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Travelling the Withered Arm

Egloskerry, Tresmeer, Otterham, Camelford, Delabole, St Kew Highway and Wadebridge.

These are just a few of the railway stations, no longer in existence, which lined Southern Railways’ network of train tracks built west of Exeter in the late part of the nineteenth century. Relatively under used, they came to be known as ‘The Withered Arm’.

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Camelford Station 1972 by Peter Howie

Imagine though, in the golden age of the railways and before getting into a car was possible for most people, how wonderful it would have been to climb aboard a train in Waterloo, London and travel the two hundred and sixty miles to Padstow on the North Cornish Coast in six hours. Before rail, Cornwall really was the wild west, long before tourism began.

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Towards the end of the journey the train had to traverse the rugged terrain of North Cornwall, surmounting some incredible gradients, rising from 200ft at Launceston to a peak of 800ft above sea level between Otterham and Camelford. To make it relatively smooth for the passengers  there were forty three cuttings made between Launceston and Wadebridge, before the final flat journey of nine minutes alongside the stunning Camel Estuary.

Once arrived, I bet a fish and chip supper would have tasted divine.

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Got to be in paper

Last week, with a couple of friends who had suggested the expedition, I set out with them to find and explore one of these cuttings on the abandoned line. The tunnel under the village of Trelill is clearly marked on the OS map. Armed with this and some homemade biscuits made by B’s gran we set off:

It is another cold cold day, with a finger hurting north east wind. We park up in the village and at first approach the tunnel from the southern end, scrambling down a steep bank onto the line near a curved brick road bridge, grabbing hold of ivy and the whips of young trees as we go down. The rails are long gone and it is surprisingly muddy considering they must have been laid on ballast. I’m glad I’m wearing wellies. We can see the tunnel entrance some 100 metres away and make our way down towards it.

It is not clear to whom this land now belongs; there are no signs of warning about trespass, yet for some reason it feels like we are doing something illegal. I am conscious that any minute now, the long arm of the law will make its presence felt. However, quite soon I am more concerned about where I’m putting my feet as the going is a little treacherous, with seemingly solid ground melting into deep quagmires of sticky mud. We pause to admire the curve and clever engineering of the road bridge from below.

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Curving stonework

From this distance we can see that the entrance to the tunnel is gated but we press on to check it out. We are having to pick our way really carefully, trying to get some purchase on the sides of the cutting. On the way a bright button of red fungus shines from its damp bed.

Red Fungus www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

We eventually reach the entrance and there is no way we can get in this end, as this unbending gate has evil looking prongs on the top. I poke my camera through the bars.

Trelill Tunnel www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

We make our way back to the road. The thought flits across my mind that this expedition may have been better undertaken in the summer; the next second the anaerobic slime is over the top of my boots.

We walk back through the village to find the other end of the tunnel, which according to the map is bordered by a footpath. The Bull in Field sign doesn’t deter us and we fuel up with a biscuit, intrepidly going forth. From the top we can see the field path dropping away steeply and the overgrown wooded railway cutting to the left snakes across the landscape into the distance like an insulated wire, not even a hint of green glinting on the branches.

At the bottom we climb through the fence and slide down another steep bank onto the line. This side seems to be firmer underfoot but the way through is harder.

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The entrance is glimpsed

We manage to squeeze in through the flimsier gate and get inside the tunnel. Bats fly out as we get in, accustoming our eyes to the dark. It is very cold and damp but there isn’t any smell which surprises me. With torch at the ready we make our way down the curved tunnel, marvelling at the amount of work it must have taken to make the railway and its forty three cuttings through solid rock.

Trelill Tunnel www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

One of the safety alcoves along the tunnel which you can get in when the train comes – you can see the bedrock behind the brick work

MarchD2013 140compressed MarchD2013 146compressed MarchD2013 144compressed MarchD2013 139compressed MarchD2013 133compressed Trelill Tunnel www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

It’s quite exciting being in the tunnel, a forgotten place which was built so long ago.

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

B shines her torch

We reach the other end.

Trellill Tunnel www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The gate with the evil prongs

I felt the adrenalin of our adventure for the whole day.

There is still a small stretch of this particular railway still in use, run by a dedicated bunch of steam enthusiasts. You can catch a train from Launceston to New Mills and back, a fun outing. There is also a vintage transport and machinery museum and a café at The Launceston Steam Railway Company

A section between Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow is now The Camel Trail, for cycling and walking.

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

And for those of us who live in hope.

