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Archive 18
Lynton & Lynmouth
Cliff Railway

At the western extremities of the Wessex region lies a gem
in the shape of the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway.
Gazing up its steep incline, with a weak autumnal sunshine
glinting on the rails, it occurred to me that over fifty summers
has passed since I first saw this Victorian masterpiece.
 I remember that occasion as if it were yesterday.

Exmoor may be Britain's smallest National Park, but within its boundaries lies an almost perfect combination of coast, moorland and tree-clad valleys, or coombes as they are known locally. The twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth lies on the northern extremities of the park.

  With its steep hillsides, rugged cliffs and breathtaking scenery,
this part of the area is often referred too as 'The little Switzerland of England', but whereas the European country has cable cars to ease travel, these two Devon villages have a cliff railway. Lynmouth, with its attractive harbour, is hemmed in by high wooded cliffs, whereas Lynton, perched some 500 feet above, sits on a relatively flat plateu; the two having been joined by this unique link since way back in the 19th century when the hilly terrain proved a major obstacle to economic development.

 At that time both villages relied mainly on sea transport as land travel over Exmoor was both difficult and dangerous. Coal, lime, foodstuffs and other essentials arrived in Lynmouth harbour and then had to be carried by packhorses or handcarts up the steep and tortuous gradients to Lynton. Consequently, in 1885, a major project was proposed which included the construction of a pier and esplanade at Lynmouth, with a 'lift' up to Lynton.

  The scheme was co-promoted by Thomas Hewitt, a distinguished London Lawyer with a summer residence in Lynton, and John Heywood. The fact that the latter had a financial interest in the project did not seem to stop him using his influence to persuade members of the local authority (of which he was a member) to spend ratepayers' money on the first part of the esplanade; it could be argued that Mr Heywood was a public spirited individual, or perhaps an astute businessman! Sir George Newnes would have been the man in the know, as he was the financier that the two men approached to find the money to fund the schemes.

  The cliff railway itself was the second part of the construction project. This was eventually built by a private company named known as The Lynmouth & Lynton Lift Co., which had been formed by Act of Parliament in 1886 and it is this company that still runs the cliff railway over the 1:1.75 incline - arguably the steepest of its kind - to this day.

Lynton at the top, Lynmouth below

   Designed by George Marks (who it is said was a disciple of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) the cliff railway is believed to be the
last fully original Victorian water powered lift in the world. With no
engine or any source of power it is quiet in operation (apart from the replenishment and discharge of water) with its principle of
operation dependant on the counter-balance of weight between the two cars connected to each other by an endless cable; effectively, as the heavier car descends it pulls the lighter one up from below.

  But what happens if the weight is greater in the lower car? To cover just such an eventuality the ingenious engineers of the day came up with the simplest of solution and that was to incorporate 700 gallon water tanks into the structure of each carriage so that by replenishing the tank in the upper car - while simultaneously releasing water from the bottom one - the now superior weight of the carriage at the top of the incline (including its passengers and/or cargo load) is sufficient to pull up the lower vehicle as the top carriage descends.

 The buffers and caliper brakes are also water operated, with the speed of decent controlled by governors. Additionally, a 19th century equivalent of a 'deadman's handle' can stop the carriages almost instantaneously if necessary. Unique to this cliff railway is that no other source of power is used to gather the considerable amount of water needed, it being diverted by gravity, via an underground culvert system from the West Lyn River some three miles, to reservoirs at the head of the system.

  These reservoirs were mined from solid rock and have an amorphous shape due to the fact that the builders hit impregnable rock and dug round rather than struggle to produce a symmetrical shaped tank. Holding some 250,000 gallons, a ballcock arrangement (similar to a modern cistern) is employed, albeit substantially larger, to control the water flow.

Releasing water to lessen weight

   It is a proud boast of the railway that they do not cease running due to flooding or leaves on the line! Indeed, when flooding devastated Lynmouth in August 1952 and the road was impassable, the water powered lift was the main source of travel between the two villages delivering essential life-saving support as well as transporting scores of cars, etc., back up to Lynton. The only time it cannot operate is when severe frost freezes the system - interestingly, the same Victorian method of checking whether it's safe to operate is used to this day; as with most systems of that era it's virtually fool proof - a bucket of water is left in each car, if either freezes the railway does not run.

  Riding on the cliff railway is an unforgettable experience and not unlike the sensation of rising in a helicopter. Lynmouth harbour rapidly gets smaller as the spectacle of Foreland Point and Countisbury Hill opens up in a giant curve as you ascend the 862 foot trackway. For the fainthearted, it is advisable to stay inside the cab for the two-and-a-half to three minute journey, but stand alongside the driver for the best uninterrupted views.

  Operating the Lift is a skilled job. The drivers must work as a team by docking at the right speed, braking at the correct place and all with the appropriate amount of water aboard. Of course, as each driver is travelling in the opposite direction, one could quite easily effect the approach of the other as errors from one will be transferred to the other, via the steel cables.

  Over the years The Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway has become one of the most popular working attraction in this part of Devon and has run for well over a century without significant accidents. It even operated throughout the two world wars and, as previously indicated, was the main source of travel between the two villages during the Fifties flood disaster. Operating seven days a week, it is open from 9am to 7pm but during the summer months it runs until 10pm.   

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