It is hard to believe that two island platforms serving four tracks once existed at this rural location on the Exe Estuary marshes, 4¾-route-miles south of Exeter St Davids. Closed to passengers for more than half a century, the site has seen subsequent uses as a base for bird watching and, of late, antique sales. Recent house building has resulted in the village of Exminster expanding closer to the former station site, and proposals to reopen platforms on the line here have surfaced, although remain a very outside possibility at present.
The South Devon Railway (SDR) was opened to public traffic between Exeter and Teignmouth on Saturday 30th June 1846, having been laid as a single-track 7-foot 0¼-inch Broad Gauge line. It was proposed to run this on the atmospheric principle, but until the necessary pump houses were commissioned and pipe laid, standard locomotive haulage was employed. Extension of operations to Newton Abbot occurred in the following September, Totnes in July 1847, and Plymouth in May 1847.
In those very first years of the SDR, no platform was provided at Exminster for passengers; the station was a later addition to the line, coming into use on Wednesday 1st September 1852. However, at the time of commissioning, the station’s operational convenience (or lack of) was met by disdain in the local press:
South Devon Railway - This day (Wednesday), the Exminster station is opened; but such is the stupidity of the arrangement, that parties wishing to travel from Exeter to Exminster can only avail themselves of the 7.35 a.m., or 6.5 p.m. trains. Those who have been contemplating pleasant trips to Turf, or Topsham, will thus be disappointed. [Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, Thursday, 2nd September 1852]
The station had been funded by George Hennet (or, according to some sources, “Hennett”), a railway contractor, businessman, and one-time next-door neighbor of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had been a supplier to the SDR during its construction, notably producing the pipes for the line’s atmospheric system. With reference to the latter, this only had a brief existence, operating from 13th September 1847 to 6th September of the following year, its western limit being Newton Abbot. The cost of keeping the atmospheric system going had prompted shareholders to vote unanimously for its abandonment at their Half Yearly Meeting on 29th August 1848; the scheme had left the SDR so destitute that Hennet stepped in to fund and operate a series of goods sidings along the route on behalf of the company, in addition to providing the station at Exminster. Indeed, there was much bad feeling in the local press against the atmospheric principle and the near financial ruin in which it had left the SDR:
… the Atmospheric, now about to be abandoned with a universal expression of disgust. We feel no sentiment of exultation at this complete and lamentable fulfilment of our oft-repeated predictions. Our only emotion is unmitigated pity [Exeter & Plymouth Gazette; Saturday, 2nd September 1848]
For such a rural location, the main station building at Exminster was substantial, being located behind the platform on the western side of the single running line. A two-storey-high brick-built twin-pitched-roof structure, incorporating the Station Master’s house, booking hall, and offices, was evident, the main part of which was 35-foot wide by as much long.
The building featured deeply-set windows – Venetian in style – and a roof line which overhung the gable. These design elements are arguably shared with Brunel’s still extant former pump house at Starcross, albeit the latter being constructed from sandstone blocks rather than brick. The main building at Exminster could well be a Brunel design, although your author has no hard evidence to back this up.
The 3¾-route miles between Exminster and Starcross was widened to double-track in 1860, the contract for the work being awarded to Mr. J. Holmes of Shrewsbury. Public train services commenced over the upgraded route on Saturday 29th September 1860, by which time some of the track was already in place for the doubling of the line between Exminster and Exeter. Of the latter, the commissioning of this section as far north as the city’s St Thomas station, then in the middle of rebuilding, was reported in the local press:
One additional link of the double line – that between the station at St. Thomas and the Exminster station – was on Monday morning [17th June 1861] used for public traffic for the first time. The first regular train passing over it was that which left Exeter for Plymouth at 9.45 on Monday morning. [The Tavistock Gazette, Friday 21st June 1861]
In combination with the line’s doubling, Exminster received a second platform, on the eastern side of the running lines, the new surface serving “down” trains. Passengers journeyed between the platforms by means of a road bridge which was built immediately north of the station as part of the same works; staircases led from the bridge to the platforms. The upgraded station was described in a report published by the Board of Trade, which documented a fatality at Exminster on 16th January 1863:
Exminster Station is situated rather more than 4½ miles south of Exeter Station; the line of railway is double between those places, and there are up and down platforms at the sides of the double line. A public road is carried over the railway by an overbridge, immediately north of the station platforms, which are sloped off at the ends, in accordance with the requirements of the inspecting officers of the Board of Trade; and the total length of the down platform, including these sloping ends, is 368 feet. Provision has been made for lighting the down platform with six oil lamps, fixed on posts, and placed 50 feet apart; but it has not been usual to light more than half that number, and the booking constable in charge of the station states that, prior to this accident, no complaints have ever been made as to an insufficiency of light, when that number of lamps have been lit. Four up and four down trains appear to call at the station during week days, and about 60 passengers are daily booked to or from the station. [Exminster Accident Report, Railway Department, Board of Trade, 23rd February 1863]
In addition to the double-track, an Ordnance Survey dated 1889 shows a single siding with a trailing connection to the “up” line, terminating behind the platform on that side, just short of the main station building. This siding is likely to have been a feature of the station since opening, and one of a series funded and managed by George Hennet on the SDR. Although provided by Hennet, these sidings were laid on SDR land and, as part of the agreement with that company, were available for use by the public for a charge. Unfortunately, Hennet had previously fallen on hard times; his bankruptcy was announced in the City of London in March 1853 and “the celebrated railway contractor”, as remarked in the Worcestershire Chronicle on 16th of that month, had estimated liabilities of £200,000 (£20,390,000 at 2019 prices). The SDR eventually purchased the station at Exminster, presumably from Hennet’s creditors.
