Best Rail Journey by Wanderlust Magazine ahead of the Trans-Siberian Express and other more well-known scenic routes. It is the wonderful West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William & Mallaig in Scotland. Timings are shown in Table 218 of the ERT. This also ties in nicely with the Route of the Month written by Hidden Europe writers Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries in the April edition of the ERT, which features another wonderful Scottish journey – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh.

This rail journey carries you north along wild and remote areas of the west coast of Scotland, passing steep-sided lochs, heather moors and some of the smallest, remotest stations on the network. The track passes through the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Parks then the line splits at Crianlarich, carrying you either past the north edge of Loch Awe, in the shadow of Ben Cruachan to Oban where you can catch a ferry to other Scottish islands, or high up to Rannoch Moor and on to Fort William and Mallaig where you might catch a glimpse of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. Beyond Fort William the train crosses the now world famous Glenfinnan Viaduct that was used in the Harry Potter films, then on the final stretch into Mallaig there are glimpses of the Isle of Skye, which is just a short ferry trip from the port.

The famous Jacobite Steam engine runs between Fort William and Mallaig at certain times of the year, with the first service of 2018 starting this Easter (Friday 30th March to Friday 6th April 2018) standard and 1st Class tickets can be booked on their website.