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeeling loco

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeling loco

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. I walked a chunk of old railway near Winscombe in North Somerset a good few years ago and can strongly identify with your tunnel experience.

    April 1, 2013
    • It’s fun isn’t it? I’m keen to do more exploring. Thanks for the comment.

      April 2, 2013
  2. I’d like to read this post but for me, that’s impossible. My screen’s covered by a lovely photo of grass and herbs, with thin black text on it.

    April 1, 2013
    • Oh, now that I’ve commented the grass photo covers only the outer parts of my screen and I can read the text in the middle part.

      April 1, 2013
  3. At risk of telling you things you already know: the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Report, which led to the closure of many railways, was a few days ago http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/journeysbyrail/9940319/Beeching-anniversary-the-lines-that-escaped-the-axe.html

    And OS maps show all rights of way. I don’t know the particular route you walked but your beautiful photos lead me to think that it may not have been a legal route to walk on.

    April 1, 2013
    • Thanks, I did know about the 50th anniversary…I live with a rail enthusiast. While some of that enthusiasm has rubbed off onto me, let’s just say I know things in a little more detail than any normal person would want 😉

      Re the legality, just adding a little drama to my story! But yes, you’re right, definitely very off footpath…

      April 2, 2013
  4. This is brilliant you crazy mad adventurer! Lucky you didn’t meet any ghost trains. Years ago we went to Padstow by train to Bodmin then taxi. We hired bikes and cycled the Camel Trail but if I’d known better we could have walked the line. It looks fantastic.

    April 1, 2013
  5. absolutely wonderful, I love disused railway lines especially ones that have not been domesticated, the more forgotten and neglected the better. Your description gives a real sense of adventure which I think all the best walks should have. The photos of the tricky overgrown bits of railway line are very enticing and remind me of a similar railway line I went on as a child before it was made into an official walk.

    April 1, 2013
    • This was definitely an ‘edgeland’ experience. Knowing your work I’m not surprised those tangly bits were enticing to you! Thanks.

      April 2, 2013
  6. It’s sad to think that all the hard work and backbreaking labour put in to these train lines lasted in reality, such a short time. Here in Victoria Australia we too have many train stations now defunct and many lines too I’m sure. We live in Ballan on the Ballarat line and the stations between us and Ballarat are no more which is a crying shame. Even though diesel trains have much less of the romantic air of steam trains, there is still something about making a journey by rail.

    April 1, 2013
    • I totally agree. I still visit the city regularly and if I don’t need to take the car for work I love going by train. You just sit back and enjoy! All these small lines disappeared after the Beeching report in 1964. Maybe a similar thing happened near you. There is some talk of reopening part of it down here as the main line which goes on the south coast keeps getting flooded! You’ve got children haven’t you? Going to plug my friends book now…’What I didn’t expect when I was expecting’ by Monica Dux!

      Looking forward to having a root around your blog soon 🙂

      April 2, 2013
      • A lot of people are moving out to the country here, us included. Seachange was a HUGELY inspiring tv series here and many many people made their own seachanges or for the non coastal moves, treechanges. We treechanged late last year, even though I’ve not yet seen the series. 🙂 One of our reasons for moving where we did was the location of a train station and the accessibility for my husband who works at the Docklands, right in Melbourne. He’s not one to drive to work and the drive would take nearly twice as long and definitely twice as much with fuel and parking costs. It’s also so unsustainable. If these smaller stations opened up again, even if only for some of the peak trains then they too would experience more people moving there. It’s just such a crying shame.

        And yes, I have 3 kids under 5 so clever marketing. 😉 the WTEWYE books were pretty useless I must admit and I reckon that what I didn’t expect would far exceed the thickness of all of the WTE books put together. I’ll check out your friends book. 🙂

        April 2, 2013
      • It’s not a totally random suggestion! The book is only recently out and Monica is a Melbournian…she’s funny and it should be a riot…though haven’t read it myself I confess. 😉

        It is a shame about those stations. Seachange has now been mentioned twice…looking forward to getting my hands on it one day, though I haven’t found it here yet…

        April 3, 2013
  7. What fun to be an Armchair Tourist and follow your story along with a map to know where you are. I agree with plot52 – an old un-reclaimed line is so much more mysterious and evocative of times past than a refurbished “rail trail” as we call them here. Although, no disrespect to the latter – rail trails have opened up a lot of natural space to the walker and cyclist that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. Thanks for posting!

