Originally, my wife Lynn & I were going to visit the Devon Railway Centre on this Thursday but a hurricane over in America had other ideas! For whilst listening to the weather forecast on Tuesday night, it said that the after effects of said hurricane would create unsettled weather from Wednesday night onwards, reaching extremes on Thursday evening. Therefore, as featured in Part Eight, we visited the Devon Railway Centre on the Wednesday and agreed to split up for the day on the Thursday! So whilst Lynn had a little lie in before heading on the 12 into Torquay to have a wander around the shops, I left the flat early in drizzly morning twilight, for one last major wander around Devon using my Megarider Gold!
My aim was to get to Exeter in good time for the 10.00 155 to Barnstaple, for which a number of options presented itself. I could have repeated the start of our trip to Seaton (see Part Six) by getting up really early and catching the 06.45 46 to Exeter, but I felt like doing something different, as well as wanting a bit more of a lie in! I checked the possibility of using the 12 to Newton Abbott but this would have required an earlier start than getting the 46! The first 22 of the day wouldn’t get me across to Teignmouth in time to connect with a suitable number 2, so I looked at my rail options. The first train to have off peak fare validity, the 09.12, wouldn’t get me into Exeter until too late, whilst earlier trains would be more expensive. So I decided to take the train for a short distance, getting the 07.10 Exmouth train. I first thought of Teignmouth as a destination but in the end decided upon a single to Dawlish (around £5) so as to have another opportunity to travel along some of the seawall. So I got down to Paignton station and boarded 150 216;
And so I began a trundle along the Riviera branch, with commuters taking the place of the leisure travellers that I’d encountered on previous trips along this line. Up to Newton Abbott and then it was onto the Mainline, alongside the River Teign to Teignmouth, then the earliest journey I’ve ever taken along the Dawlish sea wall, with daylight struggling to break through the clouds;
All too soon, it was time to get off at Dawlish;
I had just under half an hour to wait for the 08.11 number 2 to Exeter, so I went and sat down on a bench by the side of the town’s pleasant gardens. Unlike last time though, (see Part Three) it was too early for an ice cream! In consolation, I noticed that one of the stream’s famous Black Swans was asleep on a nest;
Soon, it was time to get my bus, which was branded 15899;
As I mentioned briefly in Part Four, the 2 was one of the first two routes that the fledgling Devon General started at the company’s birth in 1919. Alongside the inland route 1 via Chudleigh, the 2 initially provided a through Exeter-Torquay service (must have been quite an adventurous run on the rather primitive buses of the era) via Dawlish & Teignmouth before the Newton Abbott-Torquay section was hived off as the separate route 28 (merging with the Torquay-Brixham 12 in 1954). Whilst the 1 would remain quite a rural backwater (more details on it’s demise in Part Four) the 2 would become popular with Exeter residents seeking days out at the seaside, as well as serving the visitors to the two small seaside towns that the route served. All year round traffic was helped by the suburbanisation of both towns, with most of the new housing being away from the two town’s railway stations.
By the seventies, various variants had formed, with a Summer Saturday & Sunday 2A from Exeter-Dawlish Warren, a seasonal Open Top 2D from Teignmouth-Dawlish Warren and an irregular 2B from Newton Abbott-Teignmouth via Bishopsteignton, which was renumbered 184 on 4th May 1975 and today is operated by Dartline. That same large scale renumbering of Devon General services (to avoid duplication with those of Western National, with the latter having took control of the former as a result of both becoming part of the new National Bus Company) saw the 2 renumbered 186 & 187. The 186 took the original route of the 2 through Alphington, with the 187 being a new variant via Countess Wear (possibly introduced to replace an ex Exeter City Transport service) which is the present route of the 2 today. The 2D would become the 185.
By the time of my first visit to Dawlish in 1990 (only for a weekend, with no time for bus riding) Devon General had become an independent company, the basis for manager Harry Blundred’s Transit Holdings empire, with it’s emphasis on minibus operation. This saw the corridor served by route 85 from Exeter-Newton Abbott and 85A from Exeter-Torquay via Shaldon (originally covered by Devon General route 13 through to Dawlish Warren, renumbered 125 in 1975. Today covered by the 22.) Where as Mr Blundred favoured 16 seat Ford Transits for local urban work, interurban services used larger Mercedes Benz minibuses, which operated the 85 & 85A, each route running half hourly, providing a record breaking quarter hourly service between Exeter & Teignmouth. The routes also used some quite narrow roads to serve Dawlish Warren. The downside was that the open top 185 had now gone.
