A Colyford Railway Child
By Mike Bussell


The autor and a friend
It all began in 1954 when I was born at Rose Bank, Colyford - the house next door to what was then a milking parlour but is now the annexe to the left of ‘Yeomans Acre’ which in those days was still a working farm supplying milk to the village. Rose Bank belonged to my maternal Grandparents, Frank and Mabel Marchant and because housing was hard to come by in the ‘fifties my parents, my sister and I lived with my grandparents at Rose Bank until I was six years old. My Grandfather was Mayor of Colyford 1959/60.

My earliest recollections of the village were not so much the sights, but the sounds to be heard, particularly in the early mornings. First was a dull ‘thud-thud-thud-thud’ coming from nearby which I soon discovered was the sound made by the milking machine at Mr Loud’s farm next door. His herdsman was happy to allow a small boy to watch him go about his work and so often in the morning I’d be lifted over the fence from where I’d make my way through the farmyard to join him in the milking parlour, where I happily watched everything that was going on and learned many things about work on the farm.

The second, and far more mysterious noise though was a loud metallic clanking that echoed across the valley soon after 7.00am each weekday morning. That, I was told, was the morning goods train from Exeter making its way down to Seaton. It could be seen from our back window which looked out across Mr Loud’s fields to the railway and the rest of the valley beyond. This was, of course, when what is now Orchard Close, located behind Rose Bank, was still an orchard. The clanking noise was made by the rather tired railway engine from Exeter which was bigger and noisier than the one from the small engine shed at Seaton which worked the rest of the trains that passed by, largely unnoticed, several times a day. My curiosity aroused, I persuaded my Grandfather (himself interested in railways) to take me to have a closer look at the trains, and so began regular visits to the little station that I came to know so well.

Colyford Station
By way of background, Colyford station opened with the branch line to Seaton on 16th March 1868 and consisted of a single platform around 180 feet long with a brick cottage for the level crossing keeper as well as small wooden buildings for the booking office and waiting room. A cast iron urinal was also provided alongside the booking office and at some later date a small concrete hut was provided behind the station, alongside the ‘White Hart’ wall, for oil lamps and their fuel to be safely kept, the station never benefitting from the provision of a mains electricity supply throughout its 98 year existence. By the late nineteen-fifties the cottage and wooden buildings had all gone, replaced by an anonymous concrete hut adjacent to the level crossing which served as both booking office and waiting room, although the urinal and lamp hut remained (indeed both are still there in 2019 now surrounded by undergrowth, the urinal looking rather lost in mid-air since the demolition of the railway platform which once stood in front of it).

On entering the station by passing through a wooden gate from the road beside the gated level crossing (alongside a concrete wall, part of which is also still there in 2019) the first thing I remember passing was a large green platform barrow parked by the gate and used to transport heavy items of luggage and parcels up and down the platform. The next thing I recall was thinking how long the platform seemed, the illusion being partly created no doubt by the perfectly straight and very white line painted along its edge. The platform itself was tidy and well swept with redundant tyres, painted white and containing flowers, appearing every few yards along its length. On the other side of the track was a colourful and well-tended flower garden fronted by white painted bricks set into the ground at a 45-degree angle to give a ‘saw tooth’ effect. Just over half way down the platform was the gent’s urinal, then still serving its intended purpose. What I remember most about that was the smell – strangely not as unpleasant as one might think, possibly because of whatever was used to clean it (like everything else on the station, it was well looked after), but a smell I have never encountered anywhere else since, although I remember it to this day.

