Talk Report: 2016-11-09

The legacy of the Somerset & Dorset Railway by Mike Beal

Mike Beal is descended from three generations of men who worked for the Somerset and Dorset railway so he is well qualified to talk about this important part of Somerset’s history. As director of the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust, Mike came to talk to us on Wednesday 9th November about the railway’s history and the legacy that it has left behind. The Trust is celebrating fifty years of preserving memories of the S & D Railway, which finally closed fifty years ago in March 1966. It was and is sometimes referred to unkindly as the Slow and Dirty Railway, although never by Mike!

Mike outlined the railway’s long history with a series of fascinating facts and revealing images. The Somerset Central Railway opened in 1854 with much ceremony. The Illustrated London News featured a procession at Glastonbury Abbey celebrating this momentous occasion. Cyrus and James Clark - founders of C & J Clark in Street – were amongst the first directors of the new railway and during the mid-19th century the railway became seminal in the distribution of their company’s sheepskins and shoes. It is interesting to note that C & J Clark still has its headquarters in Street because of this original rail connection with the rest of the country.

A lot of amalgamations took place over the ensuing years as smaller companies cooperated to extend their networks. The original Somerset Central Railway joined up with the Dorset Central Railway, eventually linking the Bristol Channel with the south coast. A disused jetty down to the beach at Burnham recalls a sea crossing from South Wales, which enabled coal and iron to travel from the Welsh valleys to southern England. New steam ferries were crossing the English Channel and flyers were published in Somerset advertising “New & Cheap Fares to Paris.”

The next challenge for the S & D was to link up with Bath, enabling connection with the Midlands and North of England. The ambitious company embarked on extending their route which necessitated climbing up and over the Mendip Hills, installing track from Evercreech Junction to Chilcompton and on to Radstock and Bath. The project took three years and the venture bankrupted the company which to survive had to lease their rolling stock to the Midland Railway Company. Two engines were required to cope with the gradient up to Maesbury on top of the Mendips but eventually it was possible to travel by rail from the Midlands and north of England via Bath right through to Poole and Bournemouth. The public could now reach what until then had been far flung destinations and the south coastal towns grew and prospered, becoming favoured holiday resorts.

The demise of the Somerset and Dorset Railway began in the mid twentieth century well before the famous cuts of Dr. Beeching in the middle sixties. In 1951 the line from Burnham to Bridgwater was closed for passenger services, and then two years later for freight. In 1962 the through route from the Midlands was diverted and the route from Bath to Bournemouth became used for goods only. More goods were starting to travel by lorry and more cars were becoming available. The Somerset & Dorset Railway was in decline.

In January 1966, the axe was to fall on the much beloved railway. Eventually delayed by public protest until March, the line finally closed on 4th March 1966. “THE S & D DIED TODAY” proclaimed the local paper. Over the weekend of 5th / 6th March trains packed with nostalgic supporters travelled the line. On 5th March 1966, watched by large crowds, two engines pulled carriages on the enthusiast special as it crossed the now demolished Prestleigh Viaduct.

We were shown images of various reminders of the railway’s history, many on display at the Trust’s museum at their headquarters in Washford. A Carriage was found being used as a cricket pavilion at Temple Combe and this has been carefully restored and painted in the famous S & D Prussian blue. Two more carriages were found built into a bungalow in Sussex; both were in excellent condition and are in process of being returned by volunteers to their former glory. The museum shows many restored signs and pieces of equipment and there are two large rusty pieces of metal, which survive from an accident when a train came off the line in thick fog and fell into a drainage channel on the levels.

A 110 tonne steam train and tender originally built at Derby for the S & D has been restored and occasionally is put to use on the West Somerset Heritage Railway, which still connects Minehead with Bishops Lydeard. Various tunnels and stretches of rail survive. Maesbury Station still exists as a private house with grassed over platform and track, and a signal box and one mile of track has been preserved at Midsomer Norton. The canopy of Glastonbury Station has been re-erected on a car park in the town and a pillar on Strawberry Way in Wells commemorates the site of the now long gone Wells Priory Road Station.

The audience was happy to share memories of their S & D experiences with Mike and he was thanked warmly for a happy nostalgic talk full of both information and memories of this important part of our shared history.