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David Thrower's Ilfracombe Branch article in 2004 BackTrack magazine

Click here to download David Thrower's excellent 2-part article 'The Ilfracombe Branch' from BackTrack magazine editions of July 2004 & Sept 2004. This includes information on Mortehoe station (map) which was a key component of the line. Mortehoe Station was nemechecked in Flanders and Swann's 'The Slow Train'David was on the Ilfracombe Line on its last day in 1970, and his parents were in Mortehoe for their 1949 honeymoon so the line has a special place in his affections!

© Pendragon Publishing and BackTrack MagazineReproduced at www.mortehoe.org by kind permission of BackTrack Magazine and David Thrower.

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Below is text-only version of the article. Please see the PDF version instead to view images and map.


Southern Gone West  - 
The Ilfracombe Branch
by David Thrower


Early History

The small coastal town of Ilfracombe had a history going back to at least the early middle ages, and owed its existence to its small natural harbour situated on a notoriously inhospitable coastline that has claimed many ships over the centuries, aided by the heartless activities of the Wreckers. However, the town’s position as a port was peripheral to most of North Devon, and the better-located ports of Barnstaple and more particularly Bideford soon prospered, in part at Ilfracombe’s expense.


Nevertheless, the town had a very attractive setting, with rocky cliffs along the coast to the east and west and a hinterland of wooded hills. In early Victorian times, the area therefore began to gain ground as a resort, this initially of course being only for the wealthy.


The first real opportunity for a rail link was presented when the broad-gauge North Devon Railway reached Barnstaple in August 1854. The well-known Exeter solicitor Robert Wreford, who was also closely involved with the Exmouth railway project, planned to extend the NDR line to Ilfracombe, and variously wooed the London and South Western Railway, the NDR itself and the Bristol & Exeter Railway.


In 1860, the LSWR promised to contribute £10,000 towards a standard gauge route to Ilfracombe, on condition of similar support from the other two companies, but little further progress was made. However, the proposals ensured that interest in Ilfracombe had been firmly aroused, and one local figure, the Reverend Benjamin Price, was to emerge to champion the cause of a rail link to the town for many years afterwards, until it saw fruition.


Part of the problem for would-be promoters was the extremely difficult terrain to be faced to the south of Ilfracombe. Any route to the town had to overcome the range of hills that stretched east-west, immediately to the south of it. Two routes were proposed to overcome this, one via a western alignment that differed from the one that was eventually built, and the other routed much further east, via Bittadon, finally approaching Ilfracombe almost from an easterly direction.


It was left to a local committee chaired by the Reverend Price, with the tacit support of the LSWR and NDR, to reach a conclusion over the best route.  The route initially selected for the proposed Ilfracombe Railway was for a line from Bishops Tawton, south of Barnstaple, circling around the east and north side of the town, then westwards and northwards through the Slade Valley, but with considerable tunnelling, before dropping to Ilfracombe. A steep tramway extension to the harbour at Ilfracombe, a very costly add-on option, was also proposed.


The LSWR remained broadly supportive of trying to develop a link to Ilfracombe, and significantly, in July 1862, the LSWR additionally agreed to lease the NDR as from January 1863. Not only had the Exeter and Crediton and the North Devon from Crediton to Barnstaple been built to the broad gauge, but, by the indirect purchase of shares, the LSWR had acquired an invisible controlling influence, with the NDR being leased in 1862. Following this, mixed gauge was laid up to Barnstaple, thus bringing any Ilfracombe proposals very firmly into the LSWR’s, rather than the Bristol and Exeter’s, sphere of influence.


Unfortunately, matters for the Ilfracombe proposal then became complicated, as was so often the case, when a rival scheme was put forward. This was the Devon and Somerset Railway, approaching Barnstaple from the east, from Taunton via Dulverton, and with its own proposed broad-gauge branch to Ilfracombe via the eastern (Bittadon) route.


Argument raged over the merits and drawbacks of each route, the western option’s steep gradient of 1 in 33 being considered by its critics to be potentially unsafe, and with the Great Western’s own consulting engineer, John Fowler, now putting the cost of the Bittadon route at only £167,000. The proposed western route’s Bill was therefore consequently lost in the House of Lords in April 1863.


There were strong protests by townspeople at the news of this major setback, and some considerable local civil disorder, sufficiently serious for the Riot Act to have to be read. Those who had lobbied against the Bill were variously burnt or hanged in effigy. The Victorians were good at protesting.


The LSWR then commissioned the engineer Galbraith to undertake a more detailed review of the alternative eastern, Bittadon, route, and he reported that its heavy engineering costs would in his view bring its cost to £220,000, compared with the £160,000 of the western route. He therefore recommended that the western route should in engineering terms still remain the preferred option.


But, pragmatically, in political terms, should the LSWR camp now back the eastern route instead? A fresh survey by Galbraith of the eastern option still put the cost at £210,000, including two tunnels and two high viaducts. Meanwhile, the Devon & Somerset Railway were pressing ahead with their proposals for the line from Taunton to Barnstaple, Parliamentary powers for which were obtained in July 1864.


Urged on by the LSWR, a Bill for the Ilfracombe Railway via the eastern route was now sought, after a decision to endorse it in September 1863, the LSWR having reluctantly given its support to this more costly option in order to avoid the very heavy gradients of the western (Braunton) route. The plans for the eastern route involved viaducts of Belah-like height.


Whilst these powers were being sought, the Devon and Somerset successfully obtained the powers for its broad-gauge Taunton to Barnstaple line in July 1864. However, its proposed broad-gauge extension to Ilfracombe was lost, powers for the latter having been denied at the House of Lords stage. Ilfracombe had now lost two sets of proposals, a great deal of money had been spent, and it still had no railway.


And the complications were still not over. Unfortunately, when the Ilfracombe Railway/LSWR camp’s revised eastern route Bill reached the Parliamentary Committee stage in June 1864, the Committee inserted a clause requesting that the line be able to accommodate mixed gauge. Uneasily, under pressure from local interests, the LSWR therefore agreed to an arrangement whereby the Devon & Somerset would co-own the line if built. At least the Parliamentary hurdle had been passed, even if the wrong route, in engineering terms, had been selected. An Act of Parliament was then obtained in June 1865, sanctioning the Ilfracombe Railway, but requiring it to be of mixed gauge and connected both the NDR and the B&ER (Devon and Somerset) lines.


At this critical point, the Devon and Somerset company got into financial difficulties, seeking in 1867 to extricate itself from the Ilfracombe proposals. Following this, the Ilfracombe Railway itself sought in 1868 to end the arrangements so as to be able to start again.


In October 1868, Galbraith was once again instructed by the LSWR company to re-survey the western route, or a variation of it. Even a cross-Taw tunnel was considered at this time. Finally, matters finally came to a head when the western and eastern route schemes were both simultaneously presented to Barnstaple Town Council in January 1870.

A Decision At Last

It was an occasion of critical strategic importance for such a relatively local body. When the vote came the overwhelming majority was for a modified western alignment, crossing the River Taw immediately downstream from the existing road bridge, rather than circumnavigating the town on its east and north sides and then striking west towards Braunton. The revised western route would therefore be accessible directly from what later became renamed Barnstaple Junction, with the new line serving a new Barnstaple Quay station on the north (town) side.


