West by Rail (The Road Westwards, Part One)

It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries; 
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes. 
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills. 
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils. 

                                                                         ‘The West Wind’, John Masefield

At the end of March, at the end of a long, long term, I closed my laptop, swung on my backpack, and went west. It had been a really challenging term’s teaching and I had been pushing myself hard to finish Resistance before I went away (something I failed at, as it took another fourteen thousand words, scribbled into the back half of my faithful travel journal, to see it through). I was exhausted, and somewhat reluctant to leave so much work behind me untouched, but my tickets were booked and I knew there were new places ahead of me.

My journey began properly at Bishops Lydeard, just outside Taunton in Somerset, and ended two weeks later as I boarded the train home from St Austell in Cornwall, about 100 miles to the southwest (my particular route was about twice that length). I was in Bishops Lydeard, a rather nondescript village outside Taunton, for one reason only.

I had a train to catch.

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        Bishops Lydeard is the eastern terminus of the West Somerset steam railway, which stretches across 20 miles to Minehead on the Somerset Coast. The railway dates from the 1860s and 1870s and was closed in 1971. It reopened as a heritage railway five years later. In the days when most people went on holiday within the UK and travelled by train, it was a busy and bustling line. It still is, of course, but these days people come for the trains themselves rather the destinations. Every year they hold a Spring Steam Gala at the end of March, where they bring in extra trains from across the country. I’d originally been intending to start my trip from Minehead and skim through Somerset quickly, but I can’t resist steam trains.

I didn’t reach the line until Saturday afternoon, so once I was there, I only had time to visit the museum at Bishops Lydeard, where they are busy restoring an old Victorian sleeper carriage which had my muses stirring speculatively. I chatted to a chap who was trying to sell copies of his memoir of behaving badly as a railwayman in the 60s, and then boarded the last train to Minehead. The line’s a long, lovely roll between hills and along the coast, and I began to drift off. This was a problem because not only was I not staying in Minehead, where the train terminated, but for the weekend they had renamed all the stations after a different closed railway further west and I couldn’t remember what they were calling Dunster or exactly how far along the line it was (seriously, don’t do this if you own a heritage railway). Luckily, the guards, with one very young and keen exception, stuck to the original station names (or, as I overheard, “If I’m on a train to Minehead, I’m on a train to blooming Minehead.”)

I found myself in Dunster just as the day began to fade and made my way up the lane from the station in search of my hotel. The next day I had nothing to do but ride on steam trains. I was looking forward to it.

All along the line, the stations host little heritage museums, full of old pictures and railway posters, engine parts and signs, old signals and replica luggage from the tourists of another era. The quirkiest one I found was at Washford, the first I visited. It’s a very quiet little station, surrounded by green hills, which has somehow accumulated the remnants of more than one vanished railway. I bought my ticket, inspected the room full of signal equipment and chuckled over the disciplinary records of a couple of Victorian railwaymen that were on show, and then wandered across the line to explore the carriages in the sidings. They contained the museum of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, a line which ran nowhere near Washford, but had ended up here by some strange quirk of the preservation and heritage world. I had the place almost to myself, except for a beautiful peacock butterfly fluttering around the coal bunker inside one of the carriages. Among the miscellany, I found the place where old railway signs go to die.

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A visit to the preserved signalbox from Burnham-on-Sea, and the tiny preserved locos of an old peat railway, now tucked away under a shelter on mossy tracks , finished my visit to Washford. I caught the next train back in the other direction and continued my scheme to visit as many stations and museums as I could.

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At Blue Anchor, I had time to wander down to the beach and gaze down the coast at the misty cliffs. I knew there would be cliffs later in my trip, though, and not many more steam trains, so I went back and waited for the fast train out of Minehead. I knew that there was a museum at Williton and it was next on my list. I was even more delighted when the train drew in, because I found myself meeting an old friend.

Not a human friend in this case, but a mechanical one: the train was pulled by Wadebridge, who normally resides at my local heritage railway, the Watercress Line. She was originally used on railways in the west country, but now lives in the quiet Hampshire countryside. Whenever I’m hiking around the Watercress Line, it seems to be Wadebridge I catch sight of at the beginning or end of my walk and I have a soft spot for her. It was nice to see I wasn’t the only one enjoying a few days out at the seaside.

At Williton, I got chatting to a engineer, who was sitting outside his engine shed waiting for a willing audience. I’m not as fond of diesels, being more of a fan of the romance of steam, but he argued passionately that the earliest diesel trains were antiques that deserved to be valued as a vital part of our industrial heritage. I spent a little more time in the two tiny rooms of the heritage centre as a result and had to admire this lady, who was clearly one of his pride and joys (I also was quite gleeful to be able to climb into her cabin and indulge the childhood dream of being a train driver for a moment or two).

