The railway

Maxwell Adams 2023

Version 2

The ninetenth century was a time of vigorous railway building throughout Britain and the railway line from London to Penzance was finally completed in 1852. The mainline station nearest to Lelant is on the main road at Rose-an-Grouse and is now called St Erth, originally St Ives Road. This station was opened on 11 March 1852.

At first people travelled from St Erth station on to Lelant and St Ives by bus, pulled then by a horse, but there were several suggestions for a branch railway through Lelant to St Ives, though proposed parliamentary bills to enable the building of railways were fairly common. I list at the end of this article some of the proposals involving Lelant which are in Cornwall Record Office (CRO). For example, in late 1844 there were proposals to link Norwaymans Wharf and St Ives and to link the Causeway and Norwaymans Wharf (West Briton 22 November 1844). In 1852 there was a proposal to build a branch line from St Erth through Lelant to St Ives with a spur from Lelant station to Clay Quay (CRO QS/PDR/14/5).

Railways were built with private money and were speculative ventures, though in Victorian England they proved flourishing replacements for canals and roads for long-distance goods and, of course, also carried people.

Eventually a proposal for a branch line from St Erth station to St Ives was agreed and building the railway began in 1874 and was finished in 1877. The contractor was Thomas Lang of Liskeard and the engineer JH Gibbons. I shall focus on this railway in Lelant and its vicinity.

We have a lively account of the work at Lelant a few months into the work in 1875:

"Although the short winter days have somewhat retarded the works in connection with the St Ives Railway, yet, thanks to the untiring energy of Mr Gibbons, the engineer, and Mr Lang, the contractor, considerable progress has been made during the past few months. The cutting near the proposed junction with the West Cornwall Railway [the present main line] is being pushed forward, and the bridge which is to take the line over the Hayle Causeway is being erected. A little further on, some men are engaged in driving wooden piles into the mud, over which the sea flows at high water. The embankment, a little further on and towards Lelant, is in an advanced stage, and at Brewery Quay, where the Lelant Station will be erected, the navvies are actively engaged removing the earth etc from the cutting which is being made into the towans. From this spot very little has been done until we come to the Carrack Gladden cutting - the stiffest bit of work on the line. Here all is activity, and a large number of navvies are employed in making this cutting. The ground, however, is very hard, and the rock has to be blasted. The show of work is, however, very good, as the cutting appears to be quite half through. Some of the stuff from this cutting has been laid over a part of the towans, thus making a firm embankment on the sandhills. On the St Ives side of Carrack Gladden Point considerable progress has been effected, and the Carbis Valley viaduct, which is a very high and costly structure, is in an advanced stage. The line continues to wind along the cliffs, and for about half a mile beyond the viaduct considerable work has been done, although for the rest of the way towards St Ives very little has been done during the winter" (Royal Cornwall Gazette 17 April 1875, page 6. An identical report appeared in the Cornish Telegraph 14 April 1875).

The original branch line was built as broad gauge and converted to narrow gauge in 1892. However, from the start the line from St Erth to Lelant and on to the wharf had a third rail to accommodate narrow gauge when it came.

The line was made through vastly different land. About half a mile from St Erth station it begins to run along a man-made embankment above the mud and sand along the edge of Lelant Water. Noall says that when the line opened in 1877, just on the landward side of the embankment, a tin works with a water wheel and stamps was in operation (Noall 1965). This was presumably at the stream which comes down from Wheal Cubit: see the article Work in Lelant on this website. The landward side was a marshy wetland, which used to be called the Muds, but has been reclaimed, first as a council rubbish dump and for some years now as a football pitch. In 1978 a second station Lelant Saltings, actually merely a bleak platform with capital views, was built at the embankment on the water edge. This is primarily for people using the adjacent car park which has a park-and-ride scheme to alleviate car parking in St Ives.

Lelant Station was built on the same embankment a few yards south of Brewery Quay at the bottom of Quay Lane, now called Station Hill. This became a private house in 1965 and is now called Old Station House and is painted in the cream and brown colours of the Great Western Railway.

At the station initially were a signal box and a level crossing with gates. Both are now gone, though the gate posts remain, and the article Lelant parish council on this website tells something of the level crossing which guarded a public way across the sand at low tide. The signals on the branch line were installed by Saxby and Farmer (Cornish Telegraph 17 April 1877).

