The Barnstaple Branch Line - The Tarka Line
Exeter St Davids to Yeoford | Yeoford to Okehampton | Yeoford to Barnstaple
The line runs for approximately 40 miles from Exeter, through the Exe, Yeo & Taw valleys to Barnstaple. Built by the North Devon Railway company in 1854, the line survived the Beeching cuts, barely, and was still under threat in the early, 1980's when Paul Theroux traveled on the line and recorded his pleasure at the countryside and names of the villages along the line.
Today it has almost an hourly service, although a number of stations are only scheduled for a few trains a day, for example Chapelton, Portsmouth Arms and Lapford. On Sundays the line to Okehampton is also served, and if the Dartmoor Railways plans come to fruition services will soon regularly run from Okehampton to Yeoford.
Exeter St Davids to Yeoford
Opened in 1844, the Brunel designed Exeter St Davids is the start point of this 40 mile run to North Devon.This important Devon railway hub serves every rail operator in the county, with trains to London Paddington, London Waterloo, Plymouth, Cornwall, and cross country trains to the north of England and Scotland regularly arriving and departing.
Trains to Barnstaple generally leave from platform 1 or 3, and have quite often started their journey at Exmouth or Paignton. Heading east the trains immediately run across the six track Red Cow Level Crossing, and on past the old Riverside Sidings on the left. Running on the mainline for a mile or so, before the branch diverges to the left and sharply curves away to cross the river Exe.
The line head north through largely agricultural land, reaching the village and station of Newton St Cyres. The station is a single platform request stop for about 5 trains in each direction a day. Built in 1852, the station had two platforms originally, now the line has been singled only one is required, although the old one can still be seen. There is not much to see here, but the Beer Engine public house was a pioneer in promoting rail travel to public houses, contains its own brewery and is worth stopping by.
On through pretty although unremarkable countryside, it is roughly two and a half miles before the train reaches Crediton. Here the line splits and the Dartmoor line to Okehampton runs alongside the Tarka line until Coleford Junction. The station boasts fine tea rooms that are worth looking at, but again the town is not really a strong draw for would be visitors. This is an important community station though and passenger traffic has grown by over 50% in the last 5 years or so.
Leaving Crediton, the Dartmoor line to Okehampton and the Tarka Line run parallel to each other through largely flat terrain on a run of 4 miles or so to the village of Yeoford. The station here is a single platform, that serves the Tarka Line only, the Dartmoor line trains do not stop here. Just the one hut for protection from the elements and the village is small and largely uninteresting, but is served by the Mare & Foal public house, which has a pretty good reputation.
Yeoford to Okehampton
After leaving Yeoford the two lines continue to run parallel to each other for a mile before the Okehampton branch, or as its now known the Dartmoor line swings away to the left at what used to be Coleford Junction. Passenger trains only operate on this line on Summer Sundays, but there is increasing interest in restoring more regular services to the line. The route is ostensibly a freight line, being used for the supply of ballast from Meldon Quarry.
After the lines part, the Dartmoor line heads west through typical mid Devon countryside, very much agricultural with green hedge lined fields stretching away in all directions. The line is pretty much straight for a few miles, running through the closed stations at Bow and North Tawton, before it gently turns to the south west and the village of Sampford Courtenay. The station here was closed to passenger traffic in 1972, only to be reopened in 2002. It is served by both the First Great Western summer service and by trains from the Dartmoor Railway, who originally reopened it. There is not much to see here, and its probably best to stay on the train and head to Okehampton.
Continuing south, the line trundles through more fields and past farms for about 4 miles until it enters a cutting adjacent to the A30 on the eastern fringe of Okehampton. Skirting around the south of the town until arriving at Okehampton Station. This station was opened in 1871 and closed to passenger traffic in 1972. It was reopened by the Dartmoor Railway in 1997 which runs between Sampford Courtenay and Meldon, and served by the limited Sunday Rover service from Exeter St Davids. Acting as the base of the Dartmoor Railway, the station boasts a refreshment room, small museum and a model shop. The town itself is about a mile away, which is easy on the way down, but could be a bit of a challenge on the way back. It is worth a visit though, with a visitor centre and plenty of places to stay, eat or drink.
