What became of our long-lost railway lines?
It is now over 50 years since the publication of the infamous Beeching Report (official title The Reshaping of British Railways) in which Dr Richard Beeching proposed the closure of around 5,000 route miles of Britain's rail network, along with a third of its stations and consequently the loss of tens of thousands of railway workers' jobs.
As a result around 4,500 miles of railway and 2,000 stations were closed between 1963 and the mid-1970s, much of this mileage in rural areas, leaving vast swathes of England, Wales and Scotland without a rail link to the outside world for the first time in a hundred years.
Despite this act of politically motivated vandalism, railway closures in Britain were not a new phenomenon. Following nationalisation of our rundown railways in 1948 the newly formed British Transport Corporation set up the Branch Lines Committee whose sole aim in life was to weed out loss-making branch lines – over 3,000 miles of these railways were subsequently closed before Dr Beeching even published his "report".
So what happened to these thousands of miles of lost railways that once criss-crossed Britain?
Many just disappeared into the landscape, the land sold off in a piecemeal fashion to farmers and many of the substantial station buildings finding a new lease of life as private residences.
Nature gradually took over until the only clue to a railway's past existence was a line of trees cutting across the landscape, the occasional bridge over a flooded cutting, the stark outline of an embankment or the bricked-up mouth of a tunnel.
More substantial remains such as lofty stone viaducts striding across valleys and iron bridges soaring across rivers remained as a striking memorial to the optimistic endeavours of their Victorian builders.
The book The Times Exploring Britain's Lost Railways, is a nostalgic trip back to over 50 of these long-closed railways, discovering their past and exploring their present role as footpaths and cycleways.
Readers of the Western Daily Press can explore the following West Country railway routes included in the book.
Originally opened as a broad gauge line, the railway from Plymouth to Tavistock featured six viaducts and three tunnels along its picturesque route up the Plym Valley and around the edge of Dartmoor. From 1873 to 1890 it was also used by the London & South Western Railway's standard gauge trains running along mixed gauge track to Plymouth.
Once popular with day trippers from Plymouth, the line eventually closed in a blizzard at the end of 1962 but much of it has since been reopened as a footpath and cycleway known as Drake's Trail. A short section at the southern end is now shared with the Plym Valley Railway.
In its bid to reach Plymouth the London & South Western Railway opened its line around the edge of Dartmoor in 1874. Reaching a summit of 950ft above sea level the railway featured the magnificent wrought and cast-iron trestle viaduct at Meldon which still stands today. Following closure in 1968 much of the route is now a footpath and cycleway known as the Granite Trail. The Dartmoor Railway accompanies it between Okehampton and Meldon.
A latecomer to the North Devon railway scene, the steeply graded 15-mile railway between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe opened in 1874.
The coming of the railway to Ilfracombe transformed the harbour town, making it one of the most popular resorts in the South West, but it had fallen on hard times by the 1960s. Cheap foreign holidays abroad and increasing competition from road transport led to the line's final downfall in 1970.
Today, much of this scenic route along the Taw Estuary and over the hills to Ilfracombe can be enjoyed in a more leisurely fashion on foot or by bike.
Featuring an inclined plane and built to transport iron ore mined in the Brendon Hills to Watchet Harbour, the eccentric West Somerset Mineral railway had a short and chequered life closing twice before being sold lock, stock and barrel in an auction in 1924.
Although much of the trackbed is now in private hands the sections from Watchet to Washford and along the inclined plane have recently been reopened as footpaths by the Exmoor National Park Authority.
Affording fine views over the Bristol Channel to South Wales both the incline and the roofless winding house at the top are now Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
Built alongside the moribund Chard Canal, the broad gauge single-track railway from Creech Junction, east of Taunton, to the town of Chard opened in 1866. At Chard the railway met the London & South Western Railway's short branch line from Chard Junction but although the two lines shared a joint station in the town the two companies led very separate existences until the First World War.
The Ilminster to Chard section of the line is now a footpath and cycleway although during the Second World War it formed part of the Taunton Stop Line, a continuous anti-tank obstacle designed to halt a German invasion.
In its quest to encroach on GWR territory the Midland Railway reached Bath from its Bristol to Gloucester main line at Mangotsfield in 1869.
The opening of the Somerset & Dorset Railway's line over the Mendips from Bath to Bournemouth in 1874 brought through trains between the North of England and the Midlands and the south coast resort until they ended in 1962. From that date the former Midland route to Bath along with the much-loved S&D was deliberately run down by British Railways until closure in 1966.
Almost the entire route of the line from Bristol to Bath has since been opened as Britain's first green traffic-free route for cyclists by the charity Sustrans while the section of line on either side of Bitton station has also been reopened by the Avon Valley Railway.
The 5¼-mile branch line from Chippenham to Calne was primarily built to serve the rapidly expanding pork processing family business of Harris's – by the early 20th century it had become a hugely successful business and was by far the largest employer in the town with cured bacon, sausages and pork pies sent out by the trainload from the company's two enormous factories. The Second World War brought additional traffic to serve two nearby RAF bases but by the 1950s increased competition from road transport saw the line in terminal decline until closure in 1965. Today, the Harris factories in Calne have long closed and been demolished while the majority of the line has been reopened as a footpath and cycleway.
Originally seen as part of a major cross-country route, the Stonehouse to Nailsworth branch along with a short branch to Stroud played an important part serving the many industries of these two Cotswold valleys until 1966. Passenger traffic, on the other hand, was relatively light with the service first being suspended in 1947 following a national coal shortage and then officially withdrawn in 1949.
Since closure the section from Ryecroft to Nailsworth has been reopened as a footpath and cycleway.
Illustrated with period and modern-day photos and detailed route maps, The Times Exploring Britain's Lost Railways by Julian Holland, published by HarperCollins, is available from all good bookshops and online, price £30