Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Devon and Cornwall, Day 8 (Part 2)

Saturday 8th June, afternoon

After a fine morning on the Looe branch, in the afternoon we headed to Gunnislake and Newquay. With an hour's break in Plymouth, we headed to Sainsbury's and grab some lunch. Once done, we boarded our next branch line train, the only one to actually terminate in Plymouth itself:

1254 Plymouth to Gunnislake, arr 1340
1345 Gunnislake to Plymouth, arr 1430
Headcode: 2G75 and 2P89 resp., operated by First Great Western using Sprinter 150247
Distance: 14.5 miles each way; walk-up return: £3.45

The Gunnislake branch is another slightly odd branch. For one, it's partly in Devon and partly in Cornwall: instead of crossing the Royal Albert Bridge, we curve off the mainline and go under it, hugging the eastern bank of the River Tamar. We then cross the River Tavy on a wide, curving viaduct, before a solid four-mile 1-in-73 climb up to Bere Alston.

At Bere Alston, we reverse in order to continue towards Gunnislake. Just before the station at Calstock we cross the fairly narrow Tamar, thus finally entering Cornwall, before a torturously twisty climb up to Gunnislake. The ten miles from Plymouth to Bere Alston took us 24 minutes; by contrast, the 4½ miles from Bere Alston to Gunnislake took a full 20 minutes.

The reason for the reversal is that while Bere Alston to Gunnislake has always been a branch line, the line from Plymouth to Bere Alston once continued on via Tavistock, Okehampton and Crediton to Exeter. This was the old London and South Western Railway mainline, built in competition to the GWR, but the section between Bere Alston and Okehampton was shut in the 1960s.

The line between Okehampton and Bere Alston has long been talked about for reopening, and hopefully at least the section from Bere Alston to Tavistock is being actively campaigned for. Reopening the whole line, though, would provide a useful diversionary route for mainline trains between Exeter and Plymouth. Indeed, if the Dawlish sea wall cannot be shored up in the long term, we may have no option but to reopen this if we don't wish to sever Plymouth and Cornwall from the railway network entirely.

After just a few minutes in Gunnislake, we journeyed back at the same glacial pace as we'd climbed up to Gunnislake; clearly the sinuous curves, rather than the steep gradients, were the limiting factor in the speed of the train. But any quicker and it would have spoiled the views: not many lines over the variety of views of a single river, from perched high atop a steep valley looking down to a small stream, to a wide flowing estuary crossed by huge viaducts. Just a perfect little branch line for a Saturday afternoon.

1454 Plymouth to Newquay, arr 1652
1726 Newquay to Plymouth, arr 1914
Headcode: 1C80 and 1A97 resp., operated by First Great Western using HST rake LA13 with 43177+43005
Distance: 55.5 miles each way; first class walk-up return: £18.10

Our final excursion of the day was to the coastal town of Newquay, deep in north Cornwall, and surfing capital of the UK. The town's population can swell from 20,000 to 100,000 in summer months thanks to a long-established tourist trade. While weekdays see a simple shuttle service to and from the junction with the mainline at Par, summer Saturdays see this replaced with a series of long-distance trains from as far away as London, Manchester and Dundee (yes, Dundee!) to cater for holidaymakers.

We caught one of the FGW services, an HST through from London Paddington. Knowing it would be busy, and fed up not having any comfort or tables in standard class on an HST, we had decided to upgrade to first class. We could have just paid £10 each way for the upgrade, but we discovered that a first class day return fare from Plymouth was just £18.10, so we went for that. (We actually bought the tickets off the guard on the Gunnislake train, who was only too happy to earn the commission!)

You may think that first class was a bit extravagant for a little branch line in Cornwall. But Newquay is no little branch line: from Plymouth, even with only two stops at Lostwithiel and Par, the journey was scheduled at a full two hours. And it was well worth it, for the peace and quiet, for the comfortable seats, for the fact that a bay of six seats suited five of us perfectly, for the unobstructed views from the window, for the tables to play games on, for the free drinks and snacks we got (yes, there was even a full buffet open all the way to Newquay); most of all, being in first class just made it more of an occasion, somehow.

The branch line itself leaves the main line at Par, rather inconveniently sited just a few miles east of the much bigger town of St Austell. Indeed, Par itself barely merits a station but for the junction (much like St Erth). The branch line remains controlled from two old-fashioned signalboxes (as, indeed, does much of the Cornish mainline): the first is at St Blazey, just round the corner from Par, where DBS have a major depot and yard to serve the freight trains in Cornwall (principally carrying china clay).

Five miles further on is Goonbarrow Junction, no longer a junction but rather a passing loop with two tracks, for trains to pass on this otherwise single-track line. This is the last signalbox before the 15-mile dead end to Newquay. On Saturdays the line runs to full capacity, with trains waiting for each other at Goonbarrow in order to continue on the single line.

However, with the track on the branch not being maintained to the highest possible standard, the branch is pretty slow, and each train is allowed about two hours to do a round-trip from Goonbarrow Junction to Newquay and back, meaning just seven trains on the branch all day. To maximise capacity, almost all are at least seven carriages long on a Saturday.

That said, our driver clearly took a fairly liberal interpretation of the speed limits, because we arrived in Newquay at 16:37, a full 15 minutes early! This gave us nearly an hour to look round the town of Newquay, and we took a walk over to the cliffs above the beach, enjoying an ice cream, and marvelling at the beautiful blue sea below.

While the coastline was very pretty, the town itself was less so, with an hour being more than enough time to take in the facilities clearly aimed at the party-going nightclub clientele for which Newquay is, sadly, now nearly as (in)famous as it is for surfing. Once we'd finished our ice creams we didn't linger, and returned to the train back to Plymouth.

The journey back was rather more sedate, but it gave us another look at the countryside we passed through: no deep river valleys here, this was rolling china clay country, with some views south towards the pits in St Dennis. We played some more Fluxx, but stopped to take a proper look (and some photographs) of the Royal Albert Bridge as we passed over it and left Cornwall for the last time.

Nearly two hours after leaving Newquay - and four and a half since we'd left Plymouth - we were back in Plymouth. In the bright evening sunlight, we took a walk over the Hoe, the hill overlooking the Sound and the naval installations. We paused at the huge war memorial in the centre, which bears the names of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives in both world wars and since.

After a walk around the coastal path, we found the docks humming with people, locals and tourists alike enjoying the fine summer's evening. We found a restaurant away from the hubbub and enjoyed our last dinner out, before heading back for our final night in the south-west.

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