Throughout history, Britain’s railways have been the envy of the world, traversing the beauty of its landscape and connecting communities across more than 20,000 miles of track. While at least half of this impressive network has disappeared over the past century, much as a result of the quest for improved efficiency in the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s, the well-worn routes that remain provide the perfect vantage point from which to explore the hidden gems that lie along them.
In the series return of Walking Britain’s Lost Railways, engineer Rob Bell reprises his role as host and guide in uncovering more of the world’s oldest railway system, beginning his eight-part expedition among the rolling green hills and spectacular cliffs that shape the wild coastline of North Devon.
Nestled between these cliffs, the seaside resort town of Ilfracombe was once one of Britain’s best kept secrets, a small fishing community with an idyllic vista. That was until the 1870s when the Ilfracombe–Barnstaple line was opened by the London and South Western Railway, initially a single line that was quickly upgraded to a double-track line due to its popularity. This was later joined by the Atlantic Coast Express Service which cemented this little seaside gem as a popular holiday destination with London’s upper classes, just a stone’s throw from the world-class beaches that would later play host to surf-loving American GIs in the 1940s.
It’s these glimpses into history that Bell is seeking as he heads to the small river port town of Barnstaple, from which the service took the second part of its name, on the banks of the River Taw. Here he finds himself in the rail hub of North Devon, commencing an adventurous, narrow-gauge route that uncovers the extraordinary tale of the line’s construction and examines the very short section that has been fully restored.
Once back on the coast, Bell reaches Lynton, a small town set amid the beauty of an area known as England’s Little Switzerland, and discovers a Victorian seaside world steeped in history, complete with a surviving cliff railway that ushers him to the shoreline. Though challenging at points, it’s a walker’s paradise, and with each new section of the track, engineering marvels are revealed. So, too, are the stories, embedded into the landscape waiting to be uncovered.
The series continually highlights the ability of rail travel to connect and create, with the communities established by these now abandoned lines forever changed by their presence. As Bell’s walk takes him from the rugged cliffs of Devon to the formidable mountains, valleys and lochs of the Scottish highlands, the regency splendour of the Cotswolds and its picture-perfect villages, and the final great line of the Victorian era through the East Midlands, each episode reiterates the transformative role of these networks in shaping the geographical fabric of Britain.
By the time Bell reaches Cornwall, where deep mines prompted the invention of steam locomotives, and continues through Yorkshire, Kent and crosses the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, it is hard not to marvel at this far-reaching network. While the landscapes that surround these lost railways are breathtaking in their sheer scale and beauty, and what remains of the infrastructure has stood the test of time for more than a century, it’s the ability of these railways to bring to life people and communities they reached that is perhaps it’s greatest legacy.
It’s impossible not to get swept up in the sense of adventure and enthusiasm that Bell brings to this journey, buoyed by the unique perspective offered by tackling these tracks on foot. This is a series that is for rail enthusiasts and anglophiles alike, as forgotten worlds are rediscovered and new ones are explored. The pace is slower, but this only serves to make the whole experience more enjoyable, allowing plenty of time to take in the treasures of the past and celebrate what endures.
The new season of Walking Britain’s Lost Railways premieres Saturday 3 July at 7:30pm on SBS. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand for a limited time: episodes 1–4 till 16 August, and episodes 5–8 till 6 November.