Our Assistant Librarian, Sandi, takes a look at the effects of Dr Beeching’s closure of the Railways in North Devon…
This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the Devon and Somerset Railway, the rural line that connected Barnstaple and Ilfracombe to Bristol and the rail network to the rest of the country.
The closure was the result of the recommendations made by the Chairman of British Rail, Dr Beeching, in his publication “The Reshaping of British Railways” in 1963 which led to the loss of 8,000 miles of track, 2,000 stations and 70,000 jobs.
Before 1965 trains from Paddington London and the North of England allowed thousands of holidaymakers to use the railways to transport themselves to their annual holidays in rural and coastal Devon. In Colin Maggs’ book on our shelves, “The Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Railway”, he notes that on 27th July 1957 a Summer Saturday 10,000 passengers used the Barnstaple to Ilfracombe branch line and 5,470 passengers alighted at Ilfracombe.
After the Devon and Somerset closure, a reduced number of trains continued to run from Ilfracombe to Barnstaple connecting via Exeter to the rest of the country. In the microfilms that we hold of the North Devon Journal newspaper of 25th August 1966 titled “Freeze Axe Falls on Railways” a rail spokesman said ‘There is no question of the line closing at the present moment’. That ‘moment’ lasted until 1970 when the Ilfracombe line also closed.
I remember as a small child that travelling to our holiday destination by train was part of the excitement of the holiday. My father would pack a large trunk with all we needed for the holiday a week before we left and trundle it on a sack truck down to the Railway Parcel Office. We carried nothing more in the way of luggage than some sandwiches and my mother’s handbag with the trunk waiting our arrival at our holiday hotel.
Beeching believed buses and coaches would cater for passenger travel needs but when have Devon roads network ever been sufficient for the volume of traffic? Many are single track lanes with grass growing up the middle. This inadequacy is confirmed for 1st September 1966 in the North Devon Journal where an article headed “Yarnscombe Bus Plea Runs in to Trouble” quotes the Assistant County Surveyor “that two corners in particular were almost impossible for a larger (44 seater) bus to negotiate”.
In the ND Journal of 6th October 1966 Mr Tony Lacey the prospective Liberal candidate for Torrington said “These closures will reduce still further the prospects of modern industrial development. Without proper communications it is quite impossible to contemplate the introduction of the modern industry we so badly need”
In the article “Journey’s End Train Packed for Last Runs” in the North Devon Journal dated 6th October 1966, one of the last passengers to ride on the commemorative train organised by the Barnstaple Round Table was 92 year old Mr Ned Cory who well remembered the opening of the track in 1898. Mr Cory thought that the closure was premature and that he ‘feels the roads of the Westcountry are still inadequate to take the additional traffic’.
This addition has a photograph of the MP for North Devon Mr Jeremy Thorpe and other dignitaries boarding the train at Barnstaple.
Another passenger was Mr Albert Doran an 83 year old former Great Western locomotive driver who had driven the fired steam locomotives in the Westcountry for 45 years. In the ND Journal of 29th September 1966 it was reported that he had asked Western Region to drive the last train but his offer was rejected.
The North Devon Link road which opened in 1988 is the only main road into or out of North Devon and North Cornwall from east to west, and was never built with provision for the increase in future traffic. Interestingly they used the GWR Castle Hill viaduct pillars to support the new Link Road.
We did try a shorter coach trip to holiday from London one year, with all our luggage and a small dog who was ‘car sick’ all the way down on the coach. The next year we bought a car and travel sickness tablets for the dog.
There is a beautifully detailed small book also on our shelves ‘The Official Guide to the Great Western Railway’ Illustrated, published in 1912. Like Bradshaw’s Tourist Handbook used by Michael Portillo in the BBC’s programme Great British Railway Journey’s, it contains illustrations, maps and descriptions of the principal towns along the route and ‘tourist districts and watering holes’!
The GWR served the Ocean Liner ports and one advert in the book offers ‘First Class Inclusive Tours from Southampton to the Victoria Falls Rhodesia and Back for 90 Guineas.
I’m sure Dr Beeching believed his plan was fool proof but would he have taken a different view while stationary in a jam between the only main road from Barnstaple and Ilfracombe because the single carriageway road between Ashford and Chivenor is blocked by a car accident? Or queuing in traffic throughout the Summer months on the same road at Braunton to pass though the bottleneck traffic lights. Or sat in a hot car in four lanes of crawling traffic on the motorway from Tiverton to Bristol on a Bank Holiday?
Yes his ‘Axe’ saved money but at what cost to rural economy, the environment and clean air.
…Sandi, Assistant Librarian