Because of the soft ground, Lelant station was built on concrete put eight feet down into the ground (Noall 1962). It was a small station but had, Noall says, a booking office and three waiting rooms, first, second, and third. I think this reflects the importance to some Victorians in Britain of social class.

Mary Wills, recallling life in Lelant in the 1930s, says that, looking at the present Old Station House from the road, the entrance to the railway station was through the door at the the left, northern end (Wills 1996). Through the door and to the left was the the booking office and to the right was the waiting room. The present garden at the right, south end was part of the platform. In the 1930s the garden to the left, north end was where Willie Edmonds collected parcels. He was a postman who had a pony and cart and delivered the parcels that came in by train and collected anything that needed to be sent off by train. Today people wait on the platform, buy their tickets on the train, and there is no rail parcel service at Lelant.

A few yards from Lelant Station towards St Ives the railway goes into a long cutting and through the sand dunes towards the ferry. When the railway was built the golf club was not there, the ferry was. In this area in 1875 navvies came across some early graves: an account is in The sands of printless foot on this website. Farther along there is a level crossing. It is now between the golf course and the sand dunes and seems a strange place for one. It was put here when the railway was built because people remembered that a few years earlier, in 1866, the lifeboat had to be hauled over land to the beach to be launched to rescue the crew of the Bessie. The railway crosses another man-made embankment here, high above Porthkidney beach, and by Hawks Point leaves Lelant and enters a small wood called the Nut Grove.

A few yards north of Lelant Station the track of a spur railway can still be made out. It runs along the walled water's edge and through what is now part of the golf course. This was built at the same time as the branch line and ran to the wharf on the river known by various names but now best known as Dynamite Quay. The building and completion of this new quay, to take advantage of the coming railway, went well:

"The quay, which is now in the course of erection at Lelant, is progressing favourably. About sixty men are employed on the works, and it is thought that when complete it will result in an influx of trade to Hayle as well as to Lelant" (Cornish Telegraph 11 March 1873. Also 7 October 1874).

"The quay at Lelant is now completed and awaits the opening of the railway. Coal and 'other merchandise' are already discharging at the quay. The quay is eight hundred feet long and ships drawing seventeen feet of water can approach at full tide. A new cart road has been built from Lelant to the quay, entering at its southwestern end" (West Briton 18 January 1877).

The wharf had a weighbridge and storage. Later WB Gilbart had a coal yard there. In 1920 it was sold by Tyringham to Thomas W Ward, a firm which dismantled ships. In World War II Bickford Smith had a factory by the wharf. The metal skeleton of the factory can still be seen, rotting slowly.

The cart road proved contentious in the next centuries (Adams 2002).

The building of the railway and the presence of a large number of navvies had an impact upon life in Lelant which I have mentioned in O call back yesterday, bid time return on this website.

The Cornish Telegraph reported of Lelant: "drunkenness, to a lamentable extent, exists here; the Sabbath being the favourite guzzling day. Last Sunday, from about half past two in the afternoon till late at night, drunken men were rambling about the roads much to the disgust of the decent inhabitants" (15 September 1875). However, T Andrew wrote the next week and blamed the navvies whom he described as "sojourners...and of a class too, that are proverbial for 'liking their beer.' "

The presence of much material needed for the building was a temptation:

"For some time timber has been missed from the railway works...Police Constable Mitchell apprehended on Friday a man named William Webb, who, it was found, had built a stable with timber, a large portion of which Mr Lang, the contractor at the works, identified as belonging to him and which he valued at twenty shillings" (Cornish Telegraph 20 October 1875).

The station was well cared for: the grardens there were awarded a prize by the Great Western railway (St Ives Weekly Summary 17 January 1903, page 7). Victorian justice in Lelant on this website tells of two Lelant girls stealing flowers from a grave and giving them to an unknowing stationmaster to help him inhis work of prettifying the station.

And there was tragedy too. John Yendall was killed when excavated material fell on him from a cutting He was fifty three and a ganger, that is in charge of a gang of workmen, and had been navvying for eighteen years (Cornish Telegraph 6 October 1875). The verdict at the inquest held at the Praeds Arms (now the Badger) was accidentally killed.

A further accident on the railway happened years later. John Leacher, aged seventy six and deaf, was killed by a train while walking on the railway line between the bridge on the cart road and the ferry. The inquest verdict was accidental death (Cornishman 4 November 1909).

