Okehampton to Halwill (Walk: 14 miles)
Back in July 1962 the Bude and Padstow portion of the weekday Atlantic Coast Express, normally a locomotive hauling just four coaches, would have left Okehampton at 3:06pm.
It is not quite 3pm as I head out of the station yard myself. I go straight onto the Granite Way multi-use path that follows the old track bed from here down to Lydford. There is still a single line of rail track separated from me by a fence.
The track that I am walking alongside leads a few miles west to Meldon Quarry. It was served by stone trains until 2011 and until recently it was also used by the Dartmoor Railway. This heritage line operated tourist services from a halt near the quarry to Okehampton and sometimes beyond. It has now been wound up, so this section is no longer being used regularly.
I am finding it a bit hot as I walk. It must be somewhere near the day’s high of 24 degrees and the bright sun means that I am trying to make sure to walk in the shade of the trees where I can. The forecast is for something similar tomorrow, but thankfully temperatures will be down towards 20 by Wednesday. At least there is no heavy rain forecast.
Meldon Viaduct Station (199 miles from Waterloo)
I am now walking alongside Meldon Quarry, and I pass the little halt, all securely locked up now, that was used as a terminus by the heritage operation until a few years ago. The quarry itself was purchased by the LSWR in 1897 and at one time provided track ballast for much of Southern England. It was privatised in 1994 but mothballed in 2011.
The track finally ends in what was once the shunting neck for the quarry, with the buffer stops seemingly perched precariously on the edge of the valley. This point, just short of 200 miles, is now the furthest it is theoretically possible to reach by rail on the old line from Waterloo.
I continue along the Granite Way out on to the great Meldon Viaduct. By chance, I am crossing it at around the same time that the Bude and Padstow portion of the A.C.E. would have passed over it back in July 1962. The train would have slowly edged its way across, obeying the 20-mph speed restriction in place to protect the structure. The weakness of this 541-foot long and 151-feet high all-steel truss bridge is often given as the reason the link between Okehampton and Bere Alston (for Plymouth) cannot be easily re-opened.
Despite the hot weather, I am surprised to see that it is still a little bit breezy in the middle of the bridge. The views north to Maddaford Moor and south towards Dartmoor are spectacular. The route is quite busy with cyclists and most of them seem to pause in the middle of the viaduct to appreciate the vistas.
Once off the bridge I continue south through a deep cutting; the railway here was climbing towards its summit. There is a trackside sign to mark 200 miles from Waterloo, and then a little further on there is a sign explaining where Meldon Junction Signal Box used to be.
At the old Junction itself there is a bunch of benches arranged in a small “V” layout to commemorate the parting of the lines. The main line to Plymouth, now the Granite Way, continues to the left towards Lydford. However, the course of the old branch line to Halwill, Bude and Padstow, the way that I want to go, is blocked by a large tree with a wall of dense bushes behind it. I turn around and exit the trail.
I now follow a mile-long diversion that takes me on a series of B-roads, across the busy A30, and finally back onto the track bed of the single track branch line as it curves away from Meldon Junction. This is the Pegasus Way, a newish trail, that will take me a good way towards Halwill. It is easy walking for the most part; the railway gradient is falling now. In theory this is also a multi-user path, but in contrast to the busy Granite Way, I meet no one walking, cycling or on horseback.
I have been walking for 5 miles, and now I arrive at the site of the only station on the line that the A.C.E. didn’t ever regularly stop at.
Maddaford Moor Halt (202 miles)
Maddaford Moor Halt was opened in 1926 by the Southern Railway (SR), apparently to serve a planned, but never built, Spa. It was never very busy and had a limited service. I can just about discern the remnants of the single concrete platform behind the path.
I continue along the Pegasus Way enjoying the same wonderful views for miles on both sides that passengers on the train would presumably have had. Although it is a very sunny day today, it still seems quite empty up here and I can imagine it must get quite bleak in winter.
The path diverts momentarily off the track bed for a short section and continues along a dense bramble and bush-ridden path. It is quite unpleasant; I am attacked by midges and horseflies. (The horsefly bites later swell up and continue to plague me all week)
After almost 5 miles, the Pegasus Trail ends quite abruptly without warning. There isn’t an obvious diversion route signposted either (apparently an extension is under construction). Looking at the map, I realise that to make further progress I will now need to follow the A3079 running parallel with the old railway to my left. First though, I make a slight detour to an over bridge to get a view of Ashbury Station.
Ashbury (206 miles)
The single-storey station building has now been converted into a dwelling. Ashbury was also a passing place and had two platforms; the space between them has been filled in and is now part of the garden.
In early July 1962, the A.C.E. would not have stopped here, this was the first of several smaller stations that were served by the train in winter (at 3:26pm) but skipped in the summer to speed up the time to Padstow.
I am now forced to walk along the side of the A3079 road for about a mile. It is ghastly; there is no pavement, most of the cars seem to be coming towards me at more than the 60-mph speed limit and many don’t notice me until the last minute. Eventually I turn off a side road towards the hamlet of Patchacott and then follow another at the side of the railway through woodland back towards Madworthy.
I come to an under bridge and climb up to the parapet to have a look at the track bed. It is seriously overgrown in both directions. It is totally impassable. This is normal for a line that isn’t being used as a footpath or a farm track, but it always amazes me how quickly nature reasserts itself.
Just before Halwill Junction, I am back on the A3079; it is not quite as bad as before but I am happy to get into the village and find a pavement to walk on. Having walked a total of 14 miles, I reach the little crossroads at the centre of Halwill Junction close to where the station (in 1962 known just as Halwill) used to be.
Halwill (210 miles)
The A.C.E. would have arrived here at 3:30pm, and work would have begun immediately to detach the Bude coach from the rear. It is well past 6pm by the time I get here myself. It is still hot, and I am quite hot. I spot the Junction Inn, a survivor from the railway era, and after 14 miles the pub looks very inviting. Unfortunately, it is closed on Mondays.
I have a walk around. There is a line gradient marker right next to the pub, perhaps in its original position, but nothing left of the station itself. There is a very informative sign opposite the pub that tells the story of the village, starting off as a quiet backwater, becoming a busy junction and then going back to being a quiet backwater again. There is also information about how the arrival of the railway encouraged wealthy families to come to the area and set up country estates.
The station was first opened in 1879 along with the line from Okehampton to Holsworthy, and only became a junction when the line to Launceston was opened in 1886. A third line to Torrington was opened in 1925. Although the village itself still bears the name Halwill Junction, the station was known simply as Halwill from 1923 until its closure in 1966.
I walk over to the little housing estate they have built over much of the station site. It looks a nice enough place to live, but I can’t quite agree with the choice of “Beeching Close” as a name for one of its roads. Nevertheless, it still seems a good place to end my walk for the day.