Torrington revival

The history of the railway from Barnstaple to Halwill Junction via Torrington
Published Mon, 2015-08-10 11:34

News that the Tarka Valley Railway Group has now been granted charitable status means that another piece in the projects plans to restore a railway between Torrington and Bideford can progress.




On the Tarka Trail, the former railway station at Torrington is now used for refreshments and cycle hire. © David Smith and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License

News that the Tarka Valley Railway Group has now been granted charitable status means that another piece in the projects plans to restore a railway between Torrington and Bideford can progress.
The history of the railway through Torrington has its roots almost at the dawn of the railway age, although it was not until much later that the line actually opened. The first company to promote a line west of Barnstaple was the Taw Valley Railway & Dock Co, which was authorised to build a line from Barnstaple to Fremington Pill, where a new dock was to be constructed. Work was, however, not immediately undertaken and little had been achieved by 1845 when, on 21 July, powers were obtained for the construction of a line from Barnstaple to Crediton, where a connection was to be made the GWR-backed Exeter & Crediton Railway.
The politics of the battle between the Great Western and London & South Western railways over the gauge, ownership and operation of the lines between Exeter and Barnstaple is complex; suffice to note here that the L&SWR was ultimately to prove triumphant, thereby laying the roots for the so-called Southern ‘Withered Arm’
With little achieved to the west of Barnstaple, a successor to the Taw Valley Railway & Dock Co emerged in the shape of the North Devon Railway & Dock Co. This company was again authorised to construct the line from Barnstaple to Fremington and the new quay on 24 July 1851. Originally built for standard gauge, the line was converted to broad gauge prior to its official opening on 12 July 1854 and its first public services on 1 August 1854. Services were initially provided by the Bristol & Exeter Railway.
Whilst construction of the line from Barnstaple to Fremington was in hand, a second line, the Bideford Extension Railway, was authorised on 4 August 1853 to construct the 6½-mile route from Fremington to Bideford. The line was constructed to broad gauge and the operation was leased from the start to Thomas Brassey, who also took over the operation of the Barnstaple to Fremington line.

On 1 March 1863 operation passed to the London & South Western Railway following the installation of a third rail for mixed gauge operation; it was not until 13 July 1876 that the LSWR was formally authorised to remove the broad gauge line.
The railway finally reached Torrington on 18 July 1872, some eight miles beyond Bideford. In 1910 there 10 return workings per working day from Barnstaple to the terminus at Torrington with two on Sundays. Although Torrington was the terminus of the standard gauge route, the 3ft 0in gauge Torrington & Marland Railway opened in 1880 to provide primarily a means of moving clay from the quarries at Clay Moor to Torrington for onward shipment.

The next phase in the railway development of the area occurred with the arrival of Col Holman F. Stephens. On 28 August 1914 the North Devon & Cornwall Junction Light Railway was incorporated to take over the bulk of the Torrington & Marland, convert it to standard gauge and extend it to meet the LSWR lines at Halwill Junction. World War 1 resulted in the construction being delayed and powers for the work had to be renewed; this was achieved on 22 April 1922 with work on construction starting on 30 June 1922. The new 20½-mile line, which was operated from the outset by the Southern Railway (which had inherited the LSWR’s ‘Withered Arm’ lines at Grouping in 1923), remained independently owned to Nationalisation in 1948.

In August 1939 there were two return working per weekday from Torrington to Halwill Junction with an early morning return from Torrington to Petrockstow (extended to Hatherleigh on Tuesdays) and a late afternoon service from Dunsbear Halt to Torrington on Mondays to Fridays; on Saturdays it departed much earlier and started from Petrockstow. There was no Sunday service over the line.

At Nationalisation, the ‘Withered Arm’ routes passed initially to British Railways (Southern Region) but in the 1950s control passed to the Western Region. Given the relatively sparse nature of the traffic it was perhaps inevitable that the future of the line through Torrington would be called into question in Beeching’s report in March 1963; closure of the route came in two stages: that from Torrington to Halwill Junction closed on 1 March 1965 and Torrington to Barnstaple followed on 4 October.
The line closed completely south from Meeth to Halwill Junction on 1 March 1965 but the section north of Meeth was to survive for almost two decades for the movement of clay and for other freight traffic. It was also not quite the end of regular passenger services over the route as the line from Barnstaple to Bideford was briefly reopened between 10 January 1968 and 22 January 1968 to provide a link after a bridge across the river had been damaged.
Freight traffic, most notably clay and milk initially, but later fertiliser, kept the line open to Meeth until lack of investment gradually saw the traffic disappear. The milk traffic from Torrington ceased in 1978, fertiliser to Torrington on 11 January 1980 and clay from Meeth two years later. A farewell passenger special operated over the line on 25 January 1983 with the line being officially closed on 5 March 1983.

Although there was pressure to try and preserve the line, these came to nothing and the route was dismantled. The station building at Torrington was converted into a public house — appropriately called The Puffing Billy — and the disused trackbed was acquired by Devon County Council from British Rail for conversion into a long-distance footpath — the Tarka Trail.

The Tarka Valley Railway Group was established in 2008 with the intention, initially, of laying a short section of track at Torrington with a view ultimately on rebuilding towards Bideford alongside the footpath.
The group’s charitable status will now assist them to develop the small-scale operation already established at Torrington.