The Launceston Steam Railway opened on Boxing Day 1983 – but the story of the LSR stretches back much further than that!
The first railway to reach Launceston, the Launceston and South Devon Railway, opened on 1st June 1865. Originally built to Brunel’s broad gauge of 7′ 0¼”, it linked Launceston to Tavistock and Plymouth. Rebuilt in the 1870s to the more common standard gauge (4′ 8½”) it became part of the Great Western Railway.
In 1886 the North Cornwall Railway was opened from Halwill Junction, gradually being extended westwards to Padstow in the 1890s. It was operated by the rival London & South Western Railway, and so there were two stations next to each other at Launceston; one for the GWR and one for the LSWR. Despite being adjacent the two railways were quite separate, until a connection between the two was made in the Second World War.
Like many towns throughout the UK, Launceston lost its railways as part of the infamous ‘Beeching Axe’ of the 1960s. The GWR line to Plymouth was first to go, closing in 1962 – with the last train ending up stuck in a snowstorm and frozen to the rails! The LSWR line soon followed, closing in 1966 and bringing to an end 100 years of rail travel to Launceston. Work quickly started demolishing the two stations and building the industrial estate which now covers their site; our car park is on part of the site of the LSWR station and, if you look carefully, you can see the remains of the steps from the footbridge that was at the end of the platform.
At the same time that the railway in Launceston was closing, trainee teacher Nigel Bowman, a keen enthusiast for all things mechanical, discovered the Penrhyn Slate Quarry in North Wales. Here there was a line of disused narrow gauge steam locomotives awaiting cutting up for scrap; the Quarry were prepared to sell one locomotive, Lilian, for £60, and so at the age of 19 Nigel found himself the owner of his very own steam locomotive!
Lilian left Penrhyn Quarry in December 1965 and was moved to Shalford, Surrey. Finding that his teacher training course required minimal attendance at college, Nigel soon set up a workshop and foundry at his parents’ home, where Lilian was rebuilt. In 1968 Lilian returned to steam, and was later moved to a local farm, where a friend had a short length of track for his collection of narrow gauge locomotives.
By the late 1960s Nigel had decided to abandon a career in teaching so he could build a public railway for Lilian to run on. Initial thoughts were to build a section along part of the recently closed Guildford to Horsham railway, but with rocketing Surrey land prices and unsympathetic local planners, it was decided to look elsewhere. Several sites were considered, including part of the legendary Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, but the Launceston connection dates to 1970. Whilst browsing the lots at the auction for the Dinorwic Slate Quarry (near neighbours and rivals to the Penrhyn Quarry), Nigel met James Evans and his father Armstrong. The Evans’ lived near Launceston and had bought their own Welsh quarry engine, similar to Lilian, named ‘Velinheli’. Nigel subsequently visited them and, liking the area, wrote a letter to the Council at Launceston asking if they knew of any suitable sites for a railway. He received a phone call the next day from Dick Thorne, the Council’s Engineer, who was full of ideas and asked if he could come to Launceston for a meeting tomorrow! Within a few days Nigel and his old school friend Jim Stone had visited Launceston and a plan was agreed, with full support from the Council, for a narrow gauge railway running along part of the recently lifted North Cornwall Railway; a new station would be built to the west of the original stations, with buildings from the old Gasworks being used for the workshops.
A limited company was soon formed with Nigel, Jim and other friend George Pitt as directors, and work started acquiring the necessary land. The old railway land had been sold off by British Railways and the purchase of some parts took twelve years of legal wrangling. For example, the site of the current Launceston station and workshops had been bought by a developer and was intended to be the site of a housing development. A collapse in the property market in the mid-1970s saw the developer desperate to sell the site and so it was bought for the railway.
In the early 1980s Nigel and his wife Kay moved to Launceston to start work building the railway. At the same time the Royal Navy Armaments Depot at Ernesettle in Plymouth decided to get rid of its narrow gauge railway; this provided a local source for much of the material needed to build the railway, and track laying was soon underway.
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 Lilian and one carriage – ran on Boxing Day 1983.
Since then the railway has gradually been expanded as time and funds allow – unlike most steam railways, we have never received outside funding or grants.
Launceston station has been built with a number of new buildings erected to replace temporary facilities used in our first season. A wooden bungalow from Surrey, originally built in 1919 for the first Ideal Home Exhibition, was moved and rebuilt at Launceston in 1985 to house our café. Old buildings used by the Launceston Gas Company and Troods Agricutural Merchants were refurbished for use as our museum and workshops. In the winter of 1985/6, the level of the station area was raised in a scheme to prevent the adjacent road collapsing into the railway cutting. The next winter the station canopy from the old Tavistock North station, donated by West Devon Borough Council, was erected to provide shelter on our platform.
Away from Launceston the railway was gradually extended along the Kensey Valley: to Hunts Crossing and then Canna Park in the 1980s, with the final half mile of track to Newmills opening in 1995.