an account of a trip on the railway

reproduced from the Gazetteer

line plan - click on image to enlarge



Though Barbrook is the connecting station for the L&B and the M&B, the actual junction is some two miles closer to Barnstaple, in what may well be the beautiful location ever mooted for the meeting of two railways, Woody Bay Station.

a double headed special enters Woody Bay en route to Minehead

The L&B is at this point at the summit of its lengthy climb from Barnstaple, 980ft above sea level, and about to begin an equally sharp, but mercifully shorter descent from Woody Bay to Lynton; in just over three miles falling 280ft (the majority of this being at 1-in-50). From this attractive station, set on the high watershed but sheltered by a pleasant copse of trees, both lines run parallel out of sight through a deep stone cutting. Upon opening of the Minehead line, little modification was made to the station itself beyond the replacement of the original signal box with a larger one standing opposite the station building, and the addition of a double-crossover at the end of the platforms to allow access to the new line; this junction marked the official divergence of the Lynton & Barnstaple and Lynton & Minehead Railways, or as they are now known, the Barnstaple & Minehead branch of the Southern Railway.

Despite its status as a junction, the duty of the Woody Bay signalman was little different from those at Chelfham, Bratton Fleming or Blackmoor Gate, as through traffic from the Minehead line was infrequent, with only a handful of goods trains a day, accompanied by the occasional passenger working. This was a direct result of the railways being treated as separate entities that just happened to share a connecting line, despite the two companies having been intertwined under the same management for their entire lives.

The cessation of passenger and goods workings to Lynton marked an end to this arrangement, with the majority of trains now working directly along the Minehead line. This brought about a reduction in status for the signal box; as a cost-cutting measure it is now only staffed during peak seasons, with responsibility for its operation during off-peak months falling to one of Woody Bay’s porters, or on occasion (for specials and goods trains run at unusual hours), the train crews. The working practice under these circumstances is that a key to the box is attached to the section-staff, a situation that is much to the liking of the staff, as it meant that when needed, they no-longer have to rely on more ‘ingenious’ methods to gain access to the box, (as in the days of independence when they saw fit to sortie under cover of darkness to Pilton yard to ‘liberate’ rolling-stock for operation of Minehead trains). Details of those ‘ingenious methods’ are undocumented, but persistent stories repeated at the ‘Halliday Arms’ in Barbrook and the ‘Rose and Oak’ in County Gate make reference to a series of skeleton and duplicate keys machined up by a local smithy.

Immediately after departing Woody Bay the two lines vanish round the cutting and pass under the main road to Lynton. Immediately, the Minehead line begins to fall at a steep gradient through its own cutting, swinging away from the original L&B; this marks the beginning of the steepest sustained gradient on the railway. While the original line continues its gentler descent along the valley side towards Lynton, the M&B dives fiercely down towards the river, on a ruling gradient of one-in-thirty-five. While a pleasant enough downhill jaunt on the through trains of today, return journeys face a hard slog. Thankfully this steepest portion is shielded from the sea by the surrounding land and woods, so trains have little else to fear aside from the gradient, though during peak season and periods of heavy goods traffic there is always one engine left on duty at Barbrook, should the services of a banker be necessary.


Still falling hard, the railway continues to hug the same side of the valley as the L&B; when the original survey was submitted to Parliament in 1899 it was intended that on leaving Woody Bay it would cross the valley and then on an easier gradient follow the opposite flank to Barbrook, where the West Lyn river would be spanned on a small viaduct. However, George Newnes, local landlord, chairman of the L&B, and opponent of both the M&B and its promoters, the Halliday family, managed to get the bill defeated on the grounds that this route did not make provision for stations at Barbrook (being too high above the village) or Lynton (being on the opposite side of the valley). In order to avoid having to resurvey the entire railway, a deviation line was quickly planned out; as such, having fallen several hundred feet in just two miles, trains now coast into Barbrook Station.

The station is preceded by a single span plate-girder bridge over what was once a farm lane, part of which has now been surfaced to form the approach road to the station. This marks the end of the steepest decent and the start of a short section of level track through the platforms.

Barbrook was for years (until the closure of Lynton station), ‘Barbrook Junction’, the terminus for Minehead passenger trains, bar a few exceptions. Built on twin-levels, it forced passengers who wished to change trains for Barnstaple (or vice-versa) to negotiate the farm track to the high-level station, seventy feet up the hillside. For a while a set of stairs were provided to connect the stations, protected from the elements by alpine-style wooden gabling, but a series of nasty falls by less-than-sure-footed passengers quickly led to their removal.

Barbrook High Level, less than a mile up-chainage from Lynton station, was just an ash-surfaced platform with an austere concrete shelter little different from that at Parracoombe, originally faced in wood to provide a more welcoming appearance. A grim and silent place, save for the rustling of the dripping trees that overhung the line and platform, it was far from popular with passengers, but a necessary evil. Trains often only called here by request, and due to a somewhat cavalier nature adopted by Lynton drivers regarding their Minehead cousins, would often drop off passengers for Minehead knowing they were leaving them stranded due to lack of motive power to provide the connecting service.

