Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Granite Way

Okehampton Castle
It's been a long while since I posted a cycle trip on this blog but a recent trip to Devon warranted an exploration of one of the County's excellent network of paths.  The closure of extensive swathes of the rail network during the Beeching era has proven to be a mixed blessing for this very rural county.  Large areas of the county are now devoid of a rail connection but the flip side to this is that many of the routes were bought by Devon County Council following closure and have been converted into cycle ways, of which the Granite Way is the most recent example.

Okehampton Station
The Granite Way follows the former London and South Western Railway line that once connected Exeter and Plymouth via a route north of Dartmoor.  The section followed leads south west from the town of Okehampton for a distance of approximately 8 miles to the small village of Lydford.  Okehampton Station is something of a strange survivor - it was spared the ignominy of being closed by Dr Beeching and rather weirdly left at the end of a branch line from the still open Exeter to Barnstaple line.  The onward connections to Bude and Plymouth via Tavistock are long since gone and Okehampton itself lost its services in 1972 when there was obviously a realisation that the line wasn't really viable on its own.

Dartmoor Railway
Yet, Okehampton survived thanks to a large quarry nearby, which left the freight line connection in place until the late 1990s when rail traffic was no longer needed.  This left enough time for a heritage railway operation to get going and as Okehampton station was still in place this became the natural headquarters for the new rail operation.  A youth hostel and bike hire place also found their way here.  Surprisingly the connection to the National Rail Network was also restored albeit on Sundays and occasional other days only.  There is a long term ambition to restore the whole line back through Tavistock to Plymouth although there are no firm plans at present to implement this.  Keeping the line intact for a cycle path is probably a good way to help with these ambitions.

Shared Corridor
We hired our bicycles for the whole day.  For slightly less cost you can hire for a shorter time but being such a lovely day and with as much time as we wanted to take there seemed little point in hurrying.  Initially the route would not be on the line of the railway itself (for it still exists for the heritage operation!).  Instead we had to go down the steep Railway Approach road and then hook a sharp left after the under bridge in order to gain the route.  For the first little bit the route then follows alongside the track, presumably using the same formation but on the line of the second track (it is only a single track operation now).

Soon a gap in the trees opened up and the old Norman Castle in Okehampton could be seen.  From this angle at least it was pretty obvious why the castle was built in such a location.  There is a great view from there over the surrounding countryside although cyclists will only get a glimpse as soon the view is blocked by a thick hedgerow.  This stretch of line seemed pretty long too, which was a bit of a blessing as I got used to the bike.  As we came upon the Okehampton By-pass the railway disappeared through a concrete tunnel.  There wasn't room for us and so the path drops away steeply to the right and finds its way through an equally claustrophobic tunnel to cross the A30.  Climbing up through here was surprisingly steep too and I had to work the gears a bit to get to the top.  Negotiating the gates was a little awkward too, but thankfully once through it was a straight run thereafter.

Meldon Quarry Station
We continued along the side of the railway for a little further before the extensive sidings at Meldon Quarry came into view.  The Quarry's status is currently 'mothballed' although it could re-open at any time.  Ironically given its location at the end of a 15 mile long branch line after closure of all the other routes, most of the stone that came from Meldon was used for railway ballast.  Now it is home to the sort of rag tag and bob tail collection of rolling stock and various railway vehicles in a range of states of repair.  I lingered for a while taking it all in.  Perhaps the aspect of the scene that most struck me is that I remember a lot of this equipment in fare-paying service and not as museum pieces.  Does that qualify for me being old?  It is starting to feel like it!

Meldon Quarry
At Meldon Quarry is a small station that is used as the western terminus of the line.  It is nearby an old workman's station that existed here during British Rail days.  As the quarry is tricky to get to by road the station was pretty much the only means of access for workers getting to nearby Okehampton where most of them lived.  There is still no real access by road by the cycle path is an obvious alternative now (but then there are no workers!).

Meldon Viaduct
Beyond the quarry is perhaps the most significant structure on the whole line - the magnificent wrought iron Meldon Viaduct.  What a joy it is to still be able to travel across such a magnificent structure, even if it is by bicycle rather than on a train.  Indeed Network Rail have stated that the old viaduct is no longer strong enough to carry a train and it would have to be replaced if the line were ever to re-open.  I guess this is a significant obstacle to re-opening proposals.  The six truss viaduct is over 150m long and 46 m high.  Dartmoor looms up above it to the south and the reservoir at Meldon is just beyond.  The viaduct actually had to carry road traffic across it while the dam was being constructed in the early 1970s.

