Everyone is familiar with the scenic railway line between Exeter and Plymouth. This is the old Great Western Railway route, pioneered by Brunel, which skirts the southern side of Dartmoor. Less well known is the fact that there used to be an alternative main line route to Plymouth around the northern edge of Dartmoor.
This was built as part of the London and South Western Railway during the latter half of the 19th century. Passing through Crediton, Okehampton and Tavistock, it also served as the access to the North Cornwall lines to Padstow and Bude, which left the main line near Okehampton.
The London and South Western became part of the Southern Railway in the 1920s, and until the 1960s the Southern line to Plymouth offered as good a service as the GWR line. However, the Beeching reviews concluded that it was no longer needed and the line was demolished beyond Okehampton in 1968. Passenger services continued from Exeter to Okehampton until 1972, but after that the line was only retained for stone trains from Meldon Quarry, just west of Okehampton.
In the second half of the 1990s a new company was set up, Dartmoor Railway, to investigate further use of the railway to Okehampton. A partnership of the private and public sectors has now established a passenger service between Exeter and Okehampton on summer Sundays. In addition, weekend services are run throughout the year, together with most weekdays in July, August and September, between Okehampton and Meldon. In 2004 Dartmoor Railway started services to the newly renovated Sampford Courtenay station, the next station east of Okehampton.
Okehampton Station was extensively renovated in the late 1990s and now superbly represents the appearance of a Southern Railway station in the 1950s. It includes a station buffet. Sampford Courtenay station was renovated 2003-04 and reopened in 2004. This small station was originally called Okehampton Road, and then Belstone Corner, before taking the name Sampford Courtenay, although it is some 1.5 miles/2.5km from that village.
If you are interested in visiting Sampford Courtenay village, take the road opposite the station entrance and follow it for 1.5 miles/2.5km. Sampford Courtenay is a very attractive village and has a pub.
Dartmoor becomes clearly visible, the great dome of Cosdon Hill especially prominent. Further along the walk is the more rugged outline of Belstone Tor.
The noise of traffic has been becoming more noticeable for a little while and soon the main A30 road between Exeter and Okehampton comes into view. This stretch of the road forms part of the Sticklepath by-pass.
Lower Priestacott farm may well have origins dating back to the 16th century. It is a former Dartmoor longhouse, where one end would have been inhabited by a farming family, the other end by livestock.
Belstone was “discovered ” as a romantic location during the Victorian era, which accounts for the typical Victorian buildings. It occupies a very scenic location, best appreciated by turning left at the Tors Inn to the green and the end of the dramatic feature of Belstone Cleave, where the River Taw cuts a deep cleft in the moorland edge.
At this point our route meets the Tarka Trail, which comes to the village from Belstone Cleave. You may notice some otter pawprint waymarks for the Trail here and there.
As the track continues to rise, incredibly wide views over a vast area of Devon open up on the right. On the left is the open moorland of Watchet Hill, with Belstone Tor now quite close.
There are more superb views, over the East Okement valley and again over a wide area of Devon ahead.
The East Okement rises on the boggy moorland of north Dartmoor and flows north off the moor to meet the West Okement at Okehampton. The combined River Okement continues north to become a major tributary of the River Torridge, finally meeting the sea near Bideford.
This is a wonderfully attractive section, the river tumbling over rocks, with rapids and small waterfalls. But be aware that the path is quite rocky in places and can be slippery when wet. Take great care over this length.
The Devonshire Heartland Way joins us again here, and the spindle berry flower reappears on waymarks, while the Tarka Trail leaves us to head for the town centre.
The name of Tramlines wood, and the origin of the path we are walking, derives from tracks laid during the building of Fatherford railway viaduct in the 1870s.