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All aboard for a truly enchanting heritage journey

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 23, 2013

  • The West Somerset Railway has a fleet of powerful steam locomotives to operate 20 miles of line between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Top, a train trundles through the countryside near Minehead and above, the station at Bishops Lydeard Pictures: Richard Austin

  • Top: The Bodmin & Wenford Railway. Above: The South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh pictures: Roger Malone and Andy Styles

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The Westcountry is rightly famous for its allure of sun, sand and sea – plus some of the most scenic railway lines in the land.

Until the spread of the ubiquitous car, railways were the main route to such holiday delights. Since then the network has diminished – but there are still many scenic miles to enchant the traveller.

The Westcountry is rail rich in choice – from main line to branch line, heritage railways to enthusiasts' steam specials, and opulent trains such as occasional visits by the Orient Express set of Pullman coaches.

On the scenery stakes, who cannot fail to be dazzled by the coastal run clinging precariously to the Teignmouth and Dawlish seawalls? An azure jewel, book-ended by the equally picturesque Teign and Exe estuaries, it signalled the beginning of a fortnight's freedom for many land-locked up-country holidaymakers.

Further west, at the farthest point of the former Great Western Railway empire, is Penzance. There couldn't be a better finale to a journey through the hills and vales of Cornwall than seeing the light dance on the wide curve of Mounts Bay as you approach this granite terminus 305 miles, and a world away, from its Paddington beginnings.

If Penzance is the perfect end to a west-bound mainline trip, then St Ives, washed by the Atlantic on the other side of the peninsula, should be a destination on everyone's to do list.

The branch train leaves the main line at St Erth and ambles, via Lelant Saltings, Lelant and Carbis Bay, into the town, celebrated by artists and coloured by wide skies and sea-bounced brightness.

The aptly named Atlantic Coast Line runs from one side of Cornwall to the other – from Par to Newquay; "a pullover difference" in temperature according to one guard. In summer, through trains thread their way west to this surfers' paradise.

The balmy climate of Falmouth with its deepwater harbour and National Maritime Museum Cornwall makes a pleasant trip out of Truro.

Most branches – like the Liskeard to Looe line, Exeter to Barnstaple "Tarka Line" and the Exeter to Exmouth line – head for the coast. The Tamar Valley line, however, turns its back on Plymouth and the sea. This is 14 miles of spectacular variety as the train rattles through city suburbs before hugging the banks of the Tamar. First crossing the Tavy, then the Tamar over the graceful arches of Calstock viaduct, it begins a steep climb to Gunnislake, entering a lofty landscape dotted with occasional mine stacks.

Some branches that failed to survive rationalisation were saved by dedicated preservationists – and now dwell in a perfect time warp.

So, as our Heritage railways come out of winter hibernation, there is even more variety to enjoy.

Spring galas abound, with preserved railways offering great days out for the family. It might be dad's idea – but children, raised on the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine, can get just as excited about a train ride. And mum can relax and enjoy the passing scenery.

A major attraction in Cornwall is The Bodmin & Wenford Railway. Based at the former GWR station in Bodmin, it runs to Bodmin Parkway, where you can make a mainline connection. With its mix of GWR and SR stock, reflecting the trains that used to operate in the area, it is the perfect place to visit over the school Easter holiday period. Steam trains run daily from Good Friday (March 29) right through until Sunday April 14. This period also includes two special events – the "Easter Egg-stravaganza!" from March 30-April 1, and the popular "Spring Steam Spectacular" gala from April 12-14.

The South Devon Railway runs along the sylvan banks of the River Dart for much of its seven-mile journey from Buckfastleigh to Totnes.

This former GWR branch line is holding an "Easter Heritage Gala" from March 29-April 1. Steam and diesel trains will operate an intensive service, with passenger trains, demonstration goods trains, classic cars and much more.

Over at Paignton, The Dartmouth Steam Railway starts its seven-days-a-week service on March 26 and runs right through to November. The line offers spectacular views of Torbay as it climbs from Goodrington to Churston before plunging into Greenway Tunnel. It then descends to the tidal reaches of the Dart, which it follows to Kingswear, where passengers can cross to Dartmouth on a ferry.

Not only does this former GWR branch between Paignton and Kingswear run its own regular heritage service, it also hosts visiting steam specials – in particular The Torbay Express. This regular summer Sunday service is steam-hauled from Bristol.

Another preserved line that regularly hosts visiting main line steam specials is the West Somerset Railway, which has a fleet of powerful steam locomotives to operate 20 miles of line between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Trains leave Minehead and skirt Bridgwater Bay before swinging inland under the shadow of the Quantock Hills.

The railway's "Spring Gala" this weekend features a range of visiting and home fleet locos. An intensive timetable allows passengers the maximum opportunity to ride behind a selection of steam trains. With trade stands, book signings, turntable demonstrations and shunts, this is a railway calendar must.

Savouring steam on the Westcountry main line must be the icing on the cake, not just for enthusiasts and nostalgists, but for bystanders momentarily entranced by the spectacle of a piece of locomotive history pounding the rails in the 21st century.

You don't have to be an anorak to enjoy such might and majesty. These sulphurous steeds hard at work on the demanding Devon banks of Dainton, Rattery and Hemerdon have the ability to thrill all ages.

For dates of steam tours visiting the Westcountry see www.uksteam.info.

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