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The evocative allure of steam trains: the Bodmin and Wenford Railway in Cornwall

Updated on May 24, 2012

The romance of the steam train and its branch line.

Close to the tiny Cornish village of Nanstallon near Bodmin is Nanstallon Halt, an old railway platform with a small asbestos hut sitting forlorn and abandoned beside its empty trackbed. But it's not as forlorn and abandoned as it might seem.

Disused railway trackbeds make ideal cycle paths and this redundant old line has once more risen to prominence as The Camel Trail, named after the River Camel which runs at its side.

Now it provides a wide and level thoroughfare for walkers, cyclists and horse riders but back in the day it was that most quintessentially English of things, a branch line of the great British railway system.

A hidden past.

Running from Bodmin through to Wadebridge and then on to its terminus at Padstow, the tracks of this railway line may be long gone but the clues to its past are still there.

Beside this peaceful, tree-shaded pathway hide metal towers that once held signals, simple platforms with long lost names like Grogley, Shooting Range and Dunmere Halt and railway worker's houses that are now just homes for anyone.

However just a five minute stroll along the trail from Nanstallon Halt things are very different and the sounds and smells of steam engines are still very much alive at Boscarne Junction.

An abandoned signal tower hiding in the trees.
An abandoned signal tower hiding in the trees. | Source
The Camel Trail running beneath a road bridge.
The Camel Trail running beneath a road bridge. | Source
A lonely halt deep in the countryside
A lonely halt deep in the countryside | Source
Nanstallon Halt and its passenger waiting room
Nanstallon Halt and its passenger waiting room | Source
The shady halt at Dunmere ... only a short walk from the pub.
The shady halt at Dunmere ... only a short walk from the pub. | Source
A remote cottage beside the Camel Trail hidden deep in the valley.
A remote cottage beside the Camel Trail hidden deep in the valley. | Source
An old photograph showing the complete disregard for public safety in the days when the railway was running along its little branch lines. This is the halt at Helland Bridge on the long lost Wenford line.
An old photograph showing the complete disregard for public safety in the days when the railway was running along its little branch lines. This is the halt at Helland Bridge on the long lost Wenford line.

The axing of the branch lines in the 1960's.

By the late 1960's many of the smaller railway lines in the UK, such as the Bodmin to Wadebridge, had fallen victim to the sharp axe of Dr Beeching, whose damning report for the Government had identified all the less profitable railway lines in the country and recommended their closure under the cunning disguise of 'restructuring'.

So all of those simple halts, junctions and little parochial stations that had watched the comings and goings of the inhabitants of local villages, had seen lovers parted and doomed boys waved off to become soldiers in two world wars simply ceased to be.

Despite the fact that the railway line that ran past Nanstallon Halt and Boscarne Junction was one of the very first railways in the world, (the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway, opened 1834), it too was finally closed in 1983 and because of this the small side line that ran up to Wenford was also closed.

Few railway lines were saved from the savage cuts and of those closed only a very few ultimately won a reprieve and opened again.

However in 1997, thanks to the formation of the new Bodmin and Wenford Steam Railway Trust (BWR) and the dedicated work of its many volunteers and supporters, the railway line between Bodmin General Station and Boscarne Junction (shown in the video above) was reopened as a heritage steam railway.

Since that time annual visitor numbers to the Bodmin and Wenford Steam Railway have consistently increased and its growing success is all due to its recreation of a lost era, the 1950's.

The Bodmin to Padstow line.

The railway track from Bodmin once ran on from the junction at Boscarne stopping at a few small halts before going on to Wadebridge Station, which is now the Sir John Betjeman Centre. Our one time Poet Laureate adored travelling down from London to his beloved Cornwall by steam train before alighting at Wadebridge station. To quote him from Summoned By Bells :

On Wadebridge station what a breath of sea, Scented the Camel valley!

Finally, from Wadebridge the track crossed the spectacular beauty of the wide, sandy Camel Estuary to arrive at its ultimate destination in the quaint fishing village of Padstow.

It must have been a scenic journey as the track curved beneath the trees and beside the wide, shallow reaches of the river, ducking under the tiny bridges that carried the small and winding back roads of the Camel Valley and passing remote hamlets and isolated cottages.

The nostalgia of steam travel.

My husband and I both remember travelling by steam train. My husband's memories are of his journeys to and from boarding school, rather like Harry Potter but sadly without the magic.

As is the way of boys they stood with their heads out of the windows competing to see who could get the blackest face from the specks of soot that billowed from the engine smoke stack.

My memories are rather more poignant as they involved seeing the growing collection of steam engines standing submissively in the shunting yard at Hull awaiting their own destruction as I passed them on my way to work on a train pulled by a diesel engine.