We next entered the rather plain but functional concrete hut with metal window frames which served as booking office and waiting room and I was introduced to the Porter/Crossing Keeper, a very pleasant and smartly dressed young man with whom my Grandfather was well acquainted being a regular user of the railway. The hut itself measured no more than twenty feet by ten feet and had a single door into the waiting room, which had a green wooden bench attached to the wall on two sides with a collection of posters and timetables above. Across the middle of the building was a hardboard partition, the partition having a small ticket window and door giving access to the tiny office behind. In practice the ticket window was rarely used because the door, except on cold winter days, was nearly always left open and so what few tickets were sold were passed directly through that. The room had another smell all of its own, but one I later came to discover was common to many railway buildings of the time and one which the preserved railway movement has never quite managed to recreate –  a unique mixture of lamp oil, coal smoke from the stove, polish and a hint of mustiness. Again, nothing like as unpleasant as it sounds.
On peering into the office I saw a rack of cardboard tickets, a tall bench with a cash drawer and ticket dating machine, a large black old-fashioned telephone giving access to the internal railway ‘bus line’ and, most importantly of all, a coal stove in the far corner – the only means of cooking or heating. In the office there was also a bell which repeated the coded messages the signalmen at Seaton and Seaton Junction exchanged, and by this means the Crossing Keeper at Colyford was able to tell when a train left either station (two bells meaning ‘train entering section’) and, with experience, be able to calculate exactly when he needed to open the level crossing gates for the next train to pass. In practice, because lineside vegetation was carefully managed in those days and accordingly, unlike today, there were virtually no trees within the railway boundary it was possible to see the steam of a train leaving Seaton and also to see along the line for some distance towards Colyton. As well as passengers the station dealt with parcels, although larger items had to be handled by the goods office at Colyton where there were two sidings for goods wagons (in those days of course almost everything one purchased was either sourced locally or came by train for local delivery).

Single Ticket Seaton to Colyford
Soon after our arrival the bell in the background rang twice with a clear ‘ting-ting’ to indicate the departure of a train from Seaton Junction, and around five minutes later the Crossing Keeper (his official title ‘Leading Porter’) suddenly left his little office, walked briskly to the end of the platform adjacent to the level crossing and went down the ramp and across the line to the two levers that locked and unlocked the level crossing gates and pedestrian wicket gates. After unlocking the gates, he then waited for a gap in the traffic (in those pre-motorway days the road through Colyford was still the A35, a main artery to the west) before opening by hand each of the two heavy white gates just as the train came into view from the Colyton direction. He then quickly returned to the platform to collect tickets or deal with any passengers or parcels requiring his attention (as was all too usual by then, there were none!). The train itself consisted of two elderly green carriages with a compartment for the driver in the front and the even more elderly ex- London and South Western Railway tank engine, built during the reign of Queen Victoria, at the back of the train where the fireman worked alone on the downhill journey to Seaton. On the return journey the engine led - this ‘push-pull’ arrangement saving time by removing the need for the engine to keep running round to the other end of its train at each end of the line. As quickly as it had arrived the train left for Seaton and the Crossing Keeper returned to open the level crossing gates to road traffic before locking them and returning to his office and peace and quiet, having once more played his small part in the theatre that was the day to day running of the traditional railway. All this was done around thirty times a day (up to 15 trains each way) making it a surprisingly busy piece of railway.

Between trains though, the Crossing Keepers (there were two, working early and late shifts, changing over at around 2.00pm each day) had little to occupy their time, hence the well-kept gardens and hanging baskets (maintained largely at their own  expense) and the vegetable patch behind the concrete hut which they maintained as an allotment in their own time (officially at least). Colyford’s last Station Master had departed in the nineteen-twenties so the men worked without direct supervision other from the occasional visit from the Seaton Station Master. It was a charming, well ordered and often unhurried way of life which had barely changed in nearly a hundred years, although unbeknown to anyone at the time the winds of change were very much in the air. For the time being though, even though the local population had largely ceased using its railway (for local journeys the bus from outside Mr Pritchard’s Post Office was cheaper and more convenient, and for long journeys many chose to get a lift to Axminster from where they could get a main line train without having to carry luggage over the long footbridge at Seaton Junction) most still had much affection for it, and it was quite easy to believe that the little tank engine, already over sixty years old, and its two coaches would carry on puffing up and down the valley for ever.  How wrong we all were.

