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A nostalghic delightful, boyhood account of travelling on the 'A.C.E' for a family summer holiday in Devon in the early 1960's. 


The "Atlantic Coast Express" re-lived

By kind permission of the author Roger Aves

London Waterloo Station concourse, Mid-July, Summer 1961, it's 10.30 am, we meet under the big clock.

''Come on you lot! Buck up, or We'll miss the train!'' I shouted over to my older cousins, who were all disappearing off to buy comics and sweets from the W.H. Smith's bookstall for our journey. 
We had all waited hot, and impatient, in a long, heaving line of holidaymakers under a big green letter 'A'. 
Luggage was piled everywhere and porters hurried to and fro, like uniformed ants, pushing wooden barrows laden high with trunks and suitcases. 
This green letter 'A' which hung high above the station concourse, was the area for passengers to wait for the now famous 'A.C.E'.

''Quote'' from the British Railways Southern Region timetable. 
Atlantic Coast Express''. Weekdays from Waterloo at 11 am. 
Through coaches to the West of
England, Exeter, Plymouth, the seaside resorts of North and East Devon, and North Cornwall. Restaurant Car to Exeter. Reservations advisable.

The giant old wooden-slatted destination board in front of the platforms at
Waterloo clattered into life, revealing all the many far-flung stations served by the 'A.C.E'. Seaton, Sidmouth, Ilfracombe, Torrington, Bude, Egloskerry, (where was that?) then lastly, Padstow. 
Amongst all the place names we spotted 'Littleham', which was going to be OUR destination for another glorious six week summer holiday at my Aunt's caravan at
Sandy Bay, near Exmouth, Devon. 
Suddenly, we heard a very well spoken lady making the announcement over the Tannoy, ''platform 10 for the
11 o'clock Atlantic Coast Express.'' 
That's us!'' we cried! We're off! 
With Mum and Dad in tow, (Dad was just waving us off today) we headed for the platform and there we saw a long line of polished dark green carriages, their roof boards proudly proclaiming 'The Atlantic Coast Express, Waterloo-Padstow.'   A small, very old, 'M7 class' tank loco had earlier brought the 12 empty coaches into the platform, but now this little engine sat quietly with its buffers pressed hard up against the mighty Napier hydraulic buffer-stops. (Incidentally, these buffer-stops remain in-situ to this day at
We carefully looked for the correct carriage and took our seats in the 'through' coach to Exmouth. (crucial if you did not want to end up at the wrong destination on this multi-portioned train!) Dad had sent all the luggage on in advance, (you could easily do that then) and he came into the 1st class compartment he had reserved just for us clutching 5 dining car tickets for the first sitting at luncheon. These tickets were highly prized as the restaurant car was always very busy. This was going to be all very exciting!

I was only seven, but I KNEW there was going to be a big, green Merchant Navy class loco at the head of our train. (the green colour being somewhat difficult to see, as today it was a rather grimy engine.) Her name was Cunard White Star Line. This class of 30 express engines, designed by Mr O.V.Bulleid and built in the 1940's by the Southern Railway, were all named after famous shipping lines in recognition of their roles in World War 2. 
Dad took me up to the engine and the friendly driver let me hop up into the frightfully hot cab for a minute. The driver's white enamel billycan of hot tea stood on a shelf at the back of the boiler, above the almost white hot coals now burning in the firebox. The fireman relaxed for a moment in-between shovelling another scoop of coal to show me all the different guages and how, when he pressed a pedal on the floor of the cab with his foot, the firebox doors would open to reveal the grate. 
The engine was alive, ready to go, with excess steam starting to blow off from the safety valves, deafening everyone on the platform's end! 
Here too, was a collection of a few little boys, smartly dressed in school blazers and caps who were jotting down the names and numbers of all the engines.
Later on, during our journey, I would get lots of coal smuts in my eyes from leaning too far out of the window...Mum was always very cross! My white hanky would be black!

