Sunday, 12 May 2013

Plym Valley Trail

Yelverton Church
A change of pace following all the coastal walking of the previous few days. On this particular day the weather forecast looked particularly poor and yet there was a short window of opportunity to walk so long as I made an early start.  I decided therefore to take a trip down memory lane and walk the old railway path between Yelverton and Plymouth.  This was one of my favourite winter walks while I was at University in the city since it was one of the few walks I could do easily without a car and/ or extensive planning.

Drakes Leat
The Plym Valley Trail follows the former Great Western Railway line from Plymouth to Tavistock.  The town of Tavistock managed to have two rail connections to Plymouth (the other was run by the London and South Western Railway) and yet both were severed by the Beeching Cuts of the 1960s.  This particular route was closed in 1962 and converted into a cycle path from Marsh Mills on the outskirts of Plymouth (at the site of the old junction) to Yelverton some years later.  Such was the popularity of the path that it has been extended as The Drakes Trail to Tavistock, but on this occasion there wasn’t time to look at the northern section.

Dartmoor View
I parked just outside the church in Yelverton.  There are plenty of facilities in the village to stock up with refreshments before heading off.  I followed signs for the West Devon Way, a long distance footpath that heads through Yelverton and coincides with the Drakes Trail for a short distance.  I soon picked up the trail of Drake’s Leat, a rather strange watercourse that was (as the name suggests) built by Sir Francis Drake to supply water to Plymouth from the upland parts of Dartmoor.  There was no water in the leat, the supply from Dartmoor now merely ends up in Burrator Reservoir, rendering this section rather redundant.

Meeting the Railway
After following the leat for a short distance I turned downhill along the West Devon Way to reach the embankment of the former railway.  Sadly it is not possible to walk this section at the route is far too overgrown.  The path maintains a course almost parallel to the railway for a couple of miles and in a couple of places it is possible to access the trackbed and inspect the line.  As I had thought with the Wye Valley Railway, this particular line was surely closed a few years too early.  If it had managed to hang on even just a few more years it would surely have been scenic enough to attract the attention of a few preservationists.  As it happens there is a small preservation project going on some distance to the south of here, but it seems doubtful that they would ever make it this far along the line.  More about that project later.

River Plym
The path initially followed the railway quite closely, usually at the edge of the former boundary but as it approached Clearbrook the railway took a higher level course, while the path dropped down to follow the River Plym more closely.  This is a delightful part of the walk and it was helped by some weak misty sunshine which added to the atmosphere of the woods.  Alongside me the River Plym babbled and spluttered down through the wooded valley.  The woods though were surprisingly quiet, very few birds around which was rather surprising.

At Clearbrook the railway once had a station, although it was pretty modest and only consisted of a small platform and metal shelter.  The path I was taking was some considerable distance from the railway now and could only be seen in the distance.  I very much doubt whether the station is still in existence now.  I did admire the small hump backed bridge that crossed the river at this point and as I crossed the field opposite a couple of curious horses waded the river to come and say hello.  Eventually half a mile or so further on I was able to finally join the railway itself as it crossed a road.

Clearbrook Bridge

I seemed to recall that the surface of the railway path had once been compacted stone for most of the northern section but as the rail route started properly here it had a tarmac surface from this point onward.  This would make walking both a blessing and a curse.  Although it makes for nice clean walking, tarmac is quite hard on the feet after awhile and it is much easier to cycle on.  I was slightly disappointed not to have brought my bike, for I could have cycled the whole route from Tavistock then.  However, it isn’t so easy to stop and look at stuff then.

Shaugh Tunnel
Shortly after joining the track I came across my first proper railway feature – Shaugh Tunnel.  When I last walked this way entering the tunnel was a slightly scary prospect as the tunnel is built on a slight curve, meaning that it is impossible to see one end from the other.  Back in the late 1990s the tunnel had no lighting and it was a very dark and damp experience walking through.  Now, knee high lighting manages to deal with most of the health and safety requirements without causing a nuisance to the bats that have been roosting here since trains ceased running.
Drake's Leat Crossing

At the other end of the tunnel the line is crossed by Drake’s Leat once again via a well engineered bridge.  I am not clear whether this was provided by the railway company when the line was constructed or whether it was a much later inclusion when the authorities refurbished the Leat in case it was needed during World War II.  The line continued southwards on a shelf like part of the slope of the valley, largely through woods that at least afforded views outwards towards the higher moorland beyond.
Shaugh Bridge Halt

Soon after and I passed the only intact station left on the line at Shaugh Bridge.  This was only ever a halt station and opened in 1907, some 46 years after the line opened.  I am not sure that there were any more facilities during the period it was open than there are now!  Heading south and the next feature on the line is the massive 6 arched Ham Green viaduct.  This carries the line high above a small tributary valley of a stream that flows into the River Plym.  On the left hand side of the viaduct the stumps of a former viaduct can be seen.  I imagine these were from an earlier wooden structure – such features are quite commonplace in Devon and Cornwall.

