Years of delays before Avocet line was finished

PUBLISHED: 15:50 04 May 2011

Engraving of the arrival of the first train into Exmouth from the Illustrated London News May 3 1861

Engraving of the arrival of the first train into Exmouth from the Illustrated London News May 3 1861

Archant

THE origins of the Exmouth to Exeter rail line, which celebrated its 150th birthday last Sunday with sustainable transport fair, lies in the constant need for a faster and cheaper way to travel - the lynchpin of an industrialised society.

THE origins of the Exmouth to Exeter rail line, which celebrated its 150th birthday last Sunday with sustainable transport fair, lies in the constant need for a faster and cheaper way to travel - the lynchpin of an industrialised society.

Without it, the economy can’t grow, there is no social mobility and people can’t find new jobs.

A decade into the 21st century, as fuel prices soar, traffic jams increase and Government talks of more toll motorways and congestion charging, a vision for a new high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham is one of several new lines being mooted.

But, despite the obvious advantages the project for a superfast link between the first and second city’s of England is decades behind that of France or Germany.

We often presume that this slow process of building major projects was not something suffered by the Victorians – people we regard as great innovators and the architects of the industrial revolution.

Surprisingly, while the Exmouth to Exeter Railway took just a year to build, it followed 36 years of arguments, wrangling, recriminations, threats and failures before it was finally realised.

After a century and a half, we have gone full circle and following the closure of hundreds of tracks in the 1960s, we once again look to rail travel to solve our transport problems of the future.

Turn the clock back 190 years ago and a similar debate that we are having today over a new generation of railway lines led to the opening of the Exmouth to Exeter line to be delayed by nearly four decades.

Although today, the debate is about the future of road use, in the 18th century it was over a motorway of another sort; Britain’s vast canal network.

The story of the origins of the Avocet Line, The Exmouth to Exeter Railway, which today has grown to become the busiest branch line in the region, carrying over one million passengers every year, begins with the decline of the Britain’s canal system and more specifically, Britain’s oldest waterway, the Exeter Canal.

By the early 1820s, the canal, originally built in 1566, was simply unable to take larger ships, and divisions, much like the debate over motor cars and public transport today, emerged on how best to solve the problem.

Merchants of the day backed a new quay near the mouth of the River Exe linked to an Exeter plateway, an early kind of railway or tramway with a cast iron rail, which were common up to 1830.

Railway historian, Richard Giles, of Lympstone, said: “Even at this early stage, disagreement arose between those who favoured the west bank route to Starcross, and the east bank party, who favoured a dock at Exmouth.”

Eventually the link to Exmouth dock was proposed by Charles Dean, a civil engineer who, in 1825, had laid rail lines in the Welsh mining valleys but this early foray into building a rail link was doomed to fail.

However, much like the car industry today, which reacts to the threat of alternative modes of transport with new, sustainable technologies, the owners of the canal, the City of Exeter, responded by deepening the canal and extending it from its previous entrance to the estuary at Topsham to a new lock at Turf.

This, coupled with the soaring cost of pig iron needed to build the plateway put paid to the project for two decades.

Then, in 1840, ‘railway mania’ swept the country: “The whole country was gripped by the locomotive fever and ‘every county in the kingdom sought to be scored and lined,” he said.

Even Exmouth could not escape and between 1845 and 1846 three companies vied to build the line; one favoured a standard gauge route on the east bank of the exe, while the two other parties, which soon merged, backed a broad gauge connection over the Exe and a canal at Topsham.

The plan called for the line to reach the new station at Exeter St Davids by using the ‘atmospheric’ system of propulsion invented by Brunel, where trains were ‘sucked’ along by something akin to a massive vacuum cleaner via a tube laid between the tracks, and crossing a swing bridge over the Exe and the Exeter canal by ‘coasting ‘over a gap in the pipe.

But, like today, some sections of Exmouth were only prepared to go so far in the name of progress.

“This proved ‘a bridge too far’ for the conservative people of Exmouth,” said Mr Giles.

They ultimately proved right – subsequently the ‘atmospheric’ experiment spectacularly failed on the Exeter to Newton Abbot Line.

Once again, Exmouth was left without a rail proposal - or the investors to pay for one.

During the intervening nine years, two solicitors, Exeter’s Robert Wreford who supported the west bank plan, and Daniel Warren, of Exmouth, who supported a line built on the causeway between Exmouth and Lympstone, vied for influence.

Opinion swayed back and forth, mostly decided by who had the more financial backing at any given time.

Wreford and Brunel still wanted a line to cross to Exminster using a swing bridge, but the canal company objected for fear of losing revenue.

Parliament finally granted assent to the Exeter and Exmouth Railway Bill in 1855 but without a swing bridge over the river.

The shareholders backing Brunel and Wreford made an agreement with the Yeovil and Exeter Railway and its chairman, Walker Aylesbury, behind Wreford’s back.

Instead, they elected to build a section of line from Exeter to Topsham, while the Exmouth company completed the rest of the section.

A furious Wreford, who had already lost nearly £90,000 in today’s money threatened to horsewhip Aylesbury, branding him a ‘confounded blackguard.’

In 1860 building work began – and just a year afterwards was competed.

Finally, the Exmouth to Exeter rail line, 36 years in the making but just 12 months in the building finally opened on May 1 1861.

● The information contained within this feature is thanks to Richard Giles, author of a colour booklet entitled By Train to Exmouth – A journey of 150 years.

There is a limited supply of the booklet which is available at The Exmouth Players Victorian Music Hall Entertainment on the history of the Avocet Line at the Blackmore Theatre, Bicton Street, on Saturday, May 7, at 7.30 pm. Tickets cost £5.

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