The North Cornwall Railway

Construction The Route Operation Traffic The Final Years Rolling Stock Since Closure The ACE Links


Map of the North Cornwall Railway

"The North Cornwall Railway came late in the Railway Age, managed to maintain its nominal independence until the grouping of 1923, served a sparsely populated area and died on 28th January 1967."

Within those few words lies a rich history of a line that was once much-loved but is now, in the main, a forgotten relic of yesteryear.

Cornwall was a difficult county in which to build railways but, despite this, was the object of much rivalry between two of the big companies, the Great Western Railway and the London & South Western Railway. The story of the North Cornwall Railway really starts in 1834 when a small independent line, the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway, was opened between those two towns. (This was the first standard gauge railway to open in the West Country, the first to use steam engines, the first to carry passengers and probably the first railway in the whole country to offer cheap excursion tickets). In the ensuing years both the GWR and the L&SWR had plans for lines through the county but nothing became a reality until, in 1846, the GWR's protegé, the Cornwall Railway, succeeded in obtaining Parliamentary powers to build a line to Falmouth from the South Devon Railway at Plymouth. In the meantime the L&SWR had been promoting the Cornwall & Devon Central Railway from Exeter via Okehampton, Launceston and Bodmin, but these plans had come to nought. Upon the granting of powers to build the Cornwall Railway the L&SWR reacted by buying (illegally, as they did not obtain Parliamentary permission) the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway. They were to operate this odd, remote line as a far-flung outpost that was not connected to their system until 1895, indeed the B&WR was first connected to the "outside world" via a link to the GWR's Bodmin Road to Bodmin branch in 1888, an event that spurred the L&SWR to finish the building of the NCR.

Meanwhile the L&SWR was slowly progressing west, arriving in Exeter in 1860, after which it leased the Exeter & Crediton Railway (which it reached by laying standard gauge rails through the GWR's broad gauge Exeter St Davids station) on 1st February 1862. Also in 1862 the Okehampton Railway Co obtained an Act of Parliament to build a line from Coleford to Okehampton Road (Sampford Courtney) via North Tawton, which was reached in 1867, and the L&SWR leased the North Devon Railway to Barnstaple. In 1865 the Okehampton Railway had changed its name to the Devon & Cornwall Railway and proposed a further line from Sampford Courtney to Bude. This line, of course, was never built and nor was a later proposal that received its Act in 1867, to build a line via Torrington and Hatherleigh to Bude. The line westwards from Okehampton towards the big goal of Plymouth was authorised in 1863 but work did not start until 1869, reaching Okehampton proper in 1871 and Lydford (then called Lidford) in 1874, eventually arriving in Plymouth on 17th May 1876.

In 1873 another Act had been obtained allowing a line to be built from Meldon Junction to Holsworthy, as well as authorising a line through to Wadebridge, but this latter line was allowed to lapse. In 1874 the Devon & Cornwall Railway was bought by the L&SWR, which finally opened the line to Holsworthy on 20th January 1879, having started construction in 1875. So, the scene is finally set for the North Cornwall Railway to emerge, but not for a few years yet! In 1881 committees sprang up, first in Padstow then later in Wadebridge, Camelford and Launceston offering to contribute funds to a survey for a line from Halwill to Padstow, then on to Truro. But the various committees couldn't agree! Launceston wanted the station in the town, thence running via the Inny valley to Davidstow. Padstow wanted to route the line from Wadebridge via St Issey, a more upland route than via the R Camel, which would have involved a tunnel of some 1,000 yards at Tregella, whilst the consultants conducting the survey were mainly interested in an uncomplicated route with no unnecessarily steep grades nor tight radii curves. Eventually the chosen route was hammered out with its start in the wooded valleys of the rivers Carey and Kensey before bursting onto the moors at Otterham, cresting them at an altitude of some 860 feet, then descending via wooded valleys once more to follow the course of the R Camel via Delabole and its massive slate quarry to Wadebridge, after which it hugged the river's estuary for the last few miles to Padstow. Whilst the agonizing over the route of the NCR was taking place, a further line, the Mid Cornwall Railway, was being promoted from Padstow through St Columb to St Dennis on the Cornwall Minerals Railway - deep into GWR territory. The fledgling NCR saw only benefit to be gained from the building of such a line but the proposal failed to gain an Act and died, but it did wake up the GWR to the danger of L&SWR incursion into "their" territory, prompting it to gain the necessary powers to construct a line from Bodmin Road to Bodmin(GWR), and on to Boscarne on the B&WR, thereby reaching this outpost of the L&SWR before the L&SWR itself could!

In 1882 the L&SWR agreed the arrangements for working the NCR and an Act was obtained on 18th August of that year (45 & 46 Vic. cap. ccliv) authorising the North Cornwall Railway with the aim to build a line from Halwill & Beaworthy (as the station was then called) to Padstow South Quay. The authorised capital was £600,000 with borrowing powers of up to £220,000. Included in the original NCR Bill was the acquisition from the L&SWR of the B&WR and associated construction work but in the event this was dropped and the L&SWR carried out the necessary work - deviations at Wadebridge to accommodate the line of the NCR and a new station at Bodmin(LSWR). Subsequent Acts authorised the construction of the line, from Halwill to Launceston on 28th July 1884, from Launceston to Delabole on 21st July 1891, from Delabole to Wadebridge on 27th July 1893 and finally from Wadebridge to Padstow on 20th July 1896.

