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The Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway

Famous ‘Well Tank’s in rural Cornwall. . . . . . . . .

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Poster, British Railways (Western Region), St. Ives, Cornwall Glorious Sands Ideal Bathing, about 1955. Coloured lithograph depicting the view from a street overlooking the harbour, with fishing boats and the harbour wall, and a beach in the distance. In the foreground are two fishermen, and two children stroking a cat. Format double royal.

It’s spring in Cornwall and what better way to enjoy the season than to walk the Camel Trail from Bodmin to Wadebridge. It is a journey I have intended to make for about 60 years and I finally made it in 2022. Too late, of course, too late to see the Class 0298 Beattie Well Tanks that patrolled the line. Back in the day, schoolboys tried to persuade dads to take a holiday in Cornwall so they (the schoolboys and maybe the dads) could see the famous Well Tanks.

It’s a complicated business, the Bodmin and Wadebridge, like a lot of railway things in Cornwall – not so much about holiday makers but about minerals like china clay, tin, heavy stuff. The Bodwin and Wadebridge (hereafter B&WR) was one of the first to get started in 1834. From the start the line was isolated from any emerging railway network in Cornwall and this ensured something of a ding dong through Victorian times as ownership switched about and included at least one technically illegal purchase of the line. In July, 1886, the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) formally took over the line (legally). By 1895 it only took the holidaymaker from London 7 hours 18 mins (change at Wadebridge) before suitcases could be unpacked.

The railway soldiered on through the twentieth century, never really making any money, until it closed – first to passenger traffic in 1967 and then to mineral goods traffic in 1983. Riding to the rescue came the Bodmin and Wenford Railway eventually running trains from Bodmin Parkway to Boscarne on the old route by the Camel river. Not on my walk, though. Rusty lines told of a line in use but not so much over a winter in north Cornwall. I surveyed the scene with ‘a local’ as the rain poured down. Jim explained that the controversy surrounding the railway wasn’t over. ‘It’s as if it’s got a magnetic attraction to controversy’, he added, using an interesting metaphor. ‘They want to extend the line back to Wadebridge and the Council has said they can. Trouble is apparently you can’t have a cycle and footpath on the route, alongside the railway. One of them has to give and it has to be Sustrans.’

Wandering on, passing the river in full flow, a nearby vineyard, some pleasant benches, the sound of birdsong, some daffodils and snowdrops, I decided that on this occasion, I was with Sustrans. Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

The track bed seemed stable enough and the curves not so bad but they had proved to be a problem for the L&SWR ‘back in the day’. Built from 1865, the Beattie Well Tanks were intended for suburban services out of Waterloo. Mostly time expired by the 1890s the L&SWR cast about looking for locomotives that could work the sharp curves and relatively light track of the B&WR. Officialdom’s eye lit on the Well Tanks and so three came to Bodmin to work the line. By the 1960’s they were still there, some of the longest serving locomotives on any British railway. They were finally withdrawn in 1962 but two of the three are still with us, one in the NRM’s national collection. GWR 1366 Pannier Tanks (‘dock tanks’) took over until final closure of the line.

Jim and I chatted on in the rain, walking slowly down the track bed towards Wadebridge. I explained that it was the dream of many a spotter to see the B&WR Well Tanks and he laughed. ‘I was the same,’ he added, ‘but I lived in Penzance so it was easy for me to get parents to bring me over for a day out.’

‘What were they like?’ I asked.

‘Short and squat, as you’d expect. Punchy, I called them. They always kept them in good shape inside and out. You wouldn’t think they were as old as they were.’

‘Punchy’. A good term, I thought. Beattie’s idea of slinging water tanks (two) between the wheels lowered the centre of gravity and improved the heft of the locomotive when matched to a good, strong boiler. I wondered why Well Tanks never really caught on, pondering the prospects of water sloshing about in the tanks at speed (baffle plates?), damage from stones on the track, and so on. They were a good choice for the B&WR though, no doubt.

‘Do you think Beattie (senior or junior) would have approved of his locomotives pulling trains of China clay long after they were built?’

Jim laughed. ‘The thing is, when you build a locomotive you don’t know where it will end up, sometimes long after you.’

Saying goodbye to Jim I trudged on, imagining myself taking the curve at speed from the squashed cab of an 0298, waving to schoolboys as I passed. Bliss!


John Swanwick

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[CO1A, EO8E]

The Bodmin and Wenford Railway can be studied here

To see what the Well Tanks looked like see below:

Locomotive 30585 in action at Buckinghamshire Railway Centre in May 2010.

Please see here for more information.

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