Barnstaple to Ilfracombe #1

Barnstaple to Ilfracombe #1

The Barnstaple and Ilfracombe railway opened in July 1874 thus 2024 is the 150th anniversary of the line’s opening. Despite opposition the line closed in October 1970 after British Railways had totally rationalised the line in an attempt to keep the costs of running it to a minimum. Ultimately the Government of the day was not satisfied and ordered it shut. For more than a decade the route remained in a derelict state pending a possible restoration bid. The tracks lay moribund for a few more years whilst the possibility of reopening remained however remote it was. Eventually the track was taken up and the curved iron bridge across the Taw at Barnstaple was removed. Stations at Barnstaple Town, Wrafton, Braunton, even part of Ilfracombe, remained for a good few more years, trackless and in a rather untidy and unkept state – and that’s how I remember Braunton station in 1980.

Around half of the route now constitutes the Tarka Trail which stretches round both sides of the Taw estuary from Bidford to Braunton and there has even been talk of a light rail route from Barnstaple to Braunton utilising the old railway alignment. A good part of the route runs alongside both the Taw estuary and the airbase at Chivenor. Much of the route to Ilfracombe is in fact walkable and can be used by cyclists. Barnstaple to Georgeham gates is a public right of way and forms part of the Tarka Trail. Willingcott to Ilfracombe is too a public right of way. Alas the section which constituted one of England’s more arduous railways with a six hundred foot climb in just six miles from St. Brannock’s to Willingcott is largely inaccessible and parts of it has been obliterated or built over.

Next is a gallery of pictures showing what remains of the Ilfracombe Line today…. its by no means a complete and comprehensive detail of the line as it is now. I’ve used Google Streets, Instagram and Twitter to illustrate the pictures. The sections covered are:

A) Barnstaple to Braunton.
B) Braunton to Willingcott
C) Willingcott to Ilfracombe.

Barnstaple Junction to Braunton

We start off with a map. I devised three of these to cover the former railway route and utilised the media from Open Street Map for the purpose. The maps cover the sections as follows: a) Barnstaple to Braunton, b) Braunton to Willingcott and c) Willingcott to Ilfracombe.

The railway’s route (and in part the Tarka trail) from Barnstaple Junction to Wrafton and Braunton. Ashford limekiln bridge is about halfway along the route. This section is no doubt the better known part of the railway’s former alignment as it also constitutes an important public and busy shared path – part of the Tarka Trail – between the two towns. There’s a number of signals still standing plus gradient posts as well as overbridges and rails set into the roadways where there were crossings. This was a relatively easy graded route mostly alongside the Taw river estuary before passing the military base at Chivenor and featuring one intermediate station at Wrafton.

1) Barnstaple Junction to the river Taw

Barnstaple Junction station (39 and half miles from Exeter) no longer exists. Its simply known as Barnstaple and no longer a junction. This is one of those medium sized town stations that once had several platforms and a substantial layout – and one that now sports a single platform and the other whatsits which are obligatory in making sure its as barebones as can be. Fortunately there are still facilities including a ticket office, waiting room and cafe but it doesn’t make up for the huge rationalisations that have been implemented – and the fact it is essentially a bus stop style terminus.

Nevertheless there are some efforts by individuals or dedicated rail staff to show some of the station’s former glory. The other platform can be reached by the public in order to admire its gardens and there is seating upon which one can these days wonder how the station ever morphed from a major junction into the motley terminus it is today. The station has won awards for best station so clearly there is a desire to keep a sense of character at the station in spite of its adversity. Its really not the same though when one sees the pictures of it as it was in its heyday.

The station as it is today with the gardens and public seating area on the island platform. Formerly the tracks headed straight on for Bideford and right for Ilfracombe. Source: Twitter

A lovely view of Barnstaple station with a Pacer. Don’t we just love these! They’ve all gone from the rail system now much to the relief of many! A comparable view can be seen from Google Streets featuring a Pacer too if that is something one really wants! If one turns that Google scene round they’ll be looking across the station car park which is where the picture of that comes in. Source: Twitter

The Barnstaple Town and Ilfracombe line split off immediately at the western end of the up platform (this being the current platform) although it too was served by track leading straight off platforms two and three. The track passed through the adjacent road bridge, now no longer extant – and the location is now the site of the car park adjacent to the station as the next view shows. The picture was taken in the days when the line to Meeth was still in use for freight. Source: Twitter

Looking the other way from the station perimeter. The whole area here that is now a car park was once the ‘Y’ shaped junction (plus a small secondary goods yard to the right) for the lines to both Torrington and Ilfracombe. The Torrington route headed for the modern bridge visible straight ahead whilst Ilfracome’s headed towards the houses on the right. The cottage with white wall and chimneys can be better viewed in the picture below. Source: Google Streets

It might seem to the casual observer hereabouts there is absolutely no trace of the Ilfracombe line anymore but the line did in fact pass behind the terrace of houses on Sticklepath – and if one looks at Google aerial it can be seen the houses form an arc which formed a boundary alongside the railway itself. Here’s a picture of the alignment after the former railway had been turned into a small park.