Ham Green Viaduct
Last time I headed this way there used to be a very annoying diversion at a point just south of the viaduct where it met the road that served Bickleigh Station.  Then it was necessary to head up the road a short way and loop around to meet back with the railway.  Now thank goodness that palaver is no more as a new route around the site has been constructed.  Although off the line of the railway, most people wouldn’t really notice as it runs just a few yards to the east and to all intents and purposes is just a continuation of the route.
Site of Bickleigh Station

For a short section through the cutting to the south of the site of Bickleigh Station the path acquires some road markings.  The need for these was amply demonstrated by a dog walker in a disabled buggy.  Apparently the markings are to remind people that this section is used by these kinds of vehicles.  Perhaps that is why the surface has been tarmacked?

Viaduct with Stumps
Heading south and the line became a lot more wooded as I entered Plymbridge woods.  The line headed across two more large viaducts and on each occasion I took the opportunity to have the best look of them that I could.  The problem with walking across these structures is that although perfectly possible to appreciate their engineering it is almost impossible to appreciate their design without looking from a different angle.
Plymbridge Woods Section

I could tell that I was now reaching the end of the line as there were by now many runners using the line.  I should imagine that it is a good route for running.  The surface is even but the route far more interesting than pounding the pavements around the city.  The section through Plymbridge Woods is delightful, perhaps the most scenic along the whole route.
Cann Viaduct Viewing Area

The next viaduct on the route at Cann is probably the most interesting.  The viaduct itself is made of brick rather than the stone of the others crossed so far.  Alongside the trackbed are also some ruins from the former quarrying operations that were carried out here.  It made for an interesting diversion from the route as I wandered around and tried to picture how the quarry must have operated.  It produced slate, but of a much lower quality than material from Wales, which eventually replaced it.  Judging from the ruins there must have been quite an operation though.  On the viaduct itself a couple of National Trust people were set up to offer a look at the peregrine falcons that nest high up on the cliff faces of the quarry.  They had no shortage of takers to look through their telescope at the birds.
End of the Line

Just south of Cann Viaduct the line is joined by the trackbed of the Lee Moor Tramway and the Cann Canal, even older transport systems designed to get raw materials out of this former industrial heartland.  Both systems have long been abandoned – in the case of the canal about 180 years ago, although some traces of it can still be seen.  I soon reached the scenic river crossing at Plymbridge and from here on are the most apparent changes to the route since I last walked it 15 years ago.  In recent years the Plym Valley Heritage Railway, just a seed of an idea in the late 1990s, has now reopened the line as far as Plymbridge.
Plym Bridge

The onward path then doesn’t follow the line as it used to since it is now reoccupied by a railway!  The halt at Plymbridge still looks a bit wobbly and the track looks a little mad, but it is early days and I wish the project success.  There was sadly no opportunity to ride the trains – the next one apparently isn’t scheduled to run until July!  As I wandered around the site I soon heard the unmistakable sound of a mechanical street sweeper.  This must be one of the more scenic parts of his round, although the surroundings belie how close you are to the built up area of Plymouth.  He parked in the station car park, suggesting that this is a popular place for a tea break.

Fake Signal
Onward and my path took a route down the side of the railway to Marsh Mills, crossing by level crossing about half a mile south of Plymbridge station.  I was amused by the fake signals along the line, none of which were capable of being moved.  By now the weather that had already turned grey from the early morning sunshine was taking a turn for the worse.  I quickened my pace over the last section and felt that it was on the whole a lot less satisfying than I had remembered.  The Plym Valley Railway was mostly on an embankment above me, which meant that many of its features were not visible.  On the other side was what looked like a boat yard of some sort, with moulds for new fibreglass hulls?  There was quite a lot of activity going on, suggesting that maybe business is still doing reasonably well.  Rolling stock on the railway could be glimpsed but was firmly kept behind some fierce looking fencing.  I imagine this helps protect the stuff from unwanted visitors from nearby housing estates.

Plymbridge Crossing
I finished my walk at Coypool by what is now the park and ride site.  When I was a student I used to continue my journey by foot down the side of the Plym Estuary near Saltram House.  This time though I took the rather easier option of getting the park and ride bus into the city, a decision made rather easier by the fact that the bus was already waiting for me.  Almost as soon as I got on the heavens opened and rain remained the order of the rest of the day.  I felt smug, knowing I had cheated the weather front!
Plym Valley Railway HQ

No comments:

Post a Comment