As the railway was completed the workshops were dismantled and animals disposed of:

"There was a sale of horses at Lelant Station by E Mitchell, auctioneer, in consequence of the completion of the contract for the branch railway by Lang. Harveys bought a mare for seventy-two guineas and two cart horses for fifty two and fifty one guineas. Some horses were bought by Mr Wainwright of Plymouth for the South Western Railway Company" (Cornish Telegraph 18 July 1876).

The opening of the branch line was in spring 1877:

"The formal opening by the directors of the branch line to St Ives was observed here on Thursday last as a general holiday. Several lines of flags were stretched across the roads in the vicinity of the Cross, and in the evening a huge bonfire was lit at the bottom of the new road to the quays which, with tar barrels blazing away along the quay and other points, had a fine appearance...

Just past Lelant Station you may note the blacksmith's disused smithy and the carpenter's idle benches, with adjacent stabling for twenty horse. This range of shedding was used while the line was being made...

About a quarter of a mile from Lelant Station we enter another cutting through the shillet, and, as this work disturbed a road from Lelant town to Praed's Wharves, the thoroughfare is maintained by a bridge of seventeen foot span. Shillet soon merges into the sands...and it was in this cutting that a few feet from the surface and in a place eight or nine foot square many a ton of human bones was found" (Cornish Telegraph 29 May 1877).

When the line opened the fare from Lelant to St Ives was 3d (Cornish Telegraph 5 June 1877).

St Ives declined as a fishing port and developed as a holiday resort and today holidaymakers are the branch line's most numerous users, especially in summer.

In the early years of the line an accident was averted by Tom Whatty's quick action. The story is told in an obituary of him, the Lelant ferryman, in the Western Morning News 10 March 1910:

"It is quite forgotten how, when but a mere boy, his ready observation showed him that a portion of the railway just above the hut had subsided through former mining operations, how his ready mind was at once aware that the mail train was within two miles of the nearest signal, and that the only chance lay in reaching the station some five hundred yards away, and how, running at full speed, he was able to check a great disaster by half a minute!"

The history of the branch line in the second half of the twentieth century has been difficult. The rise of road transport and travel led to a purge of railways in Britain in the 1960s but proposals to close the branch line were rejected by Barbara Castle, the minister for transport (Cornishman 24 September 1966). Since then there have been periodic concerns about its financial viability. Steam trains stopped running on the line in 1961 and goods trains in 1963.

The first railway station in Lelant is in the north, church end of the village, and is simply called Lelant. It was built with the railway. In 1978 a second station was built in the southeast of the village and was called Lelant Saltings station. It had about three hundred parking spaces and became the prime station in Lelant but closed in 2019. Subsequently in 2022 the platform at Lelant staion was extended, along with improvements at St Erth railway station.

Sources and notes

ADAMS Maxwell (2002) 'To the barricades! Well, perhaps not' in St Ives Times and Echo, 15 November

Newspapers as cited in the text

NOALL Cyril (1962) 'St Ives broad gauge branch line of eighty-five years ago' in the St Ives Times and Echo, 29 June

NOALL Cyril (1965) 'Building the St Ives branch railway' in the St Ives Times and Echo 15 October

WILLS Mary (1996) Reminiscences of Lelant: 1930s onwards (CRO AD 1102/1)

Various plans and descriptions of proposals for a branch line from St Erth to St Ives from the 1840s onwards. The books of reference list the owners and occupiers of the land.

"Britain's newest ghost station" on, 15 September 2019 (closure of Lelant Saltings station)

"No more haltings on the Saltings" on, 27 June 2019 (closure of Lelant Saltings station)

There are photographs of both railway stations at Lelant on Alamy.(

Plans and book of reference 1844: QS/PDR/14/1,2
Plans and book of reference 1846: QS/PDR/14/3,4
Plans, including book of reference, and spur to Clay Quay 1852: QS/PDR/14/5
Plans, including book of reference, and spur to Clay Quay 1860: QS/PDR/14/6,7
Plans, including book of reference, and spur to Clay Quay 1863: QS/PDR/14/8,9
Gazette notice for 1863 scheme: QS/PDR/14/9a
Plans and book of reference 1873: QS/PDR/14/10,11; QS/PDR/25/16
Embankment at Lelant: QS/PDR/6/12; QS/PDR/14