Junction with Bude Branch
Having cleared the viaduct the path descend into trees and continues without its railway companion.  I also got the sense that I was starting to head downhill for the going started feeling a little easier.  No long after and I came to what I assumed was an artwork installation or was it just picnic benches?  A family was camped out having a picnic so they obviously assumed the latter.  I decided to wait on a picture of the installation for when I came back later in the day.  Annoyingly I completely forgot so I have no picture of said installation.  I later discovered that this marked the junction for the Bude branch, one of the many destinations for the famed Atlantic Coast Express from London Waterloo to Devon and Cornwall resorts.  Given that the junction is masked by bushes and trees I suppose I could be forgiven for not really knowing it was there...

Sourton Church
The onward track provided some fantastic views of Dartmoor and was largely a very open route, unlike some of the tree tunnels that I have witness elsewhere.  I guess the inclement weather associated with this area during the winter has helped arrest the growth of trees too much?  Rhododendrons and may blossom provided some wonderful colour alongside the trackbed.  Cycling was incredibly easy too for the surface of the Granite Way is tarmac almost the whole way apart from a short gap which we were going to come across fairly soon.

Lake Viaduct
I paused briefly at Sourton to admire the church alongside the track.  Fortunately the old sections of diversion in this area no longer apply and the way is clear beyond.  It is also quite significantly downhill for I really motored along this part.  It wasn't long past here though that I came to a juddering halt for the path reduces to a narrow section winding between the trees and has clearly been left unimproved.  This section is privately owned still and no attempt has been made to improve the track surface.  Fortunately it is only a short section and once through the gate marking the southern end it was back to tarmac path again.  I am guessing that negotiations are underway to include this section officially for there was no attempt to divert us on to a nearby pathway or road.

Platelayer's Hut
Just beyond this section and we came to Lake Viaduct.  This is a more conventional stone viaduct and having been spoiled by Meldon it wasn't quite as spectacular.  Nevertheless there was a lot of activity on the viaduct deck as we approached for it looked like a school group were birdwatching from the parapet.  We paused briefly to look at the view and after enjoying what we saw we pressed on.  The onward path had a platelayer's hut still guarding the way - a real relic from the past!

Bridestowe Station
Not long after the viaduct and the path took an obvious detour away from the trackbed.  This is because we were approaching the only official station between Okehampton and Lydford, the small one at Bridestowe.  This is now a private dwelling that is very much out of sight.  However the footbridge is still intact and the station is in pretty good shape in its new guise.  I wouldn't mind betting that the owner still has an urge to catch a train from his front garden every now and again.  I cannot imagine there were very many passengers using the station though - it is a long way from Bridestowe (more than a mile).

Lydford Castle
Onward from here and it was actually a surprising short stretch to Lydford and the presence of Dartmoor for the last section is a lot less obvious.  When the end does come it is a little unexpected for the tarmac path takes the form of a slip road when it reaches an over-bridge leading the cyclist up to the road into the village.  The trackbed continues as an overgrown and unloved former transport corridor to Lydford Station beyond.  Hopefully this onward section of the railway path will be reopened too?  It would be good to see it join up with the Drake's Trail onward into Plymouth.

Lydford Church
As a cycle path this is a joy to cycle - the scenery is magnificent and the going is easy.  Be aware though that Okehampton to Lydford is largely downhill while the return is steadily uphill.  With a relatively modest length (8 miles) it is an easy one to do in a short day but I would suggest that you combine it with a walk around Lydford Gorge (that is where we are headed next) and possibly even a peek at Lydford Castle and a pub lunch in the welcoming pub next door.  As an all day outing I can certainly not praise it enough!


  1. Interesting I would like to walk some or all of this route. One day it may once again become a railway if the Government is serious about finding an alternative route to Dawlish. Public trains do actually still run to Okehampton but, oddly, only on Summer Sundays. I think there is sometimes a shuttle train on from there to Meldon.

  2. Thanks - yes both train services exist as I allude to in the post above. I didn't get the opportunity to try either though. I gather one of the stumbling blocks to re-opening this railway is Meldon Viaduct. There is a suggestion that it would have to be replaced in order to carry trains again