Dave Griffin, North Devon Gazette
Combe Rail trustees Barry Hodgson, David Luggar and John Burch with plans for the proposed Tarka Trail route. (Picture: Tony Gussin - Credit: Archant)
It’s been decades since the shrill whistle of a Bulleid Pacific steam locomotive rang out across Ilfracombe. What glorious thoroughbreds they were. Many of us recall the thrill of standing on a railway station platform as a Brittania Class hauling twelve coaches thundered through at eighty miles per hour. First, the lines trembled and sang in expectation whilst in the distance, plumes of smoke and white steam whetted our anticipation ahead of the unstoppable leviathan of power and fury racing towards our viewing point. We pressed our backs against the waiting room wall for fear of being sucked into the maelstrom. Suddenly, the gentle birdsong of moments ago became obliterated by the deafening roar of a fiery beast with its beating heart pulsating with heat and furious energy. Cylinders, pistons, connecting rods and driving wheels all syncopated in beautiful concert provided the surge of coal-fired steel muscle required by this living, breathing monster as it hurtled past us. Waterloo to Ilfracombe expresses took under four hours, fuelling Ilfracombe’s post-war tourist economy but will they come back? Probably not, but Combe Rail volunteers are steaming (sorry!) ahead to establish a heritage railway trail on the line’s existing track bed, now Cycle Route 27, whilst lobbying for a narrow gauge TawLink Light Railway linking Chivenor with Barnstaple. This is not a rail enthusiasts’ pipe-dream. Combe Rail has powerful and influential backers, including Great Western Railway and Devon County Council. Already, restoration of Ilfracombe Station’s pedestrian approach is underway and features replica signage. The last scheduled train, packed with supporters, ran on October 3rd, 1970, but Braunton shoppers were intrigued when a diesel hauled locomotive hauling an inspection saloon trundled over Caen Street’s level crossing on February 26th, 1975. It carried engineers inspecting the condition of the track for possible reinstatement of services. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Those walking the route today will find QR video points enabling smartphone users to view videos and slideshows of the railway in its heyday, and a restored ‘down distant’ signal powered by a solar panel has been installed by the Slade reservoir, set at ‘caution’. Across Britain, the 1960s Beeching-led decimation of our railways is in reverse, and Ilfracombe’s all aboard.
A signal installed by Combe Rail on the railway at Slade reservoir - (Credit: John Burch)