Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway

A long closed railway now being restored

The Railway Today

I am delighted to say that the Lynton and Barnstaple railway is now carrying passengers again! A section of the track near parracombe has been restored and once again paying passengers can travel from Woody bay to Killington Lane (about a mile) and back behind a genuine Hunslet narrow gauge steam locomotive. Congratulations to the members of The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway Trust on this fantastic acheivement. I don't think they will be content until the entire railway is once again open.

Until recently the Lynton and Barnstaple railway had not operated for almost seventy years! The track is long gone and most of the stock has been cut up for scrap. Some of the buildings survive and are in use for other purposes, notably Blackmoor Gate Station, which is now a pub, one with a decidedly railway theme to it I am happy to say.

Most of the trackbed is still in existence and the magnificent Chelfham viaduct, which crosses the Stokes River valley by eight stone spans silently awaits the return of the trains for which it was built.

And now we know that the L&B, like so many before it, was not dead but just sleeping with a keen band of volunteers bringing 2' gauge steam back to the wild and beautiful Exmoor uplands. To restore this railway is an extremely ambitious project which many would baulk at attempting. The work undertaken by the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway Society is not one of preservation but of reconstruction and strong progress has been made with the first section of the line now open for passenger service after so many years.

I am sure that we all wish the L&B society well with their efforts and whether you are just casually interested, or eager to join there ranks.

History and Origins

In the 1890s Exmoor was a wild and remote area, it is easy to forget as you flash across the moor on modern roads that before the motor car came here a journey across this high wasteland could be a wild adventure especially in the hard winter snows to which the area is so exposed. There were many truly remote farms and Hamlets on the moor in those days and many of these were given the name cott, the name of one, Outovercott, is truly redolent of isolation.

In the era when Railways were helping tourism grow into an industry in Britain the remote coasts of Exmoor had several attractive towns which ambitious entrepreneurs wished to turn into seaside resorts, travelling to them was the problem. Although standard gauge metals reached Minehead and Ilfracombe the heart of Exmoor was hidden by such difficult terrain that a railway seemed impossible. Following in the footsteps of the people of North Wales, Exmoor sort a solution in the 2' gauge, in fact the exact Ffestiniog gauge of 1'11 1/2" was used when in the autumn of 1895 the construction of the Lynton and Barnstaple railway began.

The railway was designed from the outset to follow the contours of the land, but some obstacles had to be surmounted by embankments, bridges and of course Chelfham Viaduct which soars 70' above the Stokes River. Sadly the cost of construction was underestimated and after legal wrangling with the contactor (J. Nuttal of Manchester) the Railway company had to raise further funds by issuing new shares and in so doing laid the foundations of a financial position which was to remain insecure until the lines demise.

The Railway was equipped with most attractive and unusual chalet style buildings while three 2-6-2 tank engines were built by Manning Wardle and company of Leeds and named Yeo, Exe and Taw. All the rolling stock was built to a generous loading gauge (considering the narrow gauge of the track) with the result that the coaches were spacious and comfortable. Once the railway was in service it became apparent that three locomotives would not be enough and, finding Manning Wardle busy with other work, in February 1898 an order was placed with the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the USA. The Baldwin was named Lyn and, while lacking the elegant lines of the British built machines, gave good service.

The railway enjoyed some success initially carrying many of the local people, some tourists and a certain amount of freight but unfortunately the high debt burden and running costs prevented this success from extending to significant profits for the shareholders. The railway went on until, in the grouping of 1923, the railway was absorbed by Southern Railways.

In the hands of the Southern a major investment program began with another locomotive, Lew, built by Manning Wardle to their original drawings, new goods vehicles and more frequent services but the railway was still not profitable. Unfortunately, following the contours meant that many of the stations were far from the settlements they served and this fact made the competition from road transport all the more severe. In 1935 the Southern closed the railway and its rolling stock and track was sold off with almost indecent haste, locos were cut up for scrap and coaches converted into chicken houses. The track was lifted and the line began to revert to nature.

So it is that today the preservation movement is working in Devon to rebuild the railway, the trackbed and bridges are mainly still there although to the uneducated eye there is little to say that it was once a railway. Lew was not cut up at the time but was shipped to Brazil and there is a remote chance, growing slimmer every day, that Lew may still survive.

I certainly look forward to visiting Exmoor and seeing this most charming of railways carrying passengers again after sixty five years of abandonment.

Comments on this Railway

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Peter   11 Apr 2012
I had the pleasure of riding on your railway on Easter Sunday 2012. The highlight of the visit was not the ride on your lovely train nor was it riding with Ed Miliband but the best Cappuccino and scones that we tasted all of our Easter holiday. Hope to be back next Easter. (for the coffee) Well done ladies of LBR.
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