Steam enthusiast Nigel Taylor tells us about Devon's most beautiful branch lines

PUBLISHED: 21:49 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:30 20 February 2013

6412 - always my favourite engine on the South Devon Railway. A steam engine's not a machine: it's alive, a dragon who's become a friend!

6412 - always my favourite engine on the South Devon Railway. A steam engine's not a machine: it's alive, a dragon who's become a friend!

Steam enthusiast Nigel Taylor fondly remembers his days as a volunteer working on one of Devon's most beautiful branch lines.

Steam, they say, seeps into you, taking over your soul. Its 1969. In a month or two Neil Armstrong will take those amazing steps from the lunar landing craft and man will walk on the moon, the Beatles will finally Let it Be and play together for the last time, but, on this early spring morning, standing on the station platform at Buckfastleigh, Pete Venn and I are doing something equally momentous, something they said would never happen were bringing a steam railway back to life!

When I was growing up I thought the whole world worked on the railway. My dad, Les, was a guard at Plymouth North Road; Uncle Tom was a Top Link driver who drove the mighty Castle and King engines with their famous expresses like the Cornish Riviera on their thunderous charge to the West country. Uncle Ted was a signalman at Swindon, home of
the Great Western, and my lucky cousins built and maintained the many types of locomotive that the Swindon works were known for the whole
world over.

Breakfast with my dad often meant climbing up onto the footplate of a steam locomotive, simmering in the sidings of Millbay, and having breakfast with the fireman and driver. Forget your celebrity chefs: eggs and bacon cooked on a firemans shovel cant be beaten. I can still taste those railway breakfasts now all these years later and hear my dad as he laughed and chatted with the engine crews. Steam engines were everywhere, glistening green and gold. And I loved them.
By the early 60s, though, it seemed that steam was going to disappear. Id already fallen down the steps at Uncle Teds Swindon signalbox as I ran its length, dashing past the long Victorian levers that worked the signals, trying to keep up with the black-and-white shape of a brand new diesel the railways were trialling. I had seen the future and it had made my head hurt!
Soon all my favourite trains were being pulled by what Uncle Tom called boxes on wheels and the lovely Kings and Castles quite simply vanished overnight as if I had, quite simply, imagined them.
Worse was to come. The magic wasnt going to last. When they closed the branch line to Yelverton, which snaked its way up through the beautiful valley of the Plym as it climbed up onto Dartmoor and the wilderness beyond, I could have cried.

Wed travel to cub camp behind ancient, wheezing steam locos, past open fields and majestic woods, enjoying every rattling, shuddering moment. One of my dads jobs had been to turn out the oil lights at the station halts and platforms as the last train home to Plymouth made its way through the deepening gloom of evening.

"Eggs and bacon cooked on a fireman's shovel can't be beaten"

Thered be no more last trains home, no more Woolworths Specials (sixpence a trip!) on the branch any more. A certain Dr Beeching a civil servant in London, my dad told me had decided we had too many branch-line railways. Dr Beeching had a plan. He was going to close them all down.

And so many of the wonderful Devon branchlines disappeared. Notices went up at stations, railways shut down and a way of life died. Diesels took over the main line, steam vanished and the branch line, it seemed, would now be only a memory.

But then something wonderful happened. Someone had the audacious idea of saving one of the most beautiful branch lines, the one that ran between Ashburton and Totnes, and running real steam engines on it. Amazing!

For me, Staverton remains the very essence of a country station and always brings out echoes of The Railway Children in me

And so it was, early on a November Sunday in the mid-60s, Pete Venn and I fetched up at Ashburton Station, ready to do all we could to help this life-sized Hornby Dublo railway come back to life. We were Dart Valley Railway (DVR) volunteers, and as a solitary steam engine simmered away in the sidings of Ashburton yard, we were put to work loading wagons ready for a day of tracklaying.

Pete, myself and other volunteers did most of the jobs that seamlessly blew life back into this sad and neglected railway alongside the River Dart. Ashley Burgess, a formidable retired Permanent Way Inspector, taught us to lay track properly. I remember putting so much effort into lifting a rail one day near Staverton that I missed my footing and tumbled down a bank into the Dart.

Ashley eyed me forlornly from under his brown trilby hat and shook his head as I stood there dripping wet. This time well do it properly, young Taylor, he said. A little less ballet, if you please! And so, in time, the track was repaired, the stations tidied up and restored. My favourite was, and still is, Staverton. It remains for me the very essence of a country station and always brings out echoes of The Railway Children in me. Wed work long days as DVR volunteers and then take off to the Globe Inn in Buckfastleigh for an evening of railway chat and the occasional presentation about the line.

Putting a steam engine back together in those days was exciting. With Richard Elliot, later to be General Manager of the South Devon Railway, wed travel, a charabanc full, to Dai Woodhamss scrapyard at Barry Island. If you loved steam engines then the only place to be was Dai Woodhams. His yard was a living Ian Allen trainspotters book. Long lines of sleeping locomotives as far as the eye could see. Dai had bought what seemed to me almost every Great Western engine ever made, and along with locos from other regions was planning to scrap them all and makemoney from the recovered copper and other metals. Goodness knows why really, but he decided to let us all in, to save as many engines as we could. I lost count of how many times we went to Barry Island. The modern-day steam enthusiast would be staggered at the amazing number and variety of engines we saw.

It was April 1969 when the Dart Valley Railway reopened. In those first few days, Pete and I were ticket collectors on the highly polished chocolate-and-cream autocoaches and there was more than a little magic in the air as pannier tank 6412 steamed her way up and down the line from Buckfastleigh to Totnes.

I can still see the horses and the cattle who grazed beside the line skittishly following the trains as we passed beside their fields, excited by this vision of fire and steam that had suddenly burst into their lives.
The last train of evening trundled us back along the Dart as sunset hovered over the moors beyond Buckfastleigh. The valley was still, and from time to time, wed catch the fiery red glow from the footplate fire reflected in the river as our gallant Great Western tank engine safely brought us home.
An old friend was back in the beautiful valley of the Dart. And this time, she wasnt going to go away.

The last train of evening trundled us back along the Dart as sunset hovered over the moors.

Photos kindly supplied by Halsgrove
(01823 653777), taken from The South Devon Railway by Don Bishop, price 14.99.

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