The eastern route promoters then finally accepted defeat and withdrew their Bill from Parliament, whilst the locally-preferred western route reached its Committee stage in March 1870. The Act for the modified western route was passed on 4th July 1870, for the line to be constructed and worked as a light railway. After some further delay whilst the necessary funding was secured, the ceremonial cutting of the first sod was performed on 27th September 1871. It had been a painful birth, even by the standards of the time, although the convolutions of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link well over a century later suggest that we have learned little since.


By February 1872 the new line’s engineer, Galbraith, was able to report that work was progressing at a number of locations, with a mile of alignment prepared at the route’s summit at Mortehoe. By March 1873 the new Sticklepath Road bridge at Barnstaple was in place, to allow the new line to reach the river from the original Barnstaple station, and wrought-iron piling had begun for the Taw crossing. New sea wall works and the station platform on the Barnstaple side of the river were also in place, and the piles for the Yeo swing bridge, further to the west of Barnstaple, were also in hand.


On 16th June 1874, the first locomotive gingerly steamed across the Taw. By mid-1874, the difficult summit cutting at Mortehoe, where several accidents to the contractors had occurred, was completed at last, and a test train hauled by two “Ilfracombe Goods” locomotives traversed the line successfully on 30th June. The Board of Trade inspection was on 13th July


The very first public train to operate was the 6.35am from Ilfracombe on 20th July 1874. Slightly bizarrely, the celebratory decorations at Ilfracombe were inscribed as welcoming the Czar and Czarina of Russia, having been acquired secondhand after earlier use at Windsor for a State reception. A public dinner was staged in Ilfracombe on 21st July, with further celebrations for the navvies the next day and on 25th July.


The line’s nominal independence was shortlived. By accordance with an agreement of April 1874, the LSWR acquired the line by Act of Parliament of July 1874, the amalgamation with the LSWR taking place in 1875.


Because the Ilfracombe line had been built as a light railway, a speed limit of 25mph throughout was in force. The light railway status was superseded in 1887, though the 25mph limit was retained for the time being. But traffic soon began to build up, and in 1888 the LSWR appointed contractors Lucas and Aird to double the route for almost its entire length, between Pottington, just west of Barnstaple, and Ilfracombe, the initial Barnstaple Junction-Pottington section being left single because of the heavy expense of doubling its two bridges.


Despite this latter economy measure, doubling works were fairly onerous, with a number of overbridges having to be reconstructed and a second bore for the Slade tunnel built. The Braunton-Mortehoe section was open as a double track route from 1st July 1889, followed by Pottington to Braunton on 4th August 1890. The most difficult section, Mortehoe-Ilfracombe, opened in doubled form on 1st July 1891, which was quite commendable progress in the circumstances.


Meanwhile, the Devon and Somerset had finally been built, despite chronic cash shortages, from Taunton to Barnstaple Victoria. The route was worked by the Bristol and Exeter. A further important development had occurred in 1887 when the Devon and Somerset, which was eventually absorbed by the GWR in 1901, had built a loop line from its terminal at Barnstaple Victoria around the east side of the town to connect with the LSWR line as it entered the town from Exeter. This short link thus permitted through coaches to be worked westwards on the GWR and D&SR to Ilfracombe via Taunton, Barnstaple Victoria (where they had to reverse), Barnstaple Junction and Barnstaple Town.


The final development came in 1905, when the junction at the Barnstaple Victoria end of the link was made into a triangle, with a direct east-to-south chord line being opened to permit direct Taunton-Barnstaple Junction-Barnstaple Town-Ilfracombe running without reversal.

The Route

Immediately upon leaving Barnstaple Junction station, the Ilfracombe line curved northwards and then crossed the River Taw. Just before reaching the bridge, on the west side of the line, was Shapland and Petters’ siding, serving a joinery. This received incoming wagons of timber and despatched outgoing wagons of furniture, on a daily basis.


The viaduct over the Taw had sixteen spans, with its piers lining-up with the multiple piers of the adjacent road bridge to assist the passage of boats. The reverse westward curve on the viaduct was just seven chains radius, and from the outset had a speed limit of 15mph. At the point where down trains regained terra firma, there was a minor level crossing, controlled by a ground-level signalbox, Commercial Road. The line then entered Barnstaple Town station.


The original station here was located 250 yards to the east of the later Town station site, nearer to the Taw viaduct, and was named Barnstaple Quay. It was itself also briefly renamed Barnstaple Town in 1886, but was then closed in 1898 and replaced by the completely new and more commodious Barnstaple Town facility, several hundred yards to the west. This was necessary because the original Quay/Town site was so cramped, with no room for sidings.


Notwithstanding the relocation to the new site, the layout of the latter must still have been one of the most unorthodox on the SR system, due to the need to squeeze it in between Commercial Road/Castle Street and the river’s edge.  The station itself consisted of a platform served by the single-track (at this point) Ilfracombe line, a passing loop, on the river’s edge, and the Lynton & Barnstaple bay with its run-round narrow-gauge loop. The platform for standard-gauge services at the Town was rather short, only accommodating about five bogie coaches.


Each gauge also had an exchange siding, for transferring goods. This was where L&BR locomotives could also, in SR days, be loaded onto well wagons for conveyance to Eastleigh for overhaul. The Lynton and Barnstaple, of course, is a story in itself. Although the L&BR closed on 29th September 1935, its memory hung over Barnstaple Town station for the next thirty-five years, until the Ilfracombe line eventually joined it in oblivion.


The cross-platform connection at least made interchange easy for would-be passengers. The late Hamilton Ellis wrote of how the connection used to be made, and how, having come down on an overnight service from Paddington  -  much against his better judgement  -  rather than Waterloo, and arrived at Barnstaple Town via Dulverton, he had found two very small narrow-gauge coaches, with compartments that were “peculiarly narrow and hard”. But the little train had gained a greater status in his view when the night newspapers were loaded aboard and the locomotive had coupled up. Ellis and his wife had still been the only passengers as the ensemble had left the station and puffed gently away to the north, curving alongside the River Yeo.


After the L&BR closure, the Town station canopy was cut back from serving the bay, so as to be approximately only the length of the station buildings.


The relocated Barnstaple Town signalbox provided an intermediate block post on the sometimes very busy single-line section between Barnstaple Junction and Pottington. It also controlled a minor road crossing giving access to Castle Quay. The L&BR had its own signalbox.


West of the Town station, the Ilfracombe line then crossed a small 59-foot swing bridge over the River Yeo, a tributary of the Taw. The lower reaches of the Yeo, immediately above the bridge, served Rolle’s Quay on its west bank. This was a wharf for small coastal barges carrying timber, coal and grain, hence the need for the swing bridge.


Immediately west of the swing bridge was the junction for the long siding to the Quay, trailing from the Barnstaple direction. Shunting the quayside meant using the main line as a headshunt. The bridge and siding, from where the Ilfracombe line returned to double track, was controlled by yet another signalbox, Pottington.


Operation of the bridge seems to have been cumbersome. To open the span for shipping required disconnecting the fishplates and then winding the span around via a cogged mechanism. During opening, to avoid potential misunderstandings, down trains would be held at the Town station, and up trains at Braunton.


After Pottington came Duckpool Gates. This was a small LSWR box at ground level, with block indicators, controlling a minor road’s set of gates by means of a wheel. The large number of level crossings on the Ilfracombe line was eventually to tell heavily against its finances in the 1960s.

Wrafton

Five miles west of Barnstaple, Wrafton station served the small hamlet of the same name, north of the line, but was also alongside the RAF base at Chivenor, which lay immediately south of the site. It was something of an apposite name, spuriously implying that “Wrafton” meant “RAF Town”.


