THE GATEWAY TO PENSTONE
The memories of a Victorian structure as told to me by the late Penstone Bridge I was erected some 170 years ago together with my “twin”, Waterleat Bridge, a couple of hundred yards south, who for unknown reasons has recently been labelled Yeoford Bridge. In reference books, it is Waterleat Bridge No 573, 183 miles from Waterloo. We were built to enable the railway, which had recently been extended from Bristol to Exeter, to carry its passengers and goods through to Barnstaple. Initially, I carried a single line. For road users, I became known as the Gateway to Penstone. I watched with interest during the 1860s as another track was added to “our” track just above Waterleat Bridge which would eventually make its way to Plymouth via Okehampton. The connection was known as Coleford Junction, much to the annoyance of the villagers of Penstone, who maintained it should have been Penstone Junction. This track began as a single line but was later doubled. I watched the landscape change as a huge mound was built beside Colebrooke Mill to enable a bridge to be erected to carry the road over the railway to Colebrooke. (This resulted in the old Mill House taking damp so bad that in later years it was pulled down and a new one built about 1900) At the same time, it was decided that I must carry a double line at least as far as Copplestone. These changes brought about the need for a signal box between Waterleat and myself which opened in 1877. Coleford Junction Signal Box. One of the first signalmen to operate the box was Richard Jerrett. During the 1870s, the LSWR had purchased a block of land in Penstone, and I was able to watch as three cottages for railwaymen were erected on the left-hand side as you enter Penstone. It was into one of these that Richard and his family moved in 1878. In the 1880s, I watched as another group of cottages built of stone were erected at Penstone by Thomas Lee. These became known as Braggs Cottages. (Thomas had been born and lived at Braggs Farm, now known as Redlands.) One Saturday morning in April 1927, I watched with horror as the railway cottages were burnt down. The fire started in lime stored in a shed of the cottage now known as West End. The cottages, although completely gutted, were thankfully swiftly rebuilt. One of the first occupants of the new houses was signalman Bill Keat. With signalman “Mac” Matthews, they were part of Penstone life for many years. Because the railway cottages had so little garden area, the railwaymen were permitted to cultivate suitable parts of the railway banks. Bill and Mac made use of what is now the Penstone Glade for allotments. One of the railway gangers or lengthsmen as they came to be known, Frank Smith, who lived at No 3, had a garden on the bank beside me, adjacent to where the car park is now, in which he also had apple trees and fruit bushes, much to the enjoyment of local children!!
By the early 1920s, LSWR had become Southern Railway, and I became used to having longer passenger trains thundering over me, including “The Atlantic Coast Express”. Perhaps the most notable train was the Pullman “Devon Belle” with its unique observation car at the rear, which was produced by SR after the war. Initially, people would gather in the road either side of me to watch it pass. However, a few years after 1947 nationalisation, this was discontinued. Another introduction at this time was the more streamlined green “West Country Class” steam locomotive. Schoolboys would ascend any vantage point around me to get the numbers and names of these machines with their different sounding horns. The first one 21C101 was Exeter. Over the years, the North Devon Line carried many types of freight.
Long trains of fifty or sixty trucks were not uncommon, particularly during and just after the war. I got used to the sounds of the different trucks, especially the cattle wagons on market days. If the train had to halt at a signal, the odd “Moo” could be heard from the line above me. Sadly this was soon to change. As the country recovered from the war and rationing receded, more cars and buses appeared on the road, providing people with an alternative means of movement. Also, more goods were being transported by road. An annual event I used to see would be men arrive in early summer with scythes to mow the railway banks to reduce the chance of large fires started by sparks from the engines. If a fire started near Coleford or Penstone, a shout would go up “Batters Burning!” batter being an old word for a steep bank. Gradually the men I knew and saw regularly began to dwindle, gangs being brought in from further afield. I missed the “Tink Tink” sound of the local ganger walking his length, tapping in the odd wedge on the rail. Then in 1963, Dr Beeching “wielded his axe”, removing many branch lines and severely curtailing the traffic on our line. By 1970 goods traffic had virtually disappeared, and the steam engine was being replaced by smaller diesel units. I became a single line again, as did the “Plymouth” line, thus removing the need for Coleford Junction signal box, which was closed in 1971. These final years for me have been noteworthy for one other thing apart from my destruction The coming of the welded rail. No longer did I hear the clicketty-clack and be able to gauge the speed of the train as it passed over the joints in the rails. Instead, there was a roar as it passed overhead like some ghostly monster. So now, dear friends, if you should pass through the new “Gateway to Penstone”, just hesitate a while and try to visualise what I saw around me these last 170 years. There have been many changes, not always for the better.