Failed attempt to build a harbour and put a railway across Sidmouth seafront - A tunnel was built through the cliffs to transport the stone... but the steam engine was too big to fit through it
Sidmouth - former railway station. (Chris Allen)
The regency town of Sidmouth on the East Devon coast has been left without a railway since the Beeching Axe in 1967. Some 70 years earlier, a station in the town opened on July 6, 1874, and was built and operated by the Sidmouth Railway Company to satisfy the needs of visitors to the resort. Initially there were seven trains per day, a number that increased to 24 in the 1930s, but demand for the railway reduced and services ceased on March 6, 1967, with freight services continuing up to the time that the line closed on May 8, 1967.
The railway track was lifted shortly after closure and, while the building which was the original entrance to the ticket office and waiting rooms remains, the site has been completely redeveloped with a builders’ merchant built on the goods yard, an industrial estate on the line and homes on the trackbed.
But 40 years prior to Sidmouth’s railway line opening, there was a short-lived and doomed attempt to put a railway across the seafront as part of plans to create a harbour in the bay. While the town was a popular seaside resort, its popularity by 1835 was declining and the small, exposed harbour was shoaling badly. A properly protected harbour, by the construction of two stone piers at the Chit Rocks, at the western end of Sidmouth sea front, was planned to be built and The Sidmouth Harbour Company was formed with Henry Habberley Price acting as the engineer.
There were plenty of supplies of suitable stone available to build the new harbour at Hook Ebb, just 1.75 miles to the east beneath Salcombe Hill, and to enable its construction, a railway was considered the best way to transport the stone. Two L‑shaped piers were to enclose some 10 acres at Chit Rocks, to the west of the town, and the stone for their construction was to come from generous natural deposits at Hook Ebb, a mile and a half to the east
An Act of Parliament for the work was obtained in 1836, and the railway was duly laid, to run from Chit Rocks to Hook Ebb. The railway ran parallel to the sea front, and along the esplanade at Sidmouth itself. The railway crossed the shingle beach over the River Sid, roughly where the Alma Bridge sits today, on a small viaduct. It then went through a tunnel that was around 0.5km long, through Salcombe Hill, behind the cliff face, and out to Hook Ebb. The winter of 1837 though saw the railway hit its first problem, one that still persists today, as it was damaged by a storm, but a meeting in February 1838 saw them agree to repair the railway.
There were choppy seas at Sidmouth seafront
caused by high winds (Daniel Clark)
Work on the tunnel started at Pennington Point, but the second snag took place when the manually powered machine to pull the rocks on the railway, which was created by a local blacksmith, named Coles, commissioned for the job, found that the rocks were too heavy to be pulled. A manuscript titled ‘A History of Sidmouth’, published in 1870 by an eccentric antiquarian named Peter Orlando Hutchinson, explains what happened next. His tale explains how the steam engine was brought to the town by sea and the vessel it was on was grounded on Sidmouth beach, but there was no crane sufficiently powerful to unload the engine. The ship was finally floated off and sent to Exmouth, where a crane powerful enough did lift it off, and the engine was then ‘drawn over the hills to Sidmouth where it entered “decorated with laurels as if in triumph amid the greatest enthusiasm”.
Cliff fall at Sidmouth's East Beach (Daniel Clark)
But when it finally arrived in Sidmouth and was placed on the railway line, it was found to be too large to pass through the tunnel. Hutchinson’s manuscript explains that it was used briefly to give novelty pleasure rides across the seafront, while the scheme to use the railway to construct the harbour was abandoned.
By the end of 1838, the locomotive had been removed from the railway, the viaduct was taken away, and with £12,000 of the £15,000 projected cost of building the harbour spent with no further progress made on constructing it, the scheme was abandoned, and the tracks were pulled up.
Storms back in 1966 exposed a considerable length of the piles of the railway and a thirty feet length of track, although most of the tunnel though has now fallen in or eroded from Pennington Point where the cliffs are collapsing.
East Devon District Council has a preferred beach management scheme consists of adding a new rock groyne on East Beach, importing new shingle onto Sidmouth Beach, and East Beach, and raising the existing splash wall along the rear of the promenade.