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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Down to Dawlish in a Day

As the current chapter in my studies draws to a close, so does my time in England. While my feelings about leaving this island are mixed, I will certainly miss the railway network and the ability to travel virtually anywhere by train. In between days of packing, I was able to fit in a trip to a popular trainspotting location that I hadn't managed to visit before: Dawlish.

Dawlish is an incredibly photogenic part of Brunel's great seawall stretch of what would eventually become the Great Western Railway. Rather than blast a route through the Devon cliffs, Brunel built his railway right on the edge of the sea. While the result is one of the most spectacular stretches of railway anywhere in the world, it is a constant maintenance nightmare. This past February, severe winter storms battered the Devon coast and the powerful waves broke through a short stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish. The power of the stormy seas quickly eroded the railway line, leaving the track dangling in mid-air. The damage closed the railway line (the only rail connection into south Cornwall) for several months while work crews rebuilt the wall, stabilized the land and repaired the track. With the line safely reopened, I wanted to see it before the weather did any more damage.

Devon Coast
A First Great Western HST slows for a stop at Dawlish. The colourful portion of sea wall in the middle-distance is where construction crews continue to shore up the damaged section from the winter's storms.

Trying to do Dawlish as a day trip from York is ambitious, but doable. Leaving York at around 7:30 in the morning, I changed trains in Birmingham and I alighted on the platform in Dawlish at around 12:30, giving me a good amount of time to walk along the sea wall and see the town. Construction work on the wall continues and a substantial portion of the wall remains off-limits to the public. Each end of the damaged section is protected by a security guard, who must have the cushiest job in security: sitting beside the sunny Devon coast all day long.

I walked back towards the neighbouring town of Dawlish Warren, taking photos as the trains passed me. The sea wall stretch has not yet succumbed to the ubiquitous metal security fencing which lines most of the British railway network. Instead, walkers find the sea on their one side and a low wall (only just taller than knee-height) separating them from the 75 mph mainline on the other. It is an experience every railway fan should try! I wandered back to Dawlish and them climbed up the cliffs to shoot the quintessential Dawlish scene with the town serving as a backdrop for the railway line gently curving around the coast. Having completed my photo checklist, I spent a few minutes wandering around the town itself.

Dawlish, railway and sea.

To be honest, I didn't think much of Dawlish as a town. While its railway is truly special, Dawlish felt like any retirement community. Maybe if I had had more time to explore it properly, I would have enjoyed it more.

Most trains during the afternoon had been running late, so I opted to catch a slightly earlier train back to Exeter St. Davids, where I would catch my train back to York (or at least the stretch as far as Leeds). Reassured that I would make my connection, I had some time to explore Exeter's main station. I have been used to northern stations for much of my time in England, so I enjoyed examining the GWR station's architecture and enjoying the cream and green colour scheme of the footbridge and trim. Exeter St. Davids is one of the most important stations in the southwest, but it feels like a quiet backwater. At the north end of the station is a level crossing, with cars and pedestrians being safely guided across the tracks by the crossing attendant. I can't imagine such an arrangement on the East or West Coast mainlines.

Exeter St. Davids
Crew change at Exeter St. Davids.

I caught my train to Leeds and enjoyed green and lush countryside speeding by outside the coach window. The long hours of summer daylight allowed me to enjoy the view until north of Birmingham, when the sun finally set after what had been a dry and sunny day.

I changed trains at Leeds (the messiest train I had ever seen, someone had poured styrofoam pellets all over the seats) and eventually arrived back in York just after midnight. I was tired, but happy, after a day exploring one of the most spectacular railway vistas the world has to offer.

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