Explore Braunton - The Most Biodiverse Parish in England

The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway (1874- 1970)

It is hard to believe but Braunton once stood on a very important and busy railway, which led thousands of people to holiday resorts on the North Devon coast. Have you found any evidence that a railway once ran through the village?  There is a very fine working scale model of Braunton station, in the 1950s, in Braunton Museum.

Built in 1874

Mr Rowden, Stationmaster, Braunton Station, circa 1915The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway was built in 1874 by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), as an extension of a rail network that stretched right back to Waterloo Station in London. Originally built as a single track, the line was quickly doubled, so that by the turn of the 20th Century, both the LSWR and Great Western Railway were operating the line. In 1926 the line acquired mainline status and at it’s height, just before the Second World War, an incredible 24 passenger trains travelled in both directions on their way to and from the seaside resort of Ilfracombe. Even right up to closure in 1970 it was still possible to catch a train direct from London to Braunton!

Braunton Station, circa 1890The line had been a challenge to build, taking four years to reach Ilfracombe, for whilst the first 7 miles from Barnstaple ran along the flat, to reach Ilfracombe trains had to tackle some very high gradients and this was to have significant effect on the route through Braunton.

Engineering Works

As economy measure it was decided to minimise the number engineering works and where the road and railway met, many bridges were left unconstructed in favour using of level crossings. At a time when road transport was in its infancy and labour was cheap, this seemed to have been a good move, however, in later years this reversal of fortunes would make the line uneconomic to run. The result at the time however, was that there were no less than 8 level crossings, in the Braunton area, between Chivenor Cross and Heddons Mill ( a stretch of about 4 miles), with four within the village itself!

These were:

Crossing Box Name Location Road Access to
Duckpool Gates Chivenor Chivenor Village/Airbase
Wrafton Signal Box Wrafton Station Chivenor Airbase
Vellator Cross Velator Cross Braunton Marshes and Velator Quay
Braunton Gates South Braunton Station Chapel Street
Braunton Signal Box Braunton Station Saunton and Croyde
Georgeham Gates Georgeham Cross Georgeham
Stoney Bridge Gates Stoney Bridge Nethercott and Upcott
Heddon Mill Signal Box Heddon Mills Cross North Buckland

Braunton Station was located where the main Caen Street car park now stands. It was a very busy station, for in addition to the regular passenger and freight traffic, the station was used as a holding area for the banker and pilot engines, which were used to assist the heavier trains ascend and descent the steep gradients on the line to Ilfracombe. As a result two additional rail or ‘banker’ sidings were placed between the mainline and the River Caen, (where the Police Station now stands today) where shunting engines used to wait to be attached to the larger trains making the journey north to Ilfracombe.

Water Requirements

In addition, in the days of steam all locomotives required large quantities of water for the heavy work on the line towards Ilfracombe, consequently the station had four water cranes, two on each side of the line, on either side of the Caen road. The water was pumped from the River Caen to a large water tower, then was gravity fed to the water columns.

Largest Station

Scrap showing WH Smith trading via Braunton stationBraunton was the largest station between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe and was an important destination for passengers wishing to visit the beaches and resorts of Saunton Sands and Croyde. In addition to passengers there were at least five goods sidings and a goods shed, the latter now a part of the Youth Club in the car park. Goods included imports of coal, while exports included livestock and produce from Braunton Great Field and the surrounding areas. There is no doubt that the arrival of the railway in 1874, did much to affect the sea trading of nearby Velator Quay.

The following figures give an insight into the railway’s function in Braunton:

Braunton 1928  1936
No. of passenger tickets issued 40213 22175
No. of season tickets issued 66 110
No. of tickets collected 49227 31835
No. of telegrams 704 2312
Parcels forwarded 4851 5253
Parcels received 8561 12683
Horses forwarded 22 No data
Milk forwarded No data (cans in 1928, gallons by 1936) 1807
Milk received No data (cans in 1928, gallons by 1936) 1231
General goods forwarded (tons) 1401 1629
General goods received (tons)  2677 2777
Coal, coke, etc 1822 3067
Other minerals forwarded 567 346
Other minerals received 2668 3290
Trucks livestock forwarded 11 80
Trucks livestock received 20 11
Lavatory pennies 528 446

Taken from 'The Ilfracombe Line' by John Nichols


There were a considerable number of railwayman employed in the Braunton area, all coming under the supervision of the station master at Braunton. The main signal box in the station complex, located between the road and the station house (now the local newsagents) controlled an important section of the line, including all the sidings and the level crossing boxes at Georgeham Gates, Braunton Gates and of course the main crossing across the main road to Saunton.

Level Crossings

Trains were given priority at the crossings and larger express trains frequently straddled the Caen Road when stopping at Braunton to let off and take on passengers. This frequently, caused long traffic delays in Braunton, often affecting the main A361, which increased with time, and was a cause of concern to the Braunton Parish Council as far back as 1919.

Other Stations

Braunton was not the only station within the area, for the small village of Wrafton lying a mile or so to the south, could also boast its own station. It was perhaps a little difficult to understand why in1874 a settlement of the size of Wrafton merited its own station, however from the mid 1930’s when the first North Devon Airport was opened, which later became the RAF airbase at Chivenor, the station became much more important.

Declining Fortunes 

Sadly, after the Second World the fortunes of the railway declined. Whilst briefly in the 1950’s there was a revival, the increased use of the motor car led to an inevitable contraction and loss. For many, the beginning was nationalisation in 1948 when the Southern and Great Western Railway became a part of British Railways.

Rails now in Station Road, 2007 bThe early 1960’s saw the dieselisation of the line and in 1964 through routes to Waterloo station and all goods services were withdrawn. As an economy measure the line was singled in 1967, but this had little effect on the operational cost of the line, for all crossings had to be manned, no matter what the frequency of trains. However, unlike many contemporary routes in North Devon, the passenger service survived until closure in October 1970, when the Beeching axe finally fell.

Footpaths and Cycleways

This was not the end of the story however, because much of the line between Braunton and Barnstaple was purchased by North Devon District Council and made into a footpath. By the late 1980’s this had been upgraded to a cycleway (part of National Cycleway Network No. 27) and the section between Velator cross and Barnstaple now forms a part of both the South West Coast Path (one of Britain’s longest National Trails) and the Tarka Trail. Both of these routes, make a significant contribution, to the recreational resource and economy of North Devon and allow the visitor to explore those bygone railway days.

Braunton the Locomotive

Braunton – the official photograph, 1959In addition, a locomotive was named Braunton during 1949.  It succumbed to the end of traditional steam powered rail travel and was withdrawn from service during 1965.  Happily however, it was rescued from the scrap heap during 1988 and has since been restored by the West Somerset Railway Association.  Its fascinating story can be discovered here.

Further Information

The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway was much photographed and written about. Braunton, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Museums hold fascinating photographic and memorabilia collections of the line and many books have been written about the line.

Further information can be obtained from the books, ‘The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway’ by Colin C. Maggs (Oakwood Press), ‘Branch Line to Ilfracombe’ by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith (Middleton Press), ‘The Ilfracombe Line’ by John Nicholas (Irwell Press), video collection ‘The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe Railway’, North Devon Lines by Victor Thompson and photographic collections held by  Knights Photographers of Barnstaple and Peter Gray of Torquay.

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