My three cousins came running up the platform at the very last moment, clutching little white paper bags of penny chews, cough drops, and chocolate raisins! Mum shouted out of the window at them to hurry as the whistle blew and the last few open doors were being slammed shut. 
''Quick!, hurry up, get on!'' she exclaimed. Everyone piled on, laughing, waving, and shouting ''Hello and Goodbye!'' The guard looked at his watch, waved his green flag, then blew his whistle one last time. Dad waved frantically back at us, ''Have fun! See you in a few weeks! he shouted back, 
I'll telegram you!'' (for he was to join us later in the holidays) 
A short toot from Cunard White Star, we were finally going! A violent jerk, a few clunks, then slowly we moved off. 
Up front, our huge Merchant Navy erupted into a characteristic, slipping, hissing, volcano of sound and steam, but, she soon found her feet as the experienced driver eased her, and her heavy load over the greasy rails and many crossovers at
Waterloo. The little black tank engine which had earlier brought the empty train into the platform now gave a shove from behind to help us get on our way. She would carry on to the yard at Clapham then bring back more green carriages ready to be filled by another hoard of eager holidaymakers, all off to the seaside. 
But where to this time?
Bournemouth, Swanage? or even perhaps a famous ocean-liner express for Southampton Docks. Who knows!

Steam and smoke poured past the carriage windows as we slowly picked up speed and we looked at each other and chanted ''Hurrah!, the Hols are here! 
No more school, no more games, no more horrid Latin homework! Just six weeks of summer fun, and for ME, more trains to watch at the little country station in
Devon...what bliss! 
We all got comfy and settled down, Mum soon unpacked flasks of coffee and we tucked into sandwiches of corned beef and tomato, tongue with pickle on thick crusty bread, bought warm, early that morning from our local baker. I much preferred
Corona cherry pop to coffee! 

I had my 'bible' of the Ian Allan ABC book of Southern engines to read, plus my latest Hotspur comic. My cousins became engrossed in the Dandy or the Beano, paying little attention to the several hardback '
Jennings' or 'Famous Five's which Mum had thoughtfully packed. 
The compartment door from the corridor slid open and the friendly Guard, looking rather grand in his smart uniform, popped in to ensure that we were in the right coach. Touching his cap, he then ceremoniously clipped all our tickets with his metal punch. ''Be no changes for you people, he said, in his heavy 
West Country accent as he clipped away, Just stay on 'ere, and you be Little'am see at 2.30!'' 
Wizard! we all thought, as we knew that we could be cooling off in the sea before tea-time!

The train, by now, was travelling really quite fast, the carriages swaying and rocking as we sped along. However, we soon got bored of trying to guess our speed and mileage by timing the number of 'clickety-clacks' over the rail joints! At
Woking, glinting in the sun, on the left of the line-side, we glimpsed the strange sight of the green and gold domes of England's oldest ever Mosque. Basingstoke soon flashed by, where after which, the four mainlines diverged at Worting. Here, an impressive 'fly-over junction' sent fast trains South for Southampton and Weymouth; to the West for Salisbury and Exeter. Our speed now was well up into the 80's as we stormed through Andover station on the West of England mainline.

Salisbury was our first stop. Waiting here, simmering in the hot sun, was another Merchant Navy, East Asiatic Company, looking very smart and clean this time. Piled full of coal, she was being watered, ready to take over the next leg of the 'A.C.E' to Exeter. 
Cascades of water splashed and poured down all over her shiny green tender from the long black rubber hose of the water tower as the fireman completed the topping up. 
We said goodbye to Cunard White Star Line as she was quickly uncoupled from the leading carriage. The engine then moved off, down to the big loco depot just past the station to be serviced for a run back to
London. At the rear of our train the Seaton coach was also being taken off, to be attached to a slower, stopping train from Salisbury to Exeter that would depart just after us. 
We watched as East Asiatic, with a fresh, eager crew in-charge of her footplate, slowly backed onto the 'A.C.E'. A loud, metallic clunk as the buffers met and compressed. She was soon all coupled up and ready to go. Another cheerful toot, We're off already! 
The massive engine offered us an explosion of steam and violent slipping as it struggled to get underway from the soaking wet rails at
The young driver this time, did not have the patience of the
Waterloo engineman, and we slipped again and again. At last, East Asiatic found her grip and she started to pick up speed, very slowly at first, as the 12 heavy coaches creaked and rattled over the tracks, but soon we were making good headway out into the Wiltshire countryside, the whistle screaming as we tore through Wilton, famous here for weaving quality carpets, and where once, the engines were changed for the now long-gone Devon Belle Pullman train, which back then had its own observation car!

