Catching the train from Waterloo to Okehampton and then walking on to Bude and Padstow
From the late 1920s until the early 1960s, the “Atlantic Coast Express” (A.C.E.) left London Waterloo daily at 11am and travelled along the ex-LSWR West of England main line to Exeter via Salisbury. The train separated enroute into numerous portions to reach a variety of termini in Devon and Cornwall. Serving up to eight different destinations, it was, without doubt, the country’s “most portioned train.”
West of Exeter, the A.C.E. used a network of mostly secondary routes that had been built by the LSWR in the late 19th century to attack the GWR’s dominance of the region. The train’s main destinations were the seaside resorts of Ilfracombe, Bude and Padstow and, although it ran all year round, it was synonymous with summer holiday makers.
The A.C.E. eventually became a victim of the regional reorganisation of British Railways (BR) and the changing holiday patterns of the British public. It last ran in 1964 and within 8 years the Beeching cuts had closed most of the routes it had used in Devon and Cornwall too. By the early 1970s the old main line from Waterloo to Exeter had been downgraded, and it was impossible to reach Ilfracombe, Bude or Padstow at all by rail.
In 2022 I decided to travel by train along the old route from Waterloo as far as I could and then walk the rest of the way to the A.C.E.’s two Cornish termini, Bude and Padstow. I planned to stay as close to the track bed of the old lines as possible and try to capture the spirit of the old train by studying its schedule from 60 years ago.
I was spurred on by the fact that in November 2021, after a gap of almost 50 years, rail passenger services were finally restored between Exeter and Okehampton, thus making it possible to complete an extra 26 miles of the journey by train.
I decided to travel down to Okehampton on a Monday morning and then walk to Halwill in the afternoon. On Tuesday I would venture along the branch line to Bude, before returning to Halwill on Wednesday to commence a three-day journey to Padstow. I planned on staying in Halwill, Bude, Launceston and Delabole along the way. Hoping for good weather, I chose a week in early July, booked my accommodation, packed my rucksack and then bought a train ticket for Okehampton.
Waterloo to Okehampton (Train: 197 miles)
Under the clock
Whenever I arrive at Waterloo, I seem to walk towards the space under the giant clock that hangs from the roof. It is a popular meeting point, but I seem to end up standing there even when I am not meeting anyone. It is just before 9am and the station is busy with inbound commuters.
I don’t have too long before my train departs but there is just enough time to visit the new Windrush memorial that has been unveiled recently. The statue commemorates the arrival, many into this station, of immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s and the remarkable contribution they made to the UK.
The 1962 train
I have decided to use the weekday schedule of the A.C.E. from early July 1962, exactly 60 years ago, as the benchmark for my whole journey. It includes the first sub-3-hour timing to Exeter (from 1961) and represents the final speed up before the train was lost for good.
Back in 1962, well ahead of the 11am scheduled departure, the carriages to form the Atlantic Coast Express would have been brought into one of Waterloo’s platforms by a smaller locomotive, possibly an M7, from the carriage sidings near Clapham Junction. Then a large “Merchant Navy” locomotive, fresh from nearby Nine Elms shed, would have backed onto the front of the train.
Designed by Oliver Bulleid and named for the shipping lines that participated in the Second World War, 30 Merchant Navy Locomotives were built by the Southern Railway (SR) and BR between 1940 and 1949. Originally designed with air-smoothed casing and incorporating several new technological developments, all were gradually rebuilt in the 1950s to a more conventional pattern. By 1962 they were being used mainly on express trains from Waterloo to Exeter, Bournemouth and Weymouth. Within 6 years, with some of them less than 20 years old, they would all be withdrawn along with every other steam locomotive on BR.
Back in 1962 the A.C.E would have comprised of about 12 or 13 coaches in total, all resplendent in BR’s Southern Region green livery. For much of the post war period the train was formed of coaches designed, also by Bulleid, in the 1940s. With their continuously curved sides and deep windows they looked elegant and in some ways were a precursor to the later BR Mk 1. It is still possible to sample them as a few have been preserved on heritage lines like the Bluebell and Swanage Railways.
