Friday, 3 April 2015

My Tamar Valley Line adventure

I tried to pack in as many interesting experiences as I could, during my chilly early-spring West Country holiday!

One of them happened by accident. I wanted to spend a day in Plymouth, the big city in south-west Devon, next to the county border with Cornwall, but on the way also wanted to check out the tongue of hard-to-get-to land that lies between the confluence of the rivers Tamar and Tavy, and contains two villages, Bere Alston and Bere Ferrers. I'd never been to Bere Ferrers. It looked well worth going to, on the map - a little place leading down to a harbour; with of course, a pub. I planned to have lunch at that pub, before retracing my road route back to Tavistock, and thence into Plymouth. I was last at Bere Alston in 1982, when - as part of a mixed foursome out for a bit of sightseeing - we'd stopped to look at the railway station there just as a Gunnislake-bound train had suddenly arrived. Urged on by the man of our party, we had jumped aboard and...well, I'm not saying just yet! I'll come back to it further on.

Anyway, I decided to look at Bere Ferrers station this time. I parked Fiona and immediately discovered that a Plymouth-bound train was due within ten minutes - quite a coincidence, since the train service was a fairly sparse once-every-two-hours affair. I instantly decided to catch it. No pub lunch watching the gulls in Bere Ferrers harbour then - but hey, it was a quick and direct way to reach Plymouth, and I could avoid all the hassle and expense of finding a parking place for Fiona. I'd grab something to eat in the city.

Bere Ferrers station was quite attractive.

Southern Railway green everywhere! The former goods yard had become something of a depot for railway things, and this was clearly the HQ for a local preservation society. The Plymouth-bound train was right on time. I have always loved to listen hard, and hear the very first indication that Something Is Coming, then to see it come into view, and then (if it's a train I need to catch) experience that moment of doubt, when you hope hard that it will stop as advertised, and not just whizz past. It did stop.

Once aboard, the landscape could be seen in a way denied to drivers, even Volvo drivers. Southward lay a succession of waterside vistas all the way into Plymouth, mostly inaccessible by ordinary road traffic. I had first to buy a ticket from the guard. I warned him that it would be a complicated business! I didn't simply want a return ticket from Bere Ferrers to Plymouth and back. I wanted to travel the entire line up to Gunnislake - recreating that 1982 adventure - and only then return to Bere Ferrers. So I needed a return ticket from Gunnislake to Plymouth. Was that possible? Oh, yes. So I showed my Senior Railcard, and then my credit card, and was mildly staggered when the tickets cost only £3.65! What an amazing bargain. Surely I'd have paid much more to park Fiona in Plymouth. This was most propitious.

We'd hardly concluded the transaction when the two Tamar bridges came close. There are two. The rail bridge, named the Royal Albert Bridge, designed and built by the famous Great Western Railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and finished (when he lay dying) in 1859. And the road bridge, which is actually called the Tamar Bridge, begun in 1959 and opened in 1961. Train passengers get to see them from underneath, although you have to be ready, because the glimpse is brief. This is what I saw from my window:

Soon we were running through built-up areas. A succession of urban halts - St Budeaux Victoria Road, Keyham, Dockyard, Devonport. A surprising number of people got on and off. The Royal Naval dockyards were still there, and some grey-painted warships could be seen from my train, but it was clear that the devastation of the Second World War (which destroyed much of central and seafront Plymouth), and a succession of more recent rationalisations, had greatly reduced the ship-building and ship-repairing facilities. Not a single Jack Tar could be seen. But at one time the sailors and the supporting civilian workforce must have thronged the platforms I was stopping at.

Plymouth used to have several passenger stations, not just the one on the north side of the city centre. One of the first was at Millbay, well-placed when built to serve both the town and the quays from which ocean liners and ferries would come and go, not to mention commercial goods. All the many harbours had their rail connections, and before the 1923 grouping of the private railway companies there was a fierce battle between the Great Western Railway and the London & South Western Railway for traffic, each owning rival facilities in Plymouth. This continued post-1923 until nationalisation in 1948, the contenders now being the Southern Railway and the Great Western. After 1948, the same competition carried on for many years, this time between the Southern and Western Regions of British Railways! This section of my 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map from 1967 shows how many lines could still be seen on the ground:

But the ruthless line-closures of Dr Beeching finally gave 'victory' to the Western Region - that is, the old Great Western. And bit by bit the railway scene in Plymouth shrunk back. You can see the important-looking line to Millbay on the map above, running south from a triangular junction to Millbay dock. It had to close to passengers in 1941, after German bombing, but it long survived for goods use. Now Millbay and its approach tracks have all gone, although the brick supports for the viaduct that carried the western curve of that triangular junction can still be seen - as I observed them here, from my train - topped now by an 'artistic' red-painted girder feature:

