Stories from the Atlantic Coast Express

Good evening,

As part of the Mid Hants “Canadian Pacific – Engineering a Future from the Past” project (if the Heritage Lottery grant is successful) they will be creating a historic record (oral, video and displays) of how steam trains were used for evacuations from London in the Second World War, immigrants travelling from Southampton in the 1950s, and holiday maker specials in the 1950s and 1960s such as the Atlantic Coast Express. On that note I came across this brilliant story by Roger Aves about his memories catching the ACE in the summer of 1961 who agreed to let us share it.

I hope you enjoy reading it, I know I did.


Under the clock at 10:30

A nostalgic boyhood account as seen through intelligent young eyes of travelling on the The Atlantic Coast Express (also well known as the ACE) for his family summer holidays to Devon in the early 1960’s.

Yes, its quite an old-fashioned read but the evocative style of the period is unveiled as soon as the journey starts…please enjoy!

We begin our journey at London Waterloo Station on one long hot summer’s day in the early 1960’s. The time is 10.30 am and we are all gathered under the big station clock on the huge concourse.

It’s really rather warm and sticky today!

”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 at the W.H.Smith’s bookstall shortly before joining our annual summer holiday train journey to Devon. Luggage was piled everywhere and porters hurried to and fro like uniformed ants pushing big wooden barrows around laden high with trunks and suitcases.

We had all impatiently waited in a long line with the heaving throng of the many other over-heated holidaymakers under a big green sign with the letter ‘A’ which hung high above the station concourse.

This green letter ‘A’ was the sign for the waiting area for passengers to board the now famous ACE.

As quoted in the British Railways Southern Region timetable as The Atlantic Coast Express, daily from Waterloo at 11.00 am. Through coaches to Exeter, Plymouth, and the West of England serving the seaside resorts of East and North Devon and North Cornwall. Restaurant Car to Exeter Central. Reservations advisable.

This was some train as the ACE was famous for having the most multi-portioned through carriages to more destinations ever known on Britain’s Railways.

We glanced over to the giant old wooden-slatted destination board situated in front of all the platforms at Waterloo which then clattered into life revealing all the far-flung stations served by this train namely Seaton, Sidmouth, Bude, Ilfracombe, Torrington, Egloskerry (where was that?) and lastly Padstow.

There were through coaches listed to here, there, and almost everywhere in the West Country!

Then we spotted Littleham which was going to be our very own station destination board for the getting off point for our glorious 6 week summer holiday at my aunt’s caravan at beautiful Sandy Bay near Exmouth, Devon.
We suddenly then heard a very well spoken lady making the announcement over the Tannoy, ”Platform 10 for the 11 o’clock Atlantic Coast Express, please have all your tickets ready’’
”That’s us, we cried!  Hurrah, we’re off at last!’’

With Mum and Dad in tow (but Dad was just waving us off today) we all headed for platform 10 and there we saw a long line of polished dark green carriages, their roof sign boards proudly proclaiming The Atlantic Coast Express, Waterloo-Ilfracombe-Padstow.

A very small and very old ex LSWR M7 class tank engine had earlier brought the 12 empty carriages into the platform but now this lovely little engine sat simmering quietly with its buffers pressed hard up against the mighty Ransomes and Rapier hydraulic buffer-stops, which do still remain in-situ to this day at the end of the platforms at Waterloo.

We carefully looked for the correct carriage and took our seats in the through coach to Exmouth which happened to be almost at the back of the long train. This was crucial if you did not want to end up at the wrong destination on this multi-portioned express!

Dad had sent the all the luggage on which you could do that easily back then and he came into the first class compartment he had reserved just for us clutching five dining car tickets for the first sitting at luncheon. These tickets were highly prized as the restaurant car was always very busy on the ACE.

This was going to be all very exciting for us youngsters!

35006 posing with the Atlantic Coast Express headboard at the GWSR Back to Black Gala 2014

Courtsey of GWSR Alex

I was only very young but I KNEW there was going to be a big green Merchant Navy class locomotive at the head of our train. The green colour being somewhat difficult to see today, as it was a very grimy and rather filthy run-down looking engine.