There was another level crossing at the west end of the platforms here. The station offices and stationmaster’s house, which were rendered and painted white, were on the up platform, whilst the signalbox was on the down platform, together with a small boarded shelter. The signalbox, which had a low brick base with boarded superstructure, had a very minor claim to fame, as in BR days it also controlled the only colour-light signal on the entire branch.


Neither passenger nor freight traffic were ever very busy here, and not all services called in later years. Originally there was a single siding on the down side. A second siding appears to have been added during World War II. In postwar days, this accommodated a pair of camping coaches of LSWR origin. The two sidings were taken out of use in January 1965.


Beyond Wrafton came Vellator Gates. This was another LSWR-type ground level box, again with gates worked by a wheel, but was not a block post. As with Duckpool Gates, the box only closed in October 1970. From here, the direction of the remainder of the line was northwards, reaching Braunton less than a mile beyond Wrafton.

Braunton

The station at Braunton, in Caen Street, was well-located to serve the local village, effectively being only a couple of minutes from the village centre. It was also the railhead for Saunton Sands, Croyde Bay and Braunton Burrows, with the station nameboard being subtitled “For Saunton Sands & Croyde Bay”. The small resort at Croyde Bay, some miles distant, in later years became very popular with school camping holiday groups from as far afield as Croydon.


Originally Braunton had been a passing loop on the single-track light railway. Rather curiously, the main station buildings, which included a substantial stationmaster’s house and a single-storey structure housing a ticket office and waiting room, were located on the down (Ilfracombe-bound) side, when most passengers using the station would naturally have been heading for Barnstaple or Exeter.


Freight facilities were more substantial than at Wrafton. There was a goods shed and cattle dock, both on the up side, and the yard included five sidings. There was significant dispatching of cut flowers from the station until the late 1960s.


On the down side, two short sidings served as spurs for banking engines, as Braunton was where these were buffered-up to Ilfracombe-bound trains for the slog up to Mortehoe. There was a substantial water-tower, fed from the River Caen, to replenish any banking engines waiting for business.


All sidings went out of use from early 1965, banking effectively having ceased with the virtual end of steam the previous autumn, although a few steam/diesel banked services had operated in the final months.


North of the station, the gradients began, starting at 1 in 74. Even this was demanding, as all trains were scheduled to call at Braunton. Beyond Braunton’s advance starter signal lay Georgeham Gates, yet another LSWR-type ground level box controlling a minor road. This again was not a block post, and the gates had to be worked by hand.


The line passed the small village of Knowle, but no station was provided, presumably due to the difficulty of trains re-starting on the gradient. Further north came the Stoney Bridge Gates crossing, which again was not a block post, and then the better-known Heddon Mill Crossing. This had been opened as a block post around 1890 to break-up the length from Braunton to Mortehoe. Both boxes lasted until closure.


From Braunton, the gradients ran at between 1 in 75 and 1 in 120, though there was a brief interlude at 1 in 300. After that, they stiffened to 1 in 40 for over three miles until the summit was reached at Mortehoe station, with a momentary plateau at Foxhunters Inn. Perhaps this latter was for a future, but in the event unbuilt, halt.

Mortehoe and Woolacombe

Morthoe was one of those stations that suffered a periodic identity crisis. Opened as Morthoe (one “e”), it had become Mortehoe in 1902, then later Mortehoe and Woolacombe in June 1950. Once again, the station had commenced as a passing loop on the single-line scheme, and, when doubled, had crossovers and five sidings on the down side, with two more sidings on the up side. These sidings served a cattle pen.


The signalbox was of a more non-standard design, and probably dated from 1889-90. It closed on 17th December 1967 when the line was singled.


On summer Saturdays, Mortehoe became a sort of West Country version of Hawes Junction, with banking engines arriving from both south and north and having to be crossed over and returned to either Braunton or Ilfracombe. However, there was no turntable, either at Braunton or Mortehoe, and so banking involved much tender-first running. It was not unknown for Bulleid Pacifics to be seen working on these duties, but on most occasions in the final years it was M7 tanks, Ivatt 2MT tanks or Maunsell Moguls.


Immediately beyond the station limits, the line dropped steeply away, at 1 in 77/75, then at 1 in 36 the remainder of the way down to Ilfracombe, twisting and turning as it descended the Slade Valley, past the reservoirs and through the very short Slade tunnel.

Ilfracombe

Ilfracombe was eventually, in its heyday, to become one of the SR’s best-publicised resorts. However, it never quite reached the status of some of the South Devon coastal resorts. Even by the early 1960s, it could only boast one three-star hotel (on a scale of up to five stars) and six two-star establishments. Compare this with Sidmouth, a similar-sized resort, which had four four-star, four three-star and seven two-star hotels. Although being a long way to travel to, and therefore expensive for many, Ilfracombe thus never reached the status of being “select”.


Ilfracombe station’s setting was perhaps the most dramatic of any terminus on the entire SR system, mounted on an artificially-created promontory of flat land at a height of 225 feet, and seemingly floating above the town as though on a cloud. The station could in turn be viewed dramatically from above the woods to the south, and, from the platforms, passengers had a dramatic view of hills to the west and east, the town below, and the sparkling waters of the Bristol Channel. The railway gradient downhill into the station from Mortehoe eased at the station throat from 1 in 36 to 1 in 71, then finally 1 in 353.


Only one long platform with two faces was ever provided. Originally this was fairly short, but it was lengthened around 1901 by the LSWR, and again by the SR in 1929. The western face, platform 2, was the longer of the two, and so was invariably used for express services, the eastern face being used for locals and the usually shorter-formation inter-regional departures via Taunton.


The initial LSWR-era track layout was very modest, with just one carriage siding on the west side and the small locomotive turntable and shed at the north-east corner of the site, together with three goods sidings. The goods yard included a modest goods shed, a small crane, a goods agent’s office and a loading dock.


The later-era LSWR layout was only slightly modified to improve working arrangements, but boasted a second carriage siding, a portent of things to come, and a larger turntable. The turntable works were carried out in 1895, by allocating Ilfracombe a second-hand 42-foot table recovered from Okehampton. The 1890s also saw the replacement of the signalbox when box number two was commissioned in 1891, when the line from Barnstaple was doubled. By 1904, the number of carriage sidings had grown to four.


The SR’s remodelling of 1929 gave Ilfracombe one of the most complex but compact layouts of any branch terminus in the UK. The result was a layout that employed a succession of four double slips, one in the cramped locomotive yard, two just off the platform ramp and one in the carriage sidings throat. A further crossing gave access from platform 2 to the carriage headshunt, behind the signalbox, which also served sidings 1 to 8. The goods yard was equally constrained, with three sidings served by a very short headshunt up against the rock cutting wall. To control the new layout, signalbox version number three was opened in April 1929. Some 14 of its levers were spare.


The original loco shed was demolished when the station was rebuilt. The replacement SR shed was to an architectural “utility” design, the bare minimum for servicing a Pacific under cover. It was built of pre-cast concrete infilled with “Muribloc” blocks, topped with a corrugated asbestos roof, and with a very small coaling platform and a water tank on its east side, serving the one uncovered locomotive siding. An inspection pit ran throughout the shed, which must have been truly grim to work in winter with a nor’-wester blowing.


