Memories of the much loved Axminster to Lyme Regis rail line are being fanned back to life with the building of a large model in a partnership between Axminster Chamber of Commerce, the Community Waffle House, Axminster Community Shed and Axminster Heritage Centre that will go on display in Axminster town centre in December. The team also includes Terry Guppy, a former fireman who worked on the line.

Terry Guppy was just a boy when he fell in love with the powerful little steam trains that ran past his home as they ferried passengers along the famous old line between Axminster and Lyme Regis. It was inevitable that he would one day work on the trio of old locos that were collectively known as ‘Lyme Billy’.

“Those old trains were pure magic for me,” says Terry, who at that time lived in Uplyme but now in retirement lives in Axminster. “The engines we had were built in the 1880s and had nothing modern about them, but they ran brilliantly on that line despite all its climbs and bends.”

Terry started work on the line at the age of 15 as a lone porter at Combpyne Station, the one stop on the tortuous six and three-quarter mile route. Within a few years, however, he achieved his dream of becoming a fireman, delivering the steam that drove the locos. 

Loved by many and a major contributor to the emergence of Lyme Regis as a holiday resort, the branch line existed for just 62 years, finally terminating with the wholesale national rail closures in 1965. It had been more than 60 years in the planning, involved no fewer than nine different schemes and cost the equivalent in today’s money of £7m to build. 

For a good few years, only the Victorian Adams tank engines could cope with the route. Their radial rear axles guided the loco around the steep curves and, with weight evenly distributed, they remained steady on sometimes uneven track.

Another challenge of the line was the 93-feet high Cannington Viaduct, which started to settle at one end while still being built and needed an additional lower arch to shore it up. Trains ran across it with a 10mph speed limit compared with the 25mph restriction on the rest of the line.

Terry makes light of the problems. For him, the Axminster to Lyme Regis light railway was  an all-round joy to work on, not least given his friendship with driver Tom Woodman. “Tom made it all look easy but a lot of skill was needed,” insists Terry. “You would think he was half asleep sometimes because he often drove along with his eyes seemingly shut, but he knew exactly what he was doing and where to brake. There was nothing he didn’t know about that line.”

Terry has a fund of stories from his days on the railway. In the ‘big freeze’ winter of 1962-63 the line had to shut down for a month. “On the night we had to close we were going to Lyme with the last train at 9pm and got only a little way out of Axminster going up over the hill when the engine ground to a halt in the snow,” he recalls.”Tom told me to jump off and see how deep it was, thinking we might shovel it away. I did just that and it came up over my head! All we could do was drop back into Axminster and walk home without coats!”

Terry’s big regret is that the long term tourist potential wasn’t recognised when the line closed. “I still believe it could have had a viable future in the same way as the Bluebell Line,” he says sadly. “We had plenty of bluebells along our route.”

You can follow the model railway project on Facebook at ‘For The Love of a Railway’