Since the 1960s the old Southern network has all but disappeared. The branch line I'd travelled in on had in fact once been the Southern main line from Plymouth to Exeter, and onwards to London Waterloo. But the Bere Alston to Okehampton section of it had been removed decades ago. I don't think it's likely that it will be put back, even though this has recently been considered in a Network Rail discussion paper as a possible option for re-routing the West of England main railway line between Plymouth and Exeter, to avoid the section so vulnerable to sea damage at Dawlish. (See their downloadable PDF titled West-of-Exeter-Route-Resilience-Study) But there are several other options that would be a bit more cost-effective. The old 'inland' route via Tavistock and Okehampton would need a very expensive overhaul to make it suitable for modern high-speed trains, and, as it stands, using it would entail through trains reversing twice, at Plymouth and at Exeter, leading to delays. Easier to beef up the present Dawlish route!

Plymouth station's mid-twentieth century rebuild was completed in 1962. It must have looked fresh and contemporary then; but now, away from the bright-and-breezy entrance area, it all looked distinctly grey and rather bleak, and definitely in need of a bit of love.

It was a well-used station - over two million passengers a year - but it struck me as much too big for the number of trains it handled. However, it had to accommodate a lot of cross-country trains composed of many carriages, which tended to arrive in bunches - a cluster of them in small windows in the morning and in the afternoon - and they each had to be given a platform to wait on. So maybe the multiple platforms did make sense after all.

Well, I had a couple of hours in Plymouth - more on that in another post - and then boarded my return train, this time to travel all the way to Gunnislake, before getting off at Bere Ferrers. Here it was, waiting for me on Platform 3:

Let's jump ahead now, beyond Bere Ferrers, to Bere Alston. Here the old 'main line' ended, and the train reversed onto a section of line very different in character. It was steep and bendy, and had to be taken slowly, with the wheels squealing on the winding rails. This was the former branch line to Callington, cut back to Gunnislake in the 1960s. The line was kept because Gunnislake (and other places like Drakewalls and Calstock) would otherwise have no easy and direct connection with Plymouth. It's all now marketed as the Tamar Valley Line.

Bere Alston station was improved from when I'd seen it thirty-three years before. It looked very clean and spruce. This was clearly a place that did get a bit of TLC!

Now the exciting part began. At as little as 10mph we creaked towards Calstock station, and then suddenly there was the high railway bridge over the River Tamar! Then we trundled over it. My goodness, the view was good, even on an overcast day. I noticed that a fair number of Plymouth University students lived out at Calstock - and even beyond. Presumably they could find affordable accommodation only out this far, and must be dependant on the rail service.

Onwards to Gunnislake! Woodland now closed in around the train, and we seemed to scrape past high mossy banks, with glimpses of a deep river gorge now and then - in fact we seemed to be dangerously close to a nearly-sheer drop on one side. Then we came out onto a landscape dotted with old mine chimneys - well, this was now Cornwall! Gunnislake station (which I last saw in 2010, briefly, when driving back to Great Torrington from Looe) was a surprisingly modern-looking affair. This was because it wasn't the original station, which had been on the other side of the adjacent main road. They'd built a new station so that an awkward railway bridge could be demolished.

I had a quick word with that guard. Would he swear that the train, on its return journey towards Plymouth, would stop at Bere Ferrers, so that I could get off? He assured me that it would stop. On his very life.

The countryside viewed from the train had been very fine.

Back at Bere Ferrers, I thanked the guard and waved goodbye.

I felt that this had been making the best of a cold, not very sunny day. In 1982 we had done the trip in the summer. It was glorious. March conditions in 2015 didn't show this line at its finest. But I noticed this poster, showing a train crossing that high bridge with a blue sky above. Ah, that's how it would be later in the year:


  1. The Gunnislake line is one of my favourites. When our children were young we often motored to Gunnislake, then caught the train to Plymouth - so much more fun than simply parking up in the middle of Plymouth. The section from Calstock is amazing and really does belong to a bygone age, with its twists and turns, and unguarded level crossings.

    Recently there's been serious talk about relaying the line between Bere Alston and Tavistock. I wish them luck.

  2. Yes, I heard about the local reopening of the old main line to Tavistock, although it's difficult to see how the likely passenger numbers would justify the expense.



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