The Pigsty Hill Light Railway

I must admit that I was at a loss for a prototype for the new line until the summer of 2007, when I visited the lower terminus of the 2’6" gauge Pentewan Harbour, where one can still see a few tracks and ramps from which ships were loaded. While sheltering from the fierce Cornish sunshine, which threatened to penetrate my cagoule and rust up my camera, I decided to model the PHR’s extension through Heligan to Mevagissey.

In the 1890’s, the railway was faced with the increasing silting-up of Pentewan Harbour, ironically caused by waste sand from the very industry that it served. The PHR management and the Tremayne family of Heligan proposed an extension to Mevagissey. The new line deviated from the original at Nansladron Junction, using the course of an existing private lane that linked Heligan House with the main St Austell – Pentewan road. There was a private halt at Heligan House for the Tremayne family and their guests and a public station for the gardens. Originally, this was to be named ‘Heligan Gardens’, but this was changed to ‘Pigsty Hill’, a local landmark, to avoid confusion with the House station.

The route then followed an existing path into Mevagissey, where there was a Town station, which is now, alas, a car park. A branch ran through the narrow streets to the harbour, very much after the fashion of the W&LLR at Welshpool. This had the dual function of exporting china clay and transporting fish to those up-country via interchange sidings with the GWR at St Austell.

Map of the PHLR

This new line was built under a Light Railway Order and assumed the name of the Pentewan and Heligan Light Railway, although it was in practice completely controlled by the Pentewan Harbour and Railway Company. It is conjectured that the omission of Mevagissey from the railway's name was an attempt to prevent the GWR getting wind of the PHLR's designs on a desirable holiday resort. This turned out to be academic, as the locals christened it the 'Pigsty Hill Light Railway' almost from its opening day, and this name appeared in Bradshaw’s Railway Guide from 1895 onwards.

Incidentally, it was long thought that 'Pigsty Hill' was a named after the Tremayne estate's famous pigsties, home of the rare Cornish Blue breed, but it is likely that the name is much older. Recent archaeological research points to a Neolithic pig cult. The discovery of charred remains of pigs, in shallow pits among evidence of feasting, gives credence to this theory.

The line did important duty during both World Wars, although security prevented any photography of its vital cargoes. By the end of the Great War, both locomotives, ‘Canopus’ and ‘Pioneer’, and most of the stock were worn out, and the future looked bleak. However, by a happy chance, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Tremayne of the Royal Engineers, a director of the PHLR, returned from the war with knowledge of a brand new geared 0-4-0T that had been destined for a 750mm gauge mountain railway in Saxony, but which had been seized as reparations. A number of waggons were also available, and the appropriate strings were pulled. These arrived at St Austell (GWR) in March 1921 and the railway was saved. A visible sign of this remained to the end of the PHLR, in that centre couplings were retained on the new rolling stock, replacing the PHR’s previous system of side buffers, itself most unusual for a narrow gauge line. The two older locomotives were sold for scrap, raising the princely sum of £45.

After World War II, the forward-looking Tremayne family saw the possibilities of their gardens as an attraction for the better class of tourist, with the nearby private Heligan House Halt keeping the hoi polloi away from the house itself. Pigsty Hill station handled visitors to the gardens. Many holidaymakers who took the train to Mevagissey returned to the gardens for a closer look, having had a taste of their beauties on the journey from St Austell.

In the mid 1950’s, much of the china clay traffic was redirected via standard gauge lines to Par and Fowey but, for a while, things looked rosy with the increase in post-war tourism. Alas, this didn’t last and, as car ownership grew, passenger numbers fell off. The PHLR management tried to compete by introducing diesel haulage and even a diesel railbus, but it was to no avail.

Sadly, the last train ran in 1961. If only it had survived a few more years, it would have made a delightful preserved line. How the good citizens of Mevagissey would prefer the ‘emmet dilly’ to today’s traffic jams!

There has recently been much talk of re-opening at least a part of the line, but the Preservation Society is deeply split as to which part, and little progress has been made.

However, all is not lost. It is now possible to walk the line almost in its entirety. Cornwall County Council’s ‘Coast and Clay Trail’ faithfully follows the trackbed from Carthew to Mevagissey via St Austell and Pentewan, with a short deviation around Heligan Gardens.


The Pigsty Brewery and its Railway

Anyone old and lucky enough to have visited Cornwall in the 1950's will remember the products of the Pigsty Brewery; Old Boar Bitter and Old Sow Cider were a regional, nay national, institution in that county. The brewery was established in 1898 by Nigel Trewithen of Cheesewarne Farm, soon after the opening of the Pigsty Hill Light Railway's Mevagissey Extension. In fact, it was unusual in being dependent on rail transport from its inception, there being very limited road access to the site.