Effective from 1st August 1878, the SDR was absorbed into the Great Western Railway (GWR). The end of the Broad Gauge came in 1892 when, over the weekend of 21st and 22nd May of that year, the 106-route miles of line west of Exeter was converted to standard gauge; the latter measured 4-foot 8½-inches wide in-between the inside edges of the rails. At Exminster and, indeed, multiple stations, the legacy of the Broad Gauge lived on, for compared to other companies’ railways, the gap in-between adjacent running lines and opposing platforms was unusually wide. Alterations immediately after gauge conversion included the provision of a signal box at the southern end of Exminster’s “down” platform, insertion of a trailing crossover between the running lines, and extension of the “up” side coal siding (on the site of Hennet’s Broad Gauge original) southwards to more or less triple its previous length. A cylindrical water tank had also appeared on the “up” platform, near to the main station building.
During 1924, a series of improvements to the railway infrastructure in the West Country was reported in the local press, which included changes at Exminster:
New Railway Works
Additional Line at Exminster
The Great Western Railway directors yesterday authorized further new works in the West of England.
The enormous passenger traffic to Devon and Cornwall last year has necessitated consideration being given to a pre-war scheme for providing additional accommodation at Exminster, and a new loop line on the down side, for the passage of more important traffic. In addition, refuge sidings are to be lengthened. [The Western Morning News and Mercury, Saturday, 5th January 1924].
The passing loop required a second bridge span to be inserted under the road at the station’s northern end. As part of these works, a replacement signal box was commissioned and, like its predecessor, this sat on the “down” side of the railway, immediately east of the then new passing loop. It was a two-storey-high structure, wholly of timber construction, built to a standard GWR design; the cabin was not unlike Exeter West Box, at St Davids station, which had been commissioned in 1913, albeit that at Exminster having a basic pitched, rather than hipped roof. The alterations were completed in time for the heavy summer holiday traffic starting in July.
As part of a second major upgrade of GWR lines, further, more substantial changes were soon on the horizon at Exminster. It was proposed to provided four tracks through the station, served by an equal number of platform faces, which meant that stopping services could clear the main line for express trains. The scheme, which was not limited to Devon, was outlined in the local press at the time:
Big Railway Schemes
The fourth big list of schemes undertaken with the government for relieving unemployment is announced by the Great Western Railway.
Didcot Station is to be enlarged and a modern locomotive depot provided.
Three of the stations between Didcot and Swindon - Wantage Road, Challow, and Shrivenham - are to be improved, and converted into four-line stations.
Swindon Station and the running lines are to be rearranged.
Stations at Wellington, Tiverton Junction, Cullompton, Stoke Canon and Exminster are to be improved and made into four-line stations. [Reynolds’s Illustrated News: 27th July 1930]
The alterations at Exminster, completed in 1931, were substantial. Two island platforms, about 770-feet in length, now served the double-track main line and two loops, which required a widening of the road bridge at the station’s northern end. The new arrangements saw the main station building become isolated from the platforms; consequently, this was taken out of use and a small ticket office erected at road level as a replacement. The single coal siding which formerly terminated behind the original “up” platform was replaced by a goods loop, and sidings sprouted from the new passenger loops both north and south of the station site. Upon each platform, large timber waiting rooms were built, those on the “up” and “down” sides being about 40-feet and 30-feet in length respectively. Unusually, their designs were different to each other, that on the “up” island having a hipped slated roof, whilst its “down” side counterpart had a basic pitched roof akin to the signal box. A water tank remained a feature of the station, a larger version than its predecessor being erected on the “up” island, about 50-feet north of the platform waiting shelter.
