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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Great Tiny Train Journeys - Liskeard to Looe

This is the first in a possible series of Great Tiny Train Journeys. The BBC programme "Great Railway Journeys" having now gone completely off the woke rails, I am making amends by documenting some short scenic or unusual train rides in the South West.

This was a weird one, mainly because I didn't have anything to do with the planning, as it was all the idea of my other half, so it was a surprise unfolding in real time.

I had heard of Liskeard but had never been there and we had been to Looe many years ago but only a flying visit when it was very busy during the summer.

Liskeard station is unusual because it is two stations at right angles to each other and you have to cross the car park to get from one to the other. The Liskeard to Looe branch line was an afterthought. And it was an afterthought with a big headache.

Liskeard is on the South Coast mainline which flies over a very high viaduct which brings it into the main station. Looe on the other hand is only a short distance south but at sea level, which means a very sharp descent in a very short distance. I was not aware of any of this.

So here is the station for Looe, looking resplendent in the sun and more like a heritage line than part of the rail network.

Although there is only one platform it is numbered platform 3 which is the first bit of weirdness. This is because platforms 1 and 2 are a hundred yards away across the car park.

I went into the ticket office to buy our tickets only to find the second bit of weirdness. The ticket office is a museum. To buy the tickets, yes, you guessed it, I had to go a hundred yards back across the car park. This line was part of the GWR, God's Wonderful Railway, better known as The Great Western, so it's company colours have always been brown and cream.

The name The Great Western gives a clue as to who originally built the GWR as he had a habit of naming his products "Great". He gave us the ship The Great Western too not forgetting the SS. Great Britain and The Great Eastern. We can forgive him though as he was Great Britain's Greatest Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Had his parents known they could just have called him Great Isambard Brunel and been done with it.

The small box with wooden pegs was for dispensing pre-printed tickets which were quite small and made of very thick card, perfect for punching holes in if you were a ticket inspector.

In 1827 a canal -– the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal—was constructed, between Sandplace on the East Looe River and Moorswater, in the valley west of Liskeard. The canal was moderately successful. Eventually a railway line was built to supply minerals to the canal, and soon reaching capacity, the canal itself was replaced by a railway that went all of the way down the valley to Looe harbour.

Looe is a coastal town in south-east Cornwall, England. It is 20 miles (32 km) west of Plymouth and seven miles (11 km) south of Liskeard, divided in two by the River Looe, East Looe and West Looe being connected by a bridge. Looe developed as two separate towns each with its own MP and its own mayor. It's also famous for being the birthplace of a great French artist named after the town, Two Looes Lautrec.

The town centres around a small harbour and along the steep-sided valley of the River Looe which flows between East and West Looe to the sea beside a sandy beach.

By the start of the 1800s, Looe's fortunes were in decline. The Napoleonic Wars had taken their toll on the country; in 1803, the town formed a volunteer company to man guns in defence against attack from the French. The blockade of 1808, which prevented the Looe fleet from reaching their pilchard-fishing areas, also put considerable financial strain on the community.

After a boom in trade when the canal and later the railway was built and with the Victorian fashion for seaside holidays, Looe evolved as a tourist town. This trend continued throughout the 20th century; more and more hotels and tourist facilities were built in the town, and Looe grew and prospered, with peaks in fishing and boat building following the First and Second World Wars. Wikipedia

The Great Western Railway marketed the holiday resorts of the south west to increase their traffic. It was an era of great poster design probably never surpassed. Many of the original posters are now highly collectable.

Looe's main business today is tourism, with much of the town given over to hotels, guest houses and holiday homes, along with a large number of pubs, restaurants and beach equipment, ice cream and Cornish pasty vendors. Always Cornish Pasty vendors.

The next bit of weirdness is discovering that although the platform for Looe is north of the main station, pointing north, Looe is almost exactly south. It even looks like things mysteriously roll off the platform. The scattered white stuff is salt by the way, as there had been a heavy frost first thing, and they didn't want people slipping off the platform as well as rolling off it.

This is a Victorian bench for upright Victorians with straight backs and tight corsets, the sort of people who didn't slouch in public.

In case you had any doubts about the station being a real living station still operating on the national network, here is the proof. This up to date indicator board flashes it's rolling information, fixed to the cast iron roof brackets that have been here for around 160 years. I like contrasts of time and place like this. Like satellite dishes on thatched roofs and car navigation that points out ruined Roman hill forts, or Nduja and goat cheese Welsh Rarebit. Actually that last one sounds horrible.