Come the time of my Torquay holiday in 2005 (after the 1996 Stagecoach takeover of Devon General), the 85 & 85A were now operated by Dennis Darts that featured Stagecoach’s standard Alexander midibus bodywork. I remember travelling from Torquay-Exeter on a fully seated example, taking Torquay holidaymakers for a trip to Teignmouth or Dawlish, with the bus only emptying out at these towns.
Then in 2007, Stagecoach converted the routes back to double deck operation, using nearly new Enviro 400s cascaded from Stagecoach Manchester, with the number 2 returning to the route. The larger buses couldn’t serve the narrow road accessing Dawlish Warren from the Exeter side, so buses did a double run down the hill from the Dawlish side. Torquay was served by a new double deck 11 terminating at Teignmouth that maintained the half hourly frequency of the 85A, whilst the 2’s frequency was every fifteen minutes from Exeter-Teignmouth and half hourly through to Newton Abbott. Subsequent years would see the 2 run throughout on a twenty minute frequency and the Dawlish Warren double run taken out to make the service a little faster. Dawlish Warren would be served by an extension of the 11, reduced to hourly but with half hourly shorts between Dawlish & Dawlish Warren. A through link to Exeter continued to be provided on summer Sundays and Bank Holidays by route 2A and at other times, by the extension of an hourly journey on Exeter city service B (with that route’s other hourly journey heading to Dawlish.) Neither lasted long, with today’s B terminating at Exminster. An early morning 2B combines both routes, running from Teignmouth across Exeter to EDF Energy near Pinhoe.
The 11 has now been replaced by the 22 running through to Paignton, though the half hourly shorts from Dawlish Warren-Dawlish have gone. Increasing congestion levels have also seen the need to increase the running time of the 2, causing the frequency to be reduced to every half hour, but the service remains strong and now features newer branded E400 Scanias such as 15899, which did a fine job of getting me into Exeter.
There are currently two routes between Exeter & Barnstaple. The longest established of these is now numbered 5B but was originally the 315, running via Crediton & Bideford. Originally, this was Western National route 346 from Exeter-Bideford, the only Western National service into Exeter which wasn’t joint with Devon General (those being the 47 to Weymouth via Axminster, the 129 to Plymouth and the 217 to Minehead via Tiverton), the 346 being renumbered 315 on 4th May 1975.
Western National would be split up in 1983, with the North Devon garages passing to a new company called…..logically enough…..North Devon! The new company changed it’s livery from green to red and hence, decided to call itself Red Bus. Of course, it would take some time to repaint the whole fleet and the company received a degree of national notoriety when a clip appeared on BBC1 consumer show “That’s Life” showing a photo sent in by a viewer of a green bus (a Bristol VR) proudly proclaiming on it’s side “I’m now a Red Bus!” Well, apparently it was funnier than the shows usual collection of rudely shaped vegetables! Privatisation saw a joint management buyout with neighbouring company Southern National (also created from the Western National split in 1983, taking over garages at Taunton, Yeovil & Weymouth) to form the Cawlett Holdings group.
The two companies continued with their separate identities, adopting similar green and red based liveries but this was a difficult part of the world to run buses profitably, so an offer from First Group in 1998 was probably too good for the management to refuse, so they sold out, and the separate green and red liveries and identities were all subsumed into First’s corporate image. This meant that First were the main bus company all the way down from Bristol into Cornwall, with only Stagecoach in the former Devon General territory around Exeter & Torbay, and Plymouth Citybus in that fair city, providing any major variation to the scene. Interestingly, this provided an almost exact parallel to the pre NBC era, with the virtually identical green liveried Tilling companies Bristol Omnibus and Western National dominating the West Country (the main difference back then being that Bristol went much further north into Gloucestershire, this section being hived off as the Cheltenham & Gloucester company when Bristol had a similar split to Western National in 1983. This latter became part of Stagecoach), with only British Electric Traction subsidiary Devon General and Plymouth City Transport providing relief from Tilling green.
But this parallel from the past wouldn’t last, as the region failed to provide the high profit margins that First then sought. The start of this decline began in North Devon from late 2006, when First cut some of the less viable routes in the area, prompting Stagecoach to open a small garage in Barnstaple to operate tendered replacements, including the 315, which at some point had been extended to Barnstaple from Bideford. To make this garage more viable, Stagecoach introduced a competitive route 21 & 21A from Ilfracombe, via Barnstaple onto Bideford and Westward Ho! & Appledore, competing with First’s 1, 2 & 3 which were soon merged into through services 1 & 2, replacing the 3 to Ilfracombe (restoring the through service that had originally been Western National’s 301 from Ilfracombe-Westward Ho!). This caused a major battle to break out between the two groups throughout Devon. Although the Devon wide attacks ceased after one season (in 2007) competition in North Devon continued, with First introducing open top route 8 to Croyde, competing with Stagecoach’s 308, which paralleled the Ilfracombe corridor as far as Braunton. I travelled on this in 2010, on an ex Badgerline Volvo Citybus.