Barbrook Low Level, or as it is now known, just Barbrook, is a far more welcoming place than the High Level halt, and a strange atmosphere of ‘busyness’ reflects it’s status as intermediate passing-point on the new ‘main line’. Though the waits between passenger services can be long and tedious, there always seems to be something on the move, be it a through coal-train, two trains passing, or just one of the older Manning-Wardle locos pottering about between turns as a banker, shunting trucks like a much-loved but aging relative put out to pasture. These however are scenes little different from elsewhere on the line, and the truth of the matter is that the buzzing atmosphere is spill-over from the adjacent ‘Halliday Arms’ inn, who’s patrons regard the station as a convenient extension of the beer-garden. The ‘Arms’, built by a member of the railway-promoting Halliday family to snub the rival Newnes dynasty, is built in matching Nuremburg style to the station itself, and being sited adjacent to the main booking-office on the approach-road seems to have been happily absorbed into the station proper.

In additional to the station building and its attendant ale-house a copious goods-shed is provided, along with ample sidings, cattle-docks and sheep-pens for local wares, along with a few clapboard-and-cement warehouses thrown up more recently. Two platforms stagger a roomy passing-loop, overseen by the gables of the station building on one side, and a tidy signal-box on the other, set back into the cutting wall with a commodious view over operations. Being the current station for Lynton and Lynmouth as well as Barbrook makes it also a prime destination on the line for tourists and holidaymakers; as such it is fully-staffed during the summer months to maintain a crisp and tidy turnout that is lacking elsewhere on the system. With its trim flowerbeds and hanging-baskets, freshly repainted woodwork, quaint trains and the guarantee of at least one Halliday patron sunning himself on the platform, pint-glass in hand, the station is charming in it’s immediateness and cosiness.

On this particular afternoon, Friday June 7th 1935, there are several groups of Halliday’s friends mingling with holidaymakers on the platform. The sun is high and golden, and the sounds of bees going about their honey-making is a pleasant bass to the alto-like gurgling of the overflow valve on the large water-tower adjacent to the signal box, all set to the tempo of Lyn’s injector-pump as she simmers on the goods yard headshunt. Soon a soprano-like whistle-cry asserts itself, and with a familiar rattle of wheels on rails Lew emerges from the cutting marking the start of the climb to Dean Steep and crosses the road bridge into the station. Behind her follow three coaches, including (to my pleasure), ‘the special’; another product of the spats between the Newnes and Halliday families, ‘the special’ was a private saloon built at Pilton Works from an old coach body. Now designated as the first-class observation saloon, it includes an open section at the Minehead end from which a commanding view can be attained over the splendid scenery, the railway, and the engine at work.

There is no immediate rush to board the train however. Most of these passengers are headed in the opposite direction, and so while a few overzealous souls scramble to claim seats, Lew’s crew uncouple her and (with a wave from the signalman) they and their engine disappear off down the line on some secret mission, quickly running out of sight round the curved platforms. A deeper-throated American chime whistle sounds out, and Lyn, proud product of the Baldwin Workshops in Philadelphia, eases from the headshunt, and through a series of reversals and point-changes, finally coupling smoke box on to the train, ready to draw us onto Minehead. Her tanks are full to brimming and her bunkers are well-coaled, and once again it seems departure is imminent, but even as part of the mighty Southern Railway this narrow gauge line dances to it’s own tune, and while waiting for the guard the chance makes itself to have a friendly word with the crew.

It’s a pleasure to find Johnny Shobdon on the footplate. A veteran driver and a wry wit he’s known as an artisan and craftsman of the highest order, and this talent with his hands has resulted in some exceptional models of the railway’s locomotives and rolling-stock.

Soon the guard emerges from the tap-room of the Arms, a basket swinging from his hand. This has been stocked with bottles of chilled water and various tonics, all to be kept chilled in the guard’s compartment. He’ll be offering them to the passengers along the journey (for a reasonable fee of course), as many will underestimate the effect Devonian (and Somerset) sun can have on a dehydrated body. By this point anyone who had hurried to board the train has disembarked back into the throng on the platform, and a sudden burst on the guard’s whistle sparks a second rush. Those familiar with this routine (myself included) will have already gotten into the special’s open-sided compartment, and with a second signal from the guard and a response from the engine, the train sets into juddering life towards Lynton.


Falling once more at one-in-forty-four, Lyn quickly gains speed down the gradient. It can seem alarming at first, but Johnny knows his steed and her road in the manner that only years of familiarity can breed, and with brief touch on Lyn’s brake we thread the needle of the first road-bridge over the line (Station Hill), then emerge from below Knibswothy wood and clatter into the outskirts of Lynton, with houses below and above us. A pair of gentle reverse curves brings us to the bottom of the gradient and an unofficial stop, Viaduct Quarry, a small quarry opened out during construction of the line to provide stone for the earthworks. The formation here is very wide and convenient for Lynton town, as after Newnes raised objections to the original route, a station was to be built here, hence why smarter passengers may tip driver or guard a wink (and a shilling) to drop them off here rather than face the uncomfortable charabanc connection between Barbrook and Lynton.

