Friday, 18 November 2016

An afternoon on the Okehampton artillery range

On 30th September, I decided to drive south from Great Torrington to Okehampton, with three objectives in mind: a look at Okehampton station, a drive over the artillery range up on Dartmoor, reached from Okehampton, and a visit to Waotrose at Okehampton, for some groceries.

First, Okehampton station. This was once one of the important stops on the former Southern Railway main line to Plymouth from London Waterloo. It was part of the Southern's west-of-Exeter system known disparagingly as the 'Withered Arm'. Its major components were the Taw Valley line up to Barnstaple and beyond (of which the truncated remnant as far as Barnstaple remains), and the equally-important Okehampton and Tavistock line, which ran westward across the north edge of dartmoor, then turned south to Plymouth. The rest of the system consisted of slower and more rambling lesser lines that served a variety of small places, but in the heyday of railway travel still had summer Saturday (or even daily) through trains from London - notably the original Atlantic Coast Express which had coaches for most parts of the system, getting one (for instance) to remote Bude and Padstow late in the afternoon. Things changed once the Withered Arm was transferred from Southern Region management to the Western Region: the through trains to London were stopped, and closures began, so that by 1970 the Withered Arm had become very skeletal indeed. Eventually only the Barnstaple line had a passenger service.

But time brings changes, and the Barnstaple line is again doing good business, and has perhaps its best service ever. The Okehampton line, which had become a freight-only affair serving the Meldon Quarry just beyond the town, hasn't yet got a regular passenger service back. But for some years, during summer weekends, trains have been run for tourists and walkers, Okehampton being a great place to explore the empty northern half of Dartmoor from. I wanted to see what the town's station presently looked like.

I wasn't expecting much. One of the other stations on this line, Sampford Courtenay, had been reduced through demolition to a bare platform and an adjacent car park. I was in for a surprise.

Gosh, no devastation here! Someone had saved the place for better times. It looked as it must have done in the 1960s.

I was amazed. This was not a 'preserved' station brought back from death, and lacking some of the things you'd find in a regular, real-life station. It was a real-life station in waiting. That platform edge, for example, was up to modern standards in every respect. They could start running ordinary trains from here tomorrow morning, if the decision were taken.

To be sure, there were a few things you wouldn't find on a 'proper' station - all those tables and chairs on the platform, for example (there was a café). And there was a free museum on the other platform, over the footbridge. I went to have a look. Popping in, I was confronted with this figure:

He must have been six inches taller than me, and he gave me a turn, I can tell you! This uncannily lifelike, bull-necked young man was modelling the 'new' British Rail staff uniform of the 1970s. I seem to recall that there was also a cap that, when worn, made the wearer look like a World War II German prison guard. Thankfully, they'd left him uncapped. He was way too much of a Disturbing Presence as it was. Look at that mad stare, and strangler's hands.

There were however many other items of railway interest in this little museum, and anyone even mildly curious would find out much about the station's history, including details of its restoration. In fact I studied the lot for so long that the café was closed for the afternoon by the time I emerged. That was a pity. Oh well. There was Dartmoor next to look at!

I had with me an old One-Inch Ordnance Survey map which showed a loop of ordinary tarred road on the artillery range south of Okehampton. I'd often been tempted to go and see, and maybe drive around it, if the range were open. Now that opportunity had come.

The range was open, all that week. Very well. Let's take Fiona onto it. The moor began immediately.

If you look carefully - click on the picture just above - you can see a stone wall going straight up the side of the hill, apparently serving no useful purpose. It's called Irishman's Wall. Clearly a slur on all Irish men.

There was a breeze, and the cloud formations were impressive. So were the stone outcrops.

The road remained good. After a while we approached a car park, next to a curious low turf-roofed stone building. I got out and had a look.

Now what was this? It was shut up for the moment. What would it be like if those iron hatch covers were removed? What was inside? One clue was the quite-new metal chimney:

This suggested that the place might be some kind of canteen, where hot food would be available to soldiers training on the range. Certainly, it was big enough. If not food, then warm shelter for exhausted men and women on freezing-cold winter training days? Perhaps with hot showers and a jacuzzi? Or was it just a stove for the comfort of observers on firing days? But then, why all those hatches on the front? (I imagined squaddies queuing up with plates and mugs in hand) Dear MOD, please enlighten me.

Beyond the car park, where there were a number of cars parked (but what had become of their owners?), the road continued. It still looked like an OK road. I nosed Fiona down it.

But soon. as you can see, the surface got a little rough. The Army had deliberately smashed the top surface of sections up to two hundred yards long, clearly to discourage people venturing far. The road surface alternated smooth, rough, smooth, rough for the rest of the loop. It was not good for Fiona's rather worn front tyres. I drove with care on the rough sections.

But it was adventurous. Soon I came to a ford. The stream looked a bit deep.

Fiona might be built for the gravel roads of northern Sweden, but did they have this in mind? Yes, they did. I drove down into the water, and was mildly surprised how little drama there was.

Hurrah for Fiona!

On we went. Dartmoor ponies came into view. I wondered what happened to them on firing days. Perhaps they knew the timetable, and moved elsewhere.

This really was a lonely part of Dartmoor. I was so glad I had Fiona to take shelter in, if the wind became colder! She looked somewhat out of place now: an armoured car would have seemed more appropriate, so far from ordinary roads.

Another stone-and-turf building came into view. This was a rougher affair. It was just a shelter. It had no door - soldiers would have to heave themselves over a chest-high wall.

I suppose it would provide vital shelter in a blizzard, but it was bare and comfortless. Apart from one little thing I noticed:

Was that an electrical socket? Was the place supplied with electricity, so that weary frostbitten soldiers could plug in their electric blankets or whatever? Please explain, MOD.

Just then a group of mountain-bikers turned up. They looked at me and they looked at Fiona (a strange vision here), and I told them about my old map and my keenness to see what the road was like. We wished each other good luck.

On went the road. It had stopped going south, and was now heading north again, back towards Okehampton. It seemed even rougher than before.

At one point, I was able to look eastwards and see the car park by the first building. It must be a lookout post when the range was in use.

The sun was going down, and shadows were lengthening. And yet, amazingly, I now encountered two men with backbacks. Where were they off to, so late in the afternoon?  They did a double-take as I came into view. 'Are you lost?' they asked. No, I replied, and I explained again about my old map. They shook their heads in wonderment. We wished each other good luck, and I drove on. Not long afterwards, I emerged onto smooth road again. Looking back at the barrier gate, I saw why Fiona had been so unexpected a sight, and driven by a woman at that.

The notice (right centre in the shot) said:


Perhaps they had thought me a ditsy female, who had got onto the road by mistake and had just followed it, without knowing where it might lead! I'm sure they talked about it over a pint when they next reached civilisation. The bikers too, no doubt. 

Never mind. Fiona and I had enjoyed An Experience, and had lived to tell the tale.

But I wouldn't want to do the same thing in bad weather! Nor indeed in the dark, and it was getting distinctly close to sunset.

It was quite dark by the time I got back to the caravan. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photos. Thank you so much for sharing this lovely tour. :)


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