I was staying at Lynn’s Girls Brigade (joint with the Boys Brigade) camp at Widecombe (served then by First’s 31, which is now run by local independent Filers) that year and I took advantage of the ridiculously low prices that both operators had dropped their respective day tickets to! (Around £2 each, as I recall!) so I could travel on both operators for a mere £4! Absolute bargain but such low fares couldn’t last in such an area! By 2012, First as a whole were facing financial problems, so sold off several subsidiaries. One of these was supposed to be North Devon, with Stagecoach poised to buy but investigations by the Office Of Fair Trading as to the effects on competition in the area caused Stagecoach to withdraw. With no other buyer willing to take over an operation crippled by Stagecoach competition, First’s only option was to deregister the entire network! Funnily enough, the bus industry has barely heard off the Office Of Fair Trading since!
I travelled on the 315 in 2009, on a Northern Counties bodied Volvo Olympian, so I decided to leave the 5B in favour of the other Exeter-Barnstaple service, the 155. So I found myself at the Paris Street stop in Exeter in good time for the 10.00 departure on this two hourly service, with Barnstaple based Enviro 400 19095 doing the honours;
I won’t describe the first section of the 155, as I did so in Part Seven, when Lynn & I visited the Devon Railway Centre. Soon after this point, we entered the town of Tiverton, calling at the small, rather quaint bus station. Here, we left the half hourly trunk route 55 and it’s variants behind and heading into quite sparsely populated territory, heading quite close to Exmoor’s southern extremities. The views around here are again, best appreciated from the top deck of a double decker bus;
South Molton is the largest community on this stretch of the route, a pleasant little market town which publicises it’s proximity to Exmoor. Loadings on the route are really low around here and it’s very sensible of Stagecoach to link the service in with the Exeter-Tiverton route, just as the 315 has become the 5B as part of the Exeter-Crediton corridor, these busier trunks help support the more remote sections of the route. Finally, after a stunning run, we arrived at Barnstaple bus station;
I decided next to travel on the 21 to Ilfracombe. This is very much the main trunk route of the area, heading in the other direction to Westward Ho! via Bideford. Sister service 21A to Appledore now only runs evenings & Sundays with Appledore served at other times by local service 13. Stagecoach celebrated getting dominance of North Devon by investing in a batch of Enviro 400 bodied Scanias for the 21, these being branded “North Devon Wave”. The 21 runs every half hour through to Ilfracombe, with a quarter hourly service running as far as Braunton, one journey of which terminates there, whilst the other follows the old 308 route to Croyde. Fortunately, I was at the right time for an Ilfracombe journey, operated by Wave branded 15891.
The 21’s quite a varied route, serving a Royal Marine Barracks, suburban Braunton, as well as more rural climes. Soon, we were at Ilfracombe;
The town used to have a bus station but, when I first visited the town, as part of that Woolacombe stay in 2010, it was incredibly rundown and looking rather sorry for itself! I next visited the town in 2014 and found the bus station abandoned, with the 21 terminating at it’s present terminus next to the Cliffs that separate the town from the beach, the two being linked by a tunnel! Now, the bus station has become a car park! A sign of the times perhaps but I can’t help comparing the fate of this former First owned facility with that in Paignton, which Stagecoach have used to publicise it’s network to the full.
I’ve a confession to make! The main reason I wanted to visit Ilfracombe wasn’t transport related! Therefore, I found myself heading towards the quaint, olde worlde Harbour, which contains two excellent fish & chip shops next door to one another! I chose the Dolphin, sitting down on a bench beside the harbour to eat my purchase;
I followed this up with an ice cream before heading back to the 21 stop for the next bus, which turned out to be E400 Scania 15890, allowing me to take this near identical photograph to the shot of 15891 above!
Then, it was off back to Barnstaple, which I was planning to leave by train, fairly easy, as the 21 is one of several routes to call at Barnstaple station on the way out towards Bideford. But as I had some time to kill before a train was due, I got off 15890 at the bus station and hung about for a bit, watching the comings and goings of Stagecoach and local independent Filers, who fill in the gaps that Stagecoach don’t cover, including reaching the only part of Devon that I’ve not got around to exploring yet, the extreme North Eastern Devon coastal towns of Coombe Martin and Lynton & Lynmouth, these last two being linked by a Cliff Railway! Maybe someday!
