Travel around rural Cornwall by train is time-consuming. At its most frustrating (if you’re in a hurry), in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a rain storm, it can also be downright creepy. There’s one line that stretches 79 miles from Plymouth to Penzance, and at a top speed of about 65mph for its duration, it’s still a valid and appreciated example of slow travel on the British railway network.
The mainline through Cornwall meanders around the crevices of Cornish geography and history, visiting ever diminishing stations in terms of both size and frequency. It’s a strangely intoxicating and liberating experience to be propelled away from civilisation to the far reaches of the British coastline.
Rail travel in Cornwall wasn’t always a one-dimensional experience. Branch lines running from north to south, like the Helston Railway, the Hayle Railway and the famous North Cornwall Railway (now the Camel Trail) zig-zagged the county, with different lines, companies and businesses plying their trade in competition for a lucrative share of the mining and fishing industries, and, of course, the emerging tourist market. During Cornwall’s most lucrative years, where it was said that one square mile around the rural town of St. Day was the amongst the richest in the world, freight and passengers used these lines with seemingly increased frequency.
By this point of holiday and leisure freedom, however, the days of Cornwall’s prominence as an industrial powerhouse were long gone. Short on natural resources, and with diminishing fishing fleets, many of the lines were struggling to make ends meet. Trains were old and expensive, rarely designed for speed and efficiency, and the rails themselves belonged to a different era. During the 1960s, when progress and modernity eschewed any sense of historical responsibility, widespread cuts to rural and isolated communities were felt everywhere. Rather than reshaping and modernisation, Dr. Richard Beeching, and the ‘Beeching Report,’ became synonymous with the dereliction of the British rail industry in the latter half of the 20th century. Nowhere were these cuts felt as deeply as much of rural Cornwall and the south west.
Know where to look, and there are ghostly lines and buildings dotting the landscape that represent much of the diminished rail network. Disparate Cornish communities, once linked through their shared understanding and reliance on the industries of the day, seem today rather less connected, as if roads seldom evoke the same connections, memories and meaning as the humble local rail service. Amongst these derelict services lie the ghost stations of Cornwall, once frenetic with activity, today lying on the fringe of the current rail route often with little recognisable of their former life - overgrown with weeds and brambles. Their names suggest a simpler, less connected world: Grampound Road, Ladock Halt, Gwinear Road, Burngullow. They were community focussed and, full of hope and freedom, bore no resemblance to the relatively prosaic way people use rail travel today. With little use as tourist destinations, these stations served little purpose and were destined to languish as bygone relics.
Today, the now abandoned railway lines of Cornwall are rarely noticed, let alone celebrated. I am on a quest to tell their story and investigate their belonging in the landscape. Old stations and railway buildings are often disappeared from view and as part of larger regeneration - their stories lost. Know where to look, however, and the history is there.
Flask in hand and hiking boots on, I am delving into the Cornish countryside to follow old tracks, and paint a picture of the change and of modernisation that left scars crisscrossing the county.
Lost Industry - The Hayle Railway
The first stop in my search is a spot, and a line, I know well. The Hayle Railway company, founded in 1837, was one of west Cornwall’s earliest railways, and was constructed to transport copper and tin ore from the great mining lodes of Camborne and Redruth to the ports of Hayle and Portreath.
I start my journey furthest inland, at the line’s most eastern point, Tresavean. The line starts within typical mining landscape - barren, windswept, wild and all manner of different shades of green, grey and brown. Old chimneys from disused mines populate the horizon, and as I continue west towards more built up areas, roads and other disused railway lines come into view with enigmatic names to match. I pass ‘Tram Cross Lane,’ and continue a descent into the pretty village of Lanner.
After a granite cutting, today a haven for shade, damp loving plants of all varieties, I cross an intriguing bridge and clamber down to have a closer look. The railway here crosses Rough Street in Lanner, and the small tunnel built in the mid 19th century here is one of numerous of its kind, completely hidden from normal day-to-day life in the most rural parts of Cornwall. It smells of moss and dense woodland - the environment has taken over - and it’s a reminder of the forgotten nature of this history.
The railway from here continues towards the current mainline. The Great Western Railway acquired the Hayle Railway in 1878 for an annual rental of £10. By the early 1900s, its days were numbered. During World War 1, conscription took 75% of the miners in this area and in 1928 metal prices dropped for good. Many of the mines and this part of the line closed in the early 1930s.
My quest doesn’t stop, however. I carry on to the old site of Chasewater station, in the village of the same name, and one of many in this part of the world that got axed due to low passenger numbers in 1963. The story moves from one of closing industry to one of closing community, and at the site of Chasewater station I find an overgrown station platform and some reused and repurposed buildings. There are some subtle and telling reminders of station life - foot and grip marks to signify the edge of the platform, for example. It’s a strangely human and communal connection to the patch of concrete I’m standing on. Years ago, people would have waved their loved ones away from this station to any manner of destinations, and the loss of a direct connection to the outside world for these small towns and villages can still be felt today. I bump into an occupier of one of the units that make up the old station building. ‘My dad worked here years ago, he said. ‘On the old branch line that went up to Newquay. All gone now of course.’ He points at a picture on the wall of a building with a 1950s diesel locomotive approaching, and I realise it’s taken from about where I’m standing. Today, the view is nothing but the accoutrements of Cornish hedgerows.
It was a similar story at other stations on the line that have now disappeared from view. ‘At one point, there were two signal boxes and twenty-five staff employed at Gwinear Road Station,’ stays local railway expert and friend Laurence. ‘It was a busy station, broccoli was picked and loaded on to trains along the Helston branch to be transferred onto a London train to go up the line.’ It is very easy for a romantic picture to be painted of a bustling provincial economy, but he points out that sometimes, only one train a week would run on these lines. It’s clear that it was never going to be financially viable.
Wadebridge to Padstow along the Camel Estuary
Not all branch lines have faded away, been abandoned or have such a sad story attached to them however, and many such as the Camel Trail cycle path from Bodmin to Padstow are enjoyed by thousands of people each year. Reminders of its past life are more than evident and in many cases semi-preserved. Continuing my investigation, I cycle its full length, keeping an eye out for remnants of its old life.
Not far in, and I come across tracks still embedded into roads and level crossing signs kept intact as if an approaching train could be imminent. Further down the line, there are signal posts, water tanks and control terminals, punctuated by overgrown halt platforms that still stand watch over people enjoying the trail in its current form. It’s an atmospheric and enticing landscape as the route followers the Camel River from its inception, towards the estuary, and eventually into the sea at Padstow. The faces of tourists in the first half of the 20th century cross my mind, many of whom would have taken this train to see the sea for the first time in their lives. It seems only right that it’s still being used by the millions of visitors to Cornwall today.
There is undoubtedly something left of old Cornwall in the journeys I have taken to track down the lost stations of Cornwall. Diminishing industry, and diminishing rural population, meant that much of the promised success of Cornwall’s branch lines failed to materialised. The sense of freedom and adventure around linking isolated areas to the mainline, and the rest of the UK, was gone, and focus was instead transferred to the building of the road network.
Of course, trains today are faster and more efficient, but because of this our experience of the landscape around us has changed. Many rural places, and all the places I have visited to write is article, are unreachable by train. We only have to look at the popularity of tourist lines like the Bodmin and Wenford Steam Railway to see how these areas benefit from increased connectivity, and still hold a draw for people today. Remote railway locations are still incredibly important - we know there are too many cars on the road and some areas where they simply can’t go. In many ways, our need for rail travel to access these areas is arguably as important now as it was then - no matter how slow.