Before the new road layout and bridges were built the former Ilfracombe trackbed could be seen making its way behind the Sticklepath cottages. This view is from the old railway bridge circa late 1980s or early 1990s when the line to Meeth was still in use. Source: Twitter

View looking from Barnstaple Junction towards the Taw River crossing. Source: Google Streets

Note the clip shown below from this 1970 film of somewhat poor quality showing a train in the line’s final days passing the houses visible in the modern scene above! Also the terracotta brick warehouse seen on the left is just visible at left in the clip too.

The white cottage on the right is clearly evident here as are the other houses behind. Source: You Tube

The current main road A3125 lies on part of the route and there’s very little to indicate there was once a railway through this part of Barnstaple!

Aerial I created from Google Earth showing the railway’s exact alignment between Barnstaple Junction and the river. The perspective makes the route look a little squashed compared to how it looks as a near perfect ‘S’ on the Ordnance Survey maps. The purpose however is to show where the line stood in relation to the modern road layout.

Of the river crossing itself there is barely anything to signify its former existence. On the north side of the river a widened section of quayside still denotes the northern end of the viaduct. This soon passes the original Barnstaple Quay station which was later replaced by Town station.

The site of the Taw bridge/viaduct. Part of the southern brick retaining wall can still be seen just behind the roadway. The other end of the viaduct can just be seen where the northern quayside widens out a bit. This is a composite of two images from Google Streets

A couple of years ago North Devon Council put forward proposals for a new footbridge over the river. The various options are touted on this plan. Call me biased but I’d certainly go for Option C!

In terms of those proposals mooted by North Devon Council as I say, I’d choose Option C. There’s no surprise why I’d choose that of of the five options for this is the original Option C! Source: Barnstaple History.

In the above pictures a number of buildings remain in both the older and newer views at the site where the railway bridge once crossed the River Taw.

Tucked away down at the side of Castle Quay is the former signal box for Barnstaple Town station. A rather incongruous location! Source: Google Streets.

On the road behind the signal box (its roof can just be seen at left) is the station’s main frontage – the building nowadays is a school. Similar view at Google Streets. Source: Twitter

Barnstaple Town was exactly forty miles from Exeter.

The station’s canopies have been partially retained and incorporated into the school itself. Source: Twitter

How it all looked then – Barnstaple Town station with a narrow gauge Lynton train waiting for a main line connection! Source: Twitter

Pottington Bridge over the River Yeo. The view looks south east along the quay with the large car park that forms an adjunct to the Civic Centre (aka North Devon Council headquarters building.) The railway swing bridge as once where this modern bridge is. Along the Yeo to the left was a branch line to Rolle Quay and opposite that was Pilton Yard, the centre of operations on the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple line. Source: Google Streets

The modern Taw road bridge (constituting part of the Barnstaple Western By-Pass) is quite prominent along this stretch. It wasn’t there of course when the railway was operational! Ironically it was opened almost exactly thirty years after the railway’s own viaduct was demolished.

From Pottington the former railway alignment has a concrete wall alongside for most of its length as far as Ashford. Its a substantial wall which I assume was to protect the railway form the ravages of the river estuary. Its without a doubt the most enduring piece of the entire Ilfracombe line, and there are also some rail related items to be found, such as a number of gradient posts and a couple of overbridges.

Its straight ahead for Ilfracombe or right for Torrington (via the new Taw road bridge!) The lengthy concrete wall that forms the boundary between the former railway and the river is strongly evident in this view. The same location on Google Streets showing a wider view of the shared paths’ junction. Source: Twitter

Gradient post 1456 – 868 just past Pottington. – Source: Twitter.

Another view of gradient post 1456 – 868, looking back towards Barnstaple, can be seen on Google Streets.

Level – 474 gradient post. Source Google Streets

Ashford Limekiln bridge with small arch at left by river bank. Source: Google Streets

There was once a limekiln here which explains the rather curious arrangement seen in the picture and explains why the bridge appears to have two different arches. The end bit is the limekiln itself and an early contemporary view of the site before the railway was built can be seen at The Pilton Story. Here’s a closer view of the limekiln bridge on Google Streets. There too was a weir nearby, one of several dotted around the area. These weren’t weirs in the normal sense but fish traps in fact stretched across a good part of the river. The area had become very overgrown and personnel from Chivenor recently held an effort to clear up the site and provide new access paths, see North Devon Gazette.

Level – 1026 near Heanton Court (aka The Tarka Inn). Source: Instagram. Different view on Google Streets.