Due to another about-face by Newnes when his obfuscation failed to prevent the passage of the railway through parliament, ‘New Lynton’ station was never built, but there is word about that the Southern Railway may be considering relocating the station buildings from the former Lynton terminus to this site to better serve the holiday traffic. Easing travel for the locals is a secondary benefit as far as Eastleigh is concerned, but it is felt in the area that if this step is taken, it will demonstrate a long-term commitment on the Southern’s part to the railway’s future.

Today however there is no-need to stop, and Johnny gives Lyn a burst on the regulator as we accelerate through the overgrown shunting-loop and sweep hard right (with a flash of sparks from the guard-rails) out of the quarry and onto a high embankment that leads to the first of many dramatic pieces of engineering on the line, the crossing of the West Lyn valley on the Glenlyn Viaduct.

the Glynlyn Viaduct from Lynmouth

One of seven viaducts on the line, Glenlyn (or to the railwaymen, ‘Quarry Viaduct’, a rather confusing but amusing reversal of the name for the unofficial halt that precedes it) was the first to be built, with the railway’s ‘cutting of the first sod’ ceremony taking the form of laying the viaduct’s first foundation stone. In this location, exposed to the sea, construction was arduous, particularly when building the arches, diverting much-needed time and finance away from the other viaducts which had to be finished ‘on the cheap’ with timber decks carried on brickwork piers (the wood later being replaced with wrought-iron). The result however is a striking masterpiece wrought in salmon and cream brick, striding 81ft high 930ft across valley, road and river with an Olympian certainty in its fourteen-arched-step. Poised on the lip of the valley’s final plunge down to Lynmouth, the viaduct is highly visible and a local landmark. For passengers, an unobstructed view may be gained over Lynton below and Lynmouth, the Bristol Channel, and the Welsh coast beyond, a highlight of the trip.


Immediately after clearing the viaduct’s eastern parapet we swing back left alongside the valley, passing yet another small quarry and what Lynton drivers once mockingly referred to as ‘Little Pilton’, Glenlyn shed, the main locomotive facility for the Minehead line. When this section of the railway was opened in 1902, a two-road carriage shed and a short engine shed large enough to hold three locomotives were provided here, under the misconception that when ‘New Lynton’ was built, this would become the operational centre of the railway; as seen this never occurred, and Glenlyn was allowed to deteriorate. Other facilities included a small turntable and a single-road building known as ‘the shop’, which mostly served to house a growing number of discarded or broken tools and parts, indicative of the derision in which Barnstaple crews held Glenlyn.

Now however the yard has seen a transformation; with new locomotives and rolling stock arriving throughout the last decade, and land for expansion in Barnstaple and Minehead being lacking, the Southern has opened out the quarry for ballast and used the land created to expand the Yard. Today, ‘Little Pilton’ is on par with its namesake in terms of importance. Both engine and carriage-sheds were enlarged, ‘the shop’ has become a dedicated paint-shop, the turntable was replaced with one of larger diameter, and in the winter of 1933/34 a facility was established to maintain and house the new railcars that are being introduced to the line.

From the end of the viaduct a single spur off the main line fans out to serve the engine and carriage sheds. A siding extending along the side of the carriage shed, previously used solely for storing ‘junked’ rolling stock, has been extended and re-aligned into the new railcar facility, a six-road building, two of the lines being separated off from the running-shed in a dedicated workshop with specialist maintenance equipment. Against the bank is another large water-tower and an ample coal pile, where Lew is taking refreshment after bringing her train this far from Barnstaple. In the shed Lyd, one of two ‘Baltic’ tanks obtained from North British for the extended railway in 1901 (her sister machine being Axe), simmers idly; having just undergone a heavy overhaul, a slow fire is being built in her to check for any boiler leaks.

staff pose at Glenlyn

As noted, Glenlyn was not well provided for at first, but as Lyd will testify, can now undertake major overhauls; indeed the new workshop has become the railway’s premier maintenance facility. As the enlarged engine shed can comfortably hold six ‘larger’ engines, the Baltics and the two Mallet tanks built by the Southern (River Avon and River Brue) are maintained and shedded here, in addition to the newly arrived Armstrong-Whitworth diesel River Avill. Scenically, Glenlyn also boasts an unrivalled location overlooking the valley, made all the more picturesque by the immediate proximity of the viaduct; were a ‘New Lynton’ station built directly across the viaduct from the sheds then this would be a railway location of beauty unsurpassed in Britain, but whether this becomes a dream or reality remains to be seen.


