Despite their rural nature and (at times) low passenger numbers, four Cornish branch lines have survived various cuts and cost saving exercises and continue to connect rural and coastal communities with the Cornish Main Line at various points along its route. One of these branch lines is the Looe Valley Line, which upon leaving the main line at Liskeard, heads into the Looe Valley and to the town of Looe itself, via four rural and rather remote request stops.
Connected to the main line via a single-track curve, most of Great Western Railway’s services to Looe actually leave Liskeard from platform 3, a single-track platform isolated from the main station and reached via a ramp and zebra crossing from the eastbound platform or directly from the station car park. We started our visit to the Looe Valley line, not by heading for this platform, but instead heading across the main line and down a country lane towards Cornwall’s least used station, and the 10th least used station in Britain, Coombe Junction Halt (Coombe).
Coombe is just 0.6 miles and less than a 15-minute walk from Liskeard, however the line from Looe wasn’t originally connected to the Cornish Main Line and the line’s terminus was Moorswater station, a short distance beyond where Coombe Junction Halt now stands. The 205-foot difference in vertical interval between Coombe and Liskeard had made the connection too difficult to construct, however in 1901 the two railways were finally connected by way of a Horse Shoe curve designed by Joseph Thomas, a local civil engineer from Looe.
The two-mile long connecting line actually leaves Liskeard towards the north-east and then curves around 180°, diving under the A38 dual-carriageway twice and descends sharply before passing 150-feet beneath the Liskeard Viaduct (carrying the Cornish Main Line). Curving right again, the line joins with the branch to Looe at Coombe Junction, a short distance to the south-east of Coombe station. Even though the line as a whole only has a semi-regular service, only two or three of the trains in each direction actually continue the short distance from Coombe Junction to serve Coombe itself, with none on Sundays.
With our visit to the line being on a Sunday, after a brief explore of Coombe Junction Halt station, we continued on our walk through the Cornish countryside and followed the line south to the next station on the branch, St. Keyne Wishing Well Halt (St. Keyne). St. Keyne and Coombe are oddities in that they are the only two stations in Britain which use the word ‘Halt’ in their name after the term became generally disused in the 1970s.
The walk from Coombe to St Keyne is just short of 2 miles and took us about 40 minutes to complete whilst stopping to take photos. With the weather calm, clear and sunny, it was a lovely day for a walk through the quiet Cornish country lanes and we approached the station crossing a bridge spanning the railway and East Looe river which provided a wonderful view of the extremely quaint little station. Having arrived at St. Keyne about 10 minutes before the train to Looe was scheduled, we were able to have a break and explore the station before preparing ourselves for the arrival of the train.
St. Keyne, as with all of the stations on the branch except Liskeard and Looe, is a request stop meaning that the train won’t stop at the station unless requested to. If you’re wanting to alight from the train at one of these stations this means informing the guard, who will advise the driver to stop at the station. If you’re wanting to board a train at one of these stations, you have to flag down the train in the same manner as you would a bus whilst ensuring you make your intent clear to the driver,
Having boarded the train, we continued on to Looe, passing through Causeland and Sandplace, the other stations on the line, without stopping. Although the line is only 8 ¾ miles long, the journey from Liskeard to Looe takes 29 minutes (31 if the train calls at Coombe) whilst travelling at an average on just 18 mph. With our train not having stopped at two stations, we arrived into Looe a few minutes early and headed along the main road into the town itself. Whilst the railway now terminates at Looe station, just to the north of the town centre, the line used to continue for another half a mile to Buller Quay on the banks of the River Looe, to allow minerals from further up the line to be loaded onto boats.
Looe is small town divided into two by the River Looe, with East Looe and West Looe being connected by a bridge to the north of the town centre. East Looe is where the railway terminates and has a grid of narrow streets heading down from the Victoria Guildhall towards the seafront and St. Mary’s church. This side of the town centres on the sandy beach and mouth of the River Looe, divided by the distinctive Banjo Pier, also designed by the engineer Joseph Thomas who designed the Horse Show curve mentioned earlier.
Joseph Thomas was born near St. Austell in 1838 and, whilst young, helped his father with the construction of the bridge which connects East and West Looe. Having worked on a number of major projects including the Royal Albert Dock in London and the Arizona Canal, Thomas returned to Looe and worked on the creation of the Hannafore Estate. In 1896, Thomas designed a solution to the problem of the Looe harbour entrance silting up in which he reduced the length of the existing pier and added a large round structure at the end, giving the entire pier the shape of a banjo. With the Looe Harbour Commission being sceptical about whether the design would have the desired effect, Thomas offered to pay for the work himself and only collect his dues if the work was successful. With the new pier completed in 1897, Thomas’s design proved successful and the Harbour Commission agreed to pay him for the work.
Next to the Banjo Pier and beach is the new Lifeboat station which as well as the usual shop to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution also allows members of the public to walk around the boat house itself and get up close to the two inshore lifeboats housed there. The new boathouse was completed in 2003 at a cost of over £750,000 and increasing the station’s capabilities to operating both a B-class and a D-class lifeboat. The Looe lifeboat station also hosts concerts throughout the year to raise funds for the RNLI, with choirs and bands from Cornwall and further afield performing.
With our time in Looe coming to an end, we headed back to the station to catch a train back to Liskeard. With a return between Liskeard and Looe costing just £4.50, if you are planning a visit to Looe it is well worth considering parking at Liskeard, taking the train and avoiding the busy town centre parking. Also, with all off-peak or anytime tickets you are eligible to break your journey, meaning you can jump off at one of the intermediate stations and explore the wonderful Cornish countryside at your leisure.