Barnstaple to Ilfracombe #2

Barnstaple to Ilfracombe #2

This is the second part of the online guide to the Ilfracombe railway and features the stretch from Braunton to Willingcott. That is near near the summit of the line just south of Mortehoe. Although around half of the route through Barnstaple, Braunton and Ilfracombe now constitutes the Tarka Trail, much of the following section isn’t part of the trail because many sections are in private ownership. There are moves to reopen further sections of the former railway. The lack of public access points however makes this a difficult task. This section of former railway was once one of the steepest main lines in England – and its quite spectacular along the walkable parts of the route.

Some distance north of Braunton station is this narrow lane at Star Cottages. This led to an accommodation crossing over the railway which once ran in the background. Source: Google Streets

With some further investigation it seems from aerial evidence there were five of these totally ungated crossings in the section between Caen Street and Georgeham gates! Britain’s railways were certainly very trusting of people in those days!

Colourised image showing three of the five foot crossings north of Braunton station. That leading off Star Cottages is the one left of centre. Sourced from Britain from Above.

From Braunton the line climbed very steeply. The distance to Mortehoe was just six miles however the difference in elevation between the two stations happens to be six hundred feet! Thus the severe gradient equated practically a hundred feet for every mile. However the gradient got worse as the line continued north thus much of the line’s severe gradients in fact occur between Stoney Bridge and Mortehoe thus it was one of the most severely graded lines in the country. In comparison the Lickey Incline in Worcestershire (a gain of 286 feet in just two miles) is the most severe main line of all however if the Ilfracombe line had still been open it would have been just behind the Lickey in terms of records.

Georgeham Gates is the fourth of three important road crossings within Braunton. The first was Velator, the second and third either side of Braunton station itself, and then Georgeham. The name itself is something of a misnomer because the village of Georgeham is quite a distance away, two and half miles in fact, however the road itself is seen as the main thoroughfare from Braunton to Georgeham and the adjacent junction with the A361 is known as Georgeham cross, thus explains why the crossing has that name.

Georgeham Cross. Source: Google Streets

From St. Brannock’s where Georgeham Gates is sited the railway alignment northward isn’t accessible in that many places, which is why I have done the next map with a very dark blue line – and somewhat a depressing colour! However parts of it have been approved for a trail continuing from those existing sections to the north and south it. A major problem is sections of the route are built over or obliterated and some bridges too have been demolished, thus the new trail would require a number of diversions or alternative routes. Of course that invokes concerns and the plans therefore require further thought in order to satisfy all parties, then there’s the COVID-19 crisis which could of course be delaying even more any possible progress on this.

This denotes the section of line from Georgeham through the steep sided valleys upwards towards Willingcott, near Mortehoe. Parts of the line have now been built upon or obliterated completely. There are still a couple of crossings extant at Stoney Bridge and Heddon Mill as we will see later.

End of the Tarka trail at Georgeham. Source: Twitter

St. Brannock’s is a part of North Braunton and a parish in its own right. Even the fire station’s address next door to Georgeham gates is under St. Brannock’s! The name comes from Saint Brannock who was associated with Braunton. Many of the roads in the locality have St Brannock’s as part of their name and there is a holy well ascribed to the saint himself. This is sited just west of the former railway alignment by the chapel on St. Brannock’s Hill.

Georgeham Gates box is rather unusual being sited on the other side of the adjacent house compared to all the other boxes on the Ilfracombe line which are immediately adjacent to the crossing itself thus the box isn’t exactly aligned with the crossing gates and the crossing keeper hasn’t an exact view of that from the box itself. I couldn’t tell you why this particular arrangement was used. Nevertheless its one reason the box itself has been kept in a good condition since the closure of the railway.

View of Georgeham gates from the main A361 road. Source: Google Streets

There isn’t any sort of fully enabled walkable section along the former railway for any distance between Braunton and Willingcott. There’s a short section to the south of Castle Lane which features a railway bridge over the River Caen as well as a bridge at Castle Lane itself.

Bridge over the river and a small picnic area on the railway’s course some distance south of Castle Lane. Source: You Tube

As the above link suggests there’s a You Tube video covering the line from north of Braunton to near Willingcott – its not always of great quality but nevertheless of interest. You Tube video on the derelict line

Castle Lane aproaching Corffe Green bridge. Source: Google Streets

Although I cant find any references to Corffe Green bridge, that name is in fact shown for the nearby river crossing on old Ordnance Survey maps such as this one from NLS Scotland so assume the railway bridge shared the same name.

Corffe Green bridge. Source: You Tube

The course of the old railway at Corffe Green. Photo from Roger Cornfoot. Source: Geograph

The line passed through Knowle. What remains of the railway is now being built upon although there are footpaths either side that utilise the old line’s course.