The shed site was especially cramped, particularly where the rocks had to be excavated-out to provide space for a 65-foot turntable, which cost some £9,000 compared with the £200 for the earlier Okehampton cast-off. In about 1945-46, this in turn was replaced by a 70-foot turntable to serve the new Bulleid Pacifics. Between 1947-54, the Devon Belle observation car also had to be turned each day.


The final era arrived following the transfer of all SR lines west of Wilton to the Western Region from January 1963. At first there was no change, and for all practical purposes the Ilfracombe line still resembled part of the SR until the fateful day of 7th September 1964, when the new Waterloo-Exeter St. Davids Warship-hauled service commenced and everything west of Exeter became a WR dmu operation. Ilfracombe shed closed from this date, with the turntable being removed in October 1964. The goods sidings were taken out of use at the same date. The signalbox lingered on for another three years, closing on 17th December 1967, with the single line from Barnstaple serving the remaining layout via the use of two ground frames released by the train staff.


In its final form, the station had an overwhelming air of sad decline. The rusting carriage sidings were a sorry reminder of the train service’s dramatic drop in intensity. In December 1967 they were cleared and a run-round loop established in platform 2, controlled by two specially-installed ground frames. One last carriage siding lasted until May 1968.

Branch Local Services

In the early years, services seem to have comprised just a handful of trains each way, commencing (rather oddly) with five down services and four up services each weekday. This soon increased to five each way, and to six by 1887. Sunday services commenced in June 1890, with just one train each way. By 1891, weekday services had reached eight down trains and nine up, and this had reached eleven down and thirteen up services by 1904.


As a more detailed illustration, the LSWR timetable for 1909 records that on a weekday, the first passenger train down the Ilfracombe line was as late as 8.23am, arriving at 9.07am. After this, there were departures at 10.10, 11.08 (high summer only), 12.18, 2.03, 2.53, 3.23 (high summer only), 3.40, 4.22, 4.48 (both the latter high summer only), 5.20, 6.03 (high summer only), 6.41, 7.11, 7.49 and 8.06 (again, both high summer only), and 8.40, this last train pulling into Ilfracombe at 9.23pm. The service by this time was therefore extremely good by most rural branch standards, offering no fewer than seventeen journeys in the peak season, though only ten outside the summer period.


By nationalisation and the 1950s, the timetable on the Ilfracombe route had reached a format that was to remain familiar until the Western Region dieselised the line after September 1964. Using the down weekday service in summer 1950 as an illustration, first train down the branch was the 6.55am from Barnstaple Junction, which had started from Central at 5.16am and which included an overnight through coach from Waterloo. This was followed by an 8.00am from Barnstaple, then the 6.20 slow from Yeovil Town, which reached Barnstaple at 10.04 and Ilfracombe at 10.55. Next was the 7.40 from Yeovil Town, reaching Ilfracombe at 11.56, then the 8.05 from Salisbury, arriving at the terminus at 1.48pm. This was followed by the 1.33pm from Central, which included coaches off the 9.00 Waterloo.


After the down ACE at 3.28pm from Barnstaple, arriving 4.13pm, and the Devon Belle (would they have charged a supplement for travelling from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe?), there was a 5.15pm starter from Barnstaple Junction, then a 3.45pm from Exmouth, arriving Ilfracombe at 6.42pm. Next, the 4.58pm from Central included through Waterloo coaches and reached Ilfracombe at 7.17pm. The last train of the day was the 6.55pm from Central, again with through coaches from London, arriving at Ilfracombe at 9.08pm. This gave the branch eleven down trains (excluding the Devon Belle) on a summer weekday, reasonably adequate for local travel needs..


Use of the local services by holidaymakers was strongly encouraged by the SR. Visitors to North Devon could in 1949 buy a week-long Holiday Runabout ticket for 12/6d (62p), which entitled the holder to unlimited travel for seven days between Ilfracombe, Barnstaple, Torrington, Exeter and Exmouth (note the avoidance of ex-GW territory). At just over 1/9d a day, it sounds a bargain, and it was.


Through Services

The history of through LSWR/SR and GWR/WR services to Ilfracombe is a very complex one, and only a basic flavour can be given here. Readers requiring further details are referred to the many books on the SR West of England routes and services, and to the histories of the GWR and other relevant companies.


From very early days, through coaches, and at certain times complete portions of through trains, were run to Ilfracombe from Waterloo. By 1887, a Waterloo-Ilfracombe timing of between six and a half and seven hours was on offer, which was distinctly unimpressive for 226 miles, though marginally faster than travelling via Paddington and Taunton. By 1889, the GWR was offering 6hrs 55mins, and one service with its through coach detached at Taunton offered a six-hour transit, twenty minutes less than via Salisbury.


By 1906, when the GWR had speeded-up its West of England services, a much better 4hr 55min timing from Paddington to Ilfracombe via Dulverton was on offer. The best that the LSWR could offer by this time was 5hrs 13mins.


At this time, the return LSWR fare from Waterloo to Ilfracombe was 59/- first class, 37/- second class and 33/8d third class. There were also cheaper weekend returns available Friday or Saturday to Tuesday at 42/6d, 26/3d and 21/3d respectively.


The 11.00am from Waterloo had dated back at least to the 1890s, but it was not until autumn 1925 that the SR approved the name Atlantic Coast Express, after a staff competition. And even in pre-Grouping times, the LSWR’s high-summer 11.00am service had run in up to three portions, with a 10.50 serving Plymouth, the 11.00 Ilfracombe and Torrington and an 11.10 serving North Cornwall.


By 1950, the full SR summer Saturday through service from London to Ilfracombe, not all of course of which were given the title ACE, was as follows. First down was the 00.35 from Waterloo, arriving at Barnstaple Junction at 5.45am and at Ilfracombe at 6.43. The 1.25am down only conveyed coaches to Ilfracombe when the high-season 00.35 did not run. Next down was the 1.35am, which reached Barnstaple at 6.41am and Ilfracombe at 0742. By travelling on these services, cost-conscious holidaymakers had a bleary night but gained a day at the seaside without the expense of an extra night in a hotel.


Next down was the 7.40am from Waterloo, which conveyed its restaurant car right through to Ilfracombe, pulling into Barnstaple at 12.36 and into Ilfracombe at 1.27pm. Presumably the more affluent could commence breakfast as they thundered through Woking and still be finishing an early lunch as they wound their way along the Taw valley  -  pure heaven!


This was followed by an 8.22am departure from Waterloo, into Barnstaple at 1.29pm and Ilfracombe at 2.21pm. This ran as a relief to the 8.35 Waterloo, which carried a restaurant car as far as Exeter Central and which arrived at Barnstaple at 1.44pm and Ilfracombe at 2.41pm. This in turn was followed by the 8.54am from Waterloo, again with a restaurant car to Exeter, reaching Barnstaple at 2.36pm and Ilfracombe at 3.22. This was next followed by the 10.15am ex Waterloo, arriving at Barnstaple at 2.51pm and Ilfracombe at 3.40, and again conveying a restaurant car as far as Exeter Central.


Then it was the Atlantic Coast Express proper. On summer Saturdays, the first portion of the ACE was the 10.35am to Bude and Padstow, with the second, main, train running at the time-honoured departure of 11.00am and serving both the Ilfracombe and Torrington branches, with the restaurant again coming off at Exeter Central. This gave a Barnstaple arrival of 3.45pm and an Ilfracombe arrival at 4.36. This in turn was followed by the 12 noon Devon Belle, of which more anon, arriving at Barnstaple and Ilfracombe at 4.43pm and 5.27pm respectively.


