Nature had final say on axed railway line
FIFTY years ago tomorrow the last train was due to run from Launceston to Plymouth – but it never arrived at its destination.
It was a night to remember and I know because I was there.
The Launceston to Plymouth branch line, via Tavistock, was being closed due to the cuts recommended by Dr Beeching, who had been called in by the Government to make the railways, which had been haemorrhaging money, profitable. Its fate was similar to branch rail lines throughout Cornwall and the rest of the country in the early 1960s.
December 29, 1962, was the date for the end of the Launceston service which had been operating for 97 years – but in the end nature, not Dr Beeching, closed the line.
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As a young trainee reporter I was detailed to travel out of Launceston's old Southern Railways station at 5.40pm and return on the final train from Plymouth, arriving at Launceston at 10.10pm where it was due to be met by a reception party including early television cameras with BBC presenter Joe Pengelly.
However, my journey proved to be one which a keen railway enthusiast on the train likened to the Trans-Siberian Express. As we left Launceston with about 40 passengers and a wreath on the front of the tank engine to mark the solemn occasion, there was only a light fall of snow and none of the passengers could have known what was in store.
After passing through Lifton and Coryton we got our first sight of the blizzard at Lidaton Halt. Two passengers stepped out of their carriage to find themselves knee deep in snow and the nameboard barely visible.
The real snowstorm began at Lydford, and the station at Mary Tavy was covered. Tavistock was blanketed in snow, and myself and a friend, Mike 'Chico' Davey, decided to stay there and catch the last train, due to leave at 9.30pm, back.
We had a few hours to sample the hostelries of Tavistock (despite being under age at the time) then returned to the station where two buglers from the Army Cadet Force were waiting to give us a rousing send-off.
Their bugles were never blown, as they left long before a train arrived at 12.15 – and that was what was supposed to be an earlier one which left Plymouth at 6.20pm and was five and a half hours late on a journey of less than 20 miles.
We had been in the waiting room, warmed by a blazing coal fire, with a mixture of railway enthusiasts and one person who was returning from a holiday in Plymouth, and as the train arrived we ran across the bridge and into a carriage, closing the doors on the blinding snow and howling gale outside.
Once inside we expected to be moving, but it was not to be. There was a signalling failure near Lydford, and as we waited the snow piled up on the line. The stationmaster made calls to find out if the train could get through to Launceston, but at 3.30am he came to the carriages to tell us we would be there until daylight.
We sang, ate nuts and smoked cigarettes until falling asleep. At about 7.30am I awoke to see the blizzard still raging outside and the snow piling higher, and 25 of us made our way to the stationmaster's office, where we huddled around the fire as the engine's fire had gone out although it kept us warm through the night.
The radio was on, which told us on the national news that the Civil Defence was attempting to reach a train and its passengers stuck in snow at Tavistock. We sat around thinking of ways to go home when in walked a Civil Defence worker.
He said they and the Women's Voluntary Service had organised food and somewhere for us to stay in a nearby church hall, where we were given breakfast and cups of tea. It was said to be impossible to get back to Launceston that day, so we were given a hot lunch and Chico kept spirits up by playing the hits of the day on the piano.
Later we heard that an ambulance had got through to Launceston so we got hold of a Tavistock taxi driver who said he would attempt it for twice the normal fee.
Poet and teacher Charles Causley, Chico and I slowly got to Launceston over the narrow winding roads, through drifts higher than the hedges.
Many others were not so lucky. Enthusiasts who had travelled to Plymouth earlier on the Saturday spent the night in a freezing station, and with no trains or buses on the road they hitch-hiked the 30 miles home, some of them walking all the way.
Those waiting to greet the last train at Launceston eventually gave up and went home, but those who had tickets to Plymouth were put up at the White Hart Hotel by British Rail.
It was the end of the line, one of the first of many closures in Cornwall, and I was one of the last passengers. But it was almost another week before the trains got to their intended destinations.
One aspect of the trip always makes me smile, especially when thinking of the recent criticism of huge expenses claimed by some of our politicians.
I had bought a train ticket, for 1/6d or 7.5p I think, had a meal in Tavistock, been stuck out all night and paid double the normal fare for a taxi home to Launceston. I wrote out my expense sheet, with a total of £1.8s.6d – £1.42.5p in today's money.
The owner of the paper, Mr Venning senior, looked at it and said: "Are you sure this is enough?"
I replied that this was all I had spent, but he increased it to a magnificent '30 bob' – £1.50p.
My first scoop, my first newspaper byline and all that cash – a night to remember.