Monday, 13 October 2014

Ding! Ding! All aboard for a tram ride through the countryside!

At the very start of my recent holiday I spent four nights (and therefore three full days) at Lyme Regis, at the westernmost end of the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Well, strictly speaking, the farm I was pitched at was in Devon. Lyme Regis nestles right up against the Devon-Dorset border. This convenient geographical fact must have been very useful indeed in the old days for Smuggling Gentlemen engaged in the lucrative Fossil Trade. They could play one set of constables and revenue men off against the other. Even today, it pays to ask no questions in Lyme, in case Smuggling Gentlemen take exception to one's curiosity. After all it's still a swinging offence to smuggle a fossil. The crime has never been struck off the statute book, and memories of the savage Bloody Assizes conducted by Judge Jeffreys linger on. His nickname was 'The Hanging Judge'. So it's 'ask no questions, and be told no lies'!

Anyway, one afternoon I took time off to park Fiona at the Colyton terminus of a most unusual tramway system. It was a 2 foot 9 inch tram line, only a few miles long, with termini at Colyton and Seaton, and an intermediate stop at Colyford, where hungry and thirsty passengers could alight and refresh themselves at a pub called The White Hart (which my good friend Angie says is well worth visiting). For a tenner I bought a return ticket to Seaton and back. Trams were still running every half an hour even at the end of September - I was surprised at this frequency so late in the season - but it's clearly a very popular attraction, and indeed my Seaton-bound car was packed.

They make a big thing about (a) the glorious meadow, wetland, and river-estuary scenery you pass through (completely justified); and (b) the fun involved in spotting all the trams they use (they have fourteen, all different, all in different liveries, and kids (of all ages) can certainly have a great time looking out for all of them, whether it's at Colyton, Seaton, midway, or inside the tramshed). Naturally, it's an event when two trams approach each other at a passing loop!

The tramshed (where the cars are stored and serviced) occupies part of the site of the old Seaton railway station, which closed in 1966. In fact the tramline was laid on the trackbed of the former Seaton Junction to Seaton standard-gauge branch line, which once saw Saturday trains from Waterloo in London. The tramway's own Seaton terminus, reached by a series of sharp bends, is right next to a big new Tesco store, and faces a modern square. This square is quite the most modern and stylish thing in Seaton, a town sometimes called 'the poor man's Sidmouth'. It's true that Seaton is a bit amusement-arcady and fish-and-chippy compared to the high tone that prevails in Sidmouth. No big exclusive hotels. No Fields department store. No Connaught Gardens. Noticeably short on posh villas. Sidmouth is Blue Plaque City, and it has a Waitrose to boot. Seaton has no blue plaques to commemorate famous residents and events, and it has a Co-op and a Tesco. Seaton is decidedly downmarket, although at least there's no ASDA, and hey, it has the Tramway!

So there I was at Colyton, with a pink tram ready to go. I looked wistfully at the café - I'd been traipsing around looking for dead Dommetts in churchyards, and ideally would have tucked eagerly into tea and cake. But duty called. I climbed aboard, went atop, and we were off.

We were soon whizzing along at 10mph or so. It felt like more. The view opened out. It was very bucolic, quite unlike what you usually see from a city tram! Real cows, crows, herons, the lot.

Colyford approached. The driver stopped the tram short of the level crossing on the A3052, pressed a button to operate the crossing lights and halt the road traffic, and when he got a white light (not a green? I thought this a bit odd) we whistled and ran slowly into Colyford. This tram stop is notable for the level crossing, the proximity of The White Hart pub, and the green gentlemen's urinal left over from railway days - and still in a fine state of preservation!

I wonder if The Men felt any sudden urge to have a pee? Nobody got off, however, and we sped on. Anon it was a wetland nature reserve on the right (to the west), and the River Axe on the left (to the east), with charming views of Axmouth across the estuary. We passed another tram too.

Then the tramshed came into view. We trundled by slowly, and were able to give its dimly-lit contents a jolly good scrutiny.

Now it was the final approach to Seaton. The tramway doesn't terminate where the old railway did, on the outskirts of town. It goes right into the town centre, via three right-angle bends that only a tram can cope with. The terminus is a flower-bedecked piece of mock-Victoriana, a bit breezy and spartan from the point of view of waiting for a tram on a cold or rainy day. But then it's next to the Costa coffee shop that's part of Tesco next door, and I imagine most passengers would wait in the warm there.

This being a half-sized tram, climbing down from the top was a bit of a squeeze!

I had half-an-hour at Seaton before the last tram to Colyton departed.

I made sure I didn't miss it! It was this blue one:

All the seats can be sat on facing either direction, and have backrests that can be moved to and fro:

As part of his duties, the driver reverses the direction of all the backrests by hand before any passengers are allowed on board. This makes a loud clack-clack-clack-clack-clack sound.

The return journey to Colyton was just like the outward one. Once again we passed another tram:

But it was getting late in the afternoon, and the air was chillier. I put a cardigan on. When we reached Colyton, I asked the driver about the lack of signals and the lack of any obvious mechanism at passing loops to switch cars onto the right part of the loop. If I understood correctly - don't count on it! - his reply was that drivers had to be in possession of a token to electrically unlock sections of line in their direction of travel, and this also ensured that the points at passing loops opened correctly against a spring. He was clearly impressed with my craving for knowledge, and asked me if I would like to photographed by the tram, and then in the driving seat. 'Ooh, yes please!' I gushed with girlish pleasure. Here is the result:

The picture of the 'controls' just above was taken in the pink tram that I first rode, and not the blue one I came back on, and posed in. But I couldn't see any difference. Tram controls all look the same to me!

The tramway is open on and off in late autumn and in the winter. They were advertising a ghoulish and bloodthirsty Hallowe'en Evening. Had I been around, I think I might have joined in the fun on a Death Tram, fake gore on my teeth, lips and chin and all. So Gothic.

Why not? Live, dead, or Undead, life's too short to hesitate.

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