We were then called by the steward to take lunch in the restaurant car. The menu today, was a choice of fruit juices, tomato soup, followed by grilled plaice, or steak and kidney pie, both came with boiled new potatoes and cabbage. The pudding was apple pie and custard! All served on bone china with starched white table cloth's and full silver service. I can still smell the cabbage now as it wafted down the carriage! The lunch cost ten shillings and sixpence. 
This was a big treat for us!

It was hot and muggy in the carriage as that sticky, sultry afternoon progressed and we all got quite dirty and a bit restless. We took it in turns to lean out of the window and watch the countryside speed by, waving madly at any farm workers. We thought it such fun, as other children wildly waved back whilst they waited at the level crossing gates for us to pass. 
The train rattled through the many country stations on our route. Such as, Templecombe, where we over crossed the favourite railway line of Sir John Betjeman, the delightful Somerset and Dorset, which wound its picturesque way down from Bath, over the Mendip Hills, to the coast at Bournemouth. Sherborne, with it's rather posh boy's school, and old, mysterious ruined abbey. Axminster, also famous for carpets, a weekly cattle market, and here one could change trains to join the lovely branch line down to the ancient harbour town of
Lyme Regis. 
The scenery grew greener and greener, becoming prettier and prettier by the mile. Cows, sheep, and horses, all very alarmed by this racing, hissing monster, ran away in all directions across the open fields as the 'A.C.E' thundered by, the driver hanging frequently on the loco's whistle. 
Suddenly, my Mum said ''Look! there's the sea!'' And sure enough, far off in the distance, across the green rolling
Devon valley, we glimpsed a line of  forget-me-not blue. We're almost there now, and we were sure we could smell the sea!

The last part of our main-line run was up the infamous long and steep Honiton Bank incline. Having raced through Seaton Junction station on the down fast 'through' line we overtook a 'stopper' which was a three coach train hauled by another Merchant Navy, French Line. Quite a light load for such a big loco. We attacked the start of the bank well, but by the entrance to Honiton tunnel which is at the summit of the climb, we were now down to a sedate 25 mph. Lots of smoke would fill the corridors and compartments if one was foolish enough to leave the windows open whilst going through the tunnel! 
As we were a long, heavily loaded train, so the engine made a very steady, chuff-chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff-chuff beat as she worked hard to make the ascent. I learned later in life that the Merchant Navy loco's were of a 3-cylinder design, hence the familiar, friendly sounding beat!

At Sidmouth Junction station, our next stop, three coaches, including ours, were detached from the main 'A.C.E' and were joined to the local train headed by a hefty looking BR 'standard 4MT' class tank loco waiting in the bay platform which served the Sidmouth and Exmouth branch lines. After much clanking and clunking whilst being attached to the local we were soon puffing our way down the prettiest of country lines towards the coast. The clanking and clunking were repeated once more when we arrived at Tipton St John station, where the train was divided into two portions. The front part of the train went off to the left for Sidmouth, but for us, we went off to the right, on the Exmouth line. Our loco for this last short journey was a smaller, LMS designed, 'Ivatt 2MT' class tank engine.

