Bideford, Westward Ho! & Appledore Rwy.

Monday, September 14 2009

GUEST POST by Robert Hall


We often protest about the abandonment of railways or the destruction of the right-of-way of railway routes. However, there have been a few lines which even the most passionate advocate of rail transport, would have difficulties in defending. A few such lines came into being in the wake of Britain’s Light Railways Act of 1896. According to the writer of today’s article Robert Hall, the winner of first prize for ‘long on delightfulness to railfans, short on usefulness’ would have to be the Bideford, Westward Ho! and Appledore Railway.

The BWH&AR served the only community in Britain whose name ends in an exclamation mark. The clergyman and author Charles Kingsley, published in 1855 his novel of Elizabethan-era seafaring adventure by Bideford mariners, Westward Ho!, which achieved great popularity. In the 1860s, those involved in the speculative building of a new seaside resort some two miles north-west of Bideford, chose to name their development after Kingsley’s novel.

The new resort proved less popular than its promoters had hoped for, and a rail link seemed the best way to encourage its growth. Over the decades, a variety of schemes were proposed, involving a diverse assortment of gauges and routes; but it was only at the very end of the 19th century, that matters began to make progress.  A standard gauge single-track light railway was built, taking a somewhat circuitous route: from Bideford first directly to the coast south of Westward Ho!, then bending sharply north-east to Westward Ho! itself, and continuing beyond, to the village of  Northam.  Distances from Bideford to Westward Ho! and to Northam are about two miles; the railway as constructed, clocked up approximately 4.5 miles Bideford – W. Ho! and 5.5 miles  Bideford – Northam. Admittedly there are hills between Bideford and those communities, which would have made a direct route difficult and expensive to build.

Furthermore, geography also dictated that the cheapest route for the new railway, meant its being physically isolated from the rest of Britain’s railway system. The main line railway, opened in the mid-19th century, was on the eastern side of the wide River Torridge which runs by Bideford. The town “proper”, is on the river’s west side; “Bideford” railway station, on the national network, was in the suburb with the self-explanatory name of East the Water, linked with Bideford town – then and now – by a long road bridge. The new BWH&AR’s terminus was on Bideford’s riverside quay, on the western bank of the river.

The line’s first few hundred yards ran street-tramway-fashion along the quay and adjoining street, before line’s taking off on its own separate formation for the rest of the route. There was a fair amount of dissension between the railway company and the municipality of Bideford concerning this street-tramway section, which some on the town council regarded as undesirable and a nuisance.

Construction proceeded over a couple of years, with opening between Bideford and Northam taking place on 24 April 1901. The extension of approximately a mile and a half from Northam to Appledore was opened on 1st May 1908. This truly put the lid on the “wildly circuitous” scenario: a fraction over seven miles by rail, to cover a “beeline” two and a half miles.


The railway was worked by three Hunslet 2-4-2Ts, ordered new for its opening. Because of the street-tramway section in Bideford, the locomotives were furnished with cowcatchers, and skirting to cover and conceal their wheels and motion. The railway’s passenger coaches were unusual for the time, and in some ways more comfortable and commodious than the then British norm; built by the Bristol Carriage & Wagon Works Company; on general American coach-construction principles. They were bogie vehicles, much wider than then usual on British railways, with open platforms at each end and side steps for access at halts, and a central gangway between two rows of reversible tram-type seats. The railway had six coaches altogether: four composite, two third-class only.  The railway offered freight facilities, and had wagons and a brake van for the purpose; but with its being isolated from the national system, the amount of freight which it actually conveyed, was miniscule.

During its brief life the BWH&AR enjoyed, a quite lively patronage during the summer holiday season, but much lesstraffic during the rest of the year. Quite a few photographers  targeted the railway in its short existence; some pictures show two-coach, some one-coach, trains. In the summer peak season, two coaches were the norm; for the rest of the year, one sufficed.

Timetables show that the railway’s passenger service was, year-round, quite frequent; but starting relatively late and finishing relatively early in the day, and not particularly geared to such likely commuting hours as there may have been. In view of the comparative distances cited above, rail commuting between Bideford and Appledore would seem to have been totally impracticable.


The railway had three proper intermediate stations, Abbotsham Road, Westward Ho! and Northam (with passing loops at the first two). There were also nine official halts. Ss in the case of the County Donegal railway, trains would also stop at unofficial points, for passengers’ convenience.

Under government WW I national emergency orders services on the BWH&AR were suspended in March 1917, and the rails and locomotives were requisitioned for military purposes. The track was speedily lifted and the equipment shipped out (the passenger coaches were not requisitioned, and stayed behind). There were no proposals to try to reopen the railway after the war. New bus services were rapidly introduced instead.

The wartime emergency resulted in the BWH&AR being among Britain’s most short-lived railways: its Northam – Appledore section ran for a mere nine years.

There were storiesy that two of the BWH&AR’s locos and much of its rail were loaded onto a ship which set out for a French port,  was sunk by a German submarine off the north Cornish coast. A couple of other short British lines deemed non-essential, were closed and requisitioned around this stretch of the war: the Great Western’s Uxbridge High Street branch from Ruislip, and the Caledonian’s minor line Inchture – Inchture Village. In each case rumours had it that the lines’ lifted rails had been put on ships destined to take them ultimately to the Western Front; but that enemy action had sunk those ships en route. Were such stories an early urban myth generated by those who resented being pushed-around by those who conducted the war?

Two of the BWH&AR’s locomotives did indeed disappear from the records. The third is known to have gone into industrial use in Britain: spent time working for the National Smelting Company, and was finally scrapped in 1937.

There are a few remaining readily-discernible signs of the railway. As one walks southward along the beach from Northam Burrows towards Westward Ho! the old railway’s course can be seen descending steeply, cut into the cliffside, into the town from the Bideford direction. Most of that length now made into a section of the long-distance South-West Coast Path. Not very far south-west of Westward Ho! along the path, the railway’s one-time course swings abruptly eastward and inland, on an embankment which can still plainly be seen, and the path continues along the coast.

(Sources: two books, both called The Bideford, Westward Ho! & Appledore Railway – by Douglas Stuckey, 1962; and by Stanley C. Jenkins, 1993.)


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