An Indian Summer in the West Country - Part 2

Ian Dinmore

Some of the antics that went on down Barnstaple way would seem incredulous today – certain staff often took a liquid lunch at the Barnstaple Inn, the nearest pub to the station, colloquially known as ‘The Bin’ (and it was a bit of a bin).

Two derailments in the yard happened during the afternoon shunts (not that the liquid lunch was anything to do with them of course ☺), in one case the rails spread under the weight of a class 31 and another where Jumbo Harris the signalman, moved the points under a moving train; he had a week off without pay for that manoeuvre. Another lucky escape was the first morning service from Exeter, one very foggy autumn morning – it went straight through the platform without stopping and nearly gave poor old Eric Prouse (Mouse) the signalman a heart attack; he had to take the rest of the day off sick – still the driver saw the funny side of things when half an hour later he reversed back into the platform, claiming he was keeping up his route knowledge to Torrington! I expect Mrs Harding at Lynton post office must have wondered why the papers were late that morning!

Barnstaple: Signalman at work. Eric Prouse making a log entry at Barnstaple signal box in January 1986. Ian Dinmore 28/01/1986

Operating practices were sort of made up as you went along so, when for some reason two crates of fresh Taw salmon were returned from Exeter the day after they were sent, they were placed in the GUV on the first train from Exeter in the morning – why they were sent back is unknown, however, some bright chap loading the GUV at Exeter at 3.30 in the morning must thought that putting the crates on top of the newspapers was a good idea – not…all newspapers in North Devon stank of fish that morning and two of the Surridge Dawson vans needed to be washed out after that stunt!

Now here is another little problem, on August bank holiday Sunday in 1983, someone at advanced planning office in the Divisional Managers Officers (DMO) in Bristol must have thought well, bank holiday Sunday in August would be a good day to send the weed killing train to Meeth from Exeter. A weed killing train in August!!!! A bit late by then, but it ran and went down the technically long siding from Barnstaple to Meeth in the morning, by late afternoon no sign of the returning train – a phone call at 18.20 tells Ken (Shaver) Ley the signalman; that the class 31 had failed out in the sticks near Petrockstow and the train crew had walked to a nearby Farm which had no telephone (this is 1983!). After a while they had walked back to Petrockstow after getting lost and found the village phonebox, then called the signal box at Barnstaple, there was no chance of fixing the loco which was due to run round at Meeth, so a relief loco was needed – this went down on Monday morning after the train crew and Fison’s weed killing staff of the previous day had taken a taxi back to Exeter. This light engine also a class 31 split the rails near Landcross tunnel at 11am on the bank holiday Monday, so not only could it not rescue the stricken engine near Petrockstow but had its self become trapped! Now, as most people will tell you these sort of things come in groups of three – just like rural bus services. On Wednesday morning two fitters vans and a re-railing crew set off from Taunton Yard to try and recover the dodgy locos – would you believe it? the first van hit a cow in the road and the second rear ended the first – here endeth the great weed killing saga of 1983!

We had three relief clerks to cover for leave and sickness in the ticket office and they were; Bob Eastleigh, Colin Stevens, Roy Letton and Colin Godbeer and they would relived Owen Gregory the Traffic Supervisor.

Barnstaple: Summer Saturday holiday crowds arriving at Barnstaple in 1980 off the 13.25 from London Paddington. Most are heading for bus connections to Ilfracombe waiting outside the station. It all seems too much for Traffic Supervisor Owen Gregory, seen leaping from the platform! (He is in fact on his way to tell the crew to take a break after running round.) Ian Dinmore //1980

The platform staff had two rest day relief’s (RDR’s). Now these chaps had been around some time and Bob often told of his early relief days at long closed stations on the North Devon and Cornwall lines –like going down to Bude on a Friday night to work the ticket office on a busy Saturday, it seemed as if things would never change – but they did, just more slowly than the rest of the real world.