A few weeks after my first visit to the station Mr Loud’s herdsman invited me after milking one morning to come with him to walk the cows out to grazing, an offer which I was happy to accept. The field to which they were taken was on the other side of the railway next to the river and was accessed by way of a farm crossing over the line which was guarded by two white gates. I remember being very concerned in case a train came and ran the cows over, but he had a good knowledge of the timetable and anyway in those days there was very good visibility of the crossing for trains approaching from each direction and so I need not have worried. The gates are still there in 2019, and can just about be made out in the undergrowth from passing trams, but it must be many years since any cattle passed that way! 
Over the next year or two I persuaded my Grandfather to take me to the station on many more occasions, and I learned much more about the little branch line. The tank engine from Seaton engine shed had inevitably become ‘Thomas’ because I had, in the meantime, been given an early copy of the Rev. Audrey’s now famous book ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. Occasional trips to Seaton to watch the goods wagons being shunted, or to Seaton Junction to watch the ‘Atlantic Coast Express’ thunder through were also eagerly anticipated. The Junction, quite a big station, was where milk from the area was transferred from churns to railway tank wagons for the journey to London, and was a very busy place in those days - heaven on earth for a small boy interested in trains.

Colyford Level Crossing
To me, Colyford station was a friendly and welcoming place where there was always something interesting to look at, and the atmosphere one of calmness and predictably......in short, everything seemed ‘all right’ about the place. Coupled to that the station was, largely because of its floral displays and in spite of its lowly status, regularly winning ‘Best Kept Station’ awards which were proudly displayed in the waiting room. Furthermore, the small band of men who maintained the track and lineside along the branch line were winning ‘Prize Length’ competitions for their efforts. The line had emerged from the second world war in a pretty overgrown and run-down state, but since then the track through Colyford had been re-laid with modern concrete-sleepers and the gang had worked exceptionally hard thereafter to ensure that it was as tidy and well looked after as any length of railway anywhere, (fortunately plenty of photographic evidence survives to pay testament to their efforts).

I soon noticed was that twice a day on weekdays a train ran with three instead of two carriages and had the engine at the front instead of the back when going from Seaton Junction to Seaton. The third carriage, longer and newer that the other two was, I discovered, the daily carriage from Seaton to and from London which was attached or detached from a main line train, with some complicated shunting involved, at Seaton Junction and again at Templecombe. Hard to imagine now, but until 1962 one could board a railway carriage at Colyford at 10.05am on each weekday, find a seat, enjoy some refreshment from the buffet car, and alight from that same carriage at London Waterloo some four hours later. Not particularly fast (although in 2019 the same journey by bus and train still takes around three hours and twenty minutes) or efficient, but a comfortable, enjoyable and –dare I say it – far more civilized way to travel in those less hurried days when a long train journey was something to be enjoyed for its own worth, not just something to be tolerated for as short a time as possible. The return through carriage from London stopped at Colyford mid-afternoon on its way to spend the night at Seaton before returning to the capital the next day.

When it came to actually travelling on the branch line train, although the carriages were quite elderly, they were very, very, comfortable being ‘retired’ main line ones with side corridors and spacious six seat compartments with deep, well sprung seats, wood panelled walls and pictures of places served by the railway to add interest. At the ends of one carriage was a curious ‘half’ compartments with seats down just one side. This had been a toilet when the carriages had been in main line service, but since toilets weren’t needed for short branch line journeys the door was removed, the porcelain seat replaced with an upholstered one, and the frosted window replaced by clear glass. Probably the busiest times for the branch line train involving Colyford station were the occasions during the summer when the holiday camp at Seaton organised ‘rambles’ for its guests which ended at Colyford. I well remember seeing dozens, maybe hundreds, of people walking down Swan Hill past our house on their way to the station to get the lunch time train back to Seaton and, if they were quick enough, perhaps some refreshment at the ‘White Hart’ first! (I’m quite sure that the ‘mystery’ photograph of the White Hart depicted in Roy Chapple’s excellent 2005 book on the history of Colyford and now, I think, appearing on the village website, is of one such event).
If the day to day running of the quiet branch line was theatre though, Summer Saturdays and Bank Holidays were the command performance when the whole thing burst into life in spectacular style and up to 15,000 passengers would pass through the doors of Seaton station during the month of August alone. Seaton was, in the nineteen-fifties, very much a ‘bucket-and-spade’ resort and the railway had, since the nineteen-thirties, done much to promote it as a destination for both holidaymakers and day trippers. Notably it had invested heavily in a new station there which was able to accommodate the lengthiest excursion trains, wisely recognising that Seaton station was, unlike its neighbours at Sidmouth and Lyme Regis, but a short walk from the beach and also home to a popular holiday camp. The result of all this was that on Summer Saturdays a second engine was drafted in from Exeter to help cope with the vastly increased traffic which included at least three trains conveying several through carriages from London, one even with a buffet car, for excited families travelling to the holiday camp. Similarly, bank holidays saw up to three excursion trains, each up to ten carriages long and in later years pulled by main line express engines, make their way down the valley to Seaton, where crowds of several hundred day trippers from places like Taunton and Yeovil were able to enjoy a day on the beach.