The next bit of weirdness, of course, is that the train also leaves the station headed north, in the opposite direction to Looe.

It then gets lost in some disorientating heavily wooded landscape, during which time you lose all sense of direction. When we set out we wanted to be seated on the river side for the best views, so we sat on the right hand side in the carriage soon finding that, as expected, the valley opened up with a great view.

But then things got really weird because soon there was a huge viaduct above us and we were going under it. How could this be? Minutes ago we were up there.

Then, changing windows, another track appeared some way below us and seemed to be coming up to meet us so that we were now level with it.

Then weird became weirder, because we stopped for a few minutes and then started going backwards, stopping again. Then a man appeared from what had been the front of the train and walked through to the back. I pointed out to MOH that the driver appeared to be leaving.

The driver having left, I noticed he had left the door to the cab ajar so I went to investigate and this was what I found. A view of a track junction. We had arrived from the right and were now on the left.

The driver was gone.

Whereupon we started to go backwards, or was it forwards, we weren't really sure. This, below, is what was happening, as we later found out.

The section through the woods was in fact a steep drop on a curve to bring us under the viaduct of what was the mainline. Then at Coombe Junction Halt we went through a switchback so that we could head south along the river.

This switchback was where the canal originally ended and the railway too, until they joined it at a later date, in a loop to the mainline way above.

We now had to change sides for our view of the river valley. It had been a cold morning and the frost was still lingering in the shadows, as the sun rose.

The muddy edges show that the river is tidal for much of its length, but very shallow when the tide is out, which was why they built the canal.

This is as good a place as any to do what I normally do in my Cornwall posts, which is just give a list of some of the strange place names nearby. This area is no exception to the rule. So I will start with Liskeard of course, which is pronounced Liss Card. I'll continue with Boduel, Herodsfoot, Horningtops, Clicker, Budge's Shop, which is a village, not a shop, Narkurs, Quethioc, Duloe, Golitha, Goonzion, Boconnoc, which is near Bocaddon, a Boccadon is a rare nine sided Cornish Pasty as you know, Muchlarnick, the wealthier neighbour of Notmuchlarnick, Crumplehorn, the site of a famous brass band car crash tragedy, Barcelona, which seems to have moved a bit since I last did a quiz, Trefanny, which translates as Fannytown in English, Shutta, on a Sunday and Opena the rest of the week, and of course I must finish with No Man's Land, thankfully just a hamlet, where nobody lives.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, rest assured I only made up two of those places. Incidentally when they moved Barcelona to this patch of Cornwall they were faced with a major problem, what do we do with the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous cathedral. Having spent over a hundred years, famously not finishing it, do we start dismantling it again? I blame the eating habits in Spain. Most of the day is a lunch break and the evening meal starts at about midnight, that's only when it isn't festival season which is May 10th, which is the day they don't have a festival. On May 10th they celebrate the lack of a festival and carry empty structures through the streets without Saint statues on. The Saint statues get a day off. Oh, and Barcelona was not the place I made up either.

Arriving in Looe we found a typical seaside holiday town in winter. Almost deserted and with many businesses closed for the season, but worry ye not, being Cornwall, everything is still made out of granite. This is the Town Hall.

If you want a small plastic crab with the name Looe painted on it, maybe to stick it on to your Loo door at home for comedic effect you will be out of luck in February. There was one in the gift shop window, but the opening times are listed in months not hours and it opens in June.

This is the famous Smuggler's Cott below, home of.........smugglers of course. The original building was built in 1420 and is Grade 2 listed. In 1590 the Main Merchants House was built using oak Timbers salvaged from the Spanish Armada. The Spanish were on a long lunch at the time. A royalty was paid to the Queen for the salvaged beams, the same beams were also used for the construction of St Nicholas in West Looe. These beams can be clearly seen in the Cellar Restaurant complete with the original cargo mortices & grooves.

You now also realise where the word Royalty originated. At a time when everything was owned by the Queen, it meant that to use her property, you needed to pay her a Royalty. This is why to this day I get regular royalty payments of 16 cents a month from Getty Images in New York for my latest sale. I am not even a proper Queen, and I'll leave that there.

Something else you do not realise until you visit Cornwall was just how vast The Spanish Armada was, as almost every building that survives from about 1908 is built with ship's timbers from wrecked Spanish Galleons.

