The scenic 39-mile Tarka railway line bisects the heart of Devon, running from Exeter to Barnstaple and following the gentle river valleys of the Yeo and Taw. The line’s 13 stations offer great opportunities to explore the area, giving access to several historic villages including Eggesford’s forests and walking trails, Chulmleigh with its unusual architecture and ancient buildings, and Lapford with its strong community and ghost stories.
The southern end of the Tarka Line serves the town of Crediton, which sits at the confluence of the River Yeo with the River Creedy. Its location in the centre of great farming land plus good transport links to Exeter and the M5 has lead to the establishment of many local food industries – cider mills, breweries, creameries and dairies.
It is amazing that the Tarka Line still exists, let alone thrives, as its building was beset with difficulties. In the early 19th century, rail companies were competing to build new railways all over England. Two rail routes to Barnstaple were proposed as early as 1831 – one from Exeter via Crediton and the other from Tiverton via Bideford. The latter was favoured by the government and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was recruited as its engineer. However, the company failed to meet parliament’s deadlines and, in 1845, the Exeter route via Crediton won the day.
There then followed years of argument over the gauge of the railway and funding became an increasing issue. After years of ‘railway mania’ when money was no problem, investors’ enthusiasm had declined and money was hard to come by. Work first started on the Exeter to Crediton passenger line nearly six years after getting parliamentary approval, with the first trains departing from Exeter in 1851. Work on the line from Crediton to Barnstaple began later that year and this extension opened three years later.
The line was taken over by Great Western Railways in 1876 and then nationalised in 1948. Despite many railways being closed in the 1960s, the Barnstaple to Exeter route survived, the only remaining rail line out of Barnstaple. Fearing for its future, local organisations rallied to support the line and it was one of the first to be given an identity as a tourist railway, sponsored by North Devon tourist board.
Today, the Tarka Line is operated by First Great Western, and the number of passengers has trebled in the last 20 years.