Community celebrates 150 years of Okehampton’s railway

Despite the wet weather, Okehampton’s community turned out in force to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first public passenger train arriving at Okehampton station.

On Saturday, 3rd October, more than 150 people, many in period costume, enjoyed a Victorian Tea Party at the town’s Charter Hall. It was good to see so many had embraced the spirit of the occasion, including the ladies of the Inner Wheel who prepared and served the refreshments.

The event featured a play recounting the House of Commons debate making the case for, and against, a railway to Okehampton. The short and humorous play – a tongue in cheek re-enactment of the House of Parliament debate on the need for a railway to Okehampton – was performed by volunteer actors; Gina Bee, Roy Restell and Lou Logan all from Plymouth, plus Rose and Graham Stuart who had travelled from Kent to take part. Also included were Okehampton’s very own Stan Stormont, playing the opposition leader, and Kevin Ball who played a very forceful Mr Speaker. Gina played the narrator, informing the audience of the proceedings and giving the historical context of the railway coming to town.

The play was only slightly marred by the projection backdrop, which also affected a videoed poetry reading by the children of St James Primary School. 2021 technology not compatible with the standards of 1871!

The Hall was decorated with bunting made by children from the town’s two primary schools, coordinated by Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust, as well as a huge timeline of the history of Okehampton’s railway made by Okehampton Girl Guides.

The Museum of Dartmoor Life, in Okehampton, contributed to the celebrations with an exhibition called ‘When the Train Came to Town’, including photographs from the last 150 years, collection pieces from the Museum, the Station Museum and private individuals, and also the voices of the last station master and the last steam engine driver. On Saturday, Wren music performed music of the era inside the museum. The museum opened specially on the Sunday.

GWR and Network Rail staff had a gazebo in Red Lion Yard and were talking to local people about the forthcoming reopening of the line.

Then on Sunday, 4th October, the anniversary itself of the first public train, the Okehampton Excelsior Band created a fine atmosphere first in the Charter Hall and then at Okehampton Station to accompany a recreation of the events of 1871. This included a proclamation about the coming of the railway and then, at the station, a ceremony where the Mayor presented the ‘Victorian Stationmaster’ with a special key, symbolising the opening of the railway to Exeter.

The mayor of the time was Archdeacon John Downall, played by the current Mayor, Cllr Bob Tolley, and the Victorian Stationmaster by Clive Charlton of Bere Ferrers.

The ceremony was briefly interrupted by the protest of two Victorian-attired ladies demanding the vote for women. The Town Crier, Ros Charlton Chard, quickly responded with a loud retort, which silenced the protestors!

The town was decorated for the occasion, with the centrepiece being a Triumphal Arch banner across Fore Street, echoing the arches that welcomed the coming of the railway in Okehampton and many other West Country towns. A number of shops and businesses displayed commemorative artwork designed by local children.

The Moorlander newspaper produced a special 1871 edition, imagining how it would have reported the opening. Courtesy of The Moorlander, copies were given away free throughout the weekend. The special Victorian newspaper was thoroughly researched with new information coming to light during the process.

The celebrations were the brainchild of a committee chaired by Cllr Dr Michael Ireland, with the programme masterminded by Paul Vachon. The Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership helped with the planning and organised funding. Manager of the Partnership, Richard Burningham, said: “It’s been a really lovely weekend and no-one was going to let the rain dampen spirits, and it certainly didn’t. I have been really impressed by how many local people have got involved and especially by everything done by pupils of Okehampton College, the primary schools and Okehampton Girl Guides.”

The modern-day Dartmoor Line, linking Okehampton, Crediton and Exeter, is scheduled to reopen by the end of this year. The reintroduction of regular year-round trains after a 49-year gap, the last regular passenger service ended on 3rd June 1972, is part of the Government’s Restoring Your Railway programme. More information is available at www.dartmoorline.com, the official project website for the reopening.

Author: Eric Partridge

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