No visit to Devon is complete without experiencing the valley of the River Dart as it makes its way from high up in the moors to the sea at Dartmouth, some 75 km (47 miles) downstream.
The river is rich in wildlife and the valley is green, verdant and ever changing. It is stunningly beautiful and there’s no better way to discover its beauty than from the comfort of a steam train.
The South Devon Railway takes you on a relaxing journey along one of the river’s most scenic stretches for the seven miles between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. The line was originally built in 1872 and engineered by the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, for almost all the length of the line, it offers gorgeous views of the river.
Most passengers choose to start their journey at Buckfastleigh, where the railway offers free parking. The town itself is worth a visit. Several woollen mills once formed the staple industry of Buckfastleigh. There are a number of pubs and small shops and the narrow main street is typical of many Devon towns.
The Valiant Soldier, a former pub that has been preserved exactly as it was when it closed in 1971, is worth a visit. Nearby is the famous Buckfast Abbey. Founded in Saxon times, the monastery closed during the Dissolution of 1539. Some 350 years later, Benedictine monks set about rebuilding the Abbey on its original foundations.
Adjacent to the station at Buckfastleigh, you’ll find Dartmoor Otters & Buckfast Butterflies. Here, you can watch otters at feeding time and enter the Butterfly House, a specially designed exhibition of living exotic butterflies and moths from around the world.
Let’s jump on the train, await the guard’s green flag and the engine’s whistle. In no time at all, the line crosses over Nursery Pool Bridge where the passengers get their first glimpse of the river before heading deep into the countryside, the Dart never far from the train.
Just before arriving at Staverton, the halfway point on the line, the line goes under Riverford Bridge, believed to be one of the oldest crossing points on the river. There are some lovely riverside walks from Staverton station – the staff there can advise. The village itself with its 14th century church and welcoming village pub, the Sea Trout Inn, are popular destinations.
The train now heads off to Totnes Riverside, with the river right beside the railway for most of the rest of the journey. The SDR station at Totnes is fascinating, with almost all the buildings having been rescued from all parts of the old GWR system, dismantled and rebuilt here.
The Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is next to the station. Always popular, the farm offers an interactive experience that can be enjoyed by both children and adults, from cuddling with a guinea pig to smoothing the feathers of an eagle owl.
Totnes town and the main line station are a short walk over the footbridge that spans the River Dart. Totnes boasts 1,000 years of history and is worth taking time to explore. Originally a Saxon and Norman borough town, it reached its zenith of merchant wealth in the late 16th century. High Street and Fore Street have many splendid, well-preserved houses, with architecture spanning the centuries while the splendid Totnes Castle is one of the best preserved examples of a Norman motte and bailey castle in England.
SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY The South Devon Railway is a glorious branch line of the former Great Western Railway. Gleaming, historic steam engines haul trains full of enthralled passengers of all ages on a relaxing round trip between Buckfastleigh and Totnes Riverside. The line passes through some of…