As my time in the ticket office wore on the changes came, the loss of the through trains from London with assured better connections at Exeter St David’s (as if!), the freight became less – the milk traffic was discontinued two weeks after my arrival. The yard was reduced in size with the loss of the through shed road – and that is cause for another tale.

Now the old goods shed at Barnstaple dated from 1855 and was a large all wooden broad gauge construction with large wooden sliding doors at both ends to allow loading and unloading inside and outside. The far end of the shed road was used to unload the steel for Appledore Shipbuilders as the lorries could be loaded direct from the train. One nice sunny afternoon the train with the steel on it arrived a bit late after a late running class 108 on one engine spluttered down the branch. Jumbo was up the box and the usual unofficial hand signalling arrangements between the shunter on the ground and the signal box was the normal practice. The steel train loco ran round and propelled the steel train through the shed road and out to the far end - now the signal from the ground shunter to the box to confirm both shed doors were open was a two fingered salute (in the usual configuration!), however, Jumbo had hassled the guard on the steel train to get a move on for a right time departure, the guard had turned round saw Jumbo leaning out the box and gave him a two fingered salute (Jumbo wore glasses but in truth he was better off without them for all the good they did), he saw the signal and waved the flag to the driver to propel back (officially this should have been the shunter (but this was local practice as the shunter normally was making the tea). The train driver sees the front doors open and reverses the train hard back to the far buffers and a loud crash was heard – all the staffed and I dashed out to see the remains of the rear shed doors lying around like match wood – within less than 5 minutes there were three written forms on the traffic supervisors desk for the purchase of scrap wood! Ironically, two new corrugated iron doors were fitted and this spelt the end of the steel traffic as Appledore ship builders had switched to road transport.
n 1985 it was all GW150; the old Southern Railway must be turning in her grave as we at Barnstaple were all set to celebrate (we were after all part of the ‘Western Region’ and as I had been involved with the local rail users group we managed to persuade the DMO at Bristol to run the special GW150 train down to Barnstaple for a two day visit. The train was locked in to the old Torrington down line as the freight we had was now only as required – it rarely ran after 1984 and then only once or twice a week. A class 108 DMU was painted up in GW colours and this along with the yellow peril (the British Telecom Busby painted DMU -yuck!) Plied the branch for two days and we had a lot of visitors to the branch. It always struck me a strange that BR chose that year to announce the closure of Swindon works!

Now some of the old boys loved to regale their time when working on different parts of the old Southern Region of North Devon and Cornwall. George Facey had started at Barnstaple Victoria Road as a lad porter and on closure had moved across to Barnstaple Junction. He related the story of how when still a young porter he was instructed to clean the chimneys of the Station Masters house (Mr Boundy was the last station master, who continued to live in the house even when I was there, no one I knew even knew his Christian name as he was one of the old school Station Masters who were only ever called by their surname). This was achieved by tying some string around some twigs at one end and a brick at the other, climbing on to the roof and dropping the brick down the appropriate chimney pot – easy really, so long as you knew which chimney pot ? It was explained to me George said. but while I was on the roof and hanging on for dear life I counted three from the left as told, dropped the brick down the pot and less than a minute later the station masters wife came screaming out the front door – well, it was the living room chimney pot and not the kitchen chimney where I had covered the fireplace with old sacks! The carpet was ruined and the place full of soot; poor old George it took him all day to clear up the mess –and no overtime for that error. As for Mr Boundy, his was a sad demise, he lived alone in the house with his three whippets and one morning Colin Stevens the relief clerk noted that there were three pints of milk outside on the doorstep, unusual as it was mid summer, he knocked on Mr Boundy’s door and got nothing but howling from the dogs, trying the door he found it open and went to find Mr Boundy dead in bed – he had been there three days without notice. After he passed away in 1982, the house was locked up and was never opened again until Mike Day a local entrepreneur decided to buy the house and convert it in to today’s museum and excellent National Award winning ‘Station Masters Café’ which opened in 2008.

