About three decades ago, there was a muddy field near the River Dart where the GWR Ashburton branch joined the main line north of Totnes station. Today, that field not only has a station of its own, Totnes Riverside, which to the untrained eye looks as if it has been there for a century or more, but one which serves two purposeful destinations.
Our proud portfolio of heritage lines excels in offering steam and heritage diesel rides, but how many of them offer ‘genuine’ destinations, as opposed to a ride behind the motive power of yesteryear? Railways were built to run trains to carry passengers and freight from A to B, not as an end in themselves, and here the South Devon Railway proves a winner.
Firstly, to the south, a modern footbridge links Riverside to the town’s main line station a few minutes away. On the northern side of the station stands Totnes Rare Breeds Farm, a stupendous tourist attraction on a site where not so long ago there was nothing.
My family have always been keen on animal welfare and conservation, and the rare breeds farm, with its marvellous colony of red squirrels and much, much more, is a regular must visit for us, especially if we travel there by steam train. For me, its cafe is the best of its kind in the West Country, and in so many respects the combined attraction easily competes with anything that the coast has to offer.
Totnes Riverside, or Littlehempston as it has been known until recently, has been a slow burner over 25 years, adding pieces of other GWR stations as they become available, and this year it became complete with Cradley Heath signalbox coming on stream.
Encapsulating so much of local railway heritage, the station has become part of it, and is now, as announced in Headline News (pages 8-9), a richly deserved winner of the 2016 Heritage Railway Association Interpretation Award, which is sponsored by this magazine.
Elsewhere, one of the big events of 2017 is set to be the launch of ‘real’ – as opposed to enthusiast or tourist – services between Swanage and Wareham, completing a 45-year ambition of Swanage branch revivalists. In doing so, the Swanage Railway will again show just what heritage lines can do for their local community and its economy.
The powers that be in Devon should observe events in the county next door, and apply lessons learned to the gem on their own patch.
Instead of coming up with reasons why the South Devon Railway cannot extend back into the wonderful Brunel-designed terminus at Ashburton, it should explore every reason how and why it can.
Take a look at what has been accomplished at Totnes Riverside, where there was nothing, and then let the railway do its stuff on the classic building at the northern end of the line. Surely councillors and members of the Dartmoor National Park authority owe it to Ashburton traders and businesses to help them benefit in the same way that their counterparts in Swanage, Minehead, Pickering, East Grinstead and an encyclopaedia of other destinations now served by regular steam trains have done?
On a similar tack, 10 out of 10 to the Isle of Man government for coming to the rescue of the
world-famous Douglas Horse Tramway when its council operators decided to close it down, and halving its losses in its first season. However, minus several marks for coming up with plans to chop the length of the tramway in half, a move that no doubt will generate accusations of closure by stealth. I am heartened that some members of the Manx parliament Tynwald have already voiced their opposition to this plan, and wish them every success in their bid to keep this marvellous and now-unique line as it is.
Yes, it still lost £60,000 in 2016, but that is a drop in the ocean in an offshore banking capital. And has the Manx government never heard of the concept of the loss leader, losing a sprat to catch a mackerel in the form of island tourism?
Robin Jones, EditorEnjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.