Ribbon cutting to mark completion of Okehampton station heritage restoration project

Richard Westlake cuts ribbon at Okehampton station
Richard Westlake cuts ribbon at Okehampton station with project partners, funders and former railway staff

Project partners, funders and former railway staff gathered at Okehampton station today to mark the completion of the station heritage restoration project, part of the overall Dartmoor Line reopening work.

Former train driver and County Councillor Richard Westlake cut a ribbon to open the heritage display in the old booking office. Richard started his railway career as a steam locomotive fireman at Okehampton in 1964 and his father, Arthur, was the last member of British Rail staff employed at the station, retiring in 1982.

Over the last eighteen months, much work has been done to restore and enhance the railway heritage of the station while also ensuring that it meets modern requirements and standards.

The main station building and old signalbox at Okehampton station date from the early 1930s. After the line closed to passengers in 1972 and the last member of staff, who had been dealing with freight, retired, the station was boarded up and just escaped demolition.

Okehampton station, 1986.
Okehampton station, 1986. Photo: Richard Burningham

Devon County Council bought the station in the mid 1990s and worked with the late Roy Gibbs and others to fully restore it. The whole operational side of the station was sold to Network Rail last year.

The 1990s restoration had seen heritage signage and the period feel of the station developed and there was a common wish that the heritage of the station should be retained and enhanced where possible.

Network Rail restored the fabric of the station and the station canopy while GWR led the main internal works on the building. By agreement with GWR, the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, working closely with the Dartmoor Railway Association and Dartmoor National Park, led the work on the signage and fitting out most of the rooms in the main building.

Funding for the signage and fitting out these rooms has been obtained from GWR’s Community Rail Major Project Fund, the Railway Heritage Trust and the Community Rail Development Fund, a joint initiative of the Department of Transport and the Community Rail Network.

From the Exeter end of the building, there is now a heritage waiting room, with furniture of Southern Railway design, a Dartmoor Railway Association shop and an unstaffed Dartmoor National Park Information Centre.

Next is the station booking hall and former booking office which have been restored to late 1950s/early 1960s appearance, including period posters, one of which is a Southern map and another the Summer 1963 timetable for the whole “Withered Arm” network.

Booking hall and interpretation panels
Booking hall
Booking office
Booking office
Former railwayman Roy Letten at the ticket window
Former railwayman Roy Letten at the ticket window
Waiting room
Heritage waiting room
Heritage rail poster promoting Exmouth
Just one of the many vintage posters now on display at the station

For the booking office, the idea is to show people how rail travel used to be sold and to explain a bit about how it all worked. Today, rail tickets are either sold from computerised ticket machines (like the one on the platform at Okehampton) or the ticket itself is simply a barcode on a mobile phone having been bought from an app or via a website.

At the request of the Dartmoor Railway Association, the heritage station signage is intended to reflect what was at the station in 1959 when it was still in its heyday. Research showed that Southern Railway signage was in use then so all the heritage signage is of Southern Railway design.

Okehampton station is of course a modern station too and the agreement with GWR was for all the signage necessary for the modern station to be in current design. The station itself is unstaffed so all of the main station building, while owned by the railway, is overseen by others. This meant all the main station building signage could be in heritage style.

Richard Burningham, Manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, said “I am so proud of what our joint collaborative effort has achieved at Okehampton. I’m especially proud and pleased that the public are using the trains in such numbers.

“Thanks particularly to GWR for allowing all of the heritage work to take place and thanks to the funders for making it possible. All of this builds on the bedrock of what Roy Gibbs, Devon County Council and others achieved in the 1990s. I know people were worried at the very beginning of the reopening project that all the heritage would be swept away and, as can now be seen, quite the opposite has happened. In a small way, the old Southern lives again!”

Ian Mundy, Dartmoor Line Reopening Project Manager for GWR said “It is hard to believe that it is already a year since we and our partners reopened the Dartmoor Line, ahead of time and under budget – and this event today marks the completion of this project.

“With the building now fully restored to its former glory, the success of the project is testament to the hard work of so many who campaigned for the line’s reinstatement and those who worked day and night to deliver the project £10m under budget.

“The continued demand shows just how important good rail connections are for the community, and the economies, they serve.”

Sue Baxter, Chairman of the Dartmoor Railway Association said “The heritage areas of the station are now restored to a marvellous standard. We are glad we managed to help bridge the transition between the former leaseholder and new owner Network Rail. It has been a privilege to work with so many organisations to keep and then restore the 1950s feel of the station which was so beautifully achieved first under Devon County Council ownership for the first reopening in 1997.

“It looks as though the Booking Clerk has just slipped out of the Office for a few minutes. So perhaps he will be back one day sitting on his stool again at the ticket window, taking cardboard tickets out of a rack for date stamping, or filling in a form to send a telegram.

“Dartmoor Railway Association volunteers are proud to be custodians of Okehampton Station, which is a much loved community facility. We are also told by travellers that it is a destination in itself now, because it is a fully working station where you also step back in time. A tribute to all who kept the station alive in the past.”

Parc Signs of St Austell provided all the signage and fitted out both the booking hall and booking office, with the work led by Creative Director Paul Bryant. Paul and Parc Signs also provided the heritage signage for the 1990s restoration.