Fishing was another past time and for one of the regular signalman at Eggesford (the three regular men were Harry Toulson, Billy Butt and Ray Knight with Bill Woolridge as the relief, sadly all now passed away) whose box backed on to the river Taw and it had a small rear window which was supposed to be to observe traffic before closing the barriers –however, it was large enough to stick a fishing rod through and connect the fishing line to the blockbell so that when he got a bite the bell would ring and wake him up – lets face it with only two trains every four hours on a Sunday you needed something to keep you occupied! I could never figure what would have happened if he caught a fish bigger than the very small window?

As the wages were still relatively low then most of the staff sought supplementary income from time to time and George kept a .22 rifle up the signal box and woe betide anything that moved within a 400 yard radius of the box on an early Sunday morning – I came in at 09.30 one Sunday and I really wish I’d had my camera, sitting on the platform looking all the world as if waiting for the train was a fox and two cubs…strange as anything with fur or feather was a target for George and his .22 I rang the box to check and a strange voice answered politely back (unusual, as the std greeting was “wos on en mucker”) turn’s out that the local signalling inspector was going round introducing the new 21 year old wiz kid 5 minute area signalling manager and George had been denied access to the box! Still the usual arrangements were back to normal later in afternoon, a pile of rabbits, partridge, peasants and pigeons were collected, by the owner of one of the shops in Butchers Row and cash changed hands. George was a good shot but would not confess his eye sight was getting a bit worn and when a dead cat was found.

Now most of the stations gas lighting had gone fairly soon after I arrived on the scene but the globe Sugg gas lamp in the signal box over the train register desk was still working and used. Mouse (Eric Prouse) was on duty one grey foggy winter morning when the yard shunt was going on and shouting from the box near impossible so the old bus phone to the platform was used to convey crackly instructions – John was shunting in the year and nipped back to give Mouse an indication of what was required, so 4 vanfits to three road (all the sidings were numbered 1-6 with the old slaughter house shed (which still exists as part of Halfords, being number four road – this was were skinning of animals often took place, as Barnstaple was also an old Tannery town and the siding was known as the four skin road – the shunters hand signal to the driver to shunt back to the skin road was rather obscene!) , then the eight clayhoods to number three road and Mouse mis-heard this on the old bus phone and sent them in to the cement number two road with a rather foggy crunchhhhh – I always though that clay and cement was a rather good mix? John grabs the phone an gives the signalman a series of expletives, Mouse throws the hand set down on the register desk which in turn bounces off the rubber and hits the last remaining globe gas lamp and showers poor old Mouse in glass and all because it was a foggy morning in Barnstaple…

Barnstaple: Bill Gregory, shunter at Barnstaple Junction, 3 May 1985. Ian Dinmore 03/05/1985

We had a fair number of excursions to Barnstaple and two or three originating at from the station with empty coaching stock, a local chap called Roger Joanes charter several trains to run to/ from Torrington and Meeth for excursions and on Summer Sundays these were well filled from Exeter with enthusiasts wanting to grice the goods only Torrington/Meeth line and also the line to Meldon which was also covered on some trips.

We also had an annual charter from Torrington and Bideford for some of the larger private schools in North Devon. One such was to the Girls International Hockey championship at Wembley and one year (1983 I think) I was asked if I could act as a courier on the through train. This was a 03.30 start at Barnstaple as the stock had come down overnight from Malgo Vale near Bristol. I joined the Exeter based train crew, two guards, two drivers two secondmen and a catering crew as the train had a buffet car. Quite why any of the school girls would be wanting ten crates of Tenants beer which had been loaded was something of a puzzle and why all that train crew? Still I knew some of them as branch regulars and only a few of the drivers were passed for the Torrington line. We kept the entire train crew until Reading where they were booked off and collected a Willesden crew to work Reading to Wembley, on the return working when we picked another Bristol based train crew at Reading at changed crew again at Exeter for the return to Torrington – I got back to Barnstaple at 01.25 on the Sunday morning and claimed two ten hour restdays both at time and three quarters…no ‘Hidden’ rules then!