Her name was Cunard White Star Line and this class of 30 express engines which were built in the 1940’s by the Southern Railway overseen by their chief designer Mr O. V. Bulleid were all named after famous shipping lines in recognition of their vital roles during World War Two.

Dad took me way up front to the engine and the friendly driver let me hop up into the frightfully hot cab for a minute. The driver’s white enamel billy-can of hot tea stood on a shelf at the back of the boiler casing above the almost white hot coals now burning in the grate. The young burly fireman relaxed for a moment in-between shovelling another scoop of coal to show me all the different gauges and how when he pulled a lever the firebox doors would open to reveal the ferociously hot firebox. The heat was unbelievable!

The engine was alive and ready to go with excess steam starting to blow off from the safety valves deafening everyone on the platform’s end, where here too, were a collection of a few young boys smartly dressed in their school blazers and caps who were jotting down all the names and numbers of the passing 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 with me and my white handkerchief would be black!

Suddenly my cousins all 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 for them to hurry up as the whistle blew and the last few open doors were being slammed shut.

”Quick, hurry up and get on!” she exclaimed.

Everyone piled in the compartment laughing and waving, and we were all shouting ”Hello and Goodbye” Dad waved frantically back at us from the platform. ”Have fun and see you soon, I’ll telegram you!” he shouted back at us, for he was to join us later in the holidays in a few weeks time.

The guard looked at his watch, blew a long final blast on his whistle and waved his green flag furiously, then with a short toot from Cunard White Star followed by a violent jerk and a few clunks, we slowly moved off.

Up front the huge Merchant Navy locomotive erupted into their well known characteristic slipping routine, sending out a volcano of hissing steam and black smoke but she soon found her feet as the experienced driver eased her off and coaxed her and her heavy load over the greasy rails to carefully negotiate the many crossovers coming out of Waterloo.

The little black tank engine which had earlier brought the empty train into the platform now gave us a shove from behind to help get us on our way.

She would then fall back and carry on to the big yard at Clapham Junction and bring back more green carriages ready to be filled by another hoard of holidaymakers all off to the seaside but where to this time, Bournemouth, Swanage? or perhaps an ocean-liner express for the Southampton Docks, who knows!

Steam and smoke poured past the carriage windows as we slowly picked up more speed and we all looked at each other and winked chanting ”Hurrah the hols are here at last!”

No more school, no more games, and certainly no more horrid Latin homework for us!

Just 6 weeks of summer fun, and for me the thought of many more trains to watch at the little country station in Devon…what heavenly bliss!

We all got comfy and soon settled down. Mum unpacked flasks of fresh hot coffee and we tucked into rounds of sandwiches of corned beef and tomato, tongue with pickle on thick crusty bread bought warm early that morning from our local baker, but we kids 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 and Famous Five’s which Mum had thoughtfully packed.

The compartment door from the corridor slid open and the friendly Guard stood there looking very grand in his cap and smart uniform and popped in to ensure that we were in the right carriage. He then ceremoniously clipped all our tickets.

”Be no changes for you people” he said in his very heavy West Country accent, ”Just stay on ‘ere and you be Little’am see at two-thirty”

Wizard! we all thought as we knew we could be cooling off and swimming in the sea well before tea time.

The train by now, was really travelling quite fast. The carriages swayed and rocked 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!

Just before we passed Woking by the line-side we glimpsed the strange and mysterious sight of the beautiful green and golden domes of England’s first ever mosque glistening in the sun. Then as Basingstoke soon flashed by the four mainlines diverged at Worting Junction where here an impressive fly-over junction sent fast trains South for Southampton and Weymouth and West for Salisbury and Exeter. Our speed was now well into the 80’s as we stormed through Andover now on the West of England mainline.

We soon arrived at Salisbury which was our first stop and waiting here just outside the station was another Merchant Navy named East Asiatic Company. She was looking very smart and clean indeed simmering in the hot sun! She was fully coaled and was now being watered ready to take over the next long leg of the ACE to Exeter Central.

