Perchance it awakens

I kept thinking I would wake up. After all, it must be a dream, surely? I was at Woody Bay station on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, on September 29 and there in front of me was a four-coach L&B train headed by the Baldwin 2-4-2T Lyn. But, I had come by VW Tiguan not Tardis, and if I’d gone back in time I would have surely travelled by the Southern from Waterloo…

September 29 is etched in the mind of any L&B enthusiast. On that day, the final Saturday of the 1935 summer timetable, the last L&B train ran. Yeo and Lew, the railway’s first and last locomotives, headed the final train on its return journey from Barnstaple Town to Lynton. The railway’s famous epitaph comes from a wreath placed on the Barnstaple stop block on the Monday: “Perchance it is not dead but sleepeth.”

In the subsequent weeks, North Devon’s unique narrow gauge railway was reduced to scrap. Two carriages, a handful of bits of carriages and five habitable station buildings were about all that was left. Oh, and Lew escaped immediate destruction, having been exiled to a coffee plantation in Brazil, never to be seen or heard of again.

In 1982, as custodian of Ian Allan’s photographic library, it was part of my role to buy negatives to expand the collection. One morning my post tray arrived and among the usual mail was a battered envelope containing an old-style negative wallet with 100 pockets, each containing a 31/2in by 21/4in negative of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway. Each negative was marked in the corner ‘FEB’, which I recognised as the initials of Frank Box, a well-known 1930s railway photographer and fan of the L&BR. I had to request permission from above to spend money on these gems. The response was along the lines of: “If you’re going to spend all of that money, you’d better make a book out of them.”

And so followed some fascinating conversations with my IA Library colleague A B MacLeod who, as Locomotive Running Superintendent at Waterloo in the mid-1930s, had included the L&B in his area of responsibility. He had ridden on a couple of the locomotives and – judging by his comments about the position of the firehole – had fired them too. I had already made a point of going to Clannaborough Rectory to photograph carriage No. 2 in the garden there, and I had taken holidays in the station buildings at Lynmouth (1972) and Bratton Fleming (1976).

Even as I was writing my text, there were stirrings of preservation down in North Devon. It was difficult to believe that any part of the L&B might be revived and I noted in the book my concern that a spluttering petrol tractor on a few yards of industrial track would not do the L&B justice. Thirty-five years on from that book, I’m delighted to admit that my fears were unfounded. The present Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Association may only have a short section of the railway restored to operation, but it’s every inch pure L&B. What’s more, at Snapper Halt and Chelfham they have made big strides in renovating the stations, and they are gathering more sections of original railway as it becomes available.

The Lynton & Barnstaple Railway is awakening and it’s every bit as great as I’d always imagined!