It was all great fun to watch, but became largely lost to me in 1960 when my father moved to a new job and we went to live in Somerset. My Grandfather though kept me fully informed as to what was going on at Colyford station, where things carried on much as before in the time-honoured fashion until the beginning of 1963, when dark clouds began to gather. Firstly, organisational changes saw the local lines transferred from the Southern to the Western Region of British Railways. This was like a dagger to the heart of ‘old school’ railwayman who started their careers pre-nationalisation with the old Southern Railway, for which they still retained great affection (some still referred to their employer as “the Company”), and for whom anything ‘western’ represented their old competitor in the west country - the ‘Great Western’.

Train at Seaton Station
The first I knew of all this was in May of 1963 when my Grandfather telephoned to tell me that the old tank engines and carriages that had worked the branch line for decades had gone, to be replaced by engines and carriages of Great Western origin – newer but worn out and prone to breaking down with depressing regularity – they were in reality no more than ‘cast-offs’ provided by the new management and long overdue a visit to the workshops for overhaul. The ‘new’ trains were, understandably, very unpopular with their crews.  Shortly afterwards the daily through carriage to London ceased to run although at least the summer Saturday through trains continued that year, but they were to be the last.  By now Dr Beeching had arrived from ICI to become Chairman of British Railways and he quickly concluded that maintaining hundreds of railway carriages to sit in sidings all year waiting to go to places like Seaton on a few Saturdays in summer made no business sense any more than, indeed, did keeping open branch lines that only made a money on those same few days of the year. His report, published in June of 1963, predictably had the branch line to Seaton (as well as those to Sidmouth and Lyme Regis) listed for closure. The end was now in sight, but it was not as much what was done, but the way it was done, that upset many local people, with traffic on the lines being actively discouraged through poor connections and highly questionable accounting methods being used to strengthen the case for eventual closure.

As a nine-year-old I didn’t really understand much of this but was devastated when my grandfather telephoned in November of 1963 to tell me that the steam trains to Seaton had been replaced by.... diesels! Shortly afterwards, to make matters worse, the goods trains stopped running to Colyton and Seaton and Colyton became an unstaffed halt. Thereafter the afternoon shift Crossing Keeper from Colyford had to go there each afternoon to light the oil lamps on the platform, which were later extinguished by the Guard of the last train of the day who also attended to the level crossing gates at Colyford whilst the Keeper was away attending to his extra duties. During the winter of 1963/64 the two car diesel trains were more than enough to cope with the meagre traffic still on offer, but throughout the summer of 1964 holidaymakers heading for Seaton found themselves having to change trains at Seaton Junction into a grossly overloaded diesel rather than being able to travel in through trains. The result was that many of them simply chose holidays at places easier to reach the following year, and Seaton’s popularity as a ‘bucket and spade’ resort began to diminish. 

The only good news I was to receive that year and into 1965 was that of the occasional return of steam trains to take the place of broken down or unavailable diesels, but none of these visits lasted more than a few days and anyway the infrastructure for dealing with steam engines was quickly disappearing from the area. The last steam train to visit the Seaton branch line was a railway enthusiast’s special in March of 1965 – probably also the last train to go through Colyford ‘non-stop’ (at up to 50mph – the maximum speed allowed on the line). The closure of the Signal Box and removal of all the sidings at Seaton in May of 1965 effectively put an end to hopes of a steam engine going there anyway because it would no longer have been possible to run the engine round its train for the return journey. When the signal box closed a telephone was installed on the platform at Seaton station so that the Guards of departing trains could telephone the Crossing Keeper at Colyford before leaving, there no longer being the signal box bells to warn him of the approach of trains.