With those same magnificent views still in sight off to our left, Lyn accelerates along a wooded ledge cut against the hillside, eventually swinging round many hundreds of feet above Lynmouth to enter the East Lyn valley. From the road through the valley bottom the train can only be perceived as a high line of steam following the wooded counters, then winding and twisting along the open flank of Oxen Tor which rises overhead with a majestic solemnity. Rolling over gentle downhill gradients, through rock cuttings and thick trees, Lyn leads us on, seemingly through not only space but time into some primeval era of British history.

"wooded ledge cut against the hillside"  - photo - Glenthorne Estate

This mile-and-a-half of line is among the most inaccessible sections of the railway due to its high position relative to the surrounding roads, and only the occasional intersection of railway and footpath serves to break this sense of isolation. These crossings are all unofficial halts, like Viaduct Quarry unmentioned in any timetable, but blessed with evocative names such as Lyn Cleave, Summer Hill, For Wester Wood, and Myrtleberry Crossing. The last is very popular among the cannier holidaymaker, as there is much of interest to be found in Myrtleberry Cleave, especially to those of an archeologically or historical pursuit, chief among them Iron Age fortifications and the remains of some long abandoned iron mines. With the coming of the railway attempts were made to reopen these workings to supplement the traffic returns, but the ore yielded was of a most inferior grade and the venture collapsed as quickly as it had been mooted.

In addition to these human items of interest, the landscape is itself of a most attractive character, and dismounting at Myrtleberry Crossing, three miles from Dean Steep provides a more convenient access to such wonders than the official station of Watersmeet, some twenty-five-chains up the line.


the Myrtleberry Tearoom from the station platform - photo - Glenthorne Estate

The approach to Watersmeet features a pair of impressive curves, first swinging us north, then back onto the original eastern bearing. Check rails were laid in here with good measure, and so as we grind our way round the second curve into Watersmeet the smell of hot metal is evident in the air. Johnny shuts off steam well before we reach the station throat, and the resistance of the coaches through the curve is enough to bring Lyn to a stop with but a touch on her handbrake to firm the deal. Regular passengers now crane their heads from windows to observe a series of arcane gestures and hand-signals between driver and waiting stationmaster – there is almost always a passing of trains at this station, and judging by how the stationmaster is tapping his fob-watch it seems the other train will be some time yet, so we might now (if we choose), dismount to stretch the legs and savour the atmosphere while we await the passing train.

On closer examination the long-suffering stationmaster is red-in-the-face; a recent transfer from some vital outpost of the Southern network he is used to timetables being adhered to with religious fervour, and his displeasure at the lateness of the ‘up’ train is evident. Johnny however is far calmer, choosing to stuff his pipe and remarking with a philosophical bent that the delay is no doubt ‘the work of The Beast’. Judging by his contented puffing we have a few minutes at least, so an exploration of the station seems in order. With heavy forests flanking the hillside station above and below, the impression is given of staring down a narrow corridor with only a thin slice of sky visible above; ahead of us the line runs straight and true, springing across the second viaduct on the line to the portal of the first tunnel at the foot of another high and wooded flank of Exmoor. Overall the impression of the station and little train in such a large landscape is both quaint and impressive, lying somewhere between alpine splendour and the green and pleasant land.

this section of the line suffered landslips

Opened in 1906, there is no local traffic at Watersmeet, and it was built primarily to provide a more convenient passing-point between Barbrook and the next loop at County Gate. The passing-loop for this section was originally some two miles further on at Brendon, but when that proved to be operationally inconvenient, it was relocated here. Since trains might often be kept waiting (as we now find ourselves) it was thought best to provide passengers with the means to dismount and stretch their legs, and so the station manifested.

The facilities at Watersmeet were once little better than those of Barbrook High Level, yet in contrast to that dismal halt this is now among the prettiest stops on our journey (though it is safe to say that few of the stations are anything less than beautiful). Comparisons are often made to Chelfham on the Lynton-Barnstaple section, with a proper and complete station building of charmingly tiny size, two platforms and an equally modest signal box with the associated array of semaphore signals. In 1910, the same year that the Glenthorne Hotel opened at County Gate, a tearoom was established by the Hallidays adjacent to Watersmeet Station, ‘The Myrtleberry’, which does good business from walkers and explorers who have made this their station-of-choice for exploring the East Lyn Valley.

The greatest attraction in the area is Watersmeet House, built in 1832 by another member of that familiar brood, the Reverend W.S. Halliday. Seemingly the good reverend enjoyed pastimes of the body as much as of the soul, as Watersmeet House was commissioned specifically as a fishing lodge. Thrown open to the public by the Hallidays some years ago, it now makes a fine earning as a sister tea-room and shop to the Myrtleberry. The fishing, incidentally, is excellent.


