Time for celebration – it’s 150 years since the railway arrived in Okehampton

The very first train arrives in Okehampton 3rd october 1871

Since our inception in 2016 The Moorlander has been a key supporter of those volunteer groups who have tirelessly campaigned for the return of the railway to Okehampton during the last decade and more.

Amidst all the furore following the momentous announcement in March that, after an absence of almost 50 years, passenger services to Exeter are to recommence by the end of the year, it’s easy to overlook just where and when it all began.

How many people know that the railway first arrived in Okehampton 150 years ago this very year marking DOUBLE the reason to celebrate, and that’s exactly what is planned 150 years later TO THE DAY!

For although the Devon and Cornwall railway line, as it was then known, was formally opened on 29th August, 1871, it was not until five weeks later on Tuesday, 3rd October, that the very first passenger railway train rolled into Okehampton Station, after the line was ‘passed over’ (health and safety term of the day) by the Government’s inspector Colonel Yolland who declared it ‘open for traffic’.

The Moorlander has been fortunate to acquire access to original material of the time including an extensive and varied newspaper archive which features a fascinating insight from the day that the Countess Portsmouth performed the ceremony of cutting the first turf of the new railway on 30th March, 1864, in a field near Coleford, with by a highly descriptive account of the lavish banquet which followed, to the report of the more modest, down to earth celebration on the day after the first train arrived in Okehampton in 1871 when around 300 of the men employed in the construction of the line, were provided with dinner in the Okehampton goods shed at the expense of the directors!
These accounts, plus much more news and anecdotes from the time, accompanied by other interesting miscellany and ephemera, will be included in a special 8 page Victorian stylised supplement to The Moorlander in our edition of 17th September celebrating the ARRIVAL OF THE RAILWAY in 1871.

The town itself will be celebrating in style too during the weekend of 2nd and 3rd October, by transporting Okehampton back to the year 1871 with a special two-day event – Okehampton Rail 150.

Although many events are still in their early planning stages, watch this space and social media for exact details but among the intended activities is an exhibition of historical photographs and text boards, which will be on display in the Charter Hall.

Emulating the celebratory scenes of 1871, a ‘Triumphal Arch’ in the form of double-sided horizontal banner plus side banners will be hung across Fore Street, with ribbons, bunting, Union flags and flower baskets adorning lamp posts, shop fronts, the Town Hall and of course the railway station itself.

A Victorian tea party (Victorian attire encouraged) is planned for Saturday morning in the Charter Hall, which will be accompanied by a narrator who will outline the Victorian world as it was in 1871 compared to how it is today.

There will be a short, amusing theatre play of a Commons debate at the time, making the case for a railway to Okehampton including the proclamation speech by Prime Minister William Gladstone, declaring the new railway by act of Parliament and a Proclamation speech by the Mayor of Okehampton, in full robes, declaring the new railway.

Shop owners will be encouraged to dress their windows in the style of 150 years ago, there will be a town trail of ‘quirky’ railway facts plus ‘fact collector cards’ – collect the facts to complete the card and enter prize draw.

It is hoped that all primary school children will receive a commemorative mug while anyone dressed in Victorian attire during the two-day festival will receive one too

Music, bands, parades, presentations, miscellaneous entertainment and other attractions will complete the two-day festivities as Okehampton celebrates the ‘first coming of the railway’!

Author: Eric Partridge

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