Helford Valley Railway

Immortalised by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s poetry and Daphne duMaurier’s ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the Helford River is one of Cornwall’s most beautiful natural assets, the narrow gauge railway that once wandered through it is also one of its best kept secrets.

Helford Valley Railway Layout

The area between Helston and Penryn has for long been a centre of granite quarrying and in the early years of the 19th century, a network of horse worked tramways had grown up around the extensive quarries of Mabe and Constantine and had reached as far north as the mining parish of Stithians. These converged into a single track line running downhill through a wooded valley to the wharves at Gweek where stone and ore was loaded into small sailing vessels for transportation around the coast. Coal and other bulk commodities such as lime for fertiliser and building were returned in the empty stone wagons.

Helford Valley RailwayThese tramways were the result of a group of local landowners and quarry companies deciding in the late 1820s to find a more efficient method of conveying their products to the coast. The Redruth & Chasewater Railway, opened in 1826 (www.cornwall.gov.uk/mineral-tramways) was blazing a trail by which others might follow and by 1831 a route had been decided for a gravity worked line running from near Constantine, a substantial village with a population largely engaged in quarrying, to the tidal inland port of Gweek at the head of the Helford river.

Opened for business in 1834, the tramway quickly proved highly profitable; fulfilling the need to provide a swift and efficient link from quarry to coast. Latterly, its upper reaches extended finger-like as three main branches crept across the high granite plateau to reach over seventeen quarries.

Plans to link Penryn, an old port lying upstream of modern-day Falmouth, with the prosperous market town of Helston, had been mooted as long ago as the early 1840s, but for various reasons, mainly to do with difficult geography, had failed to become reality. However the recent successes of narrow gauge ventures such as the Festiniog and Corris railways in Wales demonstrated very clearly the economic advantages of using a narrower gauge in difficult country. Construction costs per mile were considerably cheaper, with less land to purchase and had the advantage of using steeper gradients and sharper curves hitherto undreamed of for larger railways.

Helford Valley RailwayThe Helford Valley Railway Act was laid before Parliament in 1857 and received Royal Assent the following year. Officially opened in October 1863, the line ran north then west from the site of the projected new Cornwall Railway station at Penryn, entering the upper Argal valley below Mabe and following it up to Treverva where the route of the old granite tramway was intercepted. This original formation was then followed through Constantine and down to the Helford River. Here the route turned north and ran beside the estuary upstream into Gweek utilising the existing quays belonging to the tramway. From Gweek a new line was then constructed which crossed the village street and turned south around the head of the creek before swinging northwards to follow a stream up through Mellangoose to a terminus close to the centre of Helston.
Stations and halts were situated at Penryn (GWR); Mabe Burnthouse; Chynoweth; Treverva; Constantine; Gweek; Mellangoose Mill; Helston (Turnpike) and Helston Town. In 1887 when the GWR Helston Branch was opened, the HVR established a transshipment point at Turnpike adjacent to the standard gauge station which proved more convenient than the cramped arrangements at Penryn.

The HVR played a crucial role in developing tourism in the district, and when the original plan to extend the Helston Railway to The Lizard in 1887 faltered through lack of capital, the HVR seized the opportunity and constructed its own line under the newly introduced Light Railways Act (1896). The venture was promoted as an opportunity to turn The Lizard into Britain’s most Southerly resort and the railway was seen to be the catalyst by which this dramatic economic upturn would be achieved. The new line, known as the Southern Section, ran from a junction at Gweek, along the southern shore of the Helford River and climbed through Trelowarren woods to emerge on Goonhilly Downs in the centre of the Lizard peninsula. It then crossed the Downs and turned south to reach a terminus on the outskirts of The Lizard village.

Alas it all turned out to be a major disappointment; the dreamed of development at The Lizard never happened, partly due to the intervention of the Great War, and a lack of large sandy beaches. Thankfully, for today this remains one of the most majestic and unspoilt coastlines in the United Kingdom.

Helford Valley RailwayGweek, lying in sylvan surroundings at the head of the river was one of the principal stations on the HVR and its quays provided a direct link with sea-borne trade. Not only was it the exchange point for trains to The Lizard (although in latter years these were few and far between) but it was also the location of the locomotive, carriage sheds and Company workshops which were situated on the south bank opposite the station. Consequently, it was one of the busiest places on the system handling stone traffic; timber; coal; limestone for burning in the nearby kilns; grain (Gweek supported a number of large mills) and general merchandise. Seasonal produce; early potatoes, broccoli and narcissi were dispatched all along the line for shipment via the GWR; milk was collected from all stations and halts, and indeed, several unofficial spots in between by private arrangement between the train crews and local farmers.

Unique, surely, among railways in Britain was the HVR’s oyster traffic. The Helford estuary has long been famous for the quality of its oysters which were much prized in fashionable pre-war London. It was not unusual for trains of over twenty wagons to leave Gweek in the late afternoon for Penryn where the barrels were transferred to the night freight trains coming up from Falmouth, allowing Helford oysters to be in the London markets by the following morning.

The line was fondly embraced by the local community, it became part of the fabric of life; idiosyncratic; friendly; mostly reliable; usually dependable; always familiar. In some places it blended so well with the surrounding landscape it was almost impossible to separate railway from farm track. Chickens would fly squawking from beneath the very wheels near Mellangoose Mill where the line skirted a farmyard, and frequently the train would grind to a halt whilst sheep or cattle were herded off the track.

By the1920’s the railway had settled into a gently declining routine of four mixed trains a day on the Northern Section interspersed with mineral workings. Services on the Southern Section comprised two return workings on alternate weekdays with an additional train on summer Saturdays.

It was not to last of course, when the Helston Branch closed in 1962, its little narrow gauge neighbour had been a distant memory for over thirty years.  Some believe it never existed at all; the tracks said to be abandoned roadbeds being just overgrown lanes and footpaths; the public wharves merely farm platforms for loading milk churns.  You decide.....

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