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Running between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, three miles west of Taunton, this is Britains longest standard gauge heritage railway.

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The line was closed by British Rail in 1971 and was virtually derelict when taken over by a group of enthusiasts in 1976.

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The Bristol and Exeter Railway arrived in 1845, improving communication in the area. A network of connecting lines was soon proposed designed to provide an alternative for the long and dangerous trip around Land’s End by boat.

The West Somerset Mineral Railway was opened in 1856 bringing from the iron mines in the Bredon Hills to Watchet, where it was taken by boat to iron furnaces in South Wales.

Sir Peregrine Palmer Ackland of Stogursey who owned large areas of land in the area, proposed an extension from Watchet harbour to join with the main line at Taunton and beyond.

They engaged Isambard Kingdom Brunel to engineer the line, thinking his name his name would add prestige to the project and help raise the money to fund it. He was involved in other projects, so most of the work was delegated to his deputy Robert Brereton.

The route was very straightforward and required few heavy engineering works. Construction began at the line summit at Crowcombe to Watchet, with its newly reconstructed harbour and to a junction with the main line at Norton Fitzwarren.

Once open, the line was so successful it was extended to Minehead in 1874 bringing tourists to the town. George Fownes Luttreel of Dunster Castle had visions of expanding Minehead to rival other local resorts like Weston super Mare and Burnham on Sea.

The line was originally built to Brunel’s broad gauge of seven foot and a quarter inch. However, problems of interchange between broad and sthe more extensive tandard gauge network, led to standard gauge becoming the norm. The line converted to standard gauge in 1882.

The line became part of the massive Great Western Railway in 1890 and traffic continued to grow. Platforms were lengthened to take longer trains and additional passing loops and signal boxes built to cope with the increasing traffic, allowing for faster train times. In the summer 1936 there were at least ten passenger trains in each direction every day with two being through expresses to Paddington. Passenger traffic was high during the 1950s but decreased with increasing car ownership, cheaper foreign travel and the movement of freight traffic from rail to road. The line was closed in 1971.

Taunton business man, Douglas Fear, along with local railway enthusiasts, believed they could make the railway pay and run a regular commuter services between Minehead and Taunton with extra summer services for tourists. Somerset County Council bought the line from British Rail and leased it back to West Somerset Railway. Disputes with the rail unions meant commuter services never ran, but steam services between Minehead and Blue Anchor began in 1976 extending to Bishops Lydeard by 1979.

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The railway remains as one of the main tourist attractions in the area. If wanting to enjoy the views, the run does need to be done in good weather. Unfortunatelywhen I visited there was low cloud, mist and steady rain. Views were minimal...

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cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
West Somerset Railway cont...
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Bishop Lydeard Station is the main station for passengers arriving from Taunton and is the southern terminus. It originally served a large agricultural community and the good shed was used to receive animal feed and fertiliser as well as general goods. Farmers brought their cattle and farm produce (potatoes and sugar beet) for despatch to larger towns and cities.

It began with a single platform and goods shed. A passing loop and another platform were added later along with a signal box, but it was never a very busy station.

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Signal box and the wooden waiting room on the up platform are original. The large wooden building housing booking office, cafe and shop is later.

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At the far end of the station, towards Taunton are the sheds for cleaning and routine maintenance of locos. These were built in 2015 to a traditional GWR design. The goods shed is now the Gauge Museum with displays about the railway and its impact on the local area. Upstairs is a large model railway.

Leaving Bishops Lydeard, the line crosses fertile farmland with a lot of trees and hedges as the line passes through the Vale of Taunton Deane. The line begins to climb through the foothills of the Quantock Hills, with a few small settlements and isolated farmsteads.

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The line’s summit is at Crowcombe Heathfield Station. Apparently its main claim to fame was when the Beatles were filmed riding bicycles on the platform for their film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. It is still a popular filming location.

There is a passing loop and a new signal box. The station building on the up side has been extended and a stone goods shed rebuilt. The waiting shelter on the down platform is new and has a display about broad gauge track. The signals are replicas.

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Leaving Crowcombe Heathcliffe, the line begins to drop down through the gap between the Quantocks to the east and the Brendon Hills to the west, although any views of the hills were either masked by trees or mist and low cloud...

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Approaching Stogumber Station is the restored cattle dock.

