Plymouth in Devon was the starting point for the Pilgrim Father’s jaunt across the pond in 1620 to what would become the United States of America and there is a Plymouth on the Eastern seaboard in Massachusetts just south of Boston that commemorates the place where they landed stateside.
In England it is also the starting point for our journey across the River Tamar into Cornwall, a land of myths and legends, with its own language and folklore. In terms of what would attract railways to come here the picture is mixed. Like all railways they brought with them the facility for people to go on holiday there where previously an excursion to the next village was an expedition. The railways in effect created many of Cornwall’s holiday resorts and kept them fed with customers.
Cornwall is an ancient base for mining minerals and chiefly in days gone by it was tin and copper. Tin is notoriously difficult to extract and needs effort and the generation of much spoil to get at the metal. Although tin has faded from regular production the by-product of lithium is being started up to fuel the need for electric car batteries although so far none of it goes by rail.
By far the most common mineral in Cornwall and that which generates the most rail traffic is English china clay which, as its name suggests, is used in the manufacture of porcelain or fine bone china as well as a glossy coating for up-market magazines. There is still freight traffic to Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire, the ancestral home of English porcelain production. The clay is also exported from the port of Fowey and that is brought to the ships by rail. Before the inception of the Channel Tunnel, freight trains would leave Cornwall and travel to Harwich on England’s east coast for the wagons to be loaded aboard a ferry for the crossing to the Hook of Holland for destinations in Germany and Switzerland.
The GWR developed the holiday traffic in Cornwall with one of its most prestigious trains, the Cornish Riviera Express which left from platform/track 1 at Paddington at 10.30 am. The pre-First World War publicity likened Cornwall to Italy with the exhortation of ‘See Your Own Country First’ and numerous books were published one of which was entitled ‘Holiday Haunts’ which featured Cornwall amongst other counties.
The road network has a scarcity of motorways or interstate highways which is possibly why the branch lines have lasted until now although nearly all the branch line infrastructure has been rationalised or taken out. Cornwall has seen a resurgence in holiday popularity in recent years with the ‘staycation’ and the publicising of the place mainly through British TV series like Doc Martin and Poldark although the main beneficiary is the road network. The resort of Newquay has become Britain’s surfer’s capital as that is one of the few places where the Atlantic Ocean can get waves up large enough and St Ives was always popular before World War II with artists, potters and sculptors. The summer Saturday Cornish Riviera Express portion for St Ives would expand to eleven coaches and two locomotives. Figure 1. Saltash is the first station in Cornwall over the River Tamar which is spanned by Brunel’s iconic bridge built in 1859. The bridge was always single track so there are signalling arrangements to suit that on both sides. Liskeard is the first junction with a branch line to Looe which has its own station platform and building. Par and St Blazey are the centres for traffic for the china clay industry and the latter has a steam engine half roundhouse albeit in private ownership. Truro is the county town and only city in Cornwall as well as the railhead for the Falmouth branch. St Erth is a virtually intact junction station apart from the freight side and Penzance is a granite fortress against the Atlantic weather and the end of the line as well as practically the end of the country. Figure 2. GWR class 150 232 arrives at Liskeard on a service from Plymouth past the wooden signal box/tower. The signal opposite the first car is known as an underhung gallows with a centre balanced arm. The gallows part is to lower the signal to be seen by a train driver past a road overbridge further up the line and a platform canopy and the centre balanced aspect is to avoid hitting any passengers on the platform/track when the signal is set to off or go as the arms droops from the horizontal. The siding/turnout at the end of the platform is the branch line to Looe that has its own station building and is called platform/track 3. The small disc signal next to the centre balanced arm means that bit of the branch is not suitable for passenger carrying trains only empty stock. June 2016. Figure 3. At Lostwithiel Wessex Trains class 150 263 is heading for Plymouth as it arrives at the up platform/track. The left hand signal on the bracket opposite the train is for a storage siding for china clay trains that are waiting to go to Fowey Docks and one is waiting there. The station building is trying to look old and traditional but not quite managing it. October 2004. Figure 4. The junction station at Par has most of its buildings intact except for the goods shed. Behind the rusty footbridge is a signal box which controls not only the main line but the branches to Par Docks and St Blazey for Newquay. The signal on the platform is for trains that have come off the Newquay branch September 2014. Figure 5. Prior to the 1960s the scene of a train waiting to service a branch line whilst in the bay platform of the junction station was a common one. Not so common now but we have this view of class 150 126 in the bay at Truro awaiting a departure to Falmouth Docks. The French style roof of the station building behind the bay platform resembles Torquay and others. September 2014. Figure 6. First Great Western HST powers out from the platform at Truro onward to Penzance. The train annunciator board tells us the train is one minute late at this point. The starter signal, which is ‘off’ can just be seen but further back down the platform it cannot thanks to the curvature of the platform. The large bright disc with the line through it is a banner repeater signal that replicates what the main signal, T47 (T for Truro) is doing. In the past it would have been a signal arm connected by rodding and linkages and lit by an oil lamp now it is an ultra-bright LED array. In common with other stations there is a starter on the opposite platform indicating that the line is bi-directionally signalled which would be used in an emergency if one track had to be closed. September 2014. Figure 7. The rural calm of the milk dock where milk churns were loaded and unloaded was seldom shattered, maybe twice a day. It was quite a skill to manhandle 22 gallon full milk churns two at a time into and out of a railway wagon. Now it does not see trains. St Erth is the junction for St Ives and to the left is the bay platform 3 and the right the milk dock. June 2016. Figure 8. St Erth station at the Plymouth end. The line going off to the left is the St Ives branch and the signal on the far left the starter for the branch. The bracket signal has had extra Health and Safety handrails applied whereas the branch starter hasn’t got that yet. The bracket signal is lower than usual so that the train driver can see past the platform canopies. St Erth signal box controls the whole station area and a train is expected from the Plymouth direction. The platforms/tracks at St Erth are not long enough for modern trains as the HST marker board clearly shows. Announcements have to be made on the train so that alighting passengers don’t end up in the ballast. June 2016. Figure 9. Penzance is the end of the line and warrants this mostly Cornish granite built station with overall roof. The sea is just visible and the sea wall is the railway boundary marker. Over on the left were bay platforms for parcels trains that are now disused. Semi-tropical plants are popular on the platforms to convince travellers that the weather will be kind to them. The station has been updated with colour light signals but retains its signal box/tower. The two right hand platforms are long enough for 8 car HSTs and a First Great Western example is almost ready to leave for London Paddington. FGW and the modern GWR ran together whilst the re-branding was completed. June 2016. Figure 10. Re-branded FGW-GWR Class 150 232 has arrived from Plymouth with a local service. The dark green livery of the modern GWR harks back to the steam era when Great Western engines were painted in what was known as ‘mid-chrome green’, frequently incorrectly referred to as Brunswick green. This far west the snow plough is more in hope than expectation. June 2016.
Great Western Railway Stations, by Allen Jackson, is available courtesy of Amberley Books: https://www.amberley-books.com/great-western-railway-stations.html
Presenting: The We Are Railfans Map! Learn how to use our new tool in this 'How To' Guide.
Where can you catch the UK's loco-hauled services in 2022? We list all the regular main line services in this article.