Rail and Trail

East Looe Quayside

Enjoyed a recent family holiday back in the home country. There were outings we took together, like a return visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan and to the picture book perfect village of Polperro and ones I took on my own to indulge twin loves exploring the countryside on foot and by rail. This holiday offered the opportunity to do both, on the same day!

An affordable summer trip to the seaside for working class families, when I was a boy growing up in west Devon, was a coach trip over the border to Looe. The narrow winding streets of the old fishing port were thronged with visitors then, as indeed it is now. I recall a crowded beach with legions of deck chairs with boat trips fishing for shark especially popular with the menfolk vying to land the biggest catch. Today we saw no deck chairs anywhere on the beach and the resort prides itself on its shark conservation programme.

Our rented cottage in West Looe gave a fantastic view over the confluence of the east and west rivers in their respective sunken river valleys, or ‘rias’. The conjoined Looe river is relatively shallow and fast flowing, sparkling clear, green with waving weed, hundreds of small boats moored on it and bustling extended harboursides to east and west. Sitting out on our veranda, we could see the two carriage trains arrive and depart along the riverbank embankment, appearing from this distance like a model train set. Dating from 1860, the former mineral line was built to replace a canal carrying quarried granite and other produce for export with fish, lime and other imports coming inland. The line was extended in 1901 via a steeply inclined horseshoe loop which finally connected it to the main line at Liskeard. Looe then became the main seaside resort for nearby Plymouth. Housing to accommodate a rapidly expanded population pushed the ancient town’s boundaries up the steep hillsides, linked by flights of steep steps and lanes. It was in one of those former artisan dwellings we were staying.

Liskeard Station Terminus of the Looe Valley Line: Part of the Museum

The sweeping Beeching cuts of the 1960’s proposed closure of the Looe branch. Only the last minute intervention of Transport Minister Barbara Castle overrode that terrible decision and the line is once again thriving, with passenger numbers doubling in the 21st century. The three stations the track passes through are all request stops. One has what is possibly the most charming station name in the country: ‘St Keyne Wishing Well’. Along with Causland and Sandplace halts it is well maintained by the community rail partnership that manages the line today.

The line is better loved and much improved since the early 1980’s when it was in a sorry state due to under funding and general neglect. I was last here in 1982 undertaking my first TV film role. A 30’ contemporary paranormal drama entitled ‘The Beast’, one of six ‘West Country Tales’ produced by BBC South West, directed by John King (Father of naturalist & broadcaster Simon King). The narrator, also a character in the story, is seen travelling the line in the opening sequence. I wince today when revisiting my own performance as a hapless husband and householder who becomes the beast’s victim. There is a (poor quality) copy on You Tube.

The temperate rainforest of the East Looe River is a delight to travel through by train and the conductor was busy taking fares and dealing with passenger enquiries while also being responsible for working the points at Combe Junction while the driver swops ends. The train then reverses and revs its way out of the valley bottom, up onto the steepest of engine straining inclines, hedge greenery swirling in its wake, to slide under the high arches of the main line viaduct and through concrete tunnels below the A38 to emerge into the restored and well maintained terminus at Liskeard. There, an ace museum in the original waiting room and booking hall tells the line’s fascinating history. More at: https://dcrp.org.uk/category/looe-valley-line/

Jack the Giant, having nothing to do / Built a hedge from Lerryn to Looe’

Despite the temptation to start a walk at one of the rail halts I opted instead to take my country stroll on foot from the holiday home. Circumnavigating the huge visitor car park next where the town’s old boat building yard stood by the confluence of the rivers, to Kilminorth Woods. Everything changed as I was immersed in the cool quiet of its shady green groves stretching from estuary to hilltop. Below me, where oak boughs daily touch high tides, little egrets were quartering the esturial mudflats joined by a scattering of crows. Kilminorth is now an official nature reserve and the biggest area of semi-natural deciduous woodland in Cornwall. Commercially worked for at least four hundred years this varied woodland was a rich source of sustainable timber for a whole range of construction, agricultural and boat building uses.

At some point in the 6th Century local chieftains had built a nine mile tribal boundary wall and ditch in the west Looe valley and large sections of this remarkable structure remain today in the wood that it probably preceded. Today the roots of invasive trees have altered the nature and appearance of this of the stone flanked earth bank but it remains an impressive landscape feature.  

I emerged from the woodland to continue uphill along a narrow sunken lane dense with ferns, mosses and other damp loving plants typical of this precious topography; an increasingly fragile one as our climate changes. 

Once the land had slowly levelled off, I found myself back under the sun on rough farm tracks skirting a quarry and ploughed fields, yielding fine views over blue seas and distant shorelines. Despite the promise held out by initial signage the public footpath disappeared at some point and I had to zigzag my way by field boundaries looking for signs of a legitimate way forward. Thought I’d discovered it when what from a distance looked like a high style turned out to be a shooting seat for wildfowlers.

Fortunately, just a few yards further along, I found sufficient breach in the earth bank to regain access to the woods. Threading through the undergrowth, putting up speckled wood butterflies and startled blackbirds, I eventually regained the wide tracks that lead me, weary but happy, back to base.

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