My mother and father spent their honeymoon in Ilfracombe in 1956 and they often related the story of how their car broke down on the way down from Lancashire and how they arrived a whole day late. I always used to wonder why they had not just used the train. If they had gone by rail, they would have passed through Mortehoe & Woolacombe (1874-1970) just before arriving at their destination on Devon’s Atlantic coast.
The station (the “& Woolacombe” bit is missing from the song) was opened by the London South Western Railway as part of its extension from Exeter and Barnstaple to Ilfracombe. The LSWR and its successors ran trains direct to Ilfracombe from London Waterloo. The resort seems to have had something of a heyday in the 1950s and the railway responded by running a special Pullman train known as “the Devon Belle”.
The final closure of the whole Barnstaple-Ilfracombe line in 1970 was one of the most shocking and regrettable of all the cuts and it probably left Ilfracombe at a disadvantage to other rail-linked resorts.
The X on the map shows the approximate location of the station in relation to the current British railway network. The nearest open station is Barnstaple 11.4 miles.
The red dot on the map below shows the approximate location of the station in relation to the local area.
Services: Past, Present & Future?
In 1958 the station was served by every train on the Barnstaple (35 minutes) to Ilfracombe (10 minutes) line. On weekdays there were around 12 trains in each direction including a portion of the famous Atlantic Coast Express from London Waterloo. The number of trains doubled on summer Saturdays but reduced to 4 on Sundays.
By 1965 the number of daily trains had been reduced to around 10, the express to Waterloo had gone by then although there were still through coaches via Exeter to London Paddington in summer.
Today there is a bus connection, much more conveniently from the centre of Mortehoe, to Ilfracombe taking around 20 minutes.
There have been several ambitious campaigns to reopen the Ilfracombe line, including the current “Coombe Link” – light railway project. Nevertheless, a missing bridge over the River Taw at Barnstaple presents a rather expensive obstacle to connecting back to the network.
The main station building has remained in various states of repair over the 50 years since closure. It was at one time part of a kind of a museum / mini theme park complete with its own miniature railway and old train carriages.
Recently, though, it has been rebuilt into a series of houses. It stands at the junction of Woolacombe Station Road and Mortehoe Station Road and is hardly recognizable as an old station these days.
The track bed from Ilfracombe has been converted into a cycle trailway and passes behind the houses. There is no clue that a double track railway passed through here though.
Although there is a hotel, a garage and a few other houses around the station site, the main villages of Mortehoe and Woolacombe are some distance away. They are in two different directions and so, rather quaintly, there are two separate “Station Roads”.
We decided to follow Mortehoe Station Road first. It was quite a distance to the village itself, though it was mostly downhill. On our final approach we had a terrific panoramic view looking down at Mortehoe and out to the sea beyond. Walking up from the village to the station with luggage must have been quite a struggle though.
The little village was charming. We found a sign in the centre that explained everything; it gets a mention in the doomsday book and is associated with ship wreckers and smugglers. The main pub was the evocatively named– Ship Aground.
We got coffees at the little post office, which seemed to be doubling as a gift shop and a café, and then we had a good walk around. Perhaps not surprisingly, today the village seemed to be concentrating on the tourist trade and there were plenty of pubs, shops, and small hotels.
We walked out to Morte Point for a view of the whole coastline. It is said to be one of the best views on this whole section of coast. We could see all the way west over to the island of Lundy, north over to Wales and south towards Woolacombe.
Woolacombe, apparently meaning Wolves’ valley, was a slightly larger village than Mortehoe. Its large sandy beach was attracting day tippers on the warm sunny day when we visited.
The congestion on the narrow lanes and the hundreds of cars parked near the beach seemed to be a bit of a downside to an otherwise idyllic spot. We decided it would be nicer to come back to the whole area when it was quieter, perhaps in winter.
We returned to the old station building by way of Woolacombe Station Road and then we decided to walk along the track bed into Ilfracombe around 3 miles away.
Our walk started out with some clear sea views before the trailway curved through woods, went past a series of reservoirs, through one of the old tunnels at Slade and finally arrived at the former site of Ilfracombe station.
Although there was an interesting signboard explaining everything, nothing remained of the station at all. A large industrial plant had been built on the site and the trailway skirted around it on its last lap into the town.
We wandered down towards the promenade and got some lovely fish and chips from a café near the promenade and then ate them whilst sitting on the grass of the Victoria Pleasure Grounds. The hideous Landmark Theatre did its best to ruin what would otherwise have been a very pleasant vista.
We continued our walk around Capstone Parade whilst watching the boats coming and going. They seemed to be doing good business giving trips around the bay in the old lifeboat. We ended up at the harbour and walked, through throngs of people enjoying the summer sun, all the way to the end, where we spotted the old “MV Oldenburg” ship which normally plies back and forth to Lundy Island.
We started our return journey through the old town. The high street looked as if it had seen better days and I wondered how much the town’s fortunes had changed since my parents were here more than sixty years ago. As we got back to the old Ilfracombe station site, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the decline was down to the loss of the railway.
The exit from Ilfracombe station was the steepest standing start for a steam engine in the country. Often a second, banking, engine would be needed to assist with the departure. The line to Mortehoe was uphill all the way too; something that we learned to our cost as we made our way back along the track bed to our starting point!
Slow train to 6) Midsomer Norton