Fifteen members met, unusually, on Monday 3 June at the railway station in Watchet. Our guide for the afternoon was Chairman of the West Somerset Mineral Line Association, Phil Gannon, whose knowledge of the line past and present is – to say the very least – extensive.
It was an afternoon of mixed weather, which was at its worst as we stood on the west pier in Watchet to hear the early history of the mineral line. Industrialists from South Wales had needed new supplies of iron ore for their smelting works at Ebbw Vale and to supply them industrial-scale mining had started in the Brendon Hills in 1853. Thomas Brown, a partner in the company, realised that a railway was needed to bring the ore to Watchet harbour and The West Somerset Mineral Line Railway was established in 1855, opened in 1861 and carried passengers from 1865.
Developing the harbour to meet this increase in trade was a time of legal wrangling about its ownership and between alternative plans – including one by Brunel. That would have linked up with the West Somerset Railway, which opened as far as Watchet in 1862. A cheaper plan was chosen.
The mines closed in 1883/4, but passenger services continued until the railway closed in 1898. It reopened in 1907, closed again in 1910 and most of the rails were lifted for scrap in 1917. Some original rails still run along part of the west pier and the guided tour was to explore some of the visible remains of a railway and industry that had been closed for over a hundred years.
Across the road from the harbour is the oddly shaped Watchet station, now a house, and the carriage shed, which is now a garage.
In a minibus we moved to the site of Washford Station, which is marked by the garage of a private home. However, Roadwater Station exists and has been modified and extended into a privately owned bungalow. A carriage bought when everything was sold off has been incorporated into a new build in Roadwater.
At the top of the incline – which we only looked down – is the winding house where two drums on one axle wound one waggon up the incline as a filled one descended. It took twelve minutes to lower a waggon of ore from the top to the bottom of the incline, while pulling up a waggon of coal or timber.
Nearby is the site of Brendon village where 60 cottages, housing 250 miners, and a prefabricated ‘tin’ church were erected in 1860/1. With the end of mining in 1884, the village disappeared – the tin church ending up as a chapel at Watchet Paper Mill and its bell in the Watchet Market House Museum. Across the road from the winding house, ‘Brown’s Temperance Hotel’ was built. That later became a shop for the local community and then a private house.
Beulah Chapel, built in the intersection of a turnpike road and a drovers’ road, opened in 1861, but when the miners left in 1884 its use declined and it closed in 1889. It re-opened in 1910, following renovation, and has remained open ever since. Further along the road we stopped by the ruins of the Bampton Road Stores, which was not only a store but an early park and ride! People travelling by train could leave their horses and carts in the stable area.
There was more to see but it was getting late and the group decided it was time to return to Watchet.
To be continued?
Report by Jean Burge June 2019