40 Sightings of the Utilicon/Autotruck

Variously referred to as the Utilicon or Autotruck, or other choice names, depending upon their running condition, the two “three-by-twos” owned by the railway have between them given nearly 40 years’ service.

Utilicon may be derived from “utility conveyance” and was a proprietary name given to a type of vehicle body that could be both a van and a passenger carrier.

Stanley A.F. West Ltd., the horticultural machinery supplier from which the railway bought its first one in 1982, advertized it as a “Piaggio Autotruck,” although there was little similarity with the Lister Autotruck other than that it was a three-wheeled goods vehicle.

The original requirement was for a truck that would be useful on sites and able to get into confined spaces. The first one did much of this “local work,” and with its four-speeds in both directions and an odometer that deducted in reverse, a day’s arduous work often showed little or no mileage.

As well as normal East Dartmoor district work, the vehicles had to be capable of covering the occasional long distance diagram. These have seen the little Tuscan workhorses reach such far-flung places as Kingswear, Plymouth, Bodmin, Bude, Barnstaple, Minehead, Taunton and Axminster.

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39 Somerset & Dorset southern terminus – in Hampshire

Many “off duty” scoutings are not intended to produce stories and photos but often do yield subjects of railway or transport interest.

There are some days, though, when a purpose is intended but the unusual opportunities that prompt the scout to rummage in his saddlebag for the railway’s Cybershot seldom arise.

An example of the latter was a long day spent in Dorset in July, 2018, starting with the 04.28 departure of the railway’s utilicon from Christow and followed by a series of train journeys.

  • Exeter (St. David’s) to Yeovil Junction
  • Thornford Halt to Dorchester (West)
  • Dorchester (South) to Moreton
  • Wool to Wareham
  • Holton Heath to Hamworthy Junction
  • Bournemouth (Central) to Branksome
  • Parkstone to Weymouth (Town)
  • Weymouth (Town) to Castle Cary
  • Castle Cary to Exeter (St. David’s)

Breakfast was taken in the delightful refreshment room at Yeovil Junction, which handily opens at six, before the scout rode the quiet lanes to Thornford.

There was time to look around Dorchester and Wool. Coffee and a bun were bought from a trailer on the trading estate that now occupies part of the vast World War I Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath.

The line from Hamworthy Junction to Hamworthy was followed and then the scout crossed to Poole, rode part of the superb waterfront to Sandbanks and obeyed the instruction by walking, not riding, the near three-mile promenade to Bournemouth Pier. Then he rode to Boscombe Pier and back before making his way through the town he had last visited when there were trolleybuses (withdrawn in 1969) to find the station.

At Branksome, he chatted to two traincrew coming from the Bournemouth T. & R.S. Maintenance Depot, which occupies the former carriage sidings on the line towards Bournemouth West. Their mention of “9Fs” showed there was some regard for the old S. & D. They directed the scout towards the site of the old terminus.

Soon he found himself hurtling along the A338 Wessex Way and unknowingly passed over the site of some of the platforms and the goods shed, before cursing the madness of fast-motor roads and flinging his bike over the central barrier and a fence to escape the dual carriageway. Myopic motorists honked their horns, perhaps narked by the scout’s freedom.

The shell of Bath (Green Park) has been restored but there is nothing left of the southern terminus but a nondescript coach and car park. Even the Midland Hotel had closed six years earlier and was now the Midland Heights apartment block.

The scout then rode along busy streets to find Parkstone Station for the train to Weymouth, where there was time for a wander along the front and a bite to eat.

In 2017, the scout had looked forward to returning on the 17.28, the Saturdays-only Weymouth Wizard, because it was formed by an H.S.T. with bookable bike spaces and opening windows, but this year the crush of a lousy three-car D.M.U. about to labour on Upwey bank held no appeal.

The E. & T.V.R. utilicon arrived back at Christow at 20.45. Despite the scout riding 43 miles, covering 211 rail miles on nine trains and calling at 18 open or closed stations (excluding Poole Quay), with nine of them new to him, he took only one photograph.