    April 2, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed it Sevenacres! I’ve got the bug now…expect more rail adventures in the future 😉

      April 2, 2013
  8. Absolutely fantastic post! I enjoyed every minute of it! The photographs are amazing! Thanks for taking us along!

    April 2, 2013
    • Glad it hit the spot Lemony… and to get a compliment about the photographs from you…that’s a real bonus! 🙂

      April 2, 2013
  9. mmw #

    Curvy bridges and fish and chips – yum yum

    April 2, 2013
    • What about eating the fish and chips while looking at the bridge – that would be a good lunch 🙂

      April 2, 2013
  10. spabbygirl #

    Brilliant post, must search out our local old railway

    April 2, 2013
  11. Katherine Kearns #

    Those fish and chips look superb! My own little railway story should be starting this week: work starts to restore the old signal box at Warmley, Bristol this week. The rich cream and burgundy colours of the wooden box – the livery of the London Midland Railway – were known as ‘blood and custard’. I’m learning there’s some poetry in these old railway relics.

    April 2, 2013
    • That is such an exciting project. Blood and Custard. I’m in love.

      April 2, 2013
  12. Rachel #

    Sounds like a great walk and your photos evoke tangly leafy Cornish smells. Made me think too of that lovely song – The Slow Train, by Flanders and Swann. Do you know it ? Lots of video interpretations on Youtube.

    April 2, 2013
    • Thanks Rachel, I can hear your voice coming through in ‘tangly leafy’. I don’t know the song, but I will soon! I will report back…

      April 2, 2013
  13. What a wonderful exploration! No tunnels anywhere around here, of course. I’m honestly not sure there would be such a tunnel in the whole of Texas. Even when there are hills, I suspect up-and-over would have been the choice.

    But railfans? They’re everywhere, and a couple of photographers I follow devote themselves entirely to trains. I’m a fan of steam, myself, and when Union Pacific sent their famed Engine 844 to the Rio Grande Valley, I spent a lot of time following along. I toured the engine here in Houston, and did a little light chasing along the coastal plain.

    In fact, the only video I’ve ever made is a train video. An old string band I’ve loved for years gave permission to use their music – it was such a treat to put together. The very first image of the video, showing some men next to a huge steam-powered “sod-buster” has one of my relatives in it – part of the family moved to Saskatchewan to homestead, until they decided that wasn’t such a good idea and came back to Iowa.

    The romance of railroading in the American West

    April 4, 2013
    • There is something special about steam. I’ve been on quite a few of the preserved lines but the experience of being on a full size train is I’m sure way more exciting. Great video. I love those old images and the landscapes are truly special. All that space! And the 3 trains at the end, well that’s heaven for a train lover 😉

      Actually I’ve just remembered, I travelled on a proper sized steam train in India – from Jodphur to Jaisalmer in Rajastan. It was quite smoky! But beautiful going across the desert in the dawn and hearing the loco.

      April 5, 2013
    • Oh, and they still use them in Poland for some busy routes…you can go on working holidays!

      April 5, 2013
  14. What a wonderful adventure. I absolutely love how nature reclaims these disused railway lines….. As always a pleasure to read, and great photographs too 🙂

    April 5, 2013
    • Thanks Debbie. Yes, and all good visual material! Glad you appreciated the photographs I’ll take that as a huge compliment 😉

      April 5, 2013
  15. “Exeter” and “Launceston”… love the similarities between our worlds :). You were certainly brave on your adventure. Not too sure I would have been as brave when confronting that sign about the bull ;). Wonderful photos and another fantastic story evokative of jolly jaunts with the famous 5 ;). That fish and chips looks absolutely gorgeous. We hunted for “good chips” when we were over there in 2005/2006 and couldn’t find a single homemade chip for hell or highwater from Liverpool down to Sarf-end-on sea :(. All package chips and sad at that. Love the adventure, the idea of the adventure and the telling of the adventure. Hopefully you have serialised it and will be carrying on with the fun 🙂

    April 10, 2013
    • Thanks Fran I’m sorry your Blighty chip needs were not satisfied. How disappointing. On the bright side it’ll be something to look forward to if you ever come back! I think I will go on some more rail adventures. And it is mighty weird taht we live in the same place 😉

      April 10, 2013
  16. LOVE THIS! And… this may interest you if you find yourself somewhere between Bath and Midford. It’s a bit tame compared to overgrown adventures mind… 🙂 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/9959588/Britains-longest-cycling-tunnel-to-open.html

    April 22, 2013
    • Thanks for the link B! It’s good they’re getting some use…though a bit sad that its not trains 😦

      April 22, 2013

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