The Smugglers is so named because of the old hidden stone staircase and the old Smuggling tunnel that lead to the quayside. In 1932 Part of the Cellar was discovered to be partitioned off and when the wall was removed the old tunnel was discovered along with a small room. In 1990 master carpenter Ivor Toms was undertaking refurbishment work at the restaurant and confirmed the story. Ivor lived in part of the Smugglers building from the late 1920's to the mid 1930's when he was a small boy and remembered well the workmen breaking through the wall.

Ivor Toms now runs the International Cornish Smuggler's PR and Advertising Agency which has seen a massive increase in the number of former smuggler's properties becoming successful tourist attractions.

OK, I made that last bit up as well, although Cornishmen were notorious tunnelers and dug holes wherever they went, tunneling away in their cellars at weekends just for fun. Cornwall is a veritable Granite Swiss Cheese. They even travelled to Chile where they have spent the last hundred years cutting holes in the Andes.

As the poster above demonstrated, the white sandy beach is accessible from the town centre showing why it is still such a popular resort even today. This was probably covered in broken up Spanish Galleons at some point.

To the east of Looe is the expanse of Whitsand Bay. While attempting to run for the safety of Plymouth Sound many sailing ships became embayed, unable to sail around Rame Head. Wrecks were frequent and Looe men made many rescues before the lifeboat station was established. In 1824, John Miller received the RNLI Silver Medal, and three others, monetary awards for rescuing seven men from Harmonie, wrecked in Whitsand Bay. Ten years later, in 1834, monetary awards and a Silver Medal was awarded for saving twelve crew from the Konigberg. A third Silver Medal was awarded in November 1838 to William Jennings who swam to the brig Belissima, carrying a line, and saving thirteen men. Rescuing the crew of the Fletan resulted in a fourth silver medal in February 1851.

This lifeboat house was erected in 1866 and the first lifeboat, Oxfordshire was paraded through the streets on 28 December 1866 and named by Mrs W H Carew. The RNLI withdrew services from Looe in 1930 on the grounds that the lifeboats of Fowey and Plymouth could cover the area. Wikipedia

The Old Guildhall Museum and Gaol is contained in a 15th Century listed building with a fascinating display of Looe’s past. The building itself is a marvellous exhibit on its own, as it retains many of its Medieval features, with ancient cells and the original raised magistrates bench, complete with the Royal Coat of Arms, from when the local court was held there. Beneath the magnificent timber-framed roof, laws were made and enforced, and the town was administered by the Mayor and Corporation, known as Burgesses.

Downstairs, you will find the two cells used to hold the criminals of Looe in the past. This really was a case of 'send them down' from the court above.

In front of the Guildhall is the Finbaker Cannon which was fished out of Looe Bay. It is believed to be from a 17th century Swedish warship. It weighs half a ton and sits on a modern carriage built to an old design.

In June 1625, the fishing port of Looe was raided by North African slave traders who streamed into the cobbled streets and forced their way into cottages and taverns. Much to their fury, they discovered that the villagers had been forewarned of their arrival and many had fled into the surrounding orchards and meadows to escape. The slave traders still managed to seize eighty local mariners and fishermen. Those unfortunate individuals were led away in chains to North Africa to be sold, and the town itself was torched.

As I said earlier you are never far from mines in Cornwall and miners need pasties as big as their heads. These have to be some of the largest I have ever seen.

As if proof were needed here is another tunnel, this time going under the road bridge. Why go to the trouble of painting white stripes on the road to cross safely, when there is some fun to be had tunneling underneath it.

This is West Looe seen from East Looe, what other seaside town spoils you with a choice of two Looes. When booking your guest house just decide which you prefer, sunrises or sunsets.

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4 comentários

John Durham
John Durham
20 de fev. de 2023

Well, Looes and behold! Two for the price of one! Thank God for the pasties - it was like a tease the whole post. They are enormous and only 6.50 - what a deal! The names are a hoot and that train line is what my old football coach (American style) would call a pure case of mental masturbation. Long live the rural traditions!🤣

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
20 de fev. de 2023
Respondendo a

Love your comments as usual John. Thanks for playing.🙂


Membro desconhecido
20 de fev. de 2023

I apologize to you and your better half profusely. While I went through all the photos and the commentaries, I could not get the first sight out my mind "Trains to the Looe". Granted the spelling is different than the word that popped in my head, but yet.....all I saw was the "loo". Mind you I did see the "pasties"but somehow the "loo" overpowered. My apologize "Sensei"😎

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
20 de fev. de 2023
Respondendo a

And there was me not stating the obvious and trying to avoid too many Looe double entendres.

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