The extent of the former Somerset & Dorset line within the Bournemouth T. & R.S. Maintenance Depot, 250 yards from the obliterated terminus.
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38 Not a means of stopping trains

According to the British Standards “Glossary of Building and Civil Engineering Terms,” stop block(s) is “deprecated;” the correct term is buffer stop, described as an “assembly provided at the end of a length of track to limit travel of vehicles.”

One old superintendent did not quite take this view. A former goods guard always chuckled as he recalled the droll advice he was given when, not for the first time, he found himself on the carpet after putting a wagon over the blocks while backing off a long freight at Exminster:

“Hansford, the stop block is there to denote the end of the road; it is not a means of stopping trains.”

This buffer stop was last painted in 1984, after it was recovered from van Geest’s siding at Heathfield. Fifty pounds were paid for the stop and 64 ft. of track (32 ft. was once a standard rail length).

Newly-painted after 36 years.

Friend of the railway, Keith Ettle, a renowned modeller, calls it a “long-stop;” its end brace rails are certainly more acute than later types. Its weakness is that the brace rails are not continued alongside the running rail to add strength. What must have been a severe collision long ago has buckled the rail on one side, giving the assembly a characteristic tilt.

The chaired sleepers were brought to Christow on the railway’s half-ton autotruck, five at a time. The rails were loaded, one at a time, onto the autotruck, taken up the ramp and left on the Teign Valley bay platform; this was the only occasion the vehicle ever carried 32-foot wide loads.

A local firm wanted £40 to forklift the buffer stop onto a lorry and so the Christow gang went with blocks, light rails and 45 gallon drums, and jacked up the whole thing. Two drums and a rail formed a bridge so that the lorry could reverse beneath it. The ballast was ramped so that the lorry would pick up the load as it reversed.

Remarkably, after the lorry had berthed alongside the bay and the rails had been slid over, the buffer stop arrangement worked perfectly and a greater time was spent loading the bits that had been used. And all for a saving of £40 (£130 today).

Before it was used in Geest’s private siding, opened in 1963, the buffer stop had been at the end of the Up Siding, where it would have been installed after the branch was “narrowed” in 1892. This official 1943 works’ photo shows the stop in its new position after the siding had just been extended towards Bovey. The buffer rails then had a baulk attached.

In the background can be seen Haytor View, the terrace of houses built by Candy & Co. for its workers, and the footbridge giving access to the factory.

Some of the concrete “pot” sleepers from the Up Siding and the loading gauge are also at Christow.

Another collision occurred at Christow in 1997 when the railway’s brake van had just been put on rail. The brake was applied only lightly because it was intended to push the van with the engine, uncoupled, down the severe gradient. The driver didn’t see the van run away but the crane banksman reported that it “went down the track at a considerable rate and jumped up in the air.”

It was later found that the fish bolts had sheered and the blocks had moved six inches. The simple remedy was to couple the van to the blocks and pull them back with the engine.

The van had new brake blocks which had not had chance to bed in because they had never been used while the wagon was in motion.

The blocks hadn’t been at Christow long when the first item of rolling stock arrived.
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37 Proof that the Teign Valley is set to reopen

A new 11kV overhead line was installed a few years ago across the Teign Valley formation at Horrowmore Farm, between Longdown and Christow. Strangely, it was done as if the railway had been still there or it were intended to put it back, and Network Rail staff were on site, demanding the usual precautions, like extensive earth matting around the poles positioned outside the former boundaries.

It may be that a legal document was found in Western Power Distribution’s files that required the permission of the railway authority be obtained. Was it that Western Power couldn’t take it as being obsolete and that Network Rail, when consulted, didn’t have the sense to waive it?

No explanation of this has so far been unearthed by the scout, who will continue with his enquiries.

The construction of the Exeter Railway between the main line junction and Christow involved massive earthworks, but in several places it is only a “contour” line, as here, making little impression on the ground.
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36 Chenson

Taking the high road out of Crediton, the scout rode as far as Chenson No. 3 Crossing, before taking the bridleway through the woods from Chenson No. 2 to Hawkridge Cross. From there he returned via Nymet Rowland, Down St. Mary, Copplestone, Coleford, Colebrooke and Yeoford (38 miles).