And still they came on. Next down was the 1.00pm from Waterloo, with its restaurant car detaching at Exeter and arriving at Barnstaple at 6.30pm and Ilfracombe at 7.17pm. The final train in this incredible caravan of eleven summer Saturday departures was the 3.00pm, which served Plymouth and Torrington as well as Ilfracombe, and which gave arrivals at Barnstaple at 8.19pm and at 9.08pm at the North Devon terminus.


Not all of the Ilfracombe services were full-length formations, as most of these departures from Waterloo included a portion for at least one other branch. But the attachment of an unrebuilt light Pacific at Exeter, to replace the Merchant Navy or light Pacific that had worked down from Nine Elms, also usually involved the further addition of a couple of strengthening vehicles out of the west end sidings at Central, so most services were still of at least seven or eight vehicles when they reached Ilfracombe, and therefore required banking from Braunton.


The winter weekday service, of course, was far less dramatic than this. For example, the winter 1962-63 timetable, which in those days before global warming actually covered fully nine months, from 10th September to 16th June, included through coaches from Waterloo to Ilfracombe on the 1.10am, 11.00am (ACE), 1.00pm and 3.00pm departures. These usually comprised a 3-set, plus perhaps a coach or two at Exeter. No restaurant cars worked through to Ilfracombe out of season.


Undoubtedly the most remarkable through service was that of the Devon Belle. Introduced in 1947, this service left Waterloo at 12 noon, with the front four coaches for Plymouth Friary and the rear seven or eight cars for Ilfracombe, including specially-converted Observation Cars 13 or 14. The Plymouth portion ceased after 1949. The Ilfracombe portion sometimes ran to ten cars, truly remarkable in retrospect. The observation cars were turned before being shunted to the bufferstop-end of the returning train. A ten-car rake of Pullmans totalled 400 tons, a truly daunting task for enginemen heading out of Ilfracombe on a wet day.


As is well known, the Devon Belle was introduced to absorb some surplus Pullmans and compensate for shortages of ordinary stock, as well as to provide a luxury service. It also gave holidaymakers a means of reserving a seat, before the general re-introduction of seat reservations systemwide in 1948-49 after its wartime suspension.


The Belle thus represented a highly original, if only partially successful, attempt at improving the passengers’ lot. In the event, it managed to operate to Ilfracombe for eight summers. The Pullman supplement from Waterloo was 8/4d for first class and 4/6d for third class, but refreshments, of course, were additional to this. At this time, the third-class return fare from Waterloo was 54/11d, with the first class one-half higher, so the supplement only represented an eight per cent surcharge for third-class ticket holders, in return for a major uplift in travel comfort and service.


The train had never been a daily working, even at its height, with dated operations in 1947 confined to Friday to Monday inclusive. By 1951, the down service was running on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with the up train running on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Its concluding phase was in its final 1954 form, when it ran three days a week each way, but on the Friday leaving Waterloo as late as 4.40pm, and not arriving at Ilfracombe until 9.48pm.


Its very last run was Saturday 18th September 1954, bringing to a close a fascinating, if all too brief, era. There was no farewell ceremony, as the decision not to run in 1955 had not yet been taken. In retrospect, it was surprising that the SR did not simply try a Pullman car or two in the ACE, or even on several services such as the 1.00pm or 3.00pm down, rather than running a full train.


However, it was not quite to be the very last time that Pullmans visited Ilfracombe. On 19th October 1963, Ian Allan sponsored an all-Pullman trip from Paddington behind 4472 Flying Scotsman as far as Taunton, thence with GW Moguls 7317 and 7332 via Dulverton to Barnstaple, and with Mogul 31840 banking from Braunton to Mortehoe.


After 1954, when the Belle came off, the 12.00 mid-day down service from Waterloo continued, but formed of ordinary stock. Yet it still cut a dash, conveying the only SR triple restaurant car set. This set would work back to Waterloo on the 10.00am ex-Ilfracombe on summer Sundays, in readiness for the next Saturday’s down 12.00 service.


The balancing ex-Devon Belle working, the 12.00 noon from Ilfracombe, on summer Saturdays made use of a restaurant car that had worked down the previous day on the 3.00pm ex-Waterloo. Some of the other restaurant services used the famous Bulleid Tavern cars, with a “Tavern trailer” attached. Both types of car saw heavy general use, working as pairs, between Waterloo and Exeter in the early 1950s, before being rebuilt as more conventional vehicles during 1959-60.


Ilfracombe’s early-1950s summer Saturday service was therefore without parallel anywhere else on the Southern system. It had only gradually declined by a decade later. The summer 1963 timetable still offered through links to Ilfracombe via the 00.45, 7.28am, 8.35am (both with restaurant cars east of Exeter, 10.15 (with miniature buffet), 11.00 (ACE, with restaurant), 12.05pm, 1.00pm (restaurant) and 3.00pm (restaurant). The eleven trains of 1953 had still only shrunk to eight by 1963. Note that by this time the descendant of the one-time Devon Belle no longer merited either a restaurant or a buffet car west of Exeter.

GWR/WR Through Services

There were also other through inter-regional services. Ilfracombe was a popular destination for visitors from the Midlands and North, as well as London, and through coaches were worked to the resort even in Victorian times. These would be worked over the Barnstaple Junction-Ilfracombe line by LSWR locomotives, but by World War I, the GWR locomotives worked through to Ilfracombe.


The GWR developed a Wolverhampton-Ilfracombe service, and there were even through coaches at various times from Liverpool and Manchester (both London Road and Exchange) at the turn of the century and during the interwar years. Another pre-Grouping service linked Bradford with Ilfracombe and, as this was a Midland Railway venture, it ran via the Somerset and Dorset and Exeter Queen Street. Other services over the years variously linked Cardiff, Carmarthen and Birmingham Snow Hill with the North Devon resort.


By summer 1961 there were still a considerable number of through links via Taunton or Exeter, both from Paddington and from other points on the ex-GWR system. The first down WR link to Ilfracombe on a summer Saturday was via a connection off the 11.50pm (Friday night) service from Paddington, changing at St. Davids and arriving Ilfracombe at 7.41am. Alternatively, passengers could change at Taunton onto the 5.20am local there, which ran through to Ilfracombe arriving at 7.58am. This was followed by a connection off the 7.00am ex-Paddington, again changing at Taunton and arriving at 1.40pm. Other Paddington services with through connections via Taunton were at 9.40am, 12.05pm, 1.30pm and 3.30pm, the last giving a quite late arrival of 9.06pm at Ilfracombe. By far the best service was a direct through portion of the 11.30am ex-Paddington, giving an Ilfracombe arrival at 5.10pm.


By the mid-1960s, dated through services from north of the Bristol Channel were down to two, from Cardiff and from Wolverhampton.  In the down direction, the Cardiff service left at 11.00am and arrived at Ilfracombe at 16.40. The Wolverhampton service left Low Level at 8.00am and reached Ilfracombe at 15.38. These ran for the last time in summer 1965, and so, perhaps surprisingly, outlasted the ACE. But interestingly, even in that final year, Ilfracombe still merited sixteen separate mentions in the WR timetable index.


There were also additional day SR and WR excursion trains from centres of population in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, giving holidaymakers at other resorts an ambitious but interesting day out. These, too, withered away in the early 1960s, particularly after the Beeching holocaust of pre-nationalisation stock.