It is believed that the PBR was the inspiration behind the Oakhill Brewery Railway in Somerset, opened in 1904, although this only lasted a few years until 1921. During this brief period, the line was operated on the same push-pull basis as the PBR.

In 1961, the closure of the PHLR, which linked Pigsty Hill with St Austell and the rest of Cornwall, tolled the death knell for the brewery, and St Austell Ales bought out its goodwill and its public houses. Indeed, they brewed Old Boar Bitter right up into the 1980's, although old-timers could be heard to complain that "I tell 'ee, me handsome, an Old Boar bain't what he were in my day".

Origins of the Railway

The Pigsty Brewery Railway existed solely to link the Pigsty Brewery to the PHLR at Pigsty Hill station. Because of the availability of second-hand stock and portable track, it was constructed to two-foot gauge, and very lightly laid. Of course, this involved trans-shipment at Pigsty Hill to the 2' 6" gauge PHLR, but this was not seen as a problem, as there were never any plans for through running. A minimum radius of 48 feet was applied when laying out the line.

When the line was first constructed, trains (and, worse, their smoke) were visible from Heligan House, spoiling the Tremayne family's view of Pigsty Hill and St Austell Bay. In those days, the local landowner's word was law, and something had to be done. The obvious solution was to run the line around behind Pigsty Hill, but there was insufficient room there to take both the PBR's track and that of the PHLR.

At the request of the chairman of the Pigsty Brewery, officers of the PHLR and Pigsty Brewery met to discuss a  proposal that a section of the former should be converted to mixed gauge, with running rights for the PBR on the two-foot. Perhaps surprisingly, the PHLR board agreed to this proposal and committed itself to laying the third rail at its own expense.

The PBR was to have its own bay platform at Pigsty Hill, with cross platform transfer of goods and a smart new yard crane.

It might seem strange that the PHLR board was so easily swayed, given the costs involved. Cynics might take note that the meeting was held at the Pigsty Brewery, after a sumptuous meal and comprehensive beer-tasting. Furthermore, the minutes were taken by Chastity Tregorrick, a lifelong teetotaller and niece of the Pigsty Brewery chairman.


Rolling stock

Initially the PBR purchased two small 0-4-0T locos 'MALT' and 'HOPS' from Peckett's of Bristol, which gave many years' good service. They were replaced in the early 1950's by a Rapier 4wD diesel and a curious railcar that would be described as a "draisine" on the Continent, where these beasts are much more common. They took on the names of their steam predecessors.

The working vehicles were two 4-wheel waggons and a brake van, but a coach was purchased, as was the fashion of the times, for the conveyance of the directors. In later years, these covered vehicles were used for enthusiasts' specials and brewery tours. Curiously, many of the same faces were to be seen on both.


Realising the Dream

I decided that Pigsty Hill station would be the perfect prototype, with Heligan House Halt a few scale yards away for a later project. It was of particular interest, exporting exotic fruit and vegetables and importing coal and other necessities for the house, as well as visitors to the Gardens. Passing trains carried tourists, fish, china clay and general goods.

After all, if one is modelling a railway in a garden, why not model a railway in a garden? It also didn’t escape my notice that Mevagissey quay would be a perfect setting for my tiny indoor line, but that’s another story.

I decided to model the railway as it was in the early 50’s, when a healthy mineral and fish traffic was still being carried, and when the tourist traffic was at its height. It suits my existing locos and stock and gives me the excuse to build, beg or borrow a railbus, a project that has been much on my mind.

This autumn, I had the pleasure of walking the trackbed of the PHLR. I was delighted to find the sole remaining building of the old Pentewan Harbour Railway, a china clay store in the Co-op car park at the bottom of West Hill, St Austell. As I crested the summit of the line, looking across to Pentewan Beach on one side and Heligan Gardens on the other, I pondered on the loss of what would surely have become a major tourist attraction and a boon to the car-infested streets of Mevagissey.

The final extent of the PHLR can be seen on “The PHLR and the GWR” page at Maps and the layout on “PHLR Mark V”.


NOTE: This page is based on articles I wrote for Garden Rail magazine. See Garden Rail Index to find my articles






Author’s confession

Much of this history is imaginary, but it might well have happened. The Pentewan Harbour Railway was real, and most of it can be walked today. After sketching out my legend, I re-read my Bible, ‘The Pentewan Railway’. The PHR did propose extensions up the Trenance and Gover valleys to the china clay pits, although these were finally built by the GWR. Much to my surprise, one John Tremyane of Heligan did offer to invest in an extension to Mevagissey. The route I sketched out does match the Coast and Clay Trail, although it skirts the actual Gardens.


The Pigsty Brewery is, alas, pure fiction.

The Pigsty Hill Light Railway - a Very Small Garden Railway


The History of the Prototype


An Unreliable History of the PHLR in the Real World