I then decided to catch the next 21 for the short run to the railway station, on bus 15889! So I first went on 15891, then 15890, now 15889! I’m going backwards!
The Tarka & Avocet Lines
Barnstaple is served by a roughly hourly train service to Exeter, which mostly runs through to Exmouth and, as I hadn’t had the chance to travel on either line this holiday, I decided to travel throughout. I put in Exmouth on the station ticket machine and it gave me a single fare at around £10, only £2 short of a Devon Day Ranger so, just in case I decided to head back to Paignton by train, I decided to buy one. The machine couldn’t sell one, so I headed to a nearby ticket window but that was closed. Never mind, I could buy on the train. I then decided to have a look around the station building, only then noticing the “Tickets & Enquiries sign pointing off to one side, so I wandered this way…..and found a chap selling tickets! So I bought my £12 Day Ranger off him.
Once upon a time, Barnstaple was a major railway junction, with former London South Western (latter Southern Railway) lines to Bideford, Ilfracombe and the narrow gauge Barnstaple & Lynton Railway, which would have been a marvellous tourist attraction had it survived but the Southern Railway in the thirties was far more interested in South East suburban electrification than running this quaint backwater, so it closed. Part of the line has now been restored, though not the section into Barnstaple. Last year, in North Wales, I even found one of the Barnstaple & Lynton’s old locos in service on the Ffestiniog Railway;
The LSWR’s great rival, the Great Western Railway, was not to be outdone, Barnstaple being the terminus of a long, tottering branch line over Exmoor to Taunton. Today, only the former LSWR line to Exeter remains, though Barnstaple station shows clear signs of when it was larger;
Soon, my train turned up, in the form of 143 612 & 143 621;
I chose to travel on board 143 612 and was particularly glad that this train was a Class 143 Pacer unit, as these will be gone by 2020, due to more stringent disabled access regulations being introduced, which the Pacers don’t comply with. Marketed as the Tarka Line, after local author Henry Williamson’s novel “Tarka The Otter”, the line is a fine example of a surviving rural branch line, serving quite remote communities (some of which are only served by a few trains a day), being single line with passing loops for the most part. Obviously a lifeline for these communities, the largest town served on the line is Crediton where, as mentioned in Part Four, the railway faces competition from the twenty minute frequency 5 group bus services into Exeter, so local commuters here have the choice of frequency over speed. Certainly, as a Barnstaple bound train using the passing loop here dropped off a large number of early evening commuters, many choose the speed of rail for their commute!
Upon reaching Exeter St Davids, our sparsely loaded rural branch line train became a well loaded commuter service as we prepared to head down the Avocet Line to Exmouth, named after a sea bird that’s a common sight along the Exe Estuary, alongside which the line runs. More commuters joined us at Exeter Central, meaning there were now standees on board. We served several stations in suburban Exeter, dropping off a few of those commuters before we headed out alongside the Exe Estuary, which we followed all the way down to Exmouth. I’d chosen a seat on the offside of the train deliberately so as I could enjoy the view over the Exe, with the GWR Mainline (featuring the Riviera Line to Paignton) being visible on the other side of the river, which was getting ever wider as it turned into an estuary. The two main communities on the line are Topsham and Lympstone, the later having two stations, with Lympstone Commando being on the edge of a Royal Marine base, and can only be used by military personal!
All too soon, it was journey’s end and the remaining commuters and I all got off.
As I mentioned in the East Devon blog, the bus station that once existed next door to the railway station has now been replaced by a Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall but fortunately, the former public conveniences still exist, so I made use of them! Stagecoach also continue to use the wall next door for publicity;
As well as wanting a trip on the Avocet Line, I’d wanted to come to Exmouth to sample the new Gold buses on the 57, the main route to provide competition for that Line.
Now, the weather had stabilised somewhat over the past few hours, with the early morning rain having given way to an overcast dryness. So I thought that I would hang around to ride the last round trip on the 95 Big Beach Bus (as advertised on the other poster above) before getting a 57 back to Exeter. However, around two minutes after hanging around at the relevant bus stop, it started to rain! And gradually, the rain became heavier! Therefore, I gave up on the chance of another ride on Open Top Trident 17701 (see Part Seven for details of my earlier trip) and caught the next 57, which was Gold E400 Scania 15253.
The 57 starts in Brixington, a suburb/village on the Sidmouth Road. It’s the main trunk route between Exmouth & Exeter, and has it’s origins with Devon General service 5, from Orcombe Point at the end of Exmouth Promenade (also the terminus of original Exmouth Open Top service 74) and ran cross city through Exeter and out to Crediton, with some Exeter City Transport participation being involved. By the time of my 1970 Devon General timetable, the service terminated at the Devon General garage (what became the bus station) and had gained a sister service in the form of the 85, which operated via Exton, as opposed to the 5’s route via Woodbury. The 4th May 1975 renumbering saw the 5 & 85 become the 356 & 357 respectively.