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Back on the train, I finally made it to the end of the line. I had a bit of shopping to do in Minehead, and wanted to hunt down the bus stops for the next day, but I also got to coo at a few more trains (hush, you mocking fools, my grandad was a railwaymen, my dad took me trainspotting when I was three, and I have two tiny nephews who are carrying on the tradition with wide-eyed joy. It’s in my blood).

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And here below is Wadebridge, on the turntable at Minehead. She’s a West Country class, built during the war and nicknamed ‘Spam Cans’ for their shape (I’ve heard various explanations for the boxy profile: possibly rationing of materials, managing exhaust fumes, or being cheaper to clean). As steam trains go, she’s a powerhouse, though. At the time she was built, everyone knew electrification was coming, but they needed cheap, tough efficient steam trains to fill in until it happened. She was hauling the express trains all day Sunday for good reason.

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I hopped on a train back to Dunster and lingered on the station once I got there to see one more go through. Then I reluctantly turned my back on the line and went to explore the place where I was staying. Dunster is a very old little town, that once prospered from the wool trade. It’s just on the edge of Exmoor, at the point where the land begins to rise away from the coast, and has a castle. I didn’t go in, because they were just closing up as I got there, but I did spend a while wandering the medieval streets quite happily.

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The sun had been out all day, but now things began to turn a little dull. I went to find the old bridge, which I’d read was of historic significance. I admired it dutifully, tried to climb the hill beyond to find a view, but got tired so trotted back to explore the rest of the town and then have an early night.

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The next day I caught the bus into Minehead, where I had breakfast by the sea, and then I headed west again on a very small, very rattly bus which went up some very, very steep hills. Porlock Hill, the steepest of them, is set with exit roads for motorists to aim for if they lose control of their cars. We went up it, but I was very conscious of just how much my elderly driver’s hands had been shaking as he took my fare (Wikipedia informs me the road climbs 1300 feet in 2 miles. It also has hairpin bends). My mother tells me that she and my dad once came down it on an open top bus, so she wins this one, but it was still quite a bus journey.

I was aiming for Lynmouth, a little village just over the Devon border. It’s a quiet, pretty little place, with a harbour and two rivers which tumble down steep gorges. In the picture, and on the day I was there, the rivers looked benign, but in August 1952 a freak storm triggered a flood down the river which destroyed over 100 buildings. 34 people died and over 400 were left homeless. It wasn’t the last flood story I would meet on my travels, but it was the grimmest. There are many reminders of it in the village, but they also celebrate a much more inspiring story.

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On January 12th 1899, the ship Forrest Hall, carrying thirteen crew and five apprentices got into trouble off Porlock Weir. A gale was blowing, her tow rope was broken, she was dragging her anchor, and her steering gear was broken. The signal went up for the Lynmouth Lifeboat, but the gale was so strong she couldn’t launch.

Instead, the coxswain of the boat proposed that she should go overland and be launched from Porlock’s more sheltered harbor. To do this, they would have to drag her up the hill out of Lynmouth (a mere 1 in 4 gradient), across 13 miles of clifftop and then down Porlock Hill. To make things worse, the roads were too narrow for the boat, so six men went ahead with pickaxes to widen them and then they went straight across the moor. It took 100 men and 20 horses (four of whom died of exhaustion). To get down Porlock Hill the men had to steady the boat with ropes as the horses pulled it. They also had to  demolish a garden wall and cut down a tree on the way down. It took almost twelve hours, in a roaring gale, and the crew then had to row for an hour to reach the ship.

They took the entire crew off alive.

In the shelter under the Flood Memorial Hall, there were numerous newspaper accounts of a reenactment which took place on the centenary, where everyone involved mentioned how challenging it had been to do on a nice summer’s day on good modern roads. Every time I visit the coast, I hear stories which leave me humbled by our lifeboat crews, both past and present.

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I left Lynmouth by another type of railway. 700 feet above the village, on top of the cliffs, stands its larger sister village of Lynton. To reach it, you can climb a steep path, go round a very long way by road, or simply take the cliff railway.

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It was opened in 1890 and has been running ever since, and is water-powered. As you rise up, you can see back along the green and towering cliffs. On the day I was there, the air was dull and mist still clung closely to the horizon.

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At the top, I paused for a quick lunch and then turned my back on railways. I would now be travelling by bus and boat (and one car, but that’s another story) all the way to Newquay. The next bus took me to Barnstaple, where the grey day darkened further and distant rolls of thunder suddenly turned into torrential rain. I caught a packed bus through the rain to the port of Bideford on the Torridge Estuary, where I got hopelessly lost trying to find my hotel. Once I was in, though, the weather began to clear, and I looked out over the estuary with growing excitement.

The next day it would be April, and I was going to Lundy.

(To be continued, obviously…)

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2 Responses to West by Rail (The Road Westwards, Part One)

  1. Pingback: Pirate Island (The Road Westward, Part Two) | Amy Rae Durreson

  2. Pingback: Cornwall! (The Road Westward, Part Four) | Amy Rae Durreson

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