Freight

As with all ex-SR branches in the West, freight was never very significant on the Ilfracombe route, concentrating upon general merchandise, timber, coal, farm produce and foodstuffs. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the original arrival of the railway was as important an event in terms of freight movement as it was for passenger travel, with the route’s freight business only withering away in the late 1950s.


The small yards at Barnstaple Town, Braunton and Ilfracombe, and to a lesser extent the sidings at Wrafton and at Mortehoe, handled sundries and parcels traffic, a modest amount of milk, livestock and horses, and coal. The milk traffic was not on the vast scale of other West of England locations such as Torrington and Seaton Junction.


In the 1890s, three freights traversed the line each day, reflecting the community’s contemporary near-total dependence on rail transport for moving almost every commodity. By the 1930s this was down to two services each way daily, plus trip working between Barnstaple Junction yard and Pottington to serve Rolle’s Quay. Rolle’s Quay could only be shunted by down trains, and Wrafton could only be accessed by up trains, as there was no run-round facility, with locomotives reversing into the down-side sidings there after crossing over from the up line.


Working the line north of Braunton required considerable caution in the days of unfitted freights. The LSWR provided some form of special type of heavy brake van for the Braunton-Mortehoe-Ilfracombe section. The precise type cannot be confirmed (any details from readers would be welcomed) but they were presumably some variant of the heavy LSWR road vans with outside-framed bodies, a veranda at one end only, and roof-mounted birdcage-type lookouts. They may well have simply been standard brake vans but with additional weights fitted.


Shunting at Mortehoe was considerably complicated by the station being perched on the route’s summit, the line falling away steeply in either direction. At Ilfracombe, use of the graded section for shunting of freight wagons was forbidden unless absolutely unavoidable, the accident possibilities with unfitted wagons being considerable. If it had to be done, a manned brake van was required at the buffer-stop end of the formation, to prevent runaways. In SR and BR days, freight departures out of Ilfracombe were limited to fifteen wagons and a brake van for a Maunsell Mogul, or eleven wagons for an M7.


Taking 1958 as an example, by BR days there were freights from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe at 6.38am and at 10.45am, with returning freights from Ilfracombe at 3.14pm and 7.00pm. These were steam-hauled until the very end. There were also newspaper and mail trains in the early hours from Exeter, arriving at Ilfracombe at 7.41am. The 3.00pm passenger service from Ilfracombe conveyed the overnight newspaper van on the first stage of its journey back to Waterloo, with the mail van following at 7.42pm.


There were also trip freights. In summer 1964, the last season of freight on the Ilfracombe line, Plymouth duty 990 was for a daily Q path for a 4.25pm trip off Barnstaple Junction, arriving at Pottington at 4.30pm, where it would shunt until returning, via a further call at Shapland & Petters factory siding, to Barnstaple Junction by 5.46pm before either terminating or proceeding (on Saturdays) to Barnstaple Victoria. Plymouth duty 997 was a 7.00am Q path out of Ilfracombe, shunting 7.28-7.38am at Braunton and arriving Barnstaple Junction at 7.54am. Duty 990 was specified for an Ivatt 2MT tank, but no particular type was listed for duty 997.

Steam Motive Power

As with the Wenford Bridge and the Lyme Regis lines in later times, the Ilfracombe line was originally to become synonymous with one particular type of locomotive. In this instance, this was the “Ilfracombe Goods” class.


During the line’s construction, and after some early indecision by W. G. Beattie, the Beyer Peacock company had been approached in early 1872 for the supply of motive power suitable for the route. Their reply was that three locomotives could be made available immediately for the line, with a further two later, at a price of £2,800 including delivery. The locomotives on offer were based on an existing export model for Sweden, and were described as light 0-6-0s weighing 24 tons (locomotive) plus 14.5 tons (tender), total weight 38.5 tons.


The Swedish railways had expressed their satisfaction with the design, and so five were ordered for delivery in 1872-74. Eventually eight were purchased, numbered 282-4, 300-1, 324 and 393-4, the last two being ordered by Adams in 1880 to a slightly modified design, with thicker tyres, stovepipe chimneys, slightly larger wheels and other detailed alterations. Between 1888 and 1890, the original six were rebuilt to largely conform to the later design, including reboilering. The class operated throughout their careers with a mixture of four-wheel and six-wheel tenders, these becoming swapped between locomotives over time.


They were used with success on the Ilfracombe line, though members of the class also worked around Exeter and in later years several also worked on miscellaneous duties around the London area. On the Ilfracombe line, they were limited to four coaches with a brake van at each end, and on goods trains, just eight wagons and a brake. Inevitably, traffic demands outstripped them, and by the early 1900s, all had been replaced by T1 0-4-4 tanks. Several saw further service with Colonel Stephens’ light railways, the last being withdrawn in 1941.


In Adams and Drummond days, apart from the “Ilfracombes”, Barnstaple Junction shed was stocked with Adams’ early-design 4-4-0s and later some Drummond K10 and L11 4-4-0s, as well as Adams’ handsome A12 “Jubilee” 0-4-2 tender locomotives and several of his 4-4-2 radial tanks. Other motive power in the early years seems to have included the O2 0-4-4 tanks.


During the inter-war years, the line’s SR motive power was dominated by the N class Maunsell Moguls and the Drummond M7 tanks, the latter displacing the T1s after World War I after having been supplanted in the London suburbs by electrification. The Ns were introduced from 1925, proving themselves to be just the right combination of weight, power and reliability. They were probably the best investment the SECR/SR ever made.


By 1947, the last year of the Southern Railway, Barnstaple Junction had eight Drummond M7 0-4-4 tanks plus six examples of the rebuilt Billinton/Maunsell E1R radial tanks, these latter seeing almost exclusive use on the Torrington line but working occasionally to Ilfracombe, quite a tall order for a modest-sized locomotive hauling bogie stock.


The introduction of the Bulleid West Country class gave the branch its first really large locomotives, the type appearing shortly after its introduction in 1945-46, operating from Exmouth Junction, which at that time had a stud of some 125 locomotives, including 24 N class Maunsell Moguls and no fewer than 27 unrebuilt light Pacifics.


By the late 1950s, Barnstaple shed offered five Ivatt 2MT tanks (41294/5/7/8 and 41314) and nine M7s (30247, 30250-54, 30255-56 and 30671). Western Region types appeared more frequently after the closure of the ex-GWR shed at Barnstaple Victoria in January 1951.


SR steam classes banned from the Ilfracombe line included the W 2-6-4 tanks and rebuilt light Pacifics, these latter only being used west of Exeter on the Plymouth route. Other heavy types such as Schools, S15, N15 and Merchant Navy classes were of course also banned, never appearing west of Central and St. Davids. Those SR types that were permitted included all four varieties of Maunsell Mogul, the ex-LSWR 0395 and 700 Black Motor 0-6-0s, the T9 4-4-0s and the M7 and O2 tanks, though the last-mentioned must have become very rare after the War. Interestingly, the Maunsell Q and Bulleid Q1 types were also theoretically passed to work to Ilfracombe, though both classes were totally unknown in the West.


Standard classes passed for working to Ilfracombe included all types up as far as the 75000 4MT 4-6-0s inclusive, though it is very doubtful indeed that any examples of this latter class ever penetrated the line. As the SR’s 82000 tanks usually stayed east of St. Davids, the BR Standard presence was effectively confined to the 80000 tanks, and these only really appeared at Ilfracombe after the Maunsell Moguls had been withdrawn, right at the very end of BR steam in the West in 1964-65.


