With a shrill whistle blast, our train pulled away from Exeter St David’s station and 49 years after Beeching’s swingeing axe fell, a rail link to North Dartmoor was reborn. The new Dartmoor Line’s launch on November 20 connects Okehampton, a modest market town, to Exeter and more importantly the national rail network, enabling outdoors-lovers to access northern Dartmoor National Park without need of a car.
Years of local campaigning for the line’s restoration, which first opened 1872, bore fruit when the £40million Dartmoor Line became the first recipient of the government’s ‘Restoring Your Railway’ programme to reverse past cuts. Coming in at £10million under budget with Network Rail replacing 11 miles of track in just nine months, this is an auspicious start for regenerating rural communities and tackling car dependency across the UK.
“The new line will provide a huge boost to the local economy and help reduce carbon emissions by taking cars off the A30,” Mel Stride, MP for central Devon, told me. It may even assuage the grumblings of one long-time Dartmoor resident, namely myself, dismayed at country lanes overfilled with summertime traffic. But today was Okehampton’s day and I joined four packed carriages for the 15.5-mile ride through mid-Devon.
Fellow passenger, Cathy Piper from Topsham, was heading to find where her grandfather, who was Okehampton stationmaster from 1935-41, once lived. Whilst bearing full rucksacks, Ollie and Eustacia left London Paddington early that morning to hike on Dartmoor. “We don’t drive so this made it easy for us to access the moor,” said Eustacia.
The 42-minute journey is pleasant enough. Don’t expect the scenic theatrics of say the Carlisle-to-Settle Railway. Quintessentially, mid-Devon’s countryside is rolling pasture and arable, red soils poking through the furrows, fringed by bouffant oak hedges.
The sole stop is Crediton. With a quaint little station, designed by Brunel for the London & South-Western Railway Company in 1851, It’s worth disembarking here for a few hours. St Boniface, an evangelizing missionary born here in 680AD, has a walking trail dedicated to his life ending at a colossal parish church built in Devonian red sandstone. In 1046 the local Bishop suggested Crediton was a ‘mere village’ and unsuitable bishopric, and they lost their cathedral to Exeter, commencing a slow decline into mid-Devon obscurity.
There’s a similar old-fashioned unfussiness about Okehampton, a further 27 minutes down the line. Try to get a seat on the train’s left-hand side approaching Okehampton for early glimpses of brooding Cosdon Hill, if the high moors’ swirling rainclouds abate.
I’ve long adored Okehampton Railway Station, which received its first train in 1871. I’d cycle there for breakfast to a little platform café maintained by the now defunct Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association, who restored the station. The signs and picket-fences of this three-platform Victorian station have been spruced up green and a new café should open Spring 2022. Resplendent in their railway-guard uniforms, volunteers Sue and Tom Baxter, were helping out, and recalled travelling on the axed train in the 1960s.
There’s a tiny museum of railway paraphernalia in front of the station’s stone-built YHA, which offers private en-suite rooms for £60 per night (yha.org.uk). Outside, a pop-up National Park booth has appeared, and a new rail-link bus service (118) waits to connect passengers to the West Dartmoor towns of Lydford and Tavistock.
The hilltop station sits high above a town centre, which, if it’s going to become Dartmoor’s northern hub, has a bit of work to do, currently lacking restaurants and sufficient accommodation, to truly utilise the Dartmoor Line’s potential.
Simmons Park is lovely though, with its ornamental tree collection, contemporaneous to a Victorian shopping arcade with an arched glass roof from 1906. The Museum of Dartmoor Life has an exhibit chronicling Okehampton’s years in railroad wilderness, while the impressive castle is a motte-and-bailey fortification of the 14th-century Earl of Devon, executed in 1539 by Henry VIII (who wasn’t?) but is disappointingly closed throughout winter. I find solace munching a sandwich at Toast Coffeehouse, built within the town’s old Edwardian Cinema (eattoast.co.uk).
Yet what Okehampton certainly offers is spectacular moorland access. The 108-mile circular Dartmoor Way walk and cycleway starts here – a hard hilly route immersing you in ground-wobbling expanses of moorland peppered with Jenga-like granite tors. And National Cycle Network Route 27 passes through Okehampton, Devon’s own 99 mile-long coast-to-coast. Its southern segment follows the Drake’s Trail around Western Dartmoor to Plymouth, where you can connect with trains back to London.
For confident navigators, there’s a challenging moorland yomp to the truly Heathcliffian wilds of Belstone, which has an excellent pub, The Tors, where in Summer you can enjoy a pint and burger al fresco with breathtaking views. Yet in late Autumn’s thrall, I settled for Okehampton’s most popular cycle, the 11-mile Granite Way, hiring a bike from Okehampton station. “The Dartmoor Line will be fantastic for us. We deal with lots of schools, who stay at the YHA and hire cycles,” enthused Paul Elson, owner of Granite Way Cycles. “We’re now getting enquiries for schools as far as Bristol who can reach here completely by rail”. By summer 2022 he expects to have doubled his fleet of bikes.
The flat Granite Way follows the former Plymouth railway line, another Beeching victim, although track remains for the first two miles to Meldon Quarry. The cycleway is mostly sheltered by railway cuttings but there are wondrous views from two lofty viaducts built in 1874, towards Dartmoor’s highest 2000ft peaks – High Willhays and Yes Tor. Refreshment stops include the Pump & Pedal bicycle café (okecycles.co.uk) and 13th-century Grade II listed Bearslake Inn, set in lovely gardens (bearslakeinn.com). But I pedal on to the cycleway’s end at Lydford, a pretty village, with a nice pub and 12th-century medieval castle tower, notorious for hanging, drawing, and quartering, unlucky inmates.
Settlements like Lydford may well benefit from the Dartmoor Line, said Jonathan Gilpin, owner of the 11-room Lydford House, where I stay that night, warmed by the cosy lounge’s wood burner in one of the national park’s first hotels, dating back to 1880.
“People are positive about the line,” he explained. “It gives access for those not wanting to drive here although I’m not sure I’d want the line restored beyond Okehampton as cyclists and walkers come to Dartmoor to hear birds sing and enjoy uninterrupted views, not listen to trains swooshing past.”
He’s probably right. There’s an ongoing call for the line to be extended from Okehampton to Plymouth, to create an alternative to avoid Dawlish, which has been prone to flooding in recent years, causing mayhem to the southwest network.
But for now, the new line simply delivers you to the doorstep of Dartmoor’s natural bounty. And next morning, pedalling back to Okehampton for the 9.43am train to Exeter, the birds were indeed singing on a clear cold morning and Dartmoor’s melancholy hills looked thoroughly benign amid the falling autumnal leaves.
How to do it
GWR railways (www.gwr.com) sells tickets from Exeter to Okehampton for £8 return. Lydford House Hotel (www.lydfordhouse.co.uk) has B&B rooms from £130. Granite Way Cycles (granitewaycycles.co.uk) full-day bicycle hire is £16 per day.