As we return to the station a deep-voiced cry chills the air. As we look along the line for the source of this whistle the nose of an engine emerges from the distant tunnel. The locomotive crosses the viaduct with a great show of steam and noise and swings over the points into the up-platform, revealing its prodigious length and size. It is a monster of a machine to those accustomed to the barking little locomotives so beloved of this area, an iron dinosaur snorting and breathing anger and defiance as much as it does steam and smoke. As it comes alongside our train three ominous digits can be seen painted on the cab side, ‘666’. This is ‘The Beast’ to which Johnny earlier made reference.

'River Avon' at Barnstaple circa 1930 - photo Southern Railway

In the 1923 grouping the Southern Railway found itself lumbered with nearly fifty miles of run-down narrow-gauge railway which promised only small returns. Tied to the railway however, and determining to make the best of its lot, the men of Eastleigh and Waterloo have in recent years begun experimenting with new technologies to streamline and improve traffic on the ‘Lynton and Minehead’ branches. The first of these experiments was number 666, delivered in 1925. Seeking to get a more powerful locomotive onto the line, in order to do away with the expense of double-heading, Eastleigh Works took the design elements of the ‘classic’ Manning-Wardle tank-engines and expanded on them to produce an 0-6-0+0-6-0T Mallet articulated tank-engine, which promised a huge surplus of power without sacrificing the ability to negotiate sharp corners, a not-dissimilar principle to the highly successful ‘double-Fairlies’ of Festiniog Railway fame. Things however, did not go as planned.

The locomotive numbered 666 seemed cursed by ill fate from the second it touched the metals of its new home. Eastleigh had dubbed upon it the name River Avon, but no-one on the railway would refer to it as such, as there was already an ‘Avon’ on the line, the County Gate station cat! In trying to find an alternative moniker for the engine, it became known as ‘The Mad Mallet’. Though harmless enough in itself, this name soon seemed justified as a run of ill-luck continued; not long after entering service a man riding (in violation of regulations) on the engine’s leading platform was thrown off during shunting at Blackmoor Gate and suffered several broken bones. An embankment collapsed under the unprecedented weight of the machine, it spread the rails, rode roughly and proved extremely temperamental (track ties were very quickly installed where rail spreading had occurred).

The culmination of these unfortunate events however happened one year to the day of its arrival. During a thunderstorm, while working a night train of coal down the fearsome Porlock Incline, 666’s train managed to separate.
666’s driver, feeling his vacuum brakes come on, moved quickly to safely check his remaining wagons, coming to a halt a few hundred yards down the line, and sent his fireman back up the incline to find the rest of the train. Meanwhile the guard, though realising his situation, panicked and chose to run down the line in the hope of finding his engine. In his rush, he failed to pin down the handbrakes on his stalled trucks, with the result that once the vacuum brake system ‘bled off’, the weight of the train on the gradient overcame the brake in the van. Disaster was unavoidable.

The surrounding storm and fury made a comprehensive account of what followed impossible, but the runaway trucks soon overtook the guard, shot past the fireman and collided with the leading section of the train at nigh on thirty miles an hour. The driver was seriously injured and all of the train was smashed to matchwood, except for number 666, which escaped relatively unscathed. The sinister coincidence of the date, coupled with the horror of the disaster, was the icing on the cake. What had once been nicknamed ‘The Mad Mallet’ was now and hereafter ‘The Beast’ and only the most confident (or foolhardy) of crews would drive and fire her.

Not long after this ‘incident’, engineers from Eastleigh arrived at Barnstaple to learn about how the new engine had fared in a year’s service. Reports were not flattering. Somewhat abashed, 666’s designers made quick amends to rectify what design flaws they could, and the second Mallet, 667 River Brue, was found to be a much improved machine upon delivery in November 1926, the key change being the addition of leading and trailing pony trucks to steady her riding. Quickly she became the baby of the loco crews, as beloved by them as much as her sister was reviled, the ‘Beauty’ to Avon’s ‘Beast’.

Ironically, in the years that followed there was a reversal of character traits, as Brue began to display fits of ‘pique’ (riding roughly and with a pronounced gait, derailing at points and breaking vacuum pipes) whereas Avon, after modifications during a 1929 return to Eastleigh to match Brue’s specifications was surprisingly tamed into a superbly reliable machine. Although wags attributed Brue’s behaviour to the loco crews ‘spoiling their little princess’, her troubles were traced to a set of poorly-profiled wheels, and once these were replaced, both Avon and Brue have settled down into model citizens..

Post Script: Since ‘Avon’, the station cat at County Gate, passed away in December 1934 at the venerable age of 19, crews have finally started to give River Avon her due by referred to her by her given name. However the names ‘Beauty’ and ‘Beast’ have continued in use in the manner of affectionate nicknames.


With an exchange of whistles and a series of frantic summonses by the guard, Avon heads off towards Barnstaple, a long rake of goods trucks behind her. Lyn however, raring and ready to go, sets off immediately up-chainage, charging furiously over the level back of the Watersmeet Viaduct. Clearly Johnny wants to get up some speed before he has to close off the blower and reduce steam through the tunnel.

