Sunday 7th July 2019
Here’s a great way to spend five hours on a summer Sunday: enjoy one of the best circular journeys in Devon, if not the whole of Britain. It takes in three top rail lines and a brilliant bus route skirting a National Park.
The circular route can be based on either Exeter or Plymouth with the three train journeys in the circuit being the summer Sunday only route between Exeter and Okehampton (known as the GWR Dartmoor Line); the Tamar Valley Line from Gunnislake to Plymouth and the West Country main line from Plymouth back to Exeter including the infamous Dawlish Wall. The missing bit between Okehampton and Gunnislake is filled with the Sunday only 279 bus route, which after an absence of three years, I’m delighted to say, is back up and running again this summer thanks to funding from the Devon and Cornwall Community Rail Partnership. I couldn’t resist taking a ride around the circuit today to celebrate the 279’s return.
Even better this 125 mile circular route can be enjoyed for the price of a Devon Day Ranger at £13 for the trains (£8.20 Railcards) plus a bargain £3 for the 279 bus as a special concession rate for passengers holding rail tickets. Like the 271 yesterday, this route is deemed a ‘tourist route’ by Devon County Council and National Concessionary Passes are not valid (even though they are valid on routes 79 and 118 which cover the same route on Mondays to Saturdays).
Sadly the old Dartmoor Sunday Rover ticket which gave extra value by combining both bus and rail travel on journeys around and across Dartmoor was withdrawn after 2015 and hasn’t reappeared – although this didn’t include trains on the main line.
If you want a Sunday morning lie-in take the 11:08 GWR departure from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton which arrives at 11:54 giving plenty of time to connect with the only departure on the 279 at 12:20 which continues beyond Tavistock through to Gunnislake.But it’s well worth taking the first train of the morning from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton at 09:04 arriving at 09:50 giving plenty of time to take a ride on the Dartmoor Railway heritage line where they often run a former Thumper train (on my previous visit) ….
…..or an eclectic mix of locomotive and carriages including a Brake Van which you can travel on with a great forward view when being pushed from behind and an amazingly friendly guard called Don who gave a running commentary as happened this morning on the 10:15 from Okehampton…. ….and takes you to Meldon Viaduct and which is well worth a visit.
Alternatively the Exeter to Okehampton train stops at Crediton and Sampford Courtenay stations along the way both of which are interesting stop-offs to explore.
Crediton station is on the Barnstaple line and has some lovely heritage signs and posters and is lovingly maintained.
Sampford Courtenay is one of Britain’s quirkiest stations; only open in the summer; sees just the four trains each way, each Sunday; has a grass covered platform; has no facilities whatsoever other than a bench seat; has a locked gate to the platform which the guard on the first train of the day unlocks and the guard on the last train of the day locks up. (Interestingly two passengers were waiting to access the station and board the train when we arrived this morning.)
And that’s about it for facilities. It’s about a four mile walk to Okehampton if you choose to get off at Sampford Courtenay – the photo below was from a previous visit.
Okehampton station itself is about a ten minute walk from the town centre but there’s a popular cafe in the station which does a brisk trade on a Sunday with rail enthusiasts, walkers and cyclists and there are stalls selling railway memorabilia for the heritage Dartmoor Railway.
It was great to see the GWR trains busy today – 30 passengers were on the first train and a good load was waiting to board the return journey to Exeter.
The return of the 279 bus route after its three year absence is very welcome as not only does it make this circular tour possible but it’s a great scenic route in its own right.
The timetable is fairly limited but the 12:20 journey to Gunnislake is ideal with train connections at both ends if you’re doing the circuit anti-clockwise from Exeter as are the two journeys from Gunnislake at 10:05 and 14:00, for a clockwise circuit, which connect with trains from Plymouth as well as at Okehampton (see timetable below).
Go-ahead owned Plymouth Citybus operates the route from its small depot in Callington. It follows the A386 from Okehampton towards Tavistock all along the western perimeter of Dartmoor save for a couple of deviations to the west to serve Bridestowe and Lydford.
The last time I travelled on this route (when it was numbered 187 rather than 279) was in the summer of 2015, when it was operated by First Bus and they still had a presence in this part of Devon. It wasn’t First Bus at their finest and not surprisingly they quit Devon soon affter this uninviting, unkept and filthy Dennis Dart appeared on what should be a lovely tourist route! An appropriate epitaph to the old style First Bus in Devon.
There were nine of us on the 12:20 journey this afternoon all doing the same round trip, which was quite an impressive turn out. Another passenger boarded just outside Okehampton and travelled to Tavistock. Our driver observed it’s the most he’s seen as no one travelled last time he did the trip. He’s based at Liskeard depot as no-one from Callington wants to do the Sunday rest day work containing the 279!