My dear Aunt met us at the tiny country
village of Littleham, one stop after the charming seaside resort of Budleigh Salterton. We all waved frantically to her as we steamed into the station. Doors were flung open and we tore down the platform to receive lots of hugs and ghastly red lip-sticky kisses! 
My Mum then suddenly dashed back on-board to retrieve her straw hat which she had left in the hat-rack, all this drama slightly holding up the train's departure!
Aunt stood there beaming at us all, and she beckoned us outside to the station forecourt where stood her old black pony and trap. (she finally got a car the next year!) ''Come on Darling's, Tea's ready!'' she boomed, and we all piled in, tired and dirty, but very excited! 
So, with everyone squashed on the pony-cart, we then trotted down the narrow, high-hedged
Devon lanes to the rural caravan site out on the rugged red cliffs of the headland at Sandy Bay. Crab sandwiches, warm scones and homemade strawberry jam piled high with clotted cream would be waiting! 
We soon got to the site, where me, and my cousins ran over the fields to the water standpipes to help fill the big plastic jerry-cans so Mum and Aunt could start to boil the big kettle on the calor-gas cooker in the caravan for pots of tea. (it would be many years before running water and electricity were installed in the caravans!) 
After a huge feast, we all then laid outside on old brown, and rather itchy ex-army rugs, basking in the late afternoon sun. The smell of the freshly mown grass filling our nostrils as we looked out over the cliffs to the blue sea beyond. Two bumble bee's buzzed lazily around us looking for any intact daisies or buttercups to land on. 
Way out in the Bay, rust-red sails fluttered from some little wooden fishing boats, whose fishermen were throwing their lines and nets, trying for some mackerel or plaice. The humidity in the air was increasing, for towering-up over in the far South-West, were huge, and rather ominous, blue-black thunder clouds. A sure sign that later that evening we could expect a spectacular summer storm, hopefully, after which, would leave the country air fresh and cooler. 
The hustle and bustle of
Waterloo seemed an age away as we gazed up at the brown hawk, hanging high up in the sky on a warm thermal, spying for any poor unfortunate field-mouse!  A last thought for some hot and sticky passengers who today, were still onboard the 'A.C.E' as they slowly lumbered along on the last part of their long journey. Maybe off to stylish Ilfracombe? deepest Dartmoor, or the wild, North Cornish coast! For they still had an hour or so, to go!

So, then began many balmy, hot, happy days of bathing, picnics, and treasure hunts. 
For me too, there would be frequent visits to the little local station to watch the steam trains go by, and marvel at the level crossing gates, opened, and closed by the friendly signalman. A few times during that long summer I went to the busy
Exeter Central station and saw many large, strange looking, flat-sided engines. They were called Battle of Britain, or West Country class. Known as 'air-smoothed pacific's' or, to train-spotters, as 'spam-cans'! All had such wonderful names, 66 Squadron, Fighter Command, and Watersmeet. 
Fussing all over the station too, were rugged black, 'N' class engines, steam blowing off, whistles galore, the noise was deafening! two, sometimes three, types of engine assisting a train up, or down, the short, but very steep bank from the other station at Exeter; St David's. Trains were coming, and going all the time, and going to everywhere you could imagine! I used to sit there for hours entranced by this hive of railway activity. Although I was only seven years old I knew the 'N' class by its little smoke deflectors. Funny how you remember things like that!

Our family did this same trip on the 'Atlantic Coast Express' every summer holidays from the early 1950's. But one year, Dad said the steam trains were now gone. 'Oh' we all said...
Then, one summer he announced there were NO trains at all anymore to our little station in
. 'Oh' we all said again...
Sadly that year we took to the car. A long, tedious journey, the clogged roads, way-side cafes which never seemed to be open, the oh-so very slow A30. Ghastly petrol fumes, guaranteed to make us all car sick, and we were always fighting in the back!

Please can we have our train back? Sadly the famous Merchant Navy's and the 'A.C.E' are all now only in all our memories.

opyright  © 1999-2021 Edward Gregory  . - All photographs/images/graphics/maps/logos copyright to their relevant owners.