Launceston is well known for its long scroll of history, but did you know that it also had a working railway line from the mid 19th century until the 1960s?
Forty years ago, Launceston Steam Railway was born - giving local people and visitors the chance to discover what it would have been like to travel by train, taking passengers to the tranquil spot of Newmills, just 2 ½miles from the station.
On a pleasant August morning, Launceston Life popped over to the railway to meet owners Nigel and Kay Bowman, plus company director Jonathan Mann, who was keen to show us around and get us into the thick of it - meaning a ride on the locomotive, ‘Lilian’.
During the time of the original Launceston line, which formed part of the North Cornwall Railway, the station was actually situated on the other side of the bridge (where the car park now is), next to that of the branch line from Tavistock. The line would have seen express trains passing on their way from London Waterloo all the way to Padstow.
In the 60s, with most people owning their own car and the introduction to the motorways, the long-surviving era of rail travel was reviewed and, subsequently, many rural lines were closed for good. Launceston’s line was closed in 1966, followed by the nearby Tavistock line in 1968. And so Launceston’s tracks were quiet for 20 years or so, before engineer Nigel and his wife Kay put their best foot forward and decided to open the site at Newport, after holidaying in Cornwall with some friends.
But it was the purchase of 140-year-old ‘Lilian’ that really set things off. Nigel said: “I bought Lilian as a teenager and it’s no mistake to say it changed my life. Once you have an engine, you look for somewhere to run it!”
Living in Surrey at the time, Nigel and Kay had friends living in Trebullett and, having spent much time visiting the area, were able to get to know Launceston well. Upon discovering the track bed for sale, still owned by British Railways at the time, Nigel wrote a letter to the town hall and discovered that the former local gas works had planning permission to build eleven houses on the site, which otherwise would be ideal for the railway, but despite his approaches to the developer, this was not for sale.
“I conclude there is a God, and he is a railway enthusiast,” Nigel said. “When I more or less lost hope, I received a phone call which said, ‘Make me an offer on the place in Launceston’ - and we took it on as it was.”
Launceston Steam Railway officially opened on Boxing Day, 1983.
Entering the platform from the spacious car park, which can be accessed from Newport Industrial Estate, there is a pleasant feeling of nostalgia - as if stepping back in time. The canopy that stands today came from Tavistock, and the building that is home to the on-site cafe dates back to 1919. One of the railway’s key priorities is reusing things, giving them a new lease of life, including the railway’s fantastic collection of antique and vintage motorcycles and cars, many of which have been lovingly restored by Nigel, a well-respected engineer in the industry. These motors are available to view in the on-site museum.
Launceston Life was given the opportunity to hop onboard Lilian, a stunning Victorian locomotive pulling traditional carriages (built by the railway) behind her. And so, as we stood amongst the coal in the tender, under the occasional blanket of steam, we were soon on our way to Newmills, taking in stunning country views as a buzzard flew overhead and sheep grazed in the fields.
With their winter closure approaching, now is the time to delve into the world of trains - whether you’re an enthusiast or simply looking for a lovely day out with the family. Jonathan said: “We run trains in October half term, and then have a maintenance period in the winter. We don’t use outside services at all. We do all the engineering - and everything else - in-house.”
Nigel added: “If you’ve been before, it’s nice to see you, and if you haven’t been here before, come and see it for yourself!"
For more information about Launceston Steam Railway, visit www.launcestonsr.co.uk