In 1865 the Launceston & South Devon Railway Company opened their line to Launceston from Plymouth. Built to Brunel’s broad gauge of 7’ 0¼” it was, in reality, a subsidiary company of the Great Western Railway. For 23 years, the GWR enjoyed a monopoly until the London & South Western Railway opened its line to Launceston from Halwill Junction. The two stations stood side by side, with that of the L.S.W.R. soon becoming a through station as the line to Padstow was opened in stages during the 1890’s.
The GWR L. & S.D.R. line closed in 1962, followed by the L & S.W.R. in 1966. The usual substitute bus service was provided, then after a few years it was quietly withdrawn. Railway track was removed and bridges scrapped which gave way to a mass of saplings sprouting across the trackbed; by the late 1970’s only a determined walker could follow the route taken by the Atlantic Coast Express towards the West. The station sites of both the former Great Western and L. & S. W. R. were obliterated to create the present Newport Industrial Estate.
In 1964 Nigel Bowman, then a trainee school teacher, had purchased one of the locomotives from the Penrhyn Slate Quarry in North Wales. The engine, Lilian, built in 1883 was purchased for the then princely sum of £60 which came with apologies from the quarry manager as the price reflected the scrap value of the copper firebox. Finding that a teacher training course seemed to only require the occasional appearance at college, and that the student grant was quite generous, Nigel built himself a workshop and foundry at his parent’s home in Guildford, Surrey. Machine tools were available at scrap prices and by 1968 this enabled Lilian to be restored to working order - by which time Nigel had abandoned his teaching career in favour of self-employment as an engineer. Lilian was later moved to a friend’s farm, where there was a short length of track that enabled Nigel to test-run his engine.
Having rebuilt a railway engine, it was only natural to look for somewhere to lay some track, but with land values in Surrey rocketing (even in the 1960’s), combined with unsympathetic planners, the plan was doomed. Several sites were considered, including part of the legendary Lynton & Barnstaple Railway but in the end, the site of Launceston Railway was decided upon.
Launceston Steam Railway
The site of Launceston Railway was realised after Nigel met James Evans, and his father Armstrong, at a Dinorwic Slate Quarry Auction. The Evans' lived near Launceston at the time with their own Welsh quarry engine named Velinheli. Nigel subsequently visited and liked the area and together with a former school friend - Jim Stone, approached Launceston Council in 1971, with proposals to lay a narrow gauge line. In contrast to the local authorities in Surrey, the scheme was supported from the outset; many ideas were put forward by Mr. F. R. Thorne, the council’s engineer and surveyor, who sadly did not live to see the steam railway open to the public on Boxing Day 1983.
In the early 1980s after plans were more promising, Nigel and his wife Kay moved to Launceston to start building the railway. Fortunately, around the same time, the Royal Navy Armaments Depot at Ernesettle, in Plymouth, decided to sell its narrow gauge railway which provided a local source for much of the material needed to start laying a track at Launceston.
By 1983 half a mile of track had been laid from Launceston. With approval from Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, received in December, the first train from Launceston – comprising of Lilian and one carriage – ran on Boxing Day 1983. Shortly before the public opening of the first section, the works were examined by Major King of the Railways Inspectorate.
Since then the railway has gradually expanded along the Kensey Valley, as time and funds allowed, to Hunts Crossing then Canna Park in the 1980s. The final half mile of track to Newmills opened in 1995 where the railway ends.