Cascades of water splashed down and poured all over her shiny green tender from the long black rubber hose of the water crane as the fireman completed the topping up. We said goodbye to Cunard White Star Line which was quickly uncoupled from the leading carriage. The engine then moved off down the line to the big locomotive depot just past the station to be serviced for a run back to London.

At the rear of our train the Seaton carriage was 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 Line with a fresh crew in-charge of her footplate slowly backed onto the ACE. With a loud metallic clunk the buffers met and compressed. She was soon coupled up and all ready to go.

A cheerful toot and we’re off already!

The massive engine offered us the same explosion of steam and violent slipping as it struggled to get under way from the soaking wet rails at Salisbury. The young and not-so experienced driver this time, did not have the patience of the Waterloo engine-man and she slipped again and again but at last East Asiatic Line found her grip and she started to pick up speed, 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 with the whistle screaming as we tore through Wilton, here famous for weaving quality carpets and where once the engines were changed for the now long-gone Devon Belle Pullman car express which back then had its own luxury observation and bar car on the back!

We were soon called by the steward for our lunch in the restaurant car where today the choices were grilled plaice or steak and kidney pie with new potatoes and cabbage, followed by apple pie and custard. All beautifully served on china with starched white table cloth’s and silver service. I can still smell the cabbage now as it wafted down the carriage!

Lunch cost five shillings and sixpence. This was a big treat for us in those days!

It was getting hot and muggy in the carriage as that sultry afternoon progressed and we all got dirty and quite restless. Travelling by steam train was not a squeaky clean experience by today’s standards.

We all took turns to lean out of the window and watch the countryside speed by waving madly at the farm workers and it was great fun to see other children wildly waved back whilst they waited at the many level crossing gates for us to pass.

The train rattled through the various lovely country stations on our route such as Templecombe where we crossed over the favourite railway line of Sir John Betjeman, the delightful Somerset and Dorset which wound its picturesque way from Bath climbing over the Mendip Hills to the coast and the pines of Bournemouth.

Then came Sherborne with it’s rather posh Boy’s school and old mysterious ruined abbey.

Axminster which was also famous for carpets, a weekly cattle market, and where here one could change trains to join the lovely branch line down to the ancient harbour town of Lyme Regis.

The ACE often did convey through carriages for both Seaton and Lyme Regis.

The scenery now grew so much greener and greener and 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 we thundered by, the driver frequently hanging on the whistle.

Suddenly my Mum said ”Look there’s the sea!” and sure enough there in a dip in the distance beyond the green rolling Axe valley we glimpsed a line of forget-me-not blue.

We’re almost there we thought, and we were sure we could all smell the sea!

The last part of our main-line run was the long climb up the infamously steep Honiton Bank incline.

Having raced through Seaton Junction station situated at the bottom of the bank on the fast through line we overtook a ‘stopper’ which was just a three coach train hauled by another Merchant Navy named French Line. Quite a light load for such a big locomotive.

We attacked the start of the long bank well but by the entrance of Honiton Tunnel which is at the summit of the climb we were now down to a very 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 heavily loaded train, so the engine made a very steady chuff-chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff-chuff chuff-chuff-chuff beat as she worked hard to make the long ascent.

I learned later in life that the Merchant Navy class locomotives were of a three cylinder design, hence the familiar and very friendly soft sounding triple beat!

The lovely sound of the Bulleid designed whistle is unmistakeable too!

Sidmouth Junction station was our next stop and here three coaches including ours were detached from the main ACE and were joined to a local train headed by a BR Standard class 4MT tank locomotive waiting in the bay platform which served the Sidmouth and Exmouth seaside branch lines.

After much clanking and clunking whilst being attached to the local we were soon puffing our way down the most prettiest of country lines towards the coast over Gosford and Cadhay level crossings with their tiny crossing keepers cottages through Ottery St Mary and beyond.

The clanking and clunking were repeated once more when we arrived at Tipton St John where the train was divided again. 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 branch line to Newton Poppleford.