Wartime brought yet further growth to the layout at Exminster. In 1941, a second loop line was laid on the “down” side, behind the signal box; at its southern end, this loop sprouted a trio of sidings. A lengthy southward-facing siding, about 250-yards in length, which had been laid as part of the 1931 alterations on the “down” side of the main line, north of the station, was also converted into a loop. Based on an article in the local press at the time, reporting the fatality of a railway labourer at Exminster, these works appear to have taken place in the June:
Inquiry was resumed at Exminster Railway Station yesterday into the death of a labourer, temporarily employed by the Great Western Railway Company, who was struck by a train while at work closing a joint in the rails on a loop line, and while standing in close proximity to the main down line, about half a mile on the Exeter side of Exminster Station on June 25. [The Western Morning News, Tuesday, 1st July 1941]
The GWR years had brought great expansion at Exminster; the subsequent British Railways (BR) era was to be one of station closure and rationalisation. In Clinker’s Register of Closed Passenger Stations and Goods Depots (C. R. Clinker, 1981), it is noted that the station ceased to be fully staffed from 26th September 1955, but this was just a prelude to much greater change. In Dr Beeching’s 1963 report called “The Reshaping of British Railways”, Exminster – in addition to neighbouring Exeter St Thomas and Starcross – was listed for closure to passenger traffic. Eventually, the latter two managed to avoid losing their passenger services, but effective from 30th March 1964 was the closure of Exminster station:
Closing on March 30
The first of the South Devon railway stations to be closed under the Beeching Plan will be Kingskerswell.
The British Railways Board announced today that it was intended to discontinue all passenger train services from Kingskerswell from March 30.
Objections can be lodged with the South-Western Area Transport Users’ Consultative Committee in Bristol until February 28.
The Railways Board cite as alternative transport the fast and semi-fast services which will continue to serve Newton Abbot, and the No. 12 bus service from Torquay to Newton Abbot.
Exminster station, on the Exeter to Newton Abbot line, is also due to be closed on March 30. [Herald Express [Torquay]; Thursday 2nd January 1964]
Goods traffic survived at the site only a short while longer; Clinker’s Register of Closed Passenger Stations and Goods Depots shows complete closure to public freight being effective from 4th December 1967, coal traffic having ceased to be handled earlier, from 6th September 1965.
The original station house of 1852 remained in existence, albeit derelict, and the signal box of 1924 continued to control this section of the main line and the remaining sidings. The latter were gradually rationalised over a two decade period; the last of these was lifted as part of re-signalling works, which saw the Exeter Panel take control of the area. Exminster’s signal box was closed on 14th November 1986 and, at this time, semaphore signals were replaced by colour aspect lights.
The signal box survived at the former station site for another two decades, being used during that time as a bird-watching outpost. It was finally dismantled in 2006 for re-use on the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway, but your author understands that the plans to re-erect the structure there fell through, and sadly the parts have been scrapped.
Click the above for a larger version.
© David Glasspool Collection
The bridge carrying the M5 is in the background of this Exeter-bound view, which shows Class 50 No. 50015 "Valiant" heading south towards the coast with a BR Mk 1 Full Brake and BR Mk 2 air-conditioned stock in tow. This photograph was taken from the road bridge immediately north of the former station site, which is behind the cameraman. The track merging on the right, by the locomotive, was the remains of the "down" loop, which had started life as a siding in 1931 and was then connected at its northern end to the main line ten years later. To the right of No. 50015 can just be seen the former track bed of where the loop continued northwards. On the left is the "up" loop; a siding used to continue beyond the points here, too, the stub of which is in evidence. Where the "up" loop joins the main line can just be seen a trailing crossover between the running lines.
© David Glasspool Collection
30th August 1986
The former main station building of 1852 was in desperate need of attention by the time of this 1986 view. Ten years later, it was restored to its former glory and became a residential home. Today, the site is also used for storage and sale of architectural antiques. On the right, in the background, can be seen the GWR signal box of 1924, which by this time had just 2½-months left of operation.
© David Glasspool Collection