It was the time of the changeover and my final vivid memory of the steam era is of a large black express steam engine hurtling over the level crossing outside my home one snowy night, golden sparks flying and footplate glowing red from the open boiler door, a train on its way to hell.

A chance to recapture the 1950's.

Now nostalgic traveller and railway enthusiast alike can capture what it was like to be a 1950's rail passenger by taking the 13 mile trip that shuttles between Bodmin General Station and the mainline station at Bodmin Parkway, (where the signal box has been imaginatively turned into the ever open Station Cafè) before returning to Bodmin General and then going on to Boscarne Junction.

Just as in the 1950's, dogs and bicycles are still carried free of charge.

For those of a romantic disposition it is still possible to have a 'Brief Encounter' in Bodmin General's 1950's tea-room, watching the locomotives come and go and perhaps never realising that one of them is 137 years old.

And for those who have always had the classic dream of being an engine driver the BWR offers its unique one day Driver Experience Course.

Waiting to work ..
Waiting to work .. | Source
The train now arriving ...
The train now arriving ... | Source
The platform at Bodmin General
The platform at Bodmin General | Source
Waiting to go ... 1950's style.
Waiting to go ... 1950's style. | Source
Just time for a brief encounter.
Just time for a brief encounter. | Source
One of the luxury dining cars
One of the luxury dining cars | Source

How to keeping a heritage steam railway running.

The Cornish have always had to be creative in finding ways to make money in a county renowned for having the lowest earnings in the UK. Fishing is still as hazardous as it always was, mining is all but dead, farming here has never been lucrative and wrecking is frowned upon.

But Cornwall still has the sea and its spectacular scenery and the people who live here have developed an aptitude for the lateral thinking that has created a vibrant and valuable tourism industry.

The BWR typifies this imaginative thinking by finding novel ways to tempt tourists onto its trains in order to finance their running and so ultimately save them for posterity.

So the trains play host to frequent events such as Murder Mystery evenings with Pasty suppers, Fish and Chip Quiz nights and Steam Beer and Jazz events as well as the many specialised trips for children which range from trips with Paddington Bear and Postman Pat to Easter Egg Hunts and the well-known Santa Specials.

Evoking the railway's busiest years - the Second World War.

Perhaps the most evocative of all these special events is the 1940's re-enactment weekend when the railway reverts to the era of the Second World war, complete with crosses taped on the windows of the Refreshment Room in case of bomb blasts.

Period uniforms are worn, air raid warnings sound and the heady live-for-the-moment feel of the 40's can be experienced once again at the final dance of the weekend with its 18-piece Swing Band.

Despite the fun it can be a time to realise what that extraordinary generation lived through in order to bequeath freedom to the rest of us.

Orient Express - Cornish-style.

Ideally the way to savour this lost mode of transport is to buy an All Day Rover ticket and roam about on this little railway but for those whose interest is more sophisticated a place on the luxury dining train for lunch or dinner may be more the thing.

It cannot be easy serving an extravagant three course meal in a carriage resplendent with wood panelling, table lamps and curtains but they manage it with style.

Dining in such grandeur gives a flavour of a bygone age of ease and comfort, so different to the basic, shrink-wrapped sandwiches today's travellers eat at the no-nonsense plastic tables on modern trains.

It is a reminder of a genteel way of life that is sadly now long gone, never to come again.

A celebration of steam.

Although most of us now think only in terms of old trains when steam is mentioned there are still other types of steam engines that are preserved by the dogged few.

These are the traction engines which were used to drive the threshing machines at harvest time and the steam rollers that helped to construct our early metalled roads. Other engines drove fairground rides or were the power behind buses and lorries before the internal combustion engine came into widespread usage.

The Bodmin and Wenford Railway pays tribute to these engines too at its annual celebration, the Heritage Transport Festival, held in June.

SOS - Save our Steam.

It is sad to imagine a time might come when we are all too blasé about the past and we no longer feel the need to experience what it was like to travel by steam train or watch a traction engine at work. Hopefully the steam enthusiasts amongst us will never let that happen.

At the present time these stalwarts continue to volunteer their time and prodigious energies to running heritage railways like the Bodmin and Wenford. And fortunately there are still those amongst us who will continue to clank up village roads with traction engines of all kinds to meet up at Bodmin General Station and celebrate steam in all its noisy, smelly glory.

Steam engines bring memories back to the elderly, fascinate young children and can provide adventure for all of us. Steam was a revolutionary and life-changing invention, let us hope that the thrill of it never dies.

For more photographs, timetable and pricing information see:

(My apologies for the indifferent quality of the video ... I will endeavour to continue filming and polishing so that I can replace it with something a little better in future).


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