Western Region motive power regularly worked to Ilfracombe during the BR era, principally 43xx Churchward Moguls based at Taunton or points eastwards. Other types less frequently seen included Collett 22xx 0-6-0s. The SR restrictions notice allowed 45xx 2-6-2 tanks between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, but not between Exeter and Barnstaple Junction, and only to Ilfracombe if they did not exceed 8’4” width, necessitating cutting-back of footsteps. The 22xx class, too, was also only permitted on the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe section, not the remainder of the route up from Exeter. The 57xx pannier tank was allowed on the Ilfracombe line, but was probably only very rarely, if ever, seen.


London Midland Region steam was allowed in the form of the omnipresent Ivatt 2MT Mickey Mouse tank design, and these certainly regularly worked the line in the early 1960s. Intriguingly, the Stanier 8F type was also theoretically permitted, though limited to 40mph. One suspects that the unannounced arrival of one at Barnstaple, pointing towards Ilfracombe, might well have been met with some considerable head-scratching.


The branch seemed to miss out on the large number of SR steam specials, and only a handful of late-steam-era enthusiast specials were run. The visit of 7317 and 7332 have already been noted. On March 27th 1965, 41206 and 41291 visited Ilfracombe with the five-coach “Exmoor Ranger” tour, with the return working headed by now-preserved GW 0-6-0 3205 and banked to Mortehoe by the two Ivatt tanks.


Probably the very last steam ever to operate over the branch were the double workings of the Exeter Flyer, with a four-coach set being worked to Ilfracombe on 12th September 1965 by Standard 4MT tank 80043. The tour, which also used 80039 on a Torrington return working, was then repeated with the same two locomotives on October 3rd. This marked the complete end of steam anywhere in North Devon until two preserved locomotives, coincidentally once again Standard 4MT tanks (80079/80080), visited Barnstaple in 1994.

Coaching Stock

Early stock on the Ilfracombe line comprised four-wheel compartment coaches, and some of these were still in use in Edwardian times, though six-wheel coaches rapidly became common on through services.


The LSWR was a relatively early user of bogie vehicles, and its 56-foot tricomposite coaches, with seating for first, second and third class ticket holders and provision of good quality toilets, would have been introduced by the turn of the century on the services from Waterloo. Non-corridor LSWR bogie stock then became the norm by the 1920s, and did not finally disappear from local services in North Devon until 1959.


However, the first corridor vehicles with interconnecting gangways were introduced on the LSWR system in the years immediately before the First World War, and these set yet higher standards of comfort for long-distance travel, giving access to dining cars en route for the first time and making rail travel a real pleasure, rather than an endurance test.


The next generation of stock was that of the LSWR Ironclad type, introduced at the Grouping, closely followed by the broadly similar Maunsell stock. This became the standard until after the Second World War, though of course older vehicles saw service at peak summer times and on less prestigious local trains.


From the late 1940s, Bulleid stock appeared regularly on the line, their comfortable seats and superb wide panoramic windows being ideal for passengers wishing to enjoy the view out across the Taw estuary or climbing through the Slade Valley past the reservoirs. From the late 1950s onwards, BR Mk I standard stock also appeared. The final years of steam saw a mix of Bulleid and standard stock, the last Maunsell vehicles disappearing by about 1963. After the cessation of SR services west of Exeter St. Davids from September 1964, summer Saturday through services continued from Paddington with BR Mk I stock until closure.


The Pullmans of the Devon Belle, of course, were the finest stock to ever traverse the line. The cars used for the first season included, on one set, first parlour car Minerva, first kitchens Cynthia and Fingall, third class cars 35, 169 and 60 (kitchens) and 65 (brake) plus observation car 14. The other set used first parlour Princess Elizabeth, first kitchens Rosamund and Geraldine, third class cars 34, 249, 32 and 27, plus observation car 13.


The through services from Taunton and beyond regularly brought GW and LMS stock into Ilfracombe. There was a restriction upon the use of stock with low footboards, which might foul structures on the Barnstaple Junction-Town section, and GWR seventy-footers were prohibited.

Diesel Days

Unlike some ex-SR lines west of Salisbury, the Ilfracombe branch enjoyed, if that is not too strong a word, several years of all-diesel operation.


Most locomotive-hauled workings were handled by the North British  D6300 type 2s, the Hymek D7000 type 3s and the North British or Swindon-built Warship D800 type 4s. Some other types, such as the D600 Warships, were banned. The SR Crompton type 3 was permitted, but none is ever known to have worked down the line, unless other readers know better.


For multiple-unit operations, the line was worked by Pressed Steel three-car class 117 dmus, dating from late 1959 onwards, or the very similar Birmingham RCW 118 units. These provided a reasonable standard of comfort, with their high-backed seats, but their innumerable slam doors offered a distinct drop in quality compared with their fine Bulleid predecessors. Their 600hp, to power three vehicles totalling 102 tons, also meant that acceleration and hill-climbing were less than impressive.


Other units, including the more comfortable Gloucester RC&W class 119 type, were also used on West Country local services, and these offered better quality accommodation with far fewer doors. In the final years of the branch, these were joined by some Swindon-built class 120 three-car units. These, too, were also more acceptable in terms of quality of accommodation. The use of dmus meant that passengers in the end compartments were once again able to savour excellent views of the route, Devon Belle-style. Other units used on the line possibly included the single-car “Bubblecar” vehicles of class 121 (Pressed Steel), though single units did not usually work the line alone in normal circumstances.


Local frequencies in the immediate post-dieselisation era were adequate, but no more. For example, the out-of-season down weekday service in 1965-66 from Exeter comprised departures from Exeter Central at 05.06 (fast to Barnstaple Junction), 05.21, 08.16 (starting at St. Davids), 11.44 (from Paignton), 13.22, 15.50, 17.18 (all from Central) and 19.40 (from St. Davids). All of these called at all stations on the branch, but several missed the more minor intermediate stations south of Barnstaple. On summer Saturdays, the 13.22 from Central was replaced by a 14.13 locomotive-hauled working from St. Davids conveying through coaches from Paddington.

Singling & Closure

After transfer to the WR from 1963, economies followed thick and fast, with all freight facilities ending from 7th September 1964, at the end of SR steam on the line and, as noted, the replacement of locomotive-hauled local services by WR dmus. In an attempt to further reduce costs, the Western Region rationalised the entire line between the Taw viaduct at Barnstaple and the terminus at Ilfracombe, reducing it to a single track. The signalboxes at Pottington and Wrafton were reduced to ground frames from December 1967.


The direct Taunton-Barnstaple Junction link via the third curve to the east of Barnstaple Victoria had originally closed at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, but had been reopened again in 1960 to permit the closure to passengers of Barnstaple Victoria, all WR services into Barnstaple being concentrated from 13th June 1960 upon Barnstaple Junction. The WR’s Taunton-Barnstaple line closed in October 1966. From September 1968, the Exeter-Barnstaple-Ilfracombe line went “paytrain”, with almost all the intermediate stations becoming unstaffed.


With the exception of Okehampton-Tavistock, the closure of the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe line was the saddest of all the programme of west-of-Exeter closures carried out by the Western Region. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the era of the Devon Belle, the idea that the Ilfracombe line could shut completely would have seemed inconceivable.


The line’s greatest problems were its linear indirectness, the relative remoteness of Ilfracombe station from the town centre, the line’s steep gradients, and the costs of maintaining structures such as the Taw viaduct. Against that, it had excellent accessibility at Barnstaple Town to the town centre, and Braunton was also in the centre of the village.