Subsequent years would see the service split at Exeter, with the old 5 number eventually being revived on the Crediton side. Ultimately, the Exmouth service would evolve into services 56 & 57. The 56 would be rerouted via Exeter Airport and generally be downgraded into a less frequent service beyond that point. However, recent changes have seen the 56 upgraded to become more frequent, in response to the growing number of business parks in the area it serves. To publicise this, several of the Enviro 200 single deckers used on the route have been repainted into an attractive blue livery and branded “Connexions”;
The 56 is a route I’ve not travelled on yet, must put that right in the future!
The 57, meanwhile, emerged as the main trunk route between Exeter & Exmouth, being converted to a high frequency minibus (Merecedes Benz) service by Harry Blundred, and extended to Brixington, replacing a local service. By the time I first encountered the service, Stagecoach were running the route on the same frequency with Dennis Dart midibuses. I first rode the route however, on an ex East London Alexander bodied Scania double decker, back in 2005, on an evening peak journey out of Exeter. Upon arriving at Exmouth, I had fish & chips from Capells and then, not fancying an hour long run back to Exeter on a Dennis Dart, I caught the Avocet line instead!
2013 would see the Darts replaced by Enviro 400 bodied Scania double deckers, now running on a fifteen minute frequency. This is typical of the economies being made by the bus industry in these times of tight financial returns but personally, I much prefer the space and comfort of the double decker, even if I have to wait a little longer for it! But then, I’m not one of the route’s regular passengers! I managed to sample one of these in 2013. 2017 saw the route converted to Gold specification, with some of the displaced E400 Scanias making their way to Torquay garage to be painted in a new green “Hop 22” branding for route 22 (Paignton-Dawlish Warren);
So I settled into one of 15253’s comfortable seats to enjoy the run through Lympstone & Topsham. The regular “Classic Bus” magazine columnist (and rather anti rail former bus industry manager) Roger Davies once claimed that travelling by bus enabled you to experience more of the local communities that you pass through than does an equivalent train journey, where you’re segregated from it by what he called the “Railway Bubble”. Personally, I find the “Railway Bubble” a rather attractive place to be, segregated from all the troubles of the world outside (though probably bringing troubles of it’s own at times!) but I do see his point, and the Exeter-Exmouth corridor is a good example of this! For whilst the train hugs an attractive course alongside the River Exe, I only really saw the centre of the communities it served when I first rode the 57! Both Lympstone & Topsham seem large, quite prosperous villages, a prosperity doubtless helped by the excellence of transport links into Exeter!
Soon, we were back in the big city, and I got off 15253 at the 57’s current, streetside terminus;
Bearing in mind that I had a valid Devon Day Ranger rail ticket I considered my various options for getting back to Paignton. Unfortunately, I’d just missed the 18.32 train and the next departure, at 19.32, would take me along the Sea Wall in darkness, so I decided to go all the way by bus instead. So I walked around to the bus station to catch the 18.40 number 2 to Newton Abbott, my intention being to take the route to it’s ultimate terminus. Waiting for me at the bus station was standard Stagecoach liveried MMC E400 19658;
And so I boarded for the trip down to the coast and beyond! As we hit Dawlish, I noticed the weather, which had got progressively worse since Exmouth, was now extremely windy, the remnants of the American hurricane truly hitting our shores! A very blowy night. From Teignmouth, we headed alongside the River Teign, on a road higher up than the adjacent railway line. Pity it was now dark, as I’m sure the views would have been quite nice! The 2 then takes a circuitous route serving the estates of kingsteignton before terminating at Newton Abbott. Here, I had around ten minutes to wait for the next number 12, so I bought myself a steak & kidney pie from a nearby chippy and devoured it before 12 branded MMC E400 Scania 15317 arrived to take me back through an increasingly blowy Torquay to Paignton, where I braved the rain for the walk back to the flat!
And so this series of blogs comes to an end, just as a wonderful holiday was about to. As described in Part One, Lynn & I had a lovely day (in much nicer weather) on the final Friday, pottering about Torquay & Paignton before somewhat sadly leaving for home on the Saturday morning.
I hope this series of blogs has illustrated how easy, relatively cheap and, above all, fun it is to travel around the glorious county of Devon by public transport. We hope to be back one day but, for now, we’ll wish you goodbye from the top deck of a Hop 122 bus!