Our locomotive for this last short journey was a much smaller LMS Ivatt designed class 2MT tank engine, also known as Mickey Mouse tanks!

One stop after the charming seaside resort of Budleigh Salterton my dear Aunt met us at the tiny country village station of Littleham and we all waved frantically to her as we steamed into the platform.

The doors were flung open as the train drew to a halt and we all tore down the platform to greet her where she scooped us all up with lots of huge hugs and ghastly red lip-sticky kisses!

Mum suddenly dashed back on-board the train to retrieve her straw hat which she had left on the hat-rack, all this added drama slightly holding up the train’s departure!

My Aunt stood there beaming at us all ”My word haven’t you all grown!” and she beckoned us outside to the station forecourt where stood her rather old black pony and trap (she finally did buy a car the next year!) ”Come on darling’s Tea’s ready!” she boomed and we all piled into the trap very tired, but also very excited as the holidays were truly now beginning.

So off we trotted down the narrow high-hedged Devon lanes to the lovely rural caravan site out on the rugged red cliffs of the headland at Sandy Bay where crab sandwiches, warm scones and home-made strawberry jam with clotted cream would be waiting!

We soon got to the site, where me and my cousins ran over 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 sumptuous big afternoon tea we all then laid outside on my Dad’s old brown and rather itchy ex-army rugs basking in the late afternoon sun, too lazy just yet to wander down to the cove for a bathe.

The smell of the freshly mown grass filled our nostrils as we looked out over the cliffs to the blue sea beyond as two bumble bee’s buzzed lazily around us looking for any intact daisies or buttercups to land on and there we noticed some way out in the bay a few rust-red sails fluttering n the breeze from some little brown wooden fishing boats whose crew were throwing their lines and nets trying hard for some mackerel or plaice.

The humidity was increasing and towering-up over in the far South-West corner of the bay were some huge and rather ominous blue-black thunder clouds, a sure sign that later that evening we could expect a spectacular summer storm which hopefully afterwards would leave the country air fresh and cooler.

The hustle and bustle of Waterloo seemed an age away and as we gazed up at a large brown Hawk hanging there on a warm thermal spying for any poor unfortunate field-mouse we give a last thought for our fellow hot and sticky passengers who today were still on-board the ACE as they slowly lumbered along on the last part of their long rail trip. Maybe some were going to stylish Ilfracombe, deepest Dartmoor, or the wild North Cornish coast for they still had an hour or so to go on their journey.

So began six weeks of glorious 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, plus a few times during that long summer I went to the busy Exeter Central station where I saw many large strange looking flat-sided engines. These I found out later were called Battle of Britain or West Country class locomotives, known also as air-smoothed pacific’s, or to us train-spotters, as Spam-cans!

All of these magnificent engines too had wonderful names, such as Spitfire, Fighter Command, and Watersmeet. Here too were seen rugged black N class engines fussing all over the place, steam blowing off, whistles galore, and the noise was deafening.

Two, sometimes three engines assisting a train up the short but very steep bank from the other station down at Exeter St David’s.

All day long and especially on a Saturday 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 frantic hive of railway activity.

Although I was only a boy I already knew the N class by its small smoke deflectors, funny how you remember little things like that!

Our family had made this same trip with the Atlantic Coast Express on every summer holiday from the early 1950’s, but one year Dad suddenly announced that the steam trains were now all gone,

‘Oh’ we all said…

Then another summer only a few years later he said there were NO trains at all any more to our little station in Devon, ‘Oh’ we all said again…

So, sadly that year and every year after we took to the car, a long and very tedious journey setting off sometimes from London during the night, the clogged roads, the oh-so very slow A30 and its infamous traffic jams and the greasy way-side cafe’s that never seemed to be open when you wanted a cup of tea!

We were always car sick within half an hour of setting off from home, and we were always fighting in the back seats and getting told off!

Please can we have our train back?

Sadly the famous ACE is now only in all our memories.

Roger Aves

2 thoughts on “Stories from the Atlantic Coast Express

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