And there were three other problems, about which BR could do nothing. The first was the total distance of the line from major centres such as Exeter, Bristol and London.

The second problem was the weather. North Devon doesn’t enjoy the Riviera status of the South Devon resorts. Its coastline is rocky, and good beaches are less plentiful than along the ex-GWR corridor to Plymouth, though Saunton Sands offers one of the best beaches in the West. The Devon holiday market also rapidly changed from bucket-and-spade holidays to more car-dependant “activity” breaks such as camping and touring.


The third problem was that the total local population catchment was still only very small, even as late as the 1960s. For all-the-year-round demand, the line inevitably had to rely upon local trips. Yet the population of Barnstaple at the close of the steam era was only 16,000, large by Devon standards but small in terms of rail travel demand. And Braunton was only 5,000, Morthoe and Woolacombe totalled just 3,000, and Ilfracombe was only 8,500. Theses populations, of course, were considerably boosted in the tourist season. But for much of the year, the whole corridor totalled barely more than 30,000 year-round residents.


Resistance to closure started as early as 1963, when a North Devon Railway Action Committee had been formed in response to Beeching’s promised wiping-out of North Devon’s entire passenger rail map. It produced a useful and perceptive report in its first year, pointing out how patronage between the larger North Devon centres such as Exeter, Crediton, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe was damaged by the slowness of services.


And they had a point. In the late 1960s, the Southern National service 101, which ran via Braunton and the Foxhunters Inn, took only 45 minutes from the centre of Barnstaple to the centre of Ilfracombe, and made about thirty journeys each way on a summer weekday. There were additional journeys on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays on route 102 via  Bittadon, taking 43 minutes. The dmu ride from Barnstaple Town to Ilfracombe took 36 minutes, and left you high and dry above Ilfracombe.


Over the next seven years, there were further protests against closure. But the public were far less militant and vocal than they are today, and seemed to largely target their efforts at railway managers rather than politicians. Three decades later, closing the line would now be a political non-starter, and some way would have to be found to retain it in some form or other.


In its final year, the Ilfracombe branch was claimed to be covering only 14% of its £93,000 annual running costs, although the latter figure doubtless included a large slice of engineering and administrative costs from elsewhere on the WR that were largely irrelevant to the line, and which probably paradoxically remained after closure. The line’s costs were also not helped by its large number of signalboxes and staffed level crossings, and it was unfortunate that signalling had not been modernised and the crossings automated a decade earlier.


Other closures elsewhere involved similarly-dubious costing exercises, and it has gone on record since that there was very stiff resistance at British Railways Board headquarters to any move by the Regions to assess closures on the basis of their local avoidable marginal costs. In fact, the revenues on the Ilfracombe route roughly equated with the day to day working costs of the paytrain service, and so it was the indirect and more questionable costs  -  some allocation of which would, of course, have been justified  -  that brought the line down. Closure was formally agreed by the Labour Minister of Transport on 31st December 1969.


It is interesting to compare the Ilfracombe closure with other lines in the region. At the start of 1969, the £150,000 grant for the Exeter-Okehampton rump of the former Exeter-Plymouth main line had also been refused, though in the event the line hung on for three more years until June 1972. At the start of 1970, Exeter-Barnstaple merited a £140,000 grant, a reduction from the previous year’s £174,000, and the Newquay branch, which in some ways was broadly analogous to the Ilfracombe line, merited £107,000. But in that same year, the Ilfracombe line was refused its sought-after grant of (by this time) £96,000. Also in spring 1970, the WR failed to obtain a £141,000 grant sought for the Minehead line, another basically-similar route, and closure of this, too, was announced.


Beeching was therefore getting his way, aided by hawks at the Ministry and at the British Railways Board. There seems to have been surprisingly little last-minute protest from local Ilfracombe interests, and of course lucky Barnstaple was still keeping its railway.


The weekday timetable in the final year had shrunk to just five trains, an 0405 Exeter St. Davids-Ilfracombe, arriving at 06.00, followed by departures from St. Davids at 08.45, 13.35, 16.00, and 17.46. The last-mentioned left Central at 17.42 to provide a link for commuters and shoppers, but the WR service otherwise failed completely to provide this obvious access to the heart of the regional capital, significantly undermining the railway’s usefulness. The 17.42/46 from the two Exeter stations reached Ilfracombe at 19.40, so it was extremely unattractive to commute  -  Devon is a huge county  -  and of course the fares would have been prohibitive. A return day trip to Exeter from Ilfracombe involved four hours of quivering on a dmu.


The Saturday service was a little more generous, comprising seven trains. The up services comprised an 08.00, arriving at St. Davids at 09.42, then departures at 09.45, 11.40, 13.55, 15.25 (going through to Central), 18.20 and 19.55. When this service reached Barnstaple Junction at 20.35, the line went to sleep until Monday’s dmu newspaper train.


However, even in the last summer season, 1970, the route managed to justify just one residual summer Saturday holiday through service to London, though it was a far cry from the ACE of only six years earlier. This was the above-mentioned up service from the resort at 13.55. It loaded to nine or ten Mk Is, including a buffet car, and was usually Warship-hauled,  or occasionally Hymek-hauled if more lightly loaded. It reached Paddington at 18.31, giving a 4hr 36min journey time.


The line closed from Monday 5th October 1970, but as there was no Sunday service, the last trains ran on 3rd October. Pulling out of the much-reduced Ilfracombe, and watching the long platform and SR-pattern signalbox recede for the last time, it was very hard to accept that the one-time destination of the Atlantic Coast Express and Devon Belle was now to be no more.


Thus ended a remarkable line. There was a brief and abortive attempt to save the line as a preservation project. The sale price of the line was set at £410,000, this later rising in those high-inflation times to £750,000, but the appeal (via share subscription) only raised £20,000 and had foundered, in controversial circumstances, by 1975.


The very last train of all operated over the branch on 26th February 1975. This comprised an engineers’ saloon and a class 25, a type nominally prohibited from the route. The purpose of this exercise is not clear, and perhaps was just an excuse for a nostalgic trip by rail staff. After track lifting during 1975, the bridge over the Taw was dismantled during 1977, and any last hope of future reopening went with it.


Today, mostly only disused sections of trackbed remain of this remarkable branch. The Barnstaple Town station building, canopy and signalbox also still happily survive, with the remainder of the Town site now redeveloped for waterfront housing. Wrafton was sold for private use, and Braunton was redeveloped. The station at Mortehoe remained largely intact and now boasts a couple of grounded ex-BR Mk I coach bodies, a welcome sight. The Ilfracombe station site was cleared completely, and is now occupied by a small factory. Some of the route from Barnstaple is used for walking, but most has simply reverted to scrub.


So far better to remember the line in its glorious heyday, the early 1950s, with Bulleid Pacifics easing into Ilfracombe after chattering over the hill from Braunton, simmering at the buffer-stops in a self-made heat-wave, their Brunswick green paint liberally coated with soot from their earlier uphill slogging, steam rising in wisps from somewhere below the cab and a grey haze from above the front end. From behind the Pacific, eager holidaymakers are emerging from varnished Bulleid carriages, struggling with luggage, eyes fixed on the station exit and the sea, but with at least a few pairs of eyes firmly fixing on the locomotive, and with eager ears catching a distant whistle from the Mogul shunting the next day’s stock in the crowded sidings.