Halwill to Launceston (Walk: 15 Miles)
Back to Halwill
There are banners and posters around the area of the bus stop at Bude advertising the campaign to rebuild the Bude branch line. As I board the 8:50am bus heading to Exeter via Halwill Junction, I start to wonder just how difficult rebuilding the line would be. From what I learned yesterday; it seems that turning it into a footpath is hard enough.
I would really love to see it reopened, but would it really be worth all the investment? My bus is a double decker, but it is not even a quarter full, would the train really attract more? It is a difficult one. I give up thinking about it and concentrate on enjoying the ride instead. Within 40 minutes I am back at Halwill Junction.
It feels a little strange to be back here for the third time in three days, but I soon make progress heading out of the place once again. This time I am walking on the track bed of the Launceston branch, the first section of which has been made into a footpath. This line, built by the North Cornwall Railway (NCR), was opened to Launceston in 1886 and then gradually extended until it reached Padstow in 1899.
Back in July 1962 the Padstow portion of the A.C.E., having left the coach for Bude in the platform behind it, would have followed this route as it headed out of Halwill at 3:31pm, Although it might have had a grand-looking “Atlantic Coast Express” headboard on the front of the locomotive, it would probably now be down to just the single coach that had left Waterloo and the two that had been attached at Exeter.
My track bed walk is over all too quickly. I come to an overbridge beyond which the route is blocked. Not only is the line private land from here onwards, but there is plenty of the usual thick foliage in the way too. For the rest of the day, I will have to content myself using roads and paths alongside the old railway.
I leave the railway behind and pass through the little hamlet of Halwill. A sign next to its attractive church explains how this was the original settlement before the railway came and spurred the growth of Halwill Junction.
I climb slowly whilst enjoying views of the railway off to the left in the valley below. From Halwill the track follows the course of the River Carey and it descends gently over a distance of 14 miles from 650ft to 200ft to cross the River Tamar just outside Launceston.
Somewhat frustratingly I face much steeper gradients on my own journey. I walk through Quoditch and then clamber down a very steep bank to cross the Carey and then the track bed, before picking my way through a series of fields whilst ascending the other side.
I pass through Thorne and then descend a 20% gradient on a little road to reach the delightful setting where Ashwater Station once was. I have now come 5 miles from Halwill Junction.
Ashwater (215 miles from Waterloo)
In July 1962 the A.C.E. would have skipped Ashwater, but the train would have stopped here in the winter at 3:44pm. The station building, the first one I have encountered to be built by the NCR, survives and is now a residence. Interestingly the cutting just to the north of it has been filled in and apart from two bridge parapets there is little evidence the line was ever here.
I leave Ashwater and make a long and arduous climb through Bradaford towards Tillislow. When I eventually reach the top there are great views of the river and railway off to the right. I then descend gradually over several miles before I am level with the line once more. As I reach the next station, I have walked 9 miles from Halwill Junction.
Tower Hill (219 miles)
Nothing survives of the station that used to serve the little hamlet here, but there are still some railway cottages close by the old track bed. As with Ashwater, the July 1962 A.C.E. would have passed through Tower Hill, but there would have been a stop at 3:51pm in the winter.
It is now close to 1pm and it is getting hotter as I climb out of Tower Hill. I have been hoping for a quick lunchtime drink in the pub in the next village, St Giles on the Heath, but once again I am out of luck; it is closed. I settle for a couple of cans of something fizzy from the local post office before setting off for a short jaunt along the side of the busy A388 towards Tipple Cross.
I descend once again towards the line at Heale Barton, cross it and then walk alongside it on the Two Castles Trail path. As I walk through a field of sheep, horses and cows all mixed together, there is a great view of the old line (marked in white on the photograph below) curving away in the distance. Eventually, I emerge at Polson Bridge and cross the River Tamar back into Cornwall on the outskirts of Launceston.
I now follow the Tamar Discovery Trail which takes me over the River Kensey and then along a quiet road with views down to where the line from Halwill would have crossed the GWR branch from Lydford. The two lines entered Launceston side by side, but until the Second World War there was no physical connection between them.
I follow an attractive zigzag path down through Ridgegrove Park to the site where two adjacent stations, one for the GWR and one for the LSWR, once stood. It is just before 3:30pm and the total distance I have walked from Halwill is 15 miles.
Launceston (224 miles)
The July 1962 train would have reached Launceston at 3:52pm. The area where the two stations used to be is now covered by an industrial estate. There is very little evidence of anything left of either, although it is just possible to make out the stone steps of the old footbridge on the LSWR side. They have been left in situ and seem to have become a permanent feature.
The GWR line from Lydford and Plymouth that terminated alongside here opened in 1865, a full 21 years before the line I have just followed from Halwill reached the town. Passenger services on the GWR line were moved to the LSWR station in 1952 and discontinued in 1962, 4 years before those on the ex-LSWR line.
However, the railway has not completely vanished from Launceston. An old signal and a large pile of coal are two clues along a path that leads under the next bridge to the cutting beyond. Located here is a new station that has been so lovingly created, including using an old canopy from Tavistock North, that you would be forgiven for thinking that it was the original one. In fact, this is the terminus of the Launceston Steam Railway and it only dates from 1983.
The railway operates a 1ft, 11.5-inch narrow gauge line for 2.5 miles from here to a farm park at Newmills. It is built on the track bed of the line I am following so naturally it has my attention. After a quick look at the railway’s museum, a browse in the bookshop and a drink from the buffet, I get a ticket and climb aboard the 4pm departure. The train is formed of 3 carriages (based on Manx Electric Railway vehicles) and has ex-Penrhyn Quarry locomotive, Lillian (built by Hunslet in 1883) at its head.
Back in 1962, the Padstow portion of the A.C.E. would have been leaving Launceston and passing over this very section of track at almost the same time. It would have also probably comprised of a locomotive and three coaches, so I smile to myself thinking that although smaller in scale, this is not a totally unauthentic experience. After a morning of overgrown and blocked track beds, the journey is a delight. Lillian does a grand job but sadly the short run to Newmills is over in no time.
At the turnaround I get chatting to the driver and he offers me the chance to ride back with him on the footplate. I then spend a fabulous quarter of an hour discussing the railway and its history with him on the way back to Launceston. It is a memorable experience, but I need to keep a tight grip as lively Lillian rocks and sways just a little bit.
I leave the railway and climb up to the centre of the town. My lodging is next to the castle high on the hill with great views of the valley below. In the distance I can see the way I have just come, with the railway following the River Kensey to Newmills and Egloskerry, the first station I will visit tomorow morning, just beyond.
Today has been my shortest walking day and even with the train trip I still have plenty of time left to explore. I start with a wander through the castle grounds. The castle itself dates from the 11th century and was built by the half-brother of William the Conqueror.
The centre of Launceston has a nice feel to it, and it is quite lively even on this Wednesday evening. The central square is very attractive, St Mary Magdalen Church is worth a visit and the impressive two-arched South Gate is a reminder that the town was once surrounded by a wall.
The Bell Inn is an excellent find and has 5 real ales on tap. I enjoy the “Fraid Not IPA”, but then find the “Bell Inn Best Bitter” has the edge. I witness an argument between a tourist and a local. The tourist accuses the local of shouting and spoiling the atmosphere, the local doesn’t take kindly to being told to be quiet on his home turf, there is a heated discussion, eventually the local walks out. I stay for one more, but with another early rise on Thursday, I am still early to bed once again.