Among the handful of charming branch lines in Devon and Cornwall, one of the most scenic is the 8¾-mile long Looe Valley Line, linking the GWR main line at Liskeard with the delightful fishing port of Looe and running alongside the East Looe River for much of its length.
Having walked down from Liskeard to the seldom-served first stop at Coombe Junction Halt on an October 2020 visit, my challenge on 7 July 2022 was to take a train down to Looe then walk back the 6¾ miles north from there to Coombe Junction, attempting to capture views of trains and scenery along the way.
With an hourly weekday service and 15 round trips, my plan was to arrive in Looe at 11.04 then take a leisurely walk up the valley that would get me to Combe Junction in time to see and then catch one of the four services each day to serve this remote spot, the 15.41 to Liskeard.
For those unfamiliar with the line, trains to Looe leave from platform 3 at Liskeard which is at right angles to the through platforms and from there the train makes a clockwise two-mile descent towards Coombe Junction, first heading north then south and under the 150ft high Liskeard Viaduct.
Trains not serving Coombe Junction Halt will stop at a level crossing just south of the halt, where the guard will change the points and exchange tokens in a line side hut, before the train reverses direction and continues south towards Looe.
Heading south from Coombe Junction through heavily wooded countryside, the line runs alongside East Looe River before reaching the first of three request stops, quaintly-named St. Keyne Wishing Well Halt, the well itself being in the village of St. Keyne, a short walk away to the west of the station.
From St. Keyne the line was built in part on the course of the former Liskeard and Looe Union Canal, with one of the former canal’s locks just behind the next request stop and oldest station, Causeland. The finest stretch of the route is the two miles southwards from the final intermediate halt, Sandplace, as the river becomes a tidal estuary, liable to occasional flooding, with the line running on its east side.
After narrowly escaping closure in 1966, the line has been promoted for the past 30 years by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership and passenger numbers have grown considerably. It was designated a community rail route in 2005 and a couple of years later a heritage touch was added when all signage was replaced with chocolate and cream replicas of BR (Western Region) signs from the 1960s.
Services on the Looe Valley Line are worked by GWR Class 150 units and well-patronised by visitors to Looe on a fine sunny day, such as 7 July, when unit 150219 was operating the route. This unit retains its blue FGW livery, with the only concession to new GWR corporate identity being the covering up of the word “First” on the side of each coach.
Consulting my OS map it seemed that the only way of tackling the first two miles north from Looe was to walk along the A387 road, which parallels the line for most of the section to the first stop at Sandplace. Importantly, this road gets you to a fine photo-spot called Terras Bridge spanning the East Looe River, around a mile north of Looe.
Beginning a northward trek after seeing departure of the 11.06 back to Liskeard, my 20-minute walk to Terras Bridge was along a narrow stretch of the A387 without a pavement, though thankfully the road was not too busy. It seems a shame that the whole walk back to Coombe Junction had to be on road, with no real footpath alternatives.
Terras Bridge is at the northern end of the tidal estuary, and is by far the finest vantage point for seeing as photographing Looe Valley Line trains, with the line north from here passing through a densely-wooded valley, with little scope for getting decent shots from any of the half dozen over-bridges along the route to Coombe Junction Halt.
From Terras Bridge my walk took me for another ¾-mile along the A387, before a left fork onto the quieter B3254 just south of Sandplace station. Taking a quiet country lane on the east side of the line from here brings you to a reasonable vantage point called Tregarland over-bridge, after which you continue on the west side of the line on a hilly lane, passing Causeland and eventually reaching St. Keyne Wishing Well Halt.
While all three of these intermediate stops have platforms so short that getting a decent photo of a passing train is very difficult, one other good vantage point on the walk to Coombe Junction is Lodge Farm Crossing, just south of the junction, where there is a fine view of an approaching Looe-bound train.
Ending my Looe Valley day-out by travelling back to Reading aboard 1A96 from Penzance (departing Liskeard at 17.44) meant another unmissable chance for a GWR Pullman Dining experience, once the restaurant service had begun following our 18.16 departure from Plymouth.
Business seemed rather less brisk than on my last trip (in May) with just nine of us dining in Coach L of 9-car IET 800313. Service was excellent, as ever, and from the current £35.00 three-course summer menu I can highly recommend the terrine of confit duck & chicken and the herb crusted haddock, along with a fine South African Shiraz.