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The Withered Arm and the Atlantic Coast Express - Spring Steam Gala 2014

(06/10/2013 @ 13:32:00)

The 2014 West Somerset Railway Spring Steam Gala withh be under the theme of the 'Withered Arm and the Atlantic Coast Express'

In railway terms "the Withered Arm” referred to the network of lines which was built up by the London and South Western Railway in Devon and North Cornwall and later operated by the Southern Railway and the Southern Region of British Railways. The name referred to the resemblance of the network to the withered arm of a tree. Or so we are told.

Historically the oldest part of the system was the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway which opened in 1834. Always short of money it was purchased by the London and South Western in 1846 with a view to giving the LSWR a bridgehead in Cornwall in its ongoing territorial battle with the Great Western and the GWR’s associated companies. At that point the rest of the LSWR, which had begun life as the London and Southampton, was 100 miles away and it was not in fact until 1895 that the B&W was linked to the rest of the system via a line from Halwill Junction. You could also board trains at Halwill Junction for Padstow, Bude, Okehampton and Torrington and so that isolated station was the scene of regular shunting and train re-marshalling.

Rather simpler than that was the main line between Exeter and Plymouth. The trains from Waterloo reached Exeter Queen Street Station (later Exeter Central) and then descended to the Great Western station at St Davids which they passed through. Just to confuse the passenger however GWR trains for Plymouth left heading in one direction whilst LSWR ones for the same city went out the other way. The same thing happened in reverse with London bound trains steaming away in apparently conflicting directions. Once off the GWR at Cowley Bridge Junction the Withered Arm Expresses to Plymouth swung around through Dartmoor, via Okehampton and Tavistock to reach Plymouth. And finally they made their final approach to their destination in the opposite direction to the GWR and passed the latter’s trains heading from Plymouth into the south and west of Cornwall. For students of locomotive history this was the only section that the rebuilt Bulleid "Light Pacifics” were allowed to work over whereas the original air-smoothed ones could roam over nearly all of "the Arm”.

The other main line section was that from Exeter to Barnstaple which parted company with the Plymouth line north of Crediton. At Barnstaple Junction trains went on to Torrington or Ilfracombe, with GWR trains for Ilfracombe from Taunton coming round from Barnstaple Victoria. Between 1898 and 1935 Barnstaple Town station, on the other side of the river from the Junction was where the trains of the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple met their standard gauge counterparts.

The main train of the day from Waterloo to the Withered Arm was the "Atlantic Coast Express” (or "ACE”) which ran to Exeter Central as a long and heavy train requiring haulage by a premier express locomotive such as a "King Arthur”, "Lord Nelson” or "Merchant Navy”. At Central a process of dividing and reducing the train began and continued at junction stations across the "Arm”, meaning that by the time a section reached Bude or Padstow it would consist of one or two coaches, possibly headed by a venerable express engine or a mundane mixed traffic type.

In the days of the Southern Region of British Railways there were truly venerable machines to be found in North Devon and Cornwall. Oldest of the lot were the trio of Beattie well-tanks which resided at Wadebridge and worked the china clay trains from Wenford along tracks that didn’t suit much else. Built in 1874 for London suburban trains they lasted in service in Cornwall until the early 1960’s and two of the three passed into preservation.  Quite juvenile in comparison were the T9 4-4-0 tender engines which dated from the end of the 19th/start of the 20th Century. Some of the finest express engines produced in the Edwardian era they could still be found at work on the”Arm” at the start of the 60’s and still capable of a good turn of pace when required.

At the other extreme were the Bulleid Light Pacifics, the West Countries and the Battle of Britain express locomotives. Built by the Southern and British Railways from 1945 onwards their original form was revolutionary externally with their "air-smoothed” casings and internally with several novel features. They were also blessed with a light axle loading which let them roam over nearly all of the Arm although this could also lead to some odd-looking workings such as one from Padstow which often featured a "Pacific” running tender first and hauling a single coach.  It would have been deemed as looking ridiculous on a model railway but there it was.  Other stalwarts were the Moguls of the "N” class and the M7 class of 0-4-4 tank engines.

The decline and closure of the North Devon and Cornwall routes of the Southern came in the 1960’s. Serving an area with considerably more scenery than people the Beeching era saw a rolling sequence of closures. In a couple of cases it was a surprise that they had lasted as long as they did. A passenger on the single coach train from Torrington to Halwill was a memorable event for the train crews and the stations’ staff and would be talked about.

Even the main line to Plymouth was not spared and today what is left is a mainly single track line (marketed as the "Tarka Line”) to Barnstaple where the former Junction station has a single line of track and a platform. Trains still run to Callington via Bere Ferrers and the line through Okehampton has seen passenger trains working on the Dartmoor Railway in recent times. And the Lynton and Barnstaple narrow gauge line has begun its reopening at Woody Bay Station. You can walk or cycle along the old trackbed between Barnstaple and Bideford or along the Camel Trail in Cornwall. There is a railway museum at the former station in Bideford and at berre Ferrers station a heritage centre is established.

The best known train associated with the network was the "Atlantic Coast Express” which left London Waterloo as a long and heavy train and ran as such as far as Exeter Central. From there on however it divided and divided again into individual portions for destinations until finally one or two coaches would reach Bude or Ilfracombe. For the London journey the process was reversed until the final array was together at Exeter Central, a "Merchant Navy” pacific backed down from Exmouth Junction locoshed and the passengers who had trundled along from marshalling to re-marshalling began to travel at speed across Wessex towards the capital.

For our Gala we will once again rename the stations after locations on the old Withered Arm and look to bring in appropriate locomotives. Information about the event will be regularly updated on this site as we have it to hand. 


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