A mile from the halfway point on the Exeter to Barnstaple road lies “Old Toll House” at Chenson. This and the road as far as Eggesford were built by the Exeter Turnpike Trust in around 1829.

The pavement of compacted stone would have been no more than two thirds the width of the present carriageway and may have had a high crown, Telford fashion, with verges and ditches on either side.

There would most probably have been a turnpike (lifting barrier) or gate across the road and a door at the front of the house where there is now a window.

The Exeter to Barnstaple turnpike was completed not long before the railway, but well-engineered roads brought greatly improved communication across the country much earlier.

Enthusiasts claim that it is important to preserve the railways of the steam era as working museums. The plenty of rather muddled reenactment lines gives weight to a very short span even of the railway age, let alone the long history of transport in general. Little or no importance is given to the construction and use of all-purpose roads over centuries.

The huge interest in steam locomotives arises from their being quite spectacular in operation. For fixated men, so-called “heritage” provides an excuse to play trains and has little to do with recognition of the former essential function of the railways.

The scout’s idea of spectacle is not a “modern” steam locomotive hauling an excursion along the Taw Valley, a painful reminder of how British railways held on to archaic traction, watched by people who never travel by train and have no deep understanding of rail transport.

No, a spectacle for the scout would be seeing a coach and four pull up here, having raised the dust on the road behind. It would be seeing the movement of the horses while they paused and the gentle adjustment of their harnesses. It would be admiring the craftsmanship of the coachbuilder and wheelwright, the gaiety of the finish, the slender sections of English hardwoods used in the frame, spokes and shaft, all beautifully chamfered and lined. It would be seeing the coachman reaching down to hand the gatekeeper a coin or two so that he would open the barrier. It would be marvelling at the dress and manners of the people and the method of operation.

But the scout will never see such a spectacle reenacted or indeed any other aspect of the roads of the period recreated.

Modern reality: Keeping his ears pricked for the approach of a fast motor vehicle, lest this should become another roadside shrine (that’s if anyone bothered), the scout snaps another feature of turnpikes, nicely presented here. On the face appropriate to the direction of travel is marked EXON XIX (19) MILES and BARUM XXI (21) MILES.

Chenson No. 2 Crossing, viewed from the turnpike. It was here, in the sunshine of a year ago, that the scout was first moved to say a few words while pointing the railway’s new movie camera. The public bridleway leads over the River Taw and through the woods to Hawkridge Cross.

From the crossing can be seen one of the many bridges built when it was intended to double the North Devon line throughout. This one would have carried a new Down line over a small tributary of the Taw. Item Number 25 on the Cornwall Railway Society page devoted to the E. & T.V.R. has close-ups of Homeland Bridge near Eggesford, which now carries a diverted public footpath.

From the crossing can be seen the “adjustment switch,” or “breather,” that takes up the movement at the end of a length of continuous welded rail. The flat-bottom rail that forms the joint continues and is Thermit-welded to the jointed bull-head rail beyond. On double lines, the switch tongues trail in the normal direction of traffic; here this would be coming towards the camera.

It is those dipped joints that caused the “hammer blows” heard from within a Class 143 D.M.U. on this section, recorded here https://youtu.be/zvIcHpux6Sk

The axle load of a Class 143 is about 12 tons, considerably more than the Class 158s now in use on the line.

It was only after riding on from Hawkridge Cross that the scout remembered once regularly buying butter from Hawkridge Farm, part of whose large complex he had passed through.

After taking lunch in the perfect peace of the churchyard of little St. Bartholomew’s Church in Nymet Rowland, the scout continued, pausing on the overbridge at Colebrooke Mill to peer at what remains of the former Southern main line.

The junction of private and Network Rail ownership, just around the curve from Coleford “divergence,” once the junction of two double lines.

With the American operator of the line that strangely was lost from the national network being in administration, it is not known when the long hoped-for passenger service to Okehampton will commence.

Behind the camera, around 30 of the 150 miles of the former network (not counting the light railway) remain.

It is rare to find a railway bridge not carrying a cycle path that has been blast cleaned and painted. This is Waterleat at Colebrooke. The bridge once carried a double line but now it carries two single lines.