Watersmeet Viaduct stands some 78 feet above the level of the river, and its eastern parapet marks the start of the long climb to the summit at Porlock Tunnel. Long, slender and graceful, the viaduct consists of twelve seventy-foot spans carried on tall pillars of pinkish-red brick. Its total length is some 870 feet, and it has been referred to as ‘The Crymmach Viaduct Of England’, being a masterpiece of skilful iron and brickwork. From above, passengers may catch brief but stunning vistas down into the valley, before Johnny gives a long cry on Lyn’s whistle. Now anyone sticking their head out of a carriage window must get back in sharpish or risk getting a very black face indeed, for Lyn comes off the viaduct's final span only to dive straight into the 164-yard Watersmeet Tunnel.

Unventilated and curved, the tunnel can only be described as a smoking hell-hole, a horizontal furnace flue through which trains are boldly whisked, and it is not without some relief that we emerge from the far portal into blessed daylight once more. Immediately the train bears hard left and plunges into a sheer-sided cutting – this is the deepest cutting encountered so far on our trip, and its high sides are green with climbing mosses and creepers. Suddenly the cutting seems to fold back, and the southward sweep of the valley is revealed to us, deeply wooded with pastoral fields and bare moors above, much like the bald summit of a monk’s head.

Striding on and now laying into the gradients, Lyn leads us straight on without stopping through the small halt for the hamlet of Wilsham; rattling through the fingers and knuckles of the valley we soon pass a second simple waiting-shelter for Rockford. Throughout we seem to be falling towards the river, but this is an illusion, for Lyn is scrambling up a continuous stretch of 1-in-78, and it is in fact the river rising to meet us, so that by the time we reach Brendon station, we are much closer to the valley floor, low enough that river and rail might share a greeting and handshake.

Among a copse of conifers, Brendon station is another gem, and though now a shadow of its former self, seems to have benefited. Arriving from the west we first pass the now derelict goods shed, wharf and cattle dock, and beyond a bridge carrying the Kimpscombe Cross road over the single line we finally arrive at the station proper. The expected station building is here to our left, a twin of that at Bratton Flemming on the L&B, and to our right a pleasing view opens over the houses of the village.

early days at Brendon

As noted at Watersmeet, Brendon was originally intended to be the intermediate passing-point between Barbrook and County Gate; as such two platforms were provided along with a lengthy loop that extended under the road-bridge, broken with a crossover enabling part of it to be used as a goods loop. However, since County Gate is only 1.5 miles away, with Barbrook being 5 miles in the opposite direction, it was quickly observed that westbound trains were forced to wait a considerable time to cross.

Brendon as originally built

As such, once the railway was open throughout and funds made available, Brendon’s passing-loop was moved to Watersmeet and the second platform made derelict. The goods loop remained however, but although Brendon village has kept up a regular flow of passengers through the years, goods traffic has always been light, and so the loop was removed and the goods yard closed by the Southern Railway as part of a cost-cutting purge in 1932. Today Brendon has no loop or siding, and the former Signal Box is now a conservatory in which the stationmaster grows a fine crop of tomatoes. The station itself is operated as a manned halt, with a minimum staff of the stationmaster and his wife, who also acts as ticket officer and parcels clerk. They’ve made a comfortable home for themselves in the station building, and Brendon continues to win prizes in the Southern Railway’s vegetable and flower-growing competitions, the former ‘up’ platform now being replete with a magnificent display of colourful blooms.

Brendon in later years.

There are a few local passengers trickling onto the platform, but they’re not boarding just yet; they’ll be waiting for the fast railcar-service to Barnstaple, due to pass us ahead at County Gate. So after setting down a handful of tourists who wish to take in the pleasures of Barbrook, Johnny gives Lyn a full head of steam and she sets off under another road bridge with a will, once again climbing with the gradients up the valley. The river has eased off its own ascent momentarily, so once again we begin to gain ground on it, scrambling up the hillsides through a long section of straight track to where we round a long sweeping corner, high above the river.

This curve, ‘Scotch Corner’ to the railwaymen, is not particularly tight or arduous, but it is treated with respect by drivers; passengers who seek explanation would do well to look down into the valley towards Southernwood Farm, and they’ll see a strange furrow torn into the ground, like a grassed-over gash leading down from the railway, all the way to the riverside. This is the grave-marker of the contractor’s locomotive Kilmarnock, and the source of Scotch Corner’s name.

Kilmarnock was a diminutive 0-4-0ST built by Andrew Barclay & Co. in Scotland, owned and used by Nuttall’s in the construction of the Lynton & Barnstaple. After the contractor fell into bankruptcy, Kilmarnock was left on the hands of the L&B, and would have most likely been sold for scrap had they not in turn leased it to McAlpines for use in building the Minehead line. After this seeming reprieve however, Kilmarnock met an unfortunate end one day in 1903, when the construction office received an unfortunate message that ‘the wee engine’s taken a bit of a jump into the valley’.