Georgeham Gates were approximately sixty feet above sea level. The line had almost another five hundred and fifty feet to climb from here to Mortehoe! From Georgeham to Mortehoe was just over five miles. The line ascended quite steeply en route but the worst of it was in the last mile and half of that section where an elevation of two hundred feet had to be gained.

Stoney Bridge crossing with rails still set in the road itself. Source: Google Streets

North Buckland Hill (Heddon Mill crossing) with the rails still in the road. The crossing keepers cabin is now an extension of the modern bungalow. Source: Google Streets 

Heddon Mill in its final years as an operational railway crossing.

The course of the line can be seen on the right south of Spreacombe bridge. Source: Google Streets

Part of the railway bridge parapet at Spreacombe remains – as this Google Streets scene shows – its not a great image though and its why I haven’t included it here.

North of Spreacombe bridge – the railway alignment no longer exists it passed across this valley and the land has now been levelled although a bit of the line’s course can be seen in the distance at left. The line passed from right to left going towards Ilfracombe. Source: Google Streets

The A361’s Hidden Valley intersection – the railway passed just behind the trees on the left where the minor road leading to the Hidden Valley development is. The line continued to climb by way of utilising the valley sides to facilitate part of the ascent towards Willingcott. Source: Google Streets

The railway passes through quite narrow valley by the Foxhunters Inn. In fact this section of line from Buttercombe to Spreacombe bridge was proposed for a trail to complement the other sections of the Tarka Trail. An application was put forward to North Devon Council for the new trail. There were concerns about it but the council however gave it conditional approval. I don’t know what has happened since. A document relating to the proposal can be seen here.

A pretty picture one might think however it shows the steep sided valley the Ilfracombe line had to climb. The location the scene is photographed from is probably near hereabouts on Google Streets. The house in the distance at centre left is where Stoney Bridge crossing is located. The Taw estuary is in the far distance. Here’s Google Streets showing that very house by the former Stoney Bridge crossing. Source: Twitter

Aerial of the route between Spreacombe bridge (at left) passing through the narrow Caen valley towards the Foxhunters Inn, then westward through Buttercombe, Willingcott and Mortehoe (at top right.) The Hidden Valley development is midway between Spreacombe and the Fox Hunters Inn, the latter being sited where both the A361 and railway separate to go their different ways.

Its not really a common sight in England to see a main line railway climb up the sides of a valley towards a watershed, top that watershed and then drop down into the next valley. Usually it would be achieved by way of a tunnel or a very deep cutting but this is in fact what the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe railway did and even though there was a cutting at Willingcott bridge the line continued to climb beyond that. In just one and half miles the line climbed over two hundred feet in elevation!

View from the Foxhunters petrol station and garage (bottom left) to Willingcott showing how the terrain forced the line to ascend steeply before practically climbing over the top of the hill – that’s something so rare in the UK even among the main line railways! Usually this sort of thing entailed a cutting or a tunnel. Willingcott bridge is right at the top. The A361 can just be seen along the bottom of the picture.

The one bridge on this steeply graded section was near Buttercombe Barton and this is it. This is where the proposed trail southward to Spreacombe will begin. Source: You Tube

The stretch of railway towards Willingcott was redeveloped in the 1980s to become a golf course with a few buildings converted to holiday use. This entailed the levelling of a substantial section of railway embankment to the south. The venue went broke a few years ago but in the meantime a holiday village had been developed around the west side of the site – and then proposals for a new and larger development consisting of 107 houses on the former golf course site were mooted, causing concern among locals due to the size of the proposed works and the fact the site borders an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The Willingcott Valley Holiday development. The railway ran on the left and part of that alignment is now an estate road. Source: Twitter

The line’s final level crossing was more or less in the middle of the holiday development. Today there’s barely any trace of that crossing (which served a farm track.) In terms of the Tarka Trail North Devon Council have plans for a walking route through the holiday village which would link up with that proposed further south to Spreacombe as well as link up with the existing Tarka Trail north to Ilfracombe.

The site of Willingcott bridge was just behind the car seen here. The valley leading towards the Foxhunters Inn some two hundred and fifty feet lower down is at left. To the right the railway climbed up more in order to reach the station at Mortehoe. Just off the picture at right the detached northern section of the Tarka Trail begins and this heads towards Mortehoe and Ilfracombe. Source: Google Streets

There was a information board at Willingcott Cross. I don’t know if its still there however here’s this image of the board as it was produced in 2004. Source: Coombe Rail.

As mentioned earlier the railway continued to climb beyond Willingcott bridge – and the route eventually came to Mortehoe which was the next station on the line. This was where one would alight for a number of popular locations nearby including Woollacombe, Croyde and Lee. Indeed in the line’s early days the station advertised itself as being the stop where one would get off for those popular seaside places.

Continues in part three: Mortehoe to Ilfracombe.