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Tag Archives: Devon

  • 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.

    Buckfastleigh Station in 1965. (Image Bernard Mills, South Devon Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

     

    The very last train from Ashburton on 2 October 1971 was the 3.05pm to London Paddington, loading to eleven carriages, seen here approaching Buckfastleigh in the capable hands of former GWR loco 4588. (Image Bernard Mills, South Devon Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

     

     

     

    The bridge over the River Dart north of Buckfastleigh in 1971, with the station and goods yard in the background, all soon to be obliterated by the widening of the A38 Trunk Road. (Image Bernard Mills, South Devon Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Copper capped chimney and gleaming brasswork. This picture of Small Prairie 2-6-2T No. 5542 as it passes Hood Bridge Permanent Way cabin says it all! (Image Bernard Miles, South Devon Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

  • Secret Exeter by Chris Hallam

    1068 and all that: Exeter, Gytha and the Norman Conquest

    Bayeux Tapestry (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    It is one of the most famous years in English history: 1066.

    Like 1936 and (perhaps) 1483, it was to be a year of three kings. In January, just five days into the year, Edward the Confessor, king of England since 1042, died. Harold Godwinson, a leading Saxon nobleman, succeeded him. The new Harold II had acquired a difficult inheritance, however, as he faced almost immediate attack from another Harold, Harald Hardrada of Norway who he managed to defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, as we know, King Harold II fared less well in the Battle of Hastings in October. Harold, in truth, probably wasn’t killed by an arrow in the eye as the famous Bayeux Tapestry appears to show but was certainly killed in battle just as Richard the Lionheart and Richard III would be in later years. His rival, William, Duke of Normandy won and was subsequently crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. Thereafter, England succumbed to a long period of Norman rule which, to some extent, has never ended.

    William the Conqueror (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    The above story is famous and mostly true. Edward the Confessor perhaps deserves more blame than has been traditionally attributed to him, for bequeathing England such chaotic situation in the first place. However, what is most questionable about the above account is the last sentence: William the Conqueror’s subsequent conquest of England, after his victory at Hastings, was in fact, much less smooth than the traditional version of events makes it sound.

    Exeter, in Devon, was one area which fiercely resisted William’s rule. Stirred into insurrection by the presence of Harold’s mother, Gytha, Exeter (then known as Escanceaster by the Saxons) openly revolted, refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to William. Angered, William returned from Normandy to deal with the rebels himself.

    A siege ensued, one of many Exeter would endure in the centuries ahead. Ugly scenes followed as William ordered one of the hostages that had been given to him as a sign of good faith to be publicly blinded. But the Normans suffered heavy losses. After nearly two weeks, Exeter surrendered but only on one condition, William would not punish the populace either physically or financially. William, facing rebellion elsewhere, acquiesced. Gytha, incidentally, seems to have been smuggled out just before the Norman king arrived. England, as a whole, didn’t fully come under Norman control until about 1072.

    The gatehouse of Exeter Castle id the oldest Norman castle building in Britain. (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    What happened to Exeter next? After the siege, the Normans tore down the houses that stood on the hill at the northernmost parts of the walled city and built Rougemont Castle (Red Hill, because of the colour of the volcanic soil), essentially to keep a watchful eye on Exeter’s potentially restless population. Today, 950 years later, not much more than the castle walls remain. But these walls do include the original Norman gatehouse, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of early Norman architecture still visible in the UK. It is certainly the earliest Norman castle building still in existence, predating the more famous White Tower at the Tower of London by about ten years.

    Ironically, as my colleague Tim Isaac points out in our bestselling new book, Secret Exeter, a flaw in the design of the gatehouse essentially made them useless from the outset. It is this very uselessness which has ensured their survival to this day. Lucky for us!

    Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam's new book Secret Exeter is available for purchase now.

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