Train at Colyford Station
As 1965 wore on my Grandparents too left Colyford to be nearer us in Somerset and so I lost my source of news about the railway. I therefore set about persuading my parents that, at the age of eleven, I was finally old enough to purchase a day return ticket to travel to Seaton and Colyford by myself, which I duly did a couple of times before the end of the year. In those more innocent times it was still not unusual for children to travel ‘unattended’ and friendly railway staff were always quite happy to keep one eye on a young lad who was interested in trains. I found Colyton and Seaton stations beginning to look a bit run down, with weeds growing from the platforms and from where the sidings had once been, but Colyford station was as well tended as ever. After walking up to the village to say hello to my Grandfather’s great friends Mr Parr, Len Davey at the garage and Mr Pritchard at the Post Office I went back to the station where I was made welcome, and even allowed to operate the level crossing gates! Happy days, but all far too brief. The branch line’s heyday was now well and truly over, and in September the Ministry of Transport issued the closure notice that everyone had been expecting but dreading, to take effect the following March subject to improvements being made to the local bus services. These ‘improvements’ included the provision of (as it turned out, wholly inadequate in the first season at least) extra buses from Axminster station to Seaton on summer Saturdays. I made one or two more journeys to Colyford as 1965 wore on (on one occasion being treated to a ride in the cab of the diesel train) but by now there was no mistaking the fact that the end was in sight. The looks on the faces of railwaymen facing redundancy, many being the second or third generation of their families to work on the railway, said it all.
Colyford station was at least fortunate in that it unlike some, such as Colyton, it never suffered the indignity of being downgraded to a Halt and remained fully staffed (and proudly displaying its ‘Best Kept Station’ awards) right up until the day it closed by virtue of a Porter/Crossing Keeper having to be present to open and close the level crossing gates. Latterly employed to undertake these duties as well as sell tickets and forward any parcels over two shifts each day were Cyril Welch and Ken Enticott, both career railwaymen who kept the gardens well-tended and the station clean and well cared for until the very last day (some wondered why, but pride in ‘their’ station was the simple answer) ensuring that it escaped the air of dereliction that surrounded the neighbouring stations at Seaton and Colyton and, indeed, much of the railway network by the mid nineteen-sixties. From memory I think Cyril retired when the railway closed, but Ken, to whom it fell to chain and padlock the gates across the railway for good, having watched the red tail lamp of the last train slowly disappear into the darkness at 7.25pm on 5th March 1966, initially found further railway employment at Axminster.

The last day itself was a lamentably muted affair. As well as many locals making a nostalgic last trip, the neighbouring branch lines to Lyme Regis and Sidmouth had large crowds of railway enthusiasts descend on them to witness the ‘last rites’ but the crowds overlooked Seaton – the longer and much more famous sixty mile ‘Somerset and Dorset’ closed on the same day and, still being steam worked, was a far bigger draw for the enthusiasts. As well as that, the locals at Seaton saw nothing to celebrate and so most stayed away. I was one of the few who did go to Seaton (I still have my ticket) but to further my disappointment I wasn’t allowed to operate the level crossing “In case there’s someone important about”. The last train carried just a handful of passengers.

Thus, Colyford’s railway history, and the way of life that went with it, ended after 98 years more with a whimper than with a bang, and the next few months saw the rails become rusty and the previously award-winning station become derelict and heavily vandalised. The once carefully tended track, gardens and embankments, the pride of generations of railwaymen, became overgrown until the whole place was an eyesore that the village decided it could well do without.

To add to the air of dereliction the rusty track was removed early in 1968, with the platform and booking office later bulldozed into a heap at the Seaton end on the other side of the track (where they remain to this day, now covered in vegetation). The story didn’t quite end there though – one young man born in Colyford was left with a lifelong interest in railways, and then there was the arrival of a tram Company from Eastbourne in the early nineteen-seventies – but that’s someone else’s story......................