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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s quite exciting being in the tunnel, a forgotten place which was built so long ago.
We reach the other end.
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.
And for those of us who live in hope.