DEVON'S TARKA Line wanders through a surprisingly empty quarter where there are few villages - and even those that exist are seldom within sight of their station. Farm produce used to be sent out from long-dismantled goods yards along the route.
From the junction where the Barnstaple line turns north away from the London to Penzance main line, the train follows the river Yeo from its confluence with the Exe. To the west, Newton St Cyres clings to a steep hill displaying the occasional bloody gash of red Devon soil. The station at the former wool town of Crediton has that rare facility, a proper tea- room.
Beyond Yeoford, the line to Okehampton veers west, served by summer Sunday trains. Set amid gently rolling country, the station at Copplestone was where the future Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin caught the train to school in Crediton.
Soon after Lapford and its picturesque mill, the wooded hills close in and the Yeo is replaced by the Taw, the river described by Henry Williamson in Tarka the Otter, and still popular with fly- fishermen.
The sound of a waterfall at Eggesford can be heard while the guard descends to operate the level-crossing barriers, the tranquil branch line atmosphere belying the line's past as the route of seasonal restaurant car expresses. Winding through alternate broad and narrow valleys of isolated farms, cottages and sawmills, the train passes Chapelton and a large cream-stuccoed house on the hillside to the west, Tawstock Court, now a school.
The ancient port of Barnstaple offers access to the South West Coastal Footpath and the Tarka Trail, a 180-mile walking and part- cycle route in a large figure-of-eight. Bicycles can be hired at the station every day between Easter and October from Tarka Trail Cycle Hire (01271 324202), with a discount for rail passengers.
Cheap day return pounds 9.90
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