By Chris Alton, and courtesy of the Dartmoor Magazine, issue 104, Autumn 2011
Photos courtesy of Devon Museums and the Lustleigh Society
A hundred years ago holidaymakers could board a train at Paddington Station and travel all the way to Moretonhampstead without once getting off the train. Dartmoor was already a popular holiday destination by the early 20th century, and by 1903 the Great Western Railway was advertising itself as ‘The Holiday Line’. Paddington Station acquired a romantic reputation as the starting point for holidays to the southwest, and books such as Baring-Gould’s Devon, published in 1907, highlighted the attractions of villages such as Chagford and Lustleigh.
On 1 June 1911 the Great Western Railway started its through train service to Moretonhampstead. Ladies in elegant travelling coats and gentleman in bowler hats waited at Paddington Station to board the ‘chocolate and cream’ painted carriages of the Torquay-bound Express. Along the crowded platform, long lines of horse-drawn carriages and shiny new motor vehicles disgorged their passengers, accompanied by copious quantities of labelled luggage boxes. At 11.50am the carriage doors were slammed and the Brunswick green steam engine puffed slowly out of the station.
Just three-and-a-half hours later, at 3.22pm, the train drew up at Newton Abbot station; but the travellers who were continuing on to Moretonhampstead did not have to leave the comfort of their seats. A short wait while the carriage was attached to the Moretonhampstead branch train, and at 3.45pm they continued on their way.
The first stop on the branch line was Teigngrace, a small station with a ticket office and small goods siding. Its single platform was fenced by paling and the Stover Canal – built in 1792 by James Templer II to transport clay to Teignmouth Docks for export – was just visible to the east of the line. In winter it was lit by oil lamps in ornate glass lanterns and in summer there were attractive displays of flowers.
The next stretch of the line was not so picturesque. Then, as now, this was an area of considerable industrial activity, centred around the brick, tile and clay works. The scene from the train windows was of gravel pits and the tall brick chimneys of the Bovey Potteries. Yet Bovey Station itself was surrounded by so many trees that it was difficult to catch a good view of the town.
Bovey was a favourite stopping off point for those who wished to take a trip over the moor, and the station yard was often crowded with charabancs waiting for tourists. In the 1890s trippers were taken up onto the moor in horse-drawn vehicles, but during the Edwardian era these gradually gave way to motorised charabancs which could carry a dozen people or more. Usually open-topped, the vehicles drove out between the heavy, fluted gateposts of the station yard and over the level crossing to head for Haytor Rocks or Becky Falls and Manaton. Becky Falls, which had been open to the public since 1903, was famously visited by Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke in 1911, just two months after the through train service from Paddington began to operate. During this period the railway line brought so many visitors to Bovey that ‘Refreshment Rooms’ were built near the level crossing.
Leaving Bovey Station, the train skirted the grounds of Parke House (built for William Hole in the 1820s), passed over bridges, through cuttings and along embankments. The holiday travellers had tantalising glimpses of trees and rocks and river until, passing Lustleigh Mill, they drew in to Lustleigh Station. The charm and character of the village was already renowned by then and some of the thatched cottages could be seen from the train (see Issue 103, summer 2011). Lustleigh had just one platform, a small station building and a small goods yard. Some twenty years later, in 1931, it was used in a film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The film featured the regular branch train including one intended to be the Paddington Express. However, it was the later 1939 film that became famous.
Pulling away from Lustleigh, the train quickly passed under Bishopstone Bridge and between the steep sides of the Bishopstone cutting. It emerged onto an embankment from which passengers could look down on the Wray Brook meandering through damp meadows, or turn their heads to the left and catch a glimpse of early 17th-century Caseley Court.
On either side they could now enjoy the wooded slopes of the Wray Valley. In Victorian times these ancient deciduous woodlands belonged to wealthy landowners, several of whom were directors of the original Moretonhampstead and South Devon Railway. Many of these woodlands, such as Wray Cleave, Sanduck Wood and Caseley Wood, are now owned and managed by Dartmoor National Park.
From Lustleigh to Moretonhampstead the line was never far from the Wray Brook, some stretches of which had been diverted and deepened when the line was built. Another short cutting took the train past Wray Barton, a ‘Victorian Tudor’ style house dating from around 1840. The original, much older, buildings were destroyed by fire in June 1850. Only a short distance further and the train finally arrived at the end of the line, Moretonhampstead Station. It was late afternoon. Less than five hours after leaving Paddington – and without having had to move from their carriage – the passengers disembarked.
Moretonhampstead had long been known as a centre for visitors to the moor and as a resort for those who wished to improve their health. Its station was considerably larger than the other stations on the branch line. Between the arched windows of its substantial main building timetables were displayed, and in Edwardian days a canopy extended out from the front wall. Attached to this building was an even longer, largely wooden train shed. There was also an engine shed, a lean-to signal cabin and a large goods shed. The railings along the back of the platform were cluttered with posters and an iron-framed bench had ‘Moretonhampstead’ painted across the wooden slats.
For those staying in Moretonhampstead, a steep path offered a short cut up the hill to the village. If Chagford [and the Mill End Hotel?] was the final destination, a Milnes-Daimler motor omnibus was already waiting in the station yard. Looking somewhat like a cross between a train and a gypsy caravan, these omnibuses were part of a fleet that had been introduced by the Great Western Railway just five years earlier, in 1906. Before that travellers would have been taken over the moor to Chagford in a four-in-hand coach operated by a local hotel owner. The Great Western Railway used their omnibus service to promote tourism to the area, and in 1909 they also began to offer tours across Dartmoor to Princetown and Dartmeet.
The First World War put an end to the brief life of the through service from Paddington and it was never reinstated. Other passenger services to Moretonhampstead continued to run until 1959. Although many traces of the railway line and its stations can still be found, parts of the track have disappeared altogether. In 1986 the Bovey bypass road was built over the old track between Bovey Station and Bovey Potteries, thus ensuring that there was little chance of the line ever reopening. Lustleigh Station was sold off to be converted to a private dwelling, and the remaining buildings at Moretonhampstead are now used by a local haulage company.
Fortunately, the Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust has restored the station building at Bovey and now runs it as a heritage centre. It is possible to walk to the site of the station at Teigngrace (today on the route of the 18-mile long Templer Way linking Haytor with Teignmouth; see Issue 94, spring 2009) and here the track is still in situ. About a mile-and-a-quarter of the old trackway runs through the grounds of the Parke Estate at Bovey Tracey. Now owned by the National Trust, this section is open to the public all year round for walking and cycling.
In July 2010 Final Approval was granted by Devon County Council for the Moretonhampstead-to-Lustleigh section of the Wray Valley Trail. When completed, this trail will provide a community footpath all the way to Bovey Tracey, mainly using the old railway track. On 30 November last year work started on the first stage from Pound Lane in Moretonhampstead to Steward Wood. So although today it is no longer possible to travel non-stop all the way from Paddington to Moretonhampstead by public transport, at least it will soon be possible for visitors and local residents to enjoy walking and cycling along a large part of this historic and beautiful former railway line.
Thank you to the Dartmoor Magazine, Devon Museums and the Lustleigh Society for allowing reproduction of this article.