As it had transpired, a slab of stone had fallen from the wall of the ledge on which the railway is carried at this point, and in the weak light of morning, Kilmarnock’s driver had not seen the obstruction until too late; whilst no-one was hurt, the engine was thrown off the line and, train in tow, careened down the hillside and drowned herself in the river. To this day there are occasional rockfalls along this section, and making a daily inspection to prevent a second derailment at Scotch Corner has fallen to the County Gate track-gang, known on the railway as the County Gate Desperados.

Some of the Desperados are just ahead now, checking on a recently relayed section of track and ensuring the ballast is packed firmly, and so Johnny eases off the power and eases Lyn past at a respectable walking pace; he’s got no need for speed at this point, as he’s almost at the lip of a short falling gradient and can afford his engine a breather. As he passes the track-gang he affords them a wave and a salute on the whistle; most crews on the railway hold the Desperados in high respect, as few other track-gangs on the line have to deal with such a lengthy or arduous section (Watersmeet to the Summit, including the lengthy Porlock Tunnel). Their task is furthermore made difficult by frequent manpower shortages, yet through good humour and hard work, they always manage to keep the trains running to time, on as smooth and even a permanent way as could be asked for.


As we leave the Desperados behind, Johnny gives another whistle, and an unfamiliar croaking blare answers back, the sound of an air-horn. Passengers who noticed Kilmarnock’s trail of destruction are now rewarded with another curious sight; below us and at right angles, a second railway line emerges from a tunnel and crosses the river, before swinging hard right through a small yard to parallel us on the opposite side of the valley. This is the Light Railway of the Glenthorne Harbour Authority, opened at the same time as this section of the M&B. On the curve is a small wooden platform, at which a few passengers are disembarking from a curious contraption; two former coach bodies connected by articulated bogies to a central diesel-power unit; the Glenthorne Railcar. Painted in a maroon and cream livery it looks both careworn and unserviceable, yet can still put on a surprising turn of speed; many a driver has been tempted to race it to the junction round the corner at County Gate, but Johnny’s got no such urge; he knows that the County Gate signalman must always give priority to the harbour line. So as the railcar sets off and draws ahead he continues to let Lyn roll on at her own pace.

Beneath us in the valley’s bottom are a cluster of houses. One of two worker’s villages provided for employees of the Glenthorne Harbour Authority, this one carries the simple and poetic name of Doone. The other is the village of County Gate (or more properly County-Gate-On-The-Railway, as it appears in the census), but we’ll get there shortly.

The residents of Doone were first provided with little else beyond a small shop and a Catholic Church, built in 1909 for the harbour’s sizable number of Catholic employees and dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Patron Saint of Education. Appropriately enough, the Hallidays shortly thereafter provided finance to establish a school in Doone for the children of their staff, which has had to enlarge as children from surrounding villages are now welcomed. In addition a public house has sprung up, ‘The Lorna Doone’ and lastly the Alberry School, a small manor house built as a retirement home for a wealthy entrepreneur, who has since developed it as a school for the training of guide dogs.

As it is well served by the Glenthorne Harbour Railway, no halt is provided on the main line for Doone, and so as we skirt the picturesque little model-village we have no need to stop, and once again Johnny shuts off the blower and his fireman closes the fire doors as we swing into the hillside, first through a deep and sudden cutting, and then into the second tunnel on the railway. Ashton Cleeve Tunnel is only 109 yards long, but it is tightly curved, swinging us around through almost ninety degrees. As with the others, it is unlined, and from its rough-hewn rock portal we emerge from the wooded hillside onto the East Lyn viaduct, widely regarded as the prettiest on the line, perfectly scaled to its setting and a sure draw for the eyes of people travelling through or above the valley.

'River Avill' crosses the East Lyn Viaduct during its trials in 1935 - photo Armstrong Whitworth

As we reach the end of the viaduct the Harbour Railcar passes beneath us on an arch built into the parapet and skirts around through the fields, while we coast down a short section of 1-in-40, Johnny gently braking us to a stop at the home signal for County Gate.


This entire section of railway was not included in the original survey; as at Lynton, George Newnes managed to get the initial plans rejected in the Lords, though in this case his intentions were not disguised as being in aid of the proletariat. A short mile along the valley from here, the railway was to pass across the valley from Oare Manor, and Newnes was able to convince the residents that the railway would not only be an eyesore, but devalue their property, and so win them to his cause. In fighting back, Halliday agreed to a deviation that would take the railway behind the manor, and also the provision of a private halt. As with Lynton however, the deviation would require a break in the carefully surveyed gradients and several substantial works, two of which, Aston Cleeve Tunnel and the East Lyn viaduct, we have already seen.

As we wait at the signal though, it’s difficult to imagine the hard-fought political battles which were waged over the rights to put a railway through this peaceful landscape. To our left opens out a view over open fields down to the valley floor, and to our right is the pleasant slope of Southern Wood. Deforested as a source of timber when the railway first arrived, the hillside has subsequently become part of the grounds of the Glenthorne Hotel, and replanted as an extensive arboretum. Trees have been carefully chosen and composed to form a idyllic scene (and to hide the station from the hotel) through which guests might wander at ease, though woe betide any who damage the plants, as the hotel’s head groundskeeper is zealously (and rightly) protective of his charges.