Heanton Court aka the Tarka Inn, somewhat easily reached from the Tarka Trail. Source: Google Streets

The railway leaves the estuary and heads along the northern perimeter of RAF Chivenor – the approximate location where this occurs can be seen on Google Streets.

A short distance further on is the Waterside Cafe, a stop recommended by the Tarka Trail and others.

The next bridge is just before RAF Chivenor. The location can be found here at Google Streets. Source: Twitter

The site of the former road crossing at Duckpool – now a roundabout which primarily serves the base at Chivenor. Source: Google Streets

Although it is generally recognised this was Duckpool crossing, on much older maps its described as Chivenor crossing. It seems the name only changed after the line was double tracked in the late 19th Century.

RAF Chivenor is an important location in Britain’s defence and its helicopters are also on stand by to help with coastal incidents or people stranded on the Devon moors. The airbase was served by Wrafton station. Much of the airbase can be seen from the old railway as the route forms a boundary along the north side of the military base. The buildings at RAF Chivennor can be seen from the former railway alignment on Google Streets. This viewpoint is probably about where the eastern extremity of Wrafton station was.

Aerial of RAF Chivennor photographed during an airshow there in 1971. The closed Ilfracombe line runs along the top edge of the airfield. Wrafton station can just be discerned at top left. Source: Twitter

The signals at Wrafton. These can also be seen on Google Streets. Alas the crossing itself is no more. Source: Twitter

The original 1874 Wrafton station (44 and half miles from Exeter) was a simple affair – just one platform and a siding. The passing places in those days before the route was double tracked were at Braunton and Mortehoe. The station’s goods yard was expanded and a pair of platforms provided. Its ironic in the last years of the line the station reverted to a single track once again.

Another crossing site turned into major road intersection at Velator. The railway’s alignment was in the centre of the roundabout. Source: Google Streets

The down home signal at Braunton. Source: Google Streets

With regards to the above signal post, its evidently been moved. The post is very tightly upon the edge of the former railway boundary which somehow suggests it was in fact at this location. However there isn’t any justification for having a down signal on the up side of the line, the curvature here was ever so slight as to not even require any signals to be placed in a different location. The home signal at Braunton on official railway diagrams is shown on the other side (the down side) which shows its been moved from where it once was some distance further north. Even more evidence comes in the form of aerial pictures which shows the signal wasn’t ever in the location it is now!

The site where Braunton Gates crossing used to be. This is just beyond where the platforms were sited. Source: Google Streets

Braunton station stood between a pair of level crossings, that at the southern end had its own cabin known as Braunton Gates. The other crossing at the northern end of the station was controlled by Braunton signal box. There was a goods yard and a pair of sidings on the down side which stabled locomotives awaiting the job of assisting heavy trains on the six hundred foot climb to Mortehoe & Woolacombe station. One of the surprises is in the line’s heyday both LSWR and Great Western locomotives were used as banking engines.

The goods shed was on the up side. The building still remains, much modified, and these days its home to the Museum of British Surfing.

The old goods shed is now the home of the Museum of British Surfing. This is where the road access was and it explains the large sliding doors to this side. Source: Twitter. The shed was about where the station’s down platform would have been. Another view on Google Streets.

Braunton station some years after the line had closed. The view looks north. Source: Tarka Trail

It is said the railway was line was purchased for £515,000 from British Rail in the late eighties in order to reuse the land and make a new trail towards Barnstaple!

The site of the main road crossing at Braunton, looking south along what would have once been the station and its platforms. Source: Google Streets.

The white building across the green on the right, now a newsagents, is all that remains of the station buildings. This green in fact covers most of what was once the pair of platforms and tracks!

Its incredible to think I stood here all those years ago when the station and its crossing still existed! The platforms and trackbed were easily accessible because half of the crossing’s gates had disappeared – whether that was through accident or vandalism I do not know but I suspect the latter.

The red brick building at left is in fact that shown in the 1930s image below – it was once Lake’s cafe. The differences between then and now is the upper windows have been bricked over and the roof no longer sports a finial post.

Lovely picture showing the crossing at Caen Street Braunton possibly in the 1930s. The building at right still exists and can be seen on the modern Google Streets view above. Source: PicClick.

When I first encountered this part of the line more than forty years ago the station was still almost fully complete along with gates and signal box (just as those at Wrafton and Barnstaple Town were too.) It was the track that was missing, having been taken up five years previously and I am sure many other people who visited North Devon in those days were quite bemused seeing an entire disused railway station being practically a towns primary focal point!

Certainly one could in those days easily find disused stations elsewhere among many miles of derelict railway stretching across the countryside – but one that was right in the centre of a town complete with crossing gates and signals too – well that was a rarity! Its a likely reason why many have shown interest in this particular line – for they do remember the three stations (Barnstaple Town, Wrafton, Braunton and Mortehoe) in this rather unfortunate state.

Continues in part two: Braunton to Willingcott.