South Devon Railway by Bernard Warr
This is the third book I have written for Amberley but the first about railways, a subject that is close to my heart. My romance with the South Devon Railway started on a hot summers day in 1965 when I was being driven along the old and winding A38 road in Devon. We came upon Buckfastleigh, much more famous among tourists for Buckfast Abbey than anything to do with railways in those days. My friend and flatmate, Nigel, in whose car we were travelling, pulled into the entrance of the station approach road but found our way barred by a substantial gate, firmly locked and chained. We climbed out to have a look and found a notice attached to the gate telling us that the former railway from Totnes to Ashburton was to be reopened by a private company as a tourist attraction. An appeal for help was made and an address to contact for information was given.
This sounded interesting and I contacted the address to offer my help, deep down expecting to be told that they wanted people who knew something about railways and could be of more use than a humble bank clerk. How wrong I was! They welcomed me with open arms and I was soon a regular attendee at the weekend working parties. On site, a veritable treasure trove of Great Western Steam engines and coaches had been assembled ready for the day when services could recommence. As it turned out, it was to be nearly four years before the first fare paying passenger was carried. The problem being the section of the line between Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. The Ministry of Transport wanted to keep this strip of land to enable the A38 to be straightened and widened. Because of this the company was only able to run services between Totnes and Buckfastleigh from April 1969.
In the succeeding years, as the railway prospered, so did Buckfastleigh, enjoying something of an economic renaissance as a result. Meanwhile the Dartmoor town of Ashburton, bereft of the tourist railway, has not participated in similar economic success.
The last trains to Ashburton ran in 1971 and included enormous through trains from both Swansea and London Paddington and on this day, the line saw more visitors than at any time in its history.
Shortly afterwards the road contractors moved in, ripped up the track and obliterated the line north of Buckfastleigh. An enormous embankment was built across the Buckfastleigh Station goods yard, removing at a stroke, the many storage sidings it contained.
From this low point the company slowly built the new business, establishing a regular train service during the summer months and undertaking maintenance of the track, rolling stock and engines during the winter months. In those early years although the line passed through delightful scenery alongside the River Dart, it was very much a line to nowhere as the new station at Totnes, facilitated by the company, was divided from the town by the river and no one could get on or off!
At about the time that the last trains to Ashburton ran the company was offered the freehold of the line between Paignton and Kingswear with the ferry across to Dartmouth. This proved to be an enormously successful venture and by 1989 the company decided that the line from Buckfastleigh to Totnes was losing money and could not continue to operate under their control. It was offered up for sale. Fortunately, the volunteers who had been supporting the Buckfastleigh – Totnes line banded together, formed a charitable organisation and negotiated a lease from the company with their first trains running from 1991.
The charitable status helped obtain grant aid to construct a pedestrian footbridge across the River Dart at Totnes which opened in 1993.
Suddenly the ‘line to nowhere’ had gained a purpose and passenger numbers (and therefore revenue) soared. Over the years, other attractions have been developed; at Buckfastleigh there is the Otter Sanctuary and Butterfly World, whilst at the Totnes end is the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm. All very appealing for the family visit and makes an enjoyable day out. But of course, the real attraction is the Great Western steam engines with copper capped chimneys, gleaming brasswork and the smell of warm oil, burning coal and the steam! Long may it remain so.
Bernard Warr's new book South Devon Railway is available for purchase now.