At the former Coleford Junction, not far away on the left, the lines diverge, one to Barnstaple and the other to Okehampton. Just beyond the bridge to the right is a public footpath which leads all the way to Yeoford, one which the scout last took forty-odd years ago.

From the train, only a glimpse is had of the interesting features at Keymelford Road.

The Yeoford station sign being almost completely obscured was brought to the attention of an officer of Tarka Rail Association, who immediately informed railway management. Clipping the hedge would be a finishing touch to a station that has recently been repainted.

At Salmon Pool Crossing the two single lines from Crediton are seen going towards Yeoford.

In a normal year, trains would now be running to Okehampton on Sundays, but with Dartmoor Railway going into administration last year there has not been any train for some time, and it is not known when there will be one again.

With zoom, even the live line to Barnstaple looks rather unkempt.
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35 Torbay

The scout takes in the sight of a major holiday resort in glorious sunshine, boarded up for the summer.

Rusty Rails and Red Signals. In common with all the fun railways, Dartmouth Steam Railway, which operates the section of the former Kingswear Branch beyond Paignton, was found closed because of plague. The gate at the top of the steps at Goodrington was shut and the rails alongside the Down platform, which would normally be polished, were dull and brown.

While other tourist attractions have the prospect of being able to open in some form by summer, the railways, naturally depending as they do upon people being in confined spaces, look set to lose the season in its entirety. And if they do not, the manner of operation will be so restricted that being open will produce only small receipts.

As is often the case when the scout visits, a day or so later there is mention of the place in the papers. Here, it was in connection with a bid by two M.Ps. to have the national network extended to Goodrington and Churston.


Hennapyn Bridge. A short detour off the coast road between Torquay and Paignton gives this glimpse of a sumptuous villa and Tor Bay beyond. But what looks like a cared-for public space in the foreground is actually a railway bridge, built to “accommodate” access to land severed by the railway, when there had been no development of the genteel resort.

Today it carries a short public footpath between Torbay Road and Hennapyn Road, from where a tour of the abundant villas of Chelston may be commenced.

Hennapyn Bridge. Looking Up line over the scarcely visible parapet, the line is seen sweeping beneath Seaway Lane towards Torquay.

Chudleigh Bypass. On his return from Torbay, the scout took a breather on his 50-mile ride and thought that he ought to take the railway’s utilicon further afield while the A38 dual-carriageway was still quiet.

The garish sign tells of the approach to what is now “Chudleigh Station” road junction. Usefully, the sign marks the exact position of the branch railway that was destroyed to make this road in 1973.

Unlike the incursion made by the A30 dual carriageway at Alphington, the difficulty here could easily be overcome. Between Chudleigh and the other side of Little Bovey Bridge, there is sufficient space for the line to be rebuilt never far from its original course.

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The E. & T.V.R. scout, having on occasion sent a few photographs to the esteemed elders of the Cornwall Railway Society, in time rather got into the habit after his outings of submitting a short story, often under the general heading of “Route Learning” or “Route Refresher.”

Keith Jenkin, who must be the Duchy’s most senior webmaster, became accustomed to receiving these scouting season dispatches and eventually bestowed upon the E. & T.V.R. the honour of its own section, now complete with index, on the huge C.R.S. web station.

This outlet for the stories and discoveries that find no place on the railway’s more formal web pages, and some of the many library photos that would never otherwise be seen, has made the case for an appendix to teignrail dot com, one that can be edited by the junior clerk.

Though he is too kind a man ever to admit it,  Keith will be relieved not to be burdened with sudden loads of photographs accompanied by long-winded captions, references and links. However, his adherents, if they are interested, will be able to continue following the Teign Valley’s forays into the field.

If any reader wishes to see what went before and gave rise to this appendix, the C.R.S. Teign Valley section can be found here. Many more contributions were made but these will be lost in the monthly archives, though these are well worth exploring, as are all the other sections on this splendid resource.

The Teign Valley must extend its gratitude to the C.R.S. for setting this previously unimagined course; in particular, Keith must be thanked for his endless patience, often under trying conditions.

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