Walking out from the ticket barrier at Waterloo, the multi-portioned character of the A.C.E. would have quickly become apparent. The various destinations of the coaches would have been identified by boards on the roof. The last coach in the formation would have been destined to be removed at Salisbury, then there would have been coaches for Exmouth and Sidmouth, the dining and buffet cars would have been next, then one coach (or sometimes two) for Plymouth, one for Bude, one for Padstow, another for Torrington and finally, right at the front just behind the locomotive, three for IIfracombe.
There was always a restaurant car on the Atlantic Coast Express; the departure time at 11:00 and the three-hour trip to Exeter was perfectly timed to enjoy lunch. In the late 1940s the train was among those chosen to have one of Bulleid’s innovative “tavern” cars; basically, a buffet car modified to look like a country pub complete with mock Tudor fittings and even a nameboard on the outside of the coach.
The dining car and perhaps one of the Ilfracombe coaches would have been of the “open” type, but most of the other carriages would have had compartments accessed by a side corridor. As most destinations were served by a single carriage, the train was made up of so-called “brake composites”; carriages having four eight- seater second class compartments and two six-seater first class compartments, as well as a small brake van. In this way, as long as they boarded the correct coach at Waterloo, both classes of passenger and even parcels could be conveyed to each of the separate termini.
The 2022 train
60 years on and services to Exeter, now operated by South Western Railway (SWR), are in the hands of Class 159 diesel multiple units running in formations of up to 10 cars. These trains, of BR vintage, have been plying this route since 1993. This makes them older now than the train described above would have been in 1962. They are not to everyone’s taste, but I think they are decent enough trains, and they seem well suited to this line.
The timings below are for the 09:20am departure from Waterloo in July 2022. They are accompanied by notes on the progress of the 11:00am departure in early July 1962.
Waterloo – 09:20am
Clapham Junction – 09:27am (4 miles from Waterloo)
Woking – 09:45 am (24 miles)
Basingstoke – 10:05am (47 miles)
Andover – 10:23am (66 miles)
Salisbury – 10:43am (83 miles)
In 1962 the A.C.E. would have made its first stop here at 12:20pm. A pause of three minutes was necessary to refill the locomotive’s water tanks and to detach the last coach of the train. That carriage would be attached to a stopping train and serve all the intermediate stations to Exeter.
Considering that the 2022 train makes 4 stops, it does well to get to Salisbury only three minutes slower than its predecessor. From Salisbury onwards, the modern service will now serve almost every remaining station to Exeter.
Tisbury – 11:06am (96 miles)
Gillingham – 11:16am (105 miles)
Templecombe – 11:25am (112 miles)
Sherborne – 11:32am (118 miles)
Yeovil Junction – 11:38am (122 miles)
Crewkerne – 11:48am (131 miles)
Axminster -12:02pm (144 miles)
Honiton – 12:15pm (155 miles)
Feniton – 12:21pm (159 miles)
For much of its life this station was known as Sidmouth Junction, logically the branch line to Sidmouth left the main line here. The branch soon forked again at Tipton with one line diverging for Sidmouth and the other curving around the coast to Exmouth. Both lines closed in 1967.
In 1962 the A.C.E. made only its second stop here at 1:40pm. The allowance was for 2 minutes, time enough to detach two coaches from the rear. These would be both taken forward by a different locomotive, the Exmouth one would be detached again at Tipton. Passengers in their respective coaches would have arrived at Sidmouth at 2:06pm and Exmouth at 2:27pm.
Cranbrook – 12:29pm (166 miles)
Pinhoe – 12:33pm (168 miles)
Exeter Central – 12:37pm (171 Miles)
The 09:20 reaches Exeter Central in 3 hours and 17 minutes from Waterloo. Given the number of stops it is by no means a shoddy performance. If you consider that the trains now run almost hourly, you could argue that Exeter Central now has its best ever service to Waterloo. Although, of course, it is far behind the 2hr 10 minutes that the modern GWR trains take to travel between Paddington and Exeter St Davids.
The 1962 A.C.E. would have made its third stop here at 1:58pm. The Merchant Navy would have been detached from the front of the train whilst the kitchen and dining cars would have been removed from the rear. The train itself would then have been divided into two portions, with the first soon ready to leave.
