Mike Beale on the Somerset and Dorset Railway

31st March 2017

We had an excellent turnout of some 60 members and visitors to the Wincanton Museum and History Society talk given by Mike Beale, tyhe extremely well informed and dedicated member of the Somerset and Dorset Railway Heritage Trust.

He began by describing how in 1966 the Somerset and Dorset Railway (sometimes called the Slow and Dirty) was closed as part of the Dr. Beeching railway closures.  However, during the talk it was to become obvious that this particular line was considered not viable, long before the final axe fell on the 6th May which we saw illustrated in photographs of the final event.  At least one member of the audience took a journey on the final train.

Mike went on to explain that originally there were two separate railways, the Glastonbury Section was started by the Clark founders, and the Highbridge Wharf to Glastonbury section. That was opened in 1854 with a procession and great celebrations.   Clarks used their railway for business and in 1954 were still using it for, amongst other things, staff outings to the coast.   During that era the whole railways were still popular and well used.

When the lines were started they were of different gauge.  Expansion was proposed by the Somerset Railway consortium during the 1850s, closely followed by the Dorset Railway  – the idea being to join the two together.  In l860s the railway ran from Glastonbury to Cole in Somerset, and mixed gauge track was laid.  Dorset Central Railway was of standard gauge.

Wincanton opened in 1862 and goods could travel from Wales to the South Coast, and on to Poole and Cherbourg.   The French connection was not successful and did not last long.   Likewise the Bath extension was opened in 1870s, and did not last long, owing to the fact that the financial burden could not be met.

Double tracks were introduced, and early in the 20th Century the railways were still successful.  But WW1 stopped any further development, and in 1940s the railways were nationalised.   Post War decline had set in before Dr. Beeching came along.  In 195O closures were made to save money, and in 1962 the Pines Express was diverted away from the Somerset and Dorset Railway.  In 1963 Dr. Beeching suggested complete closure of the S and D, but there was to be reprieve of three years, with final closure in 1966.

Some trackway signs are to be seen, but considering there was once a railway link into the Cow and Gate factory at Wincanton, all outside traces of the railway appear to have vanished.

A Railway Requiem was held in Evercreech – photographs show details of a coffin being held high) and eventually the Signal Box burnt down – leading to little evidence of the system to see today.

After Question and Answer, an appreciative thanks was given to Mr. Beale by all in the room. He had really brought home to us that for so many who had worked on it the railway was not just a job, but a way of life of which many were proud and nostalgic.

Janet Fray

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