Ilfracombe - ah Ilfracombe! Probably my best childhood holiday. I was 13 and excited by going to the West Country after 3 years holidays on the Isle of Wight. Mum and Dad had never been to North Devon and wanted to see what is was like compared to South Devon where they had spent many previous holidays.
So, Dad searched through "Daltons Weekly" in January 1955 and found us a Guest House. It was 89 St Brannocks Road in Ilfracombe. I have used Google maps to locate it. It is still a Guest House today - I was so excited to see it again afterv 55 years! It is the one with the green canopy in the photograph below:
I remember sending for a brochure from Ilfracombe publicity dept. in February 1955 and used to take it to school with me to read up about the place during lunchtimes. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the many beaches; the Tunnel Beach, Hele Bay, Capstone Beach for example. By the time we departed in August 1955 I felt that I knew the place pretty well.
Being in Devon, I assumed that the railway line to Ilfracombe would be part of the Western Region of British Railways. So I went amnd bought an Ian Allan "ABC Guide" to Western region locomotives in readiness for a bit of train spotting during the holiday. But instead of going to Paddington as expected I was suprised when Dad took us to Waterloo - British Railways Southern Region! Same place as we departed from for the previous 3 years holidays on the Isle of Wight! Same long queues of people at the platform barriers. Same old routine of Dad finding some porter, bunging him 10 bob (50p) to get us to the head of the queue and onto the platform so that we had a chance of getting seats before the masses surged onto the platform.
Funny thing, but Watereloo Station platforms always smelled of FISH to me! Did fish trains use the platforms at night? Perhaps. Anyway, instead of the "Nelson" electric stock that we had previously boarded to take us to Portsmouth Harbour for the Isle of Wight ferry, this time it was a rake of malachite green loco-hauled Bullied coaches that slid into the platform hauled by a Standard Class 4T loco. acting as station pilot.
The train would have been the "Atlantic Coast Express" (ACE) which departed Waterloo at 11 am. The picture below shows the ACE about to depart Waterloo. For details of all through trains from London to Ilfracombe in the 1950's click here.
The “Atlantic Coast Express” gets steam up ready to depart WATERLOO STATION hauled by (‘Merchant Navy’ No 35028 Clan Line)
Coaches and Destinations:
Wow! I remember the coaches well. There was a door at each end of the coaches which led into a corridor off which a half-glazed sliding door provided the entrance to a six seat compartment - 3 each side - comprising (possibly?) 6 compartments per coach. The panels to the corridor and the bottom half of the sliding doors were of varnished wood. The smell of fresh varnish as you boarded the train remains solidly in my memory.
The ACE would most possibly have been hauled from Waterloo to Exeter St. Davids by a Bullied Merchant Navy Class Pacific loco with the pilot 2-6-4T acting as banker to assist the Bullied loco. ascend the notorious incline out of Waterloo. Beyond Exeter St Davids, the portions of the train to Ilfracombe, Padstow etc. would be hauled by a Bullied West Country Class Light Pacific loco because the Merchant Navy Class locos were too heavy for the lightly laid rail lines west of Exeter.
I used to go up to the station each evening after we had had our dinner at the Guest House. The train in this picture was obviously a Western Region on, most probably being hauled by a "Mogul" class loco. It would be going at least to Barnstaple Victoria Road station or possibly even through to Taunton. It may or may not have had a banker engine at the rear depending upon the number of coaches in the rake.
I remember that most of the trains I saw departing were Western Region ones. There were Southern Train departures hauled by Bullied Pacifics later in the evening usually comprising 3 or 4 Bullied coaches and bound for Exeter Central. At that time, we were out on our evening walk. If the walk was up Cairn Top, then you would not be able to see the train once it left the station but you would hear it for a good 10 minute as it stormeed up the 1 in 36 gradient to Mortehoe station. Cairn top is the ridge above the signal box in the photograph.
The beaches in Ilfracombe itself were not to my Dad's liking so we never actually went on any of them. They were little coves, small and congested with shingle instead of sand. So we used to go further afield to the big expansive sandy beaches at Woolacombe Bay and Saunton Sands. These were beautiful beaches and we would spend all day at one or the other. One of our other favourite places was Lee Bay. This had a smaller sandy beach and rock pools where you could find crabs and starfish.
All of these destinations involved a bus ride of varying lengths all operated by Western National .Lee Bay was the closest, and a small single decker bus ran from Ilfracombe Bus Station directly to Lee Bay. Woolacombe was further on. The double decker bus had to labour up the steep hill to Mullacott Cross at Morthoe, the unmistakable sound of grinding gears as the driver double de- clutched through the crash gearbox of the iconic Bristol KG6 bus, going down from fouth to third and then to second gear tin order to reach the summit. By this time the bus was probably only travelling at 10-15 miles per hour, the engine roaring loudly in protest at the work it was being asked to do.
On reaching the summit, the gear changing sequence was reversed - second to third to fourth gear, as the bus almost silently descended down the other side of the hill and into Woolacombe. The view from the upper deck of the bus as it swept down the hill was breathtaking ; the wide expanse of golden sands coming into view as the bus swept around the curving road all the way to sea-level. No doubt the view is basically unchanged although the buses will have changed. No more crashing of gearbox sounds!
Saunton Sands was a lot further than Woolacombe so we only went there once. It again involved the ascent to Mullacott Cross at Morthoe but instead of turning off for Woolacoble the bus journyed futher south along the A365 before finally turning off to Saunton Sands. Although the arrival was not as dramatic as Woolacombe, the sands were even more glorious, extending about 3 miles in length and a good 300 metres wide at low tide. I remember the day being extremely hot and as there was no shade to be found on the beach I got sunburnt.
Like the previous holidays on the Isle of Wight, we did a lot of walking. During the day we would climb up the hill called Capstone. This was the start of a footpath which ran across hill above the Slade Valley and down into Lee Bay. If we walked there we would get the bus back.
In the evenings, it was usual for us to again go up to Capstone. There was a magnificent view of Ilfracombe Station from there. I would watch a train leave the station and then disappear from view, only the sound of the locomotive on full throttle storming up the in 36 gradient up to Morthoe giving away its presence.
It was here that we would frequently meet an old guy walking his Whippet dog. The dog was called "duchess". The man spoke in a deep, gruff Devon-accented voice and I can still hear him calling the dog to heel. DUCHESS!!"