There would probably have been two Bulleid “light pacifics” waiting at the west end of Exeter Central ready to take over the two portions. These were smaller, lighter versions of the Merchant Navy that were more suited to secondary lines. There were 110 of them in total; they carried names associated with the Battle of Britain or places in the West Country. Like the Merchant Navies, these locomotives had also first appeared in air-streamed casing. Unlike their larger sisters, however, not all of them had been rebuilt and in 1962 many of them, including those working west from Exeter, still appeared in their original (un-rebuilt) form.
The front portion of the A.C.E. would have left at 2:02pm and called at Exeter St Davids before travelling to Barnstaple, where it would have arrived at 3.09pm. After further division at Barnstaple, one portion would have gone to Ilfracombe arriving at 3:55pm, the other to Bideford at 3:36pm and Torrington at 3:49pm.
The second portion, probably now comprising of just three carriages, would have had one or two extra coaches added along with the new locomotive. These carriages were originating at Exeter and would be destined for Padstow. This five-coach train would then have left at 2:15pm and, having descended the steep bank that lies between the two stations, called at St Davids at 2:20pm.
Exeter St Davids – 12:42pm (172 Miles)
The 09:20 from Waterloo terminates at Exeter St Davids at 12:42pm. The connection on to Okehampton, timed to connect with the next service from Paddington, is not due to leave until 1:37pm.
I stand on Platform 3 at St Davids waiting for my train. I am happy to see there are quite a few other people waiting; this newly restored hourly service to Okehampton seems to be well supported. It is being marketed as the “Dartmoor Line” and local Okehampton residents have been involved in a competition to design its symbol.
The train, operated by GWR, arrives on time. It is a two-car Class 150 diesel unit, built by BR in the mid 1980s and thus even older than the Class 159. It has been refurbished inside though and there are even electric sockets at every seat. I sit down, make myself comfortable, put my phone on charge and then smile as the old diesel emits a full-throated roar as it makes a quick exit from Exeter.
Crediton – 1:51 pm (179 Miles)
We soon turn off the up main line to Paddington at Cowley Bridge Junction, we follow the Barnstaple Branch and make our first stop at Newton St Cyres. Everything here is now single track and at Crediton we wait for a train going in the opposite direction before edging forward to get the token for the line to Okehampton from the signaller.
Until just after Yeoford progress is steady and the loud “clickety-clack” of the rails comes through the open windows. Then, as we diverge from the Barnstaple line, the train seems to speed up and it is suddenly quiet and smooth on the newly re-laid section for the rest of the way to the new terminus.
Okehampton – 2:17pm (197 Miles)
I am really impressed by the restoration work at Okehampton; the station is resplendent with authentic Southern Railway totems, BR green station signs, flowers and heritage posters. But I am a little surprised to see that there is still building work going on. There is obviously still a bit to be done on the booking hall and the promised cafe doesn’t seem to be open yet. There is no one around either, once the train has departed back to Exeter, I am left all on my own.
In 1962 the A.C.E. would have arrived here nonstop from Exeter at 3:02pm, taking almost the same amount of time as my own train has just taken. The Plymouth coach would have been detached. The four coaches for Bude and Padstow with the locomotive that had brought them in from Exeter still at their head would have been ready to leave at 3:06pm.
The Plymouth coach would have remained in the station until 3:14pm. Hauled there by a new locomotive, it would have finally arrived at Plymouth Friary at 4:22pm. Nevertheless, the journey time from Waterloo of 5 hours and 22 minutes would have been totally uncompetitive compared to the 4 hours that the fastest trains from Paddington then managed.
As I walk around Okehampton station admiring the floral displays and the heritage signs, I spot an old Southern Railway poster on display. I have seen it a few times before but as it is relevant to my trip, I stop to examine it. It shows a train about to cross the Little Petherick Creek Bridge just outside Padstow. The bridge is still there today, and it now carries the footpath that I will use right at the end of my journey on Friday evening.
I calculate that I am going to have to walk more than 90 miles before I get to it.
I set off quickly.