A timeless moment later, the signal arm shifts to ‘clear ahead’, and with another cheery toot on her whistle. Lyn eases us forward into County Gate Station, straight through the loop throat, then over the junction with the harbour branch that sweeps up from the left, and finally into the platform; the Harbour Railcar is in its bay to our left, her driver at an open hatch in the power unit, working on the two Gardner diesel engines inside, and by the persistent sound of hammer against metal and colourful language dying the air blue as surely as the accompanying clouds of diesel, having a hard time of it.

the first railcar, no 200, arrives at County Gate from Lynton

Also waiting for us in the ‘up’ platform is another railcar, this one in a striking aquamarine livery, the bold legend SOUTHERN  and Atlantic Airstream painted in trim yellow down its flanks. This unit, 303, is one of five railcars currently in use on the railway, the result of an experiment which has left many on the line both excited and apprehensive, the introduction of diesel power to supplement steam. Welcomed by most and decried by some, the presence of diesel traction has become more apparent in the past year; as the production railcars are of identical design and use standardised parts, Eastleigh has been able to deliver two batches in just an eight-month period;

301-303: Three-car units (delivered October 1934)
304-305: Four-car units (delivered May 1935)

railcar 302 alongside the Glenthorne railcar at County Gate

Prior to these units being delivered, two separate prototypes (200 and 201), delivered in January and June of 1933 respectively, were tested on the line as proof-of-concept; having demonstrated themselves a success, both have now been sold to the Glenthorne Harbour Authority to supplement their passenger services to Glenthorne Harbour and Porlock, where they earn a respectable living transporting local passengers and tourists. The harbour service however, operated mostly by the careworn vehicle in the bay platform, is all about tourism, with many being willing to pay a pretty penny to enjoy the spectacular cliffside route, overlooking the sea. We shall be getting a chance to view this sight ourselves shortly, though (thankfully) without the added thrill of charging along in a lightly-built railcar that creaks on every turn, and who’s driver has a worrying tendency to drive his charge onwards like a chariot in the Coliseum.

The main-line unit adjacent to us, the aquamarine 303, makes a far braver sight, indeed, since we are leaving our train here, we can indulge ourselves in studying her closer, for now with a wave and a whistle, Johnny sets Lyn in motion once more, and leaving us behind she steams away from the station and out of sight under the road bridge leading to County Gate village; moments later her vibrant exhaust is muffled by the tunnel beyond the road bridge, and abruptly silence returns to the station, broken only by the steady thrum of 303’s engine, and the not-so-steady belches emitting from the Glenthorne Railcar as its driver (with judicious application of hammer and quite an impressive war-cry) finally persuades its second Gardner engine to fire. Due to being constructed from whatever was to hand, the railcar features two such power-plants; each with 3 forward gears and one reverse. 

Somewhat blue in the collar, and trying to avoid the ‘helpful’ advice being yelled across the track by his main-line counterpart, the Glenthorne driver checks his watch and quickly makes his way forward to test the railcar’s brakes; the harbour line features such prolonged gradients as to make the descent from Woody Bay to Barbrook seem like a Sunday School picnic, and so tests of the vacuum system are mandatory under the terms of the Harbour Authority’s Light Railway Order.

As the railcar emits a series of hisses and thuds, across the way 303 continues to idle powerfully and confidently, and she has every right to; indeed this particular unit holds the railway’s ‘speed record’ for a service train, Minehead to Barnstaple in two hours, twenty minutes (at an average speed, including station stops, of 20mph). On a non-stop test run conducted at night, when all signals and points could be set in her favour, unit 305 made the trip in seventy-nine minutes (an average of 35mph throughout). It is these formidable abilities, combined with the comfort yielded to passengers by their articulation, that have allowed the railcars to win back local traffic, thus snubbing the rival buses.

Suddenly, guards on both platforms let out piercing shrieks on their whistles, and the two railcars yelp back in unison, Now occurs a sight seen nowhere-else on the network, as the two railcars pull out together, the harbour train seemingly about to collide with 303, before it suddenly swings across the points and down the branch towards the harbour, while 303 lets into the short, sharp climb to the viaduct with a smooth thrum. It’s almost certain that their drivers (both younger men) will be itching to see which can reach Doone first, and in all likelihood, the passengers will be egging them on, but safety always comes foremost and so any ‘racing’ will most assuredly be of a ‘tame’ nature.

It is such moments that lend County Gate the title of ‘busiest station on the railway’ in the summer months, and yet once the two railcars have vanished out of sight (roaring their horns in the distance as they cross at the viaduct), abrupt silence falls on the station as surely as a muffling blanket.

Now, we may explore






bring 'Lyn' back to life