OPINION: Combe Rail on Track for Tawlink - Dave Griffin

Combe Rail trustees Barry Hodgson, David Luggar and John Burch with plans for the proposed Tarka Tra

Combe Rail trustees Barry Hodgson, David Luggar and John Burch with plans for the proposed Tarka Trail route. Picture: Tony Gussin - Credit: Archant

• It’s been decades since the shrill whistle of a Bulleid Pacific steam locomotive rang out across Ilfracombe. What glorious thoroughbreds they were. Many of us recall the thrill of standing on a railway station platform as a Brittania Class hauling twelve coaches thundered through at eighty miles per hour. 

First, the lines trembled and sang in expectation whilst in the distance, plumes of smoke and white steam whetted our anticipation ahead of the unstoppable leviathan of power and fury racing towards our viewing point. 

The Gazette's man in Ilfracombe, Dave Griffin

The Gazette's man in Ilfracombe, Dave Griffin - Credit: Contributed

We pressed our backs against the waiting room wall for fear of being sucked into the maelstrom.  

Suddenly, the gentle birdsong of moments ago became obliterated by the deafening roar of a fiery beast with its beating heart pulsating with heat and furious energy. Cylinders, pistons, connecting rods and driving wheels all syncopated in beautiful concert provided the surge of coal-fired steel muscle required by this living, breathing monster as it hurtled past us. 

Waterloo to Ilfracombe expresses took under four hours, fuelling Ilfracombe’s post-war tourist economy but will they come back? Probably not, but Combe Rail volunteers are steaming (sorry!) ahead to establish a heritage railway trail on the line’s existing track bed, now Cycle Route 27, whilst lobbying for a narrow gauge TawLink Light Railway linking Chivenor with Barnstaple. 

This is not a rail enthusiasts’ pipe-dream. Combe Rail has powerful and influential backers, including Great Western Railway and Devon County Council. Already, restoration of Ilfracombe Station’s pedestrian approach is underway and features replica signage. 

The last scheduled train, packed with supporters, ran on October 3rd, 1970, but Braunton shoppers were intrigued when a diesel hauled locomotive hauling an inspection saloon trundled over Caen Street’s level crossing on February 26th, 1975. It carried engineers inspecting the condition of the track for possible reinstatement of services. 

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Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Those walking the route today will find QR video points enabling smartphone users to view videos and slideshows of the railway in its heyday, and a restored ‘down distant’ signal powered by a solar panel has been installed by the Slade reservoir, set at ‘caution’. Across Britain, the 1960s Beeching-led decimation of our railways is in reverse, and Ilfracombe’s all aboard. 

A signal installed by Combe Rail on the railway at Slade reservoir

A signal installed by Combe Rail on the railway at Slade reservoir - Credit: John Burch

• There are other locations to find QR codes, and it’s only a matter of time before they are found on cemetery headstones. Alongside ‘Sacred to the Memory of Joe Bloggs’ will be a Quick Response barcode that will provide entry into the dearly departed’s own website or video presentation. 

Just scan the grave and you’ll see and hear Grandpa recalling everything from his military service to the prize marrows he grew. This is a novel industry in the ascendant, with hundreds already having their biographies filmed. It will be an interesting diversion for those passing gravestones and are curious about the lives of the occupants. 

Would I have one done? Possibly. I might include the confessional anecdote of my trapping some 120 commuters’ cars at South Woodford Station’s car park in 1984 thanks to my unintentionally blocking the exit. I didn’t get fined for the outrage thanks to a London Transport inspector copying my licence number down incorrectly. Take it out of my estate, guys! 

• This Sunday marks the remembrance of all who fell in two world wars to preserve liberties we take for granted. Dozens of ever more mechanised and brutal conflicts have marred the globe since, and not a day passes without loss of life in the pursuit of whatever cause has been considered worthy enough to make the ultimate sacrifice. 

Here in Ilfracombe, the town’s dignitaries will gather at our War Memorial upon which familiar names are inscribed. Hundreds of Ilfracombe’s Victorian front doors still have letterboxes through which passionate missives from the Somme slid when those houses were brand new. Let not one of us forget the two minute’s silence that will acknowledge the service of men and women who gave their lives, and who would otherwise have lived to see the moon landings. 

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