Yeoford to Barnstaple
After leaving Yeoford the line runs alongside the Dartmoor Line for about a mile before they split at the site of the former Coleford Junction. As it heads north it arrives in the village of Copplestone, with its single platform request stop. The Station was built in 1854 and has witnessed a steady increase in passenger traffic over the last few years as the fairly uninspiring, but not pleasant village continues to grow as a dormentry settlement to Exeter.
The lines continues north west following the A377 for a mile and a half to Morchard Road station, this notionally serves the village of Morchard Bishop which is actually a few miles to the north east. What surrounds the station is essentially a small collection of houses along a main road, with a car dealership and the Devon Dumpling public house. The station itself is a single platform request stop, built in 1854 and quite nicely maintained. All in all though unless your popping to the pub for lunch, or live here its probably best to stay on the train.
Another couple of miles or so and the train runs into Lapford Station, which is situated to the south of the rather pretty little village. Again the village contains a single pub, The Old Malt Scoop Inn, but this is some distance from the the railway in the village centre.
Between Morchard Road and Lapford the line crosses the River Taw for the first time, and on departure from Lapford the theme continues with the line running in the Taw valley, accompanied by the river and A377. Nearly four miles of gentle curves through the valley, the line runs across a level crossing and into Eggesford station. The station itself sits above the river and was scarily the victim of a major flood in the 1960's where the down platform and buildings were washed away. The station still maintains two platforms and has a passing loop for the trains. The level crossing is operated by the guard and this guarantees that all trains stop at the station. The immediate area is largely uninhabited, with just a few garages to accompany the pretty station. Just down the road is the Fox and Hounds, a large and well appointed hotel, restaurant and bar, which if you are into shooting, fishing and country pursuits is a good destination. Despite the lack of surrounding residential properties, the station serves quite a few local villages, such as Wembworthy and Chawleigh and is getting close to 20,000 passengers a year.
After leaving Eggesford, the line continues down the Taw valley and a few twists and turns aside it is heading north through what is the prettiest countryside on the route. The river largely stays in view to the left of the train and it is another four mile run to Kings Nympton. Again, this station was opened in 1854 and is surrounded by....nothing much at all apart from the attractive scenery and is the epitome of the rural station. It serves several small villages including Kings Nympton, which lies some distance to the north east. Undoubtedly pretty, but we're not sure what you would do (other than just wait for the next train) if you didn't live near here.
Onwards and northwards then another 3 miles up the single line to Portsmouth Arms, which is not surprisingly adjacent to a public house of the same name. This is a little used station, with passenger numbers hovering around the 1,000 mark annually. The platform sports a modern shelter and actually makes a decent destination for both the pub and the Northcote Manor about half a mile away. Also close by are the new Forest Park Lodges, a little bit further out, but a reasonable bike ride away.
Leaving Portsmouth Arms, the line follows the lie of the valley and swings quite sharply around to the right and turns nearly through 180 degrees, crossing the river three times as the railway, river and the A377 road snake backwards and forwards on the 2 mile run to Umberleigh. The station here is again joyfully pretty country request stop, and although only a shelter remains for passengers to use, the old station building is nicely preserved as a residential property. There are other reasons to get off the train here as well. An antique warehouse, a few B&B's and a campsite are all within walking distance, as is the Rising Sun Hotel & Public House. All of which nestle around the small and pretty village. Not a bad place to visit then and even base yourself for a few days if you want explore north Devon.
The valley starts to flatten out now and the railway crosses the river once more as it leaves Umberleigh and runs through the fields to the next little village of Chapelton a couple of miles away. The station here has the dubious honour of being the least used on the Devon railway network, and for that reason we like it and recommend that you visit it just to say you've been there. In reality though there is literally nothing to see or do, the station is tucked behind a sawmill, and that doesn't give it much scope for a day trip. It was originally opened in 1857, and at on time had two platforms, now though the single platform and wooden hut get on average one passenger every couple of days. It is the last station before Barnstaple which is now just over four miles away.
Crossing the Taw once again the line pretty much runs straight all the way to Barnstaple and the land immediately either side of the track has a distinctive flood plain look about it. After a few miles the line traverses the Taw for the last time on the impressive Pill Bridge passes under the A39 and runs into the terminus at the edge of Barnstaple town centre. The main town lies across the river and there are numerous places to see, eat at and if you want to stay. In 1982 Paul Theroux described Barnstaple as a 'sorry town' and a 'silted up sea port at the end of a withering branch line', which they probably were. Today, however both are having a revival and worth a look around.