Construction of the first section finally started on 20th June 1884 at Halwill, reaching Launceston in 1886 after a few set-backs, with public services commencing on 21st July of that year and initially worked as a branch off the Halwill-Holsworthy line. The opening of the new standard gauge line was very much welcomed by those who had previously been inconvenienced by the previous route east with its change of gauge when traffic left the GWR.

Work started on the second section, heading west from Launceston in November 1890, reaching Tresmeer in 1892 and opening to public trains on 28th July, six years and one week after the opening to Launceston, two stations away! As was the way with railways, Tresmeer station was not at Tresmeer but at Splatt, a far smaller hamlet a mile beyond Tresmeer. By the summer of 1892 the necessary land had been purchased as far as Delabole so construction carried on, with opening of the line through to Camelford on 14th August 1893 and to Delabole on 18th October 1893. Delabole as we know it today was very different in the late nineteenth century. There were four hamlets, Rockhead, Medrose, Pengelly and Higher Pengelly, with the name Delabole applying to the quarry nearby them. After the advent of the railway the quarry prospered and they all grew into each other to become the long, straggling village that is the present day Delabole.

Work continued as the third section of the NCR was begun, from Delabole to Wadebridge, with the line built to Port Isaac Road by August 1894, but not opened for public trains as the L&SWR, against the wishes of the NCR, refused to operate the line beyond Delabole until it had reached Wadebridge. Building continued southwards until finally the B&WR was reached by May 1895 and a junction made with that line so that for the last half mile to Wadebridge the NCR ran on L&SWR metals. The line opened to traffic on 31st May with the inaugural train consisting of trucks carrying fifty cattle for sale at Chichester Market.

First train arriving at Padstow

Crowds race to greet the first train to arrive in Padstow station.

The start of the final section from Wadebridge to Padstow was held up by deliberations in 1894 over whether or not to extend on to Truro, and the time allowed in the original Act of 1882 expired. A further Act was obtained on 20th July 1896 enabling the extension to Padstow to commence. The first work started in December 1896 when construction of a temporary bridge to cross Little Petherick Creek began. With no stations, and few bridges, work should have progressed well but problems with obtaining land and labour held things up resulting in the opening through to Padstow not happening until 23rd March 1899. There were great celebrations on this day, with the first train played in by brass bands performing "See The Conquering Hero Comes" although the Padstow terminus was a far cry from the grand terminii of other places, maybe as a result of the now abandoned plan to go on to Truro.

With the line finally complete, the NCR settled down to its work, gradually enlarging Padstow harbour in stages throughout the rest of its life. The main work there was completed by 1912, but further small additions were made in 1915 and again in 1920. The years to 1922 were fairly uneventful for the NCR, even when war came from 1914 - 1918, except for 1912 when the new General Manager of the L&SWR, Herbert Walker, proposed that the L&SWR should absorb the NCR, but an agreement was negotiated whereby the L&SWR settled for a re-organisation of the then existing stockholding, rentals and rebates.

Southern Railway Publicity Poster
Southern Railway Publicity Poster.

In 1922 the majority of railways in Great Britain were amalgamated into four. In connection with the formation of the Southern Railway, the NCR was finally absorbed by the L&SWR which in turn was absorbed into the new company. At an extraordinary meeting held on 17th November 1922 the L&SWR was seen to be the largest single shareholder with £130,308 of stock whilst the other shareholders had their combined £161,309 of stock converted into L&SWR stock. The NCR was formally wound up on 6th March 1923, more than two months after the L&SWR had amalgamated with the LB&SCR and the SE&CR.

LSWR LQ Signal

Right: Full steam ahead for Padstow! This fine example of a LSWR lattice post lower quadrant signal was at St Kew Highway and is off for the train to proceed towards Wadebridge on 30th August 1961.
Photograph © Chris Knowles-Thomas.

That the NCR managed to maintain its nominal independence from the L&SWR was surprising, and also something of an illusion. The L&SWR's consulting engineers, Messrs. Galbraith and Church, were employed to ensure the bigger company's practices and standards were upheld by the smaller company and the arrangements for rentals and leasing left the L&SWR responsible for just about everything. The NCR directors could do little other than suggest, complain and receive the payments from the L&SWR that enabled them to pay the NCR dividend. The style of building along the route is often referred to as "standard NCR" but in actual fact the architecture is very strongly L&SWR in design, and the signal boxes, goods sheds permanent way and etc. all followed the established L&SWR practices.

