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.
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.
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.
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.
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.