The former route 187 included a diversion to serve the tourist attraction of Morwellham Quay between Tavistock and Gunnislake. It’s a former copper mine, which is now a “working” museum (along the Beamish lines) including a fascinating train ride into one of the old mines. Sadly the updated 279 no longer serves this attraction but continues direct to Gunnislake arriving at 13:45 for the GWR train departure at 13:58 for Plymouth.
We made good time on the journey this afternoon and arrived into Tavistock with enough slack for a fifteen minute leg stretch pause in the bus station and even leaving there on time arrived Gunnislake five minutes early so there’s plenty of time to include Morwellham Quay on the way if desired.
On a previous visit to Gunnislake station in Spring 2018 I noticed the old 187 timetable for Summer 2015 (its last year of operation) with its more frequent service was still on display in the bus shelter and I tweeted Plymouth CityBus to let them know. Frustratingly it was still there this afternoon and sadly there was no mention of the new 279 timetable.
This is very unfortunate particularly as there was superb information at Okehampton in both the station and the authentic bus stop outside.
The contrast couldn’t be more stark.
The Tamar Valley Line between Gunnislake and Plymouth is my favourite Devon branch line with its narrow twists and turns as it follows the valley down through the delightful villages of Calstock and Bere Alston. This section of the line was originally built as a narrow gauge railway to serve the extensive copper mines in the area so when it was upgraded to standard gauge it wasn’t surprising the train brushed against trees and bushes lining the tracks, and still does in places.
The viaduct over the River Tamar at Calstock is just one of the spectacular sights on the journey….
….and it’s also worth looking out for the two ungated level crossings which are very unusual for a full size passenger rail line in regular use.
At Bere Alston the train reverses back from the stub of the line (which used to continue to Tavistock and Okehampton) before continuing south down the valley to the wonderful Bere Ferrers (and note the ‘Beer Ferris’ spelling on the former signal box in the photograph below!).
Now here’s a station well worth stopping off at and having a look around if you have time.
Not only is the station itself done out in splendid heritage signs and posters but Chris Grove who lives in the former booking office owns the neighbouring land which he’s turned into a Heritage Centre with an eclectic mix of railway carriages, diesel locomotives, a yard crane, turntable, a fully working signal box controlling the adjacent track which although only 300 yards long can accommodate three engines running at the same time, as well as a model railway layout, exhibitions, memorabilia, paraphernalia and more.It’s a fascinating place and if you’re really keen, Chris offers accommodation and meals in some of the carriages.I didn’t have time to visit today but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit when passing through last weekend and Chris was a great host.
Carrying on down the Tamar Valley the River becomes impressively wider as it’s joined by the River Tavy with the rail line bridging over the latter just before the rivers join.
The line then continues under the Great Western main line with restricted views of the famous Royal Albert bridge behind the not so famous road bridge ….
….before the branch joins the main line itself just after St Budeaux Victoria Road (alongside St Budeaux Ferry Road on the main line). Continuing into Plymouth there are magnificent views of the Dockyard as this section of the tour comes to an end.
It’s a summer Sunday afternoon, so expect the last leg of this circular trip to be busy; the main line ride from Plymouth to Exeter. I’ve taken many journeys back from the West Country on a Sunday afternoon and the train is invariably packed even before it leaves Cornwall. The Gunnislake train arrives into Plymouth at 14:43 with a handy fifteen minute connection on to the 14:58 GWR train back to Exeter St Davids arriving there at 15:57. However, this train comes up from Penzance and is notorious for being ‘rammed’.
This afternoon, I instead opted to take the next eastbound departure from Plymouth at 15:12 which is a GWR train crucially starting its London bound journey there so a much better chance of a decent seat.
It arrived into Exeter at 16:07 just ten minutes later than the Penzance originating train did.
This final leg of the circular tour provides a lovely hour’s scenic ride through Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth before the crème de la crème, the gorgeous section of line through Dawlish.
After that it’s back into Exeter after a wonderful day in Devon.
However, I’m now heading on to Bristol and Cardiff for more bus and train travels tomorrow.
PS It was great to meet blog reader David also doing this round trip today as well as Phil from Modern Railways magazine who was enjoying a return ride on the Gunnislake branch this afternoon.
PPS Just to let you know the great lengths I go to capture photographs for this blog included last weekend’s visit to Bere Ferrers Heritage Centre when Chris kindly offered for me to capture the GWR train coming into the station from a vantage point high up on one of his heritage signals – note the high viz, so it was perfectly safe for me to do that – indeed it was a great honour as Chris said no-one other than him had climbed up before!