Life continued much the same under the auspices of the Southern Railway, with on-going development of Padstow Harbour and some lengthening of passing loops to accommodate the ever longer holiday trains that were the line's lifeblood. Goods traffic was never that good, lots of variety but not in large quantities. There was slate from Delabole, fish from Padstow, rabbits from Camelford, Otterham and Tresmeer but the hoped-for agricultural traffic that had been anticipated and was so important on many another line never really materialised. When war came again from 1939 to 1945 there was a huge amount of military traffic, both personnel and goods, and the large Air Base at bleak and windy Davidstow to supply and, for the first time, there was a physical connection with the GWR at Launceston, which was put in during September 1943. The war did see some interesting military traffic in the form of the Armoured Train. There were, in fact, two of these (out of twelve nationally) and details are somewhat scarce! They consisted of an LNER tank locomotive between two wagons with, outside these two, a couple of armour-plated converted locomotive tenders carrying guns. One of the two arrived in Wadebridge during summer 1940, leaving about a year later to be replaced by the second. This second train, however, only remained for a short while before it was moved to St Austell, then completely away from the area in early 1942. The trains were used to patrol the line between Padstow and Wadebridge, also the GWR line from Launceston to Fowey by way of Bodmin(GWR) and St Austell.

Armoured train at Wadebridge

LNER F4 class 2-4-2T photographed with armoured train "D" at Wadebridge, sometime between July 1940 and July 1941.
Photograph reproduced here by kind permission of Maurice Dart.

When peace finally returned the war traffic dwindled away rapidly but the anticipated return of the massed holiday traffic was disappointing.

Then in January 1948 the railways were nationalised and the North Cornwall Line found itself part of British Railways (Southern Region), but not for long! On 1st July 1950 the NCL, along with all Southern Region lines west of Cowley Bridge Junction, was transferred to the Western Region (although the line was still served by Southern Region trains from Waterloo). Some holiday traffic did return and the line was quite busy again on summer Saturdays in the 1950s, but the new bosses at Paddington were not interested in their "new" lines, favouring instead their own, ex-GWR, routes and no effort was made to advance the ex-SR lines. On 1st January 1951 Launceston station became Launceston (South) with the ex-GWR station becoming Launceston (North), though only until 30th June 1952 after which Western Region services used Launceston (South). Then, from 1st January 1958, the NCL (along with the rest of the ex-Southern lines) was transferred back to the Southern Region! From 31st December 1962 the Western Region trains from Launceston were withdrawn and the line closed as far as Lifton leaving the Southern Region as sole train operator at Launceston. In another reversal of plans the whole of the Southern Region west of Salisbury was then handed over to the Western Region from 1st January 1963 who then, in April 1964, proposed closing some lines including the route from Okehampton to Wadebridge. On 7th September 1964 they withdrew the goods services from Okehampton, Wadebridge (NCL) and Padstow and re-opened the Lifton-Launceston line for goods traffic only, with goods running to Wadebridge from Bodmin Road. The writing was really on the wall as ex-Southern Region passenger services were seriously depleted and only ran to Exeter St Davids where they connected with trains to Paddington (though for a while Bude had a through Saturday service to Paddington). On 1st January 1965 the line lost all its steam power as services were handed over to single unit diesel railcars, by this time working just three or four services per day with no Sunday service. On 28th February 1966 the Launceston goods services were withdrawn again, and the line to Lifton was lifted, which was the precursor for all traffic being withdrawn, and the line closed, from Meldon Junction to Wadebridge on 3rd October 1966, leaving just the Wadebridge-Padstow portion of the old NCR, the last to be built, open to traffic from Bodmin. But not for long as the remaining portion of the line from Wadebridge to Padstow was closed completely on 30th January 1967, having seen its last passenger train (from Bodmin Road) two days previously.

Padstow Carriage Window LabelPadstow Carriage Window Label
British Railways Window Labels.

Wadebridge station returned to its former rôle as the western end of the Bodmin and Wadebridge line and remained open, with a much simplified track layout, for a daily goods train via Bodmin until this ceased to operate after 4th September 1978, with final closure happening on 31st December 1978.

The poem below (The Railway, by "Spectator") was provided by Malcolm McCarthy

Railway Poem

North Cornwall Railway website © Peter Richards, 2001 -

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The Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway, C F D Whetmath
The Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway, 1834-1983, Michael Messenger
The Bodmin & Wenford Express May 1945/2005 Souvenir Issue
Branch Line to Padstow, V Mitchell & K Smith
Branch Lines around Bodmin, V Mitchell & K Smith
From the Footplate - The Atlantic Coast Express, Stephen Austin
An Illustrated History of the North Cornwall Railway, David Wroe
The Railway Magazine
Southern Holiday Lines in North Cornwall and West Devon, Alan Bennett
Southern Railway Magazine
Furthermore, I am most grateful to all those who have allowed me to use their archive photographs

* A second, and much bigger, edition of this book, out of print since 1998, was published
with additional tables, photographs & etc. in September 2008 and a third edition in May 2012.

Order with Worldwide Free Delivery by clicking on a red link above

Construction The Route Operation Traffic The Final Years Rolling Stock Since Closure The ACE Links