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Sights & Scenes of the British Isles

West Somerset Railway, Somerset

by Peter Kessler, 23 October 2022

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        The West Somerset Railway enjoys a notable heritage status as the longest preserved railway line in the British Isles, although that title may be under threat as other heritage lines gradually expand.

        The line started out as a branch of the Bristol & Exeter Railway which had already reached Taunton. It was built primarily to connect to the trading centre of Watchet on the Bristol Channel coast. Local businessmen and dignitaries began to promote the West Somerset Railway in 1856, with Brunel being engaged as its engineer (although he was busy crossing the Tamar, so one of his deputies was assigned to the WSR).

        Once the necessary land had been purchased, construction followed the line of the Doniford Stream, between the Quantock Hills to the immediate east and the Brendon Hills to the west. Minehead was reached in 1874. The Bristol and Exeter was absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1890, with the final improvements in Minehead being handled in the 1930s.

        The post-war decline of the railways reached a peak in the 1960s. The WSR held out longer than most, mainly thanks to its summer traffic to Butlins at Minehead, but the tipping point came in 1970 when the local council switched school transport to buses. The line closed at the start of January 1971.

        At Easter 1976, reopening began with heritage trains running between Minehead and Blue Anchor. By 1979 services were running over the thirty kilometres of line between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, six kilometres to the north-west of Taunton. Today the line is one of the biggest visitor attractions in the south-west.

        Main Credits

        Filmed by Peter Kessler

        Video post-production by Kessler Associates

        Bibliography / Further Reading

        West Somerset Railway website

        WSR website

         

        Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.