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The station is cut out from the hillside, with the current platform on the less stable outer edge with the station building opposite where the land is firmer. The waiting shelter on the opposite is a replica of the original 1862 building. During the 1930s and 1950s a camping coach was placed in the cattle dock.

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The line continues to drop thought fertile farmland to Williton. The landscape is flatter and more open with fewer trees.

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The tall mast of one of the Washford TV transmitters can just be seen above the village.

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Williton Station is on the edge of the village and is the main crossing point of the line.

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The signal box at the Bishops Lydeard end of the station was built in 1874 and is the only surviving Bristol and Exeter example still in use. The original wooden parcel office next to the signal box is now a small cafe.

The original Brunel buildings on the down side house the booking office and waiting room. The up platform has a small wooden waiting room also dating from around 1874. The wide gap between the tracks reflects the line was originally broad gauge. The original footbridge was demolished in the 1960s and has been replaced by one from Trowbridge station.

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On the down side of the line is the vintage diesel locomotive collection. Just beyond the station, the large corrugated iron building came from the GWR workshop at Swindon and was donated to the West Somerset Railway. It is used for heavy engineering and restoration work.

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cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
West Somerset Railway cont...

After Williton, the line heads to the tiny Doniford Halt, a request stop, which was opened by the West Somerset Railway in 1987 to serve holiday makers staying at local campsites. It has a small GWR heritage ‘pagoda’ waiting room. There is no ticket office, or any other facilities.

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The line now swing left and there is the first view of the sea. The coat along this stretch is unstable and suffers from coastal erosion. On a clear day there are views across the Bristol Channel to South Wales.

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The line reaches Watchet with its harbour.

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This was the original terminus of the line which had an extensive network of lines serving the harbour. This had been a busy port since the C17th. When the railway arrived, its main export was iron ore for steel works in South Wales. Imports included coal for the local community and wood pulp for the Paper Mill. The harbour remained a commercial port until 2000 and is now a marina.

The small corrugated iron shelter at the end of the on the down platform houses a display about the railway. The goods shed is now longer owned by the railway and houses the Watchet Boat Museum.

After Watchet, the line swings back inland to Washford and Washford Station. The Station is painted in Southern Region colours of green and cream rather than the GWR colours of chocolate and cream. It was once centre for local agriculture with a goods shed, cattle loading dock and a large cattle market regularly held at station. It retains the original signal box although the rest of the buildings in goods yard were demolished in the 1960s.

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Washford still has a busy goods yard with sidings and the buildings are modern replacements.

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From Washford the line now swings back to the coast, dropping across an area of wet and infertile wetland. There is the first glimpse in the far distance of North Hill, the massive bulk overlooking Minehead.

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Blue Anchor is named after the blue-grey mud found clinging to anchors of ships waiting off coast for the tide to take them to Bristol. This was originally a small station with a single platform with a small shelter. As seaside holidays became more popular, a second platform and signal box were added in 1904. Between the wars, old coaches in the yard were let out as camping coaches. The level crossing is still opened and shut manually using a wheel.

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The line runs along the coast with a wet pebbly beach, with Minehead appearing into view. The beach here has the second highest tidal range in the world.

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On the landward side is rolling fertile farmland.

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Dunster Castle appears in the trees along with the church tower and the folly of Conygar Tower.

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Dunster Station is a typical small GWR country station with flower gardens. The station yard and shed are home to teh roailways permanent way department.

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From here, it is just a short distance to Minehead through lush agricultural scenery.

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Minehead Station is close to the sea front and just a few minutes walk from the town centre. It is the head quarters of the West Somerset Railway. The original station was extended many times to cope with longer and longer trains. At nearly a quarter of a mile long, the platform is the longest on any heritage railway.

A signal box, loco shed, turntable and sidings were added. At the far side of the car park is a small brick building which was once the stables for railway horses used for distributing goods to the local area. Latterly it has been used as a boxing club.

The loco shed, turntable and signal box were removed before the line closed. The goods shed survived and is now the main locomotive shed and workshops. Wagons and locos can be seen in the sidings.

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The turntable came from Pwllheli, although it is rarely used as locos shunt round and run tender first on the return journey.

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Locos stop to fill up at the water tower before the return journey.

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It is a busy station with booking office, shop, and second hand bookshop.

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It also has an original iron water fountain.

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This is an excellent trip (even in poor weather!) The railway is an important tourist attraction carrying over 2000,000 passengers a year. It employs forty full time staff plus about 1000 volunteers. It is a major part of the local economy
 

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