Avonwick to Loddiswell and back, September 14th 2021
Part 1. South to Loddiswell.
On the 14th September 1963 the last train pulled it’s
way out of South Brent Station bound for Kingsbridge down the
Primrose Line. The axe had fallen on the line despite huge local
opposition: Government took no notice; nothing changes.
So to commemorate the event on the same day in 2021 I decided to walk a good portion of the route from Avonwick to Avon Mill near Loddiswell and back, a round trip of around twenty miles.
I parked my car at Avonwick on a misty, moisty morning. Avonwick’s rush hour was in full spate, the drivers probably oblivious to the fact that until the 1870s Avonwick had been called Newhouse.
After a scary crossing of the road bridge, (“Avonwick New Bridge”) on the opposite side to the toll house (first mentioned in 1841), I set off along the road towards Avonwick station which was built at Benecknowle because, apparently, the local Nob didn’t want oiks near his house.
river Avon (Aune or Auan) is on my right, mostly invisible through
trees and bushes. The walk will follow it’s course and that of the
railway for most of the way. The first railway bridge over the road
has been demolished but the supporting stonework on either side is
clearly visible although
Nature is doing it’s best to hide it.
A short walk and I’m at the station (opened in 1893), now a private residence. In a field opposite a flock of sheep bleat lustily. Plenty of blackberries in the hedgerow; Autumn provender.
An overalled farmer on a quad bike gives me a cheery "Mornin!’ as he roars past. I stop to take a look at the attractive Oakenham Bridge which might have been an old packhorse bridge built for access to nearby lime kilns.
I arrive at Diptford (formerly "Depeford", literally "deep ford") at 8.53 having taken too many photos en route. Diptford is where my wife, Sara, went to school, and it still has a thriving Church Of England primary school. It’s a pleasant village with both thatched roofed and tile-faced cottages. The river forms the parish boundary. Diptford parish is on the eastern side, North Huish on the west. The railway ran through North Huish parish at this point crossing into Diptford parish below Bickham Bridge where I arrive at 8.33am
Bickham is an ancient crossing where two important ridgeways meet. There was a bridge here in 962A.D. when is was called Beoccan Bridge. This is where I leave the proper metalled roads for a while, and on a corner where the unmetalled road starts (the sign lies as it is actually metalled for a quarter of a mile as far as Broadley) is a whitewashed stone cottage with a plaque above the windows proclaiming "Charles Horswell. 1828. Master Builder Moses Elliott". I wonder who Moses was and what other buildings in the area he built. I walk past the cottage and up the hill passing Broadley Tree Nursery and thence down to Broadley.
9.07am. Sound and sight of the first Buzzard of the day.
At Broadley a goat standing on a corrugated roof of a pig sty (or maybe it’s just a goat-house) watches me go by.
Then the unmetalled road begins, and there is a solitary staddle stone straddled by ivy on my left. Along the cobblestone-laid track there are stands of uncoppiced hazel.
The path winds down to meet the river. Delicious damp earthy Autumn scents. There’s a bench perched on the side of the bank from which a Dipper, a portly black bird with a white bib, launches itself over the water. I’m sorry to have disturbed it.
Further on there’s a mini hydro-electric generator, screw turbine I think. Apart from electricity it’s also generating an unnatural bass thrumming noise. I’m always fascinated by it, the turbine that is, and wonder why we generally don’t make more use of hydro power although there are several small schemes higher up the river as well as the larger scheme at Avon Dam.
The path emerges at Gara Bridge (Gare Bridge in the Old Days) where there are the first signs of Human life since leaving Diptford. The path goes through the drive of several old houses. I hear a conversation and see someone in a doorway. I cross the lane leaving the river and bridge away on my right. I’ll walk over it on the return leg.
A mast and rigging rise up behind a tall hedge, presumably there’s a boat attached. Even the Vikings would have struggled to bring a longboat up the river this far so I guess this one came by lane. Actually, the river is so low you could have carried a boat from way downstream to here given enough menpower.
From Gara Bridge to Topsham Bridge, about a mile as the Dipper, flies, there is no footpath or track bed to follow so I’m forced to take to the hills along a lane that necessitates an arduous climb (1 in 5) up a long drag to Preston Cross (168m above sea level). Luckily it’s still fairly cool. No problem then. Just past Storridge Wood I meet my first fellow-walker of the day. He’s a tall be-hatted hi-viz hiker with Nordic walking poles. He has the descent to look forward to. We exchange "Hallo"s.
At Preston Cross I turn right down a rutted green lane, very pleasant at first with high hedges made of many species, but at the lower end, through woodland, it becomes severely eroded to slippery bedrock, finally, and thankfully, emerging at the delightful Topsham Bridge. It’s 11.10am.
Most of Topsham Bridge is 18th or 19th century but the arch dates to the 16th. The view from the central parapet is fairly idyllic. It’s my favourite bridge of all the Avon crossings. Which reminds me that there were about 48 bridges and crossings along the Primrose Line, quite a feat of engineering and also quite costly, about £180,000 at the time.
Then, all the way from Australia, a stand of a dozen or so Eucalyptus trees in a well-tended patch of informal garden. There’s a bench under the trees, presumably put there so one can imagine koalas, kookaburras, and kangaroos clambering, calling, and cavorting here in Darkest Devon.
The path and the railway track now snake their way along the valley, most of which is ancient, semi-natural woodland. First there’s Bedlime, then Titcombe and, finally, Woodleigh Wood, all managed by the Woodland Trust as part of their Avon Valley Woods. Bedlime was bought way back in 1972 to stop it being planted with conifers. The other two woods were acquired in 1973.
A few springs rise a little way up the valley and their streams, sometimes with mini waterfalls, cross the path under wooden bridges, some issuing straight into the river, others being held up in bogs where earlier in the year yellow flag irises cheer the place up.
A field on the opposite bank is home to a herd of farmed deer. They’re kept confined by a high deer fence but they seem content.
Along the whole stretch between Topsham & Loddiswell I meet only two ladies walking their four black Labradors and one other lone dog-walker with his inquisitive Spaniel. It’s quite a change from the over-populated Penzance we were staying in just a few days ago.
Nearing Loddiswell Station there is one section of the track bed which appears to be in a cutting whose high banks are topped with a mix of spindly trees arching overhead to form a thin canopy where the sunlight dapples through. In winter this section is very muddy under boot. The path by the river is dryer, usually. Today the cutting is only wet in a few places.
Then the track bed enters private land and the way continues along a narrow path which goes alongside an old Platelayer’s hut, well maintained by the current owners, finally emerging at Loddiswell Station (12.10pm). The old GWR station (built in 1893) has been converted into a residence but it retains a lot of the original features such as the Ticket Office with it’s canopy. There’s a very good information board that gives a brief history of the station and the line so I stop and read it as well as photographing it as an aide memoir. Back in the day holiday makers could stay in a self-catering “Camping Coach” installed for the summer season in a siding near the station. Nowadays you can rent the Signal Box for a mere £1249 per week in August, and you don’t even get to see any steam trains!
There’s also an A4 poster that I nearly miss that advertises cream teas and vintage bus rides next Saturday. That’s a fairly irresistible combination and, as we will be having visitors, one of whom loves steam railways and old buses, I will be back!
From the station it’s a short walk down the lane, across a field, over a bridge and into the grounds of Avon Mill Garden Centre where I know there is a fairly secluded picnic table, an ideal place for my picnic lunch near the river. A retired couple stop and ask me if there’s a path from here that will take them along the river northwards. Sadly no, I tell them, and I send them off to walk the way I had come.