Now these 15/16 year old public school girls made the inmates of St Trinnian’s look like Holy Angles – the beer soon disappeared as the catering staff were quite happy to relieve them of as much dosh as they had and lets face it, as spoiled BRATS they were not short of a bob or two but even so, charging them £1 a pop for a can of beer was daylight robbery at its best. The noise and mayhem as they ran up and down the train in total ignorance of what any of the accompanying teachers and one parent on board yelled at them just did not make for a peaceful charter….I’d have bet on them over Millwall FC in a punch up anyday! We were lucky to have Charlie as one of the catering crew –she was a Bristol based no nonsense 6 foot 20 stone African woman, who I saw physically pick up two girls and carry them to the BSK a gave them a ‘polite’ warning of what happens when people are thrown off a moving train….

The catering staff looked after all of us staff and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many free sausage and bacon baps in my life. On arrival at Wembley I went with the Willesden lads in a van which had been arranged to one of the mess rooms- which I think was at Willesden but was not sure as it was all foreign territory to me – we spent our time watching the footy on a B & W tv while one of the lads was sent down the chippy and spent a relaxing afternoon being paid.
The return journey was less eventful and ran late as the teachers managed to lose some of the girls between the station and the stadium – England lost the Hockey match so the girls were somewhat calmer on the return leg.

I was not the youngest railman at Barnstaple for around 1978; a young lad called David Vinsen joined the staff. Being the two youngest we got on well together and remain in touch to this day; he is now a Network Rail Operations Manager. He was hard working and became a passionate signalman and eventually went to Crediton signal box just prior to the 1986 re-signalling scheme which saw the closure of Barnstaple and Eggesford boxes and the absolute block system replaced by the unusual No Signalman Key Token System (NSKT) or the do it yourself system and that is the system still in use today controlled from Crediton box which was fitted with a miniature panel and fringed with the power signal centre at Exeter St David’s.

Between 1986 and 1988 severe rationalisation started, the yard was closed (by then we had lost the mails and the newspapers so there was no need for an 04.05 early train from Exeter) so no more freight and clay had effectively ceased in 1984/5 when it was decided not to invest in modern loading facilities with no guarantee of return on any investment – however, the then local MP Tony Speller did manage to get an amendment to the transport act passed to allow for trial re-openings of lines without having to go through the formal closure procedures should the idea not work and this has been used to great effect on many then closed lines but even he was not able unfortunately, to stop the Bideford and Torrington line being lifted. The whole yard was lifted save for a very short stump not long enough to be able to run round so no loco hauls unless top and tailed –how short sighted was that? From 1990 the very basic branch line became pacer worked (or Skippers as they were called in the South West)
The old boys began to retire, the PW gangs were long gone the signal boxes had been closed and demolished, just me, two platform staff and two part time clerks were left, The yard became a Retail Park as do most old good yards, the Torrington Line trackbed became the Tarka Trail, A short lived attempt to re-open a short stretch of the old line was made based at Bideford station and not to decry their efforts they did restore Instow signal box and tidy up Bideford station even laying a short length of track through the platform. This is still extent but with the new downstream road bridge piers blocking the course of the trackbed to Barnstaple it is doubtful if the line to Bideford will every re-open, Some activity at Torrington station is taking place with the hope of relaying Torrington to Bideford as a preserved railway but this is a slow process and I wish them well. The line still survives and has a very active user group (The Tarka Rail Association – the station has benefited from a new station café and and greatly improved train service now almost every hour.

This tale is dedicated to the memory of the late:

Charlie Daniels, John Norman, Brain McManus, Bill (Puffer) Gregory, Colin Stevens, Ken (Shaver) Ley, Eric (Mouse) Prouse, George Facey, Fred Mitchell, Owen Gregory, John Easterbrook, John Ware, Jimmy (Jumbo) Harris and the many others I had the pleasure to work with during my halcyon days on a West Country branch Line.

Ian Dinmore

(Aka 'The Sleeper')
Branch Lines rule... ask any tree.