|THE INDUSTRIAL RAILWAY RECORD
© AUGUST 1969
SYDNEY A. LELEUX
The West Somerset Mineral Railway, constructed under an Act of 1855, was one of the more unusual of Britain's minor railways. The line was opened in stages from Watchet on the Somerset coast to Comberow, a hamlet some six miles to the south at the foot of the Brendon Hills. In order to reach the ironstone mines at the top of the hill, to serve which the line had been principally envisaged, an incline was constructed. This was 1100 yards long on a gradient of 1 in 4, lifting the railway 800ft to the top of the hill. Although not completed until 1861, the haste to despatch iron ore along the railway was such that the incline was opened to traffic in May 1858. Ore was sent to the Ebbw Vale Ironworks in South Wales, the Ebbw Vale Company being closely associated with the railway.
From the top of the incline, the railway was extended westwards in 1864 to serve other ironstone mines. But recessions in the demand for ore, due to imports of cheaper foreign ore and a general fall in production of the industry, caused a reduction in the activity on the railway after 1883. In 1898 the railway was closed, most of the locomotives and rolling stock going to Ebbw Vale. There was a brief reopening of the mines by a syndicate between 1907 and 1910, using the lower section of the railway, the incline and a yard close to the head of the incline. The westward extension was not resuscitated but remained derelict. The railway was last used between 1912 and 1914, when the Angus system of automatic train control was demonstrated on the line near Watchet. After this the railway was abandoned, being lifted in 1917-1918.
In 1962 I spent a summer holiday near Watchet and explored the line from end to end. Although abandoned nearly fifty years before, many traces remain, the trackbed being easily passable for much of its distance. Most of the obliteration has occurred in Watchet itself where a car park, caravan park and houses have been built on the course of the railway. The station house, goods shed and water tower still stand however.
The track bed becomes traceable immediately north of the plate girder bridge which took the line under the Great Western Railway Minehead branch. At first the WSMR, now little more than a grassy track, runs parallel to the GWR but near Washford the main line turns away to the west. Washford Station has been demolished and a modern house erected on the site, but the level crossing gates survive at the south end. The garden of a bungalow now occupies the trackbed and past this is the site of the bridge that carried the Watchet to Minehead road over the railway. The bridge has been demolished and an embankment substituted. Further south, at Torre Quarry, a decrepit footbridge still spans the railway cutting while just beyond, the crossing keeper's hut stands by the site of a level crossing. From here, the course of the line is a cart track through open fields but gradually the valley closes in and the line takes up a position on a ledge above the river.
The engine house of Burrow Farm mine, Brendon Hill, 20th August 1962. (Author)
Roadwater station with trackbed in foreground, 13th August 1962. (Author)
At Lower Roadwater another crossing keeper's hut survives and is still lived in. Most of the route through Roadwater is private property, a sawmill and several houses having been built on the line. The railway used to cross the river twice before reaching Roadwater station and the main girders of both bridges survive. The station building is now a house while the goods shed is used as a garage; the station platform is intact, while the girders of a third bridge over the river still exist at the southern end of the station. Nearby is the Post Office, where one can still buy a postcard of PONTYPOOL (the 0−6−0 saddle tank built by Sharp Stewart in 1866, works no 1677) with a train at the foot of the Comberow incline in about 1897. A new printing of this card was delivered during my stay, taking its place among other local views. For the rest of the way to Comberow the trackbed is quite clear, being used for forestry and farm access. At Comberow the stationmaster's house is occupied and the edge of the platform can be seen. Although the foot of the incline is densely overgrown, it can be bypassed and the track bed regained. The undergrowth gradually thins out until, half way up, it is virtually clear and some sleepers can still be seen in situ.
At the top of the incline the line emerges on to an embankment and levels off some 20ft higher than the surrounding fields. Some narrow, weed-choked cable ducts run under the track bed to the ruins of the old winding house. Beyond here is a demolished underbridge; all bridges have been removed on the four mile upper section. Brendon Hill station, hardly altered, is now inhabited. The course of the line to Gupworthy is easy to discern, though badly overgrown in many places. The buildings of two of the ironstone mines, at Burrow Farm and Langham Hill, still stand. Luxborough Road station is a ruin in a wilderness and I discovered the platform by stepping off the edge! At Gupworthy the chapel erected for the miners appears to be in use. Here the trackbed is a grassy lane between high hedges and a short distance further on is the terminus, now a farm.
This summarises the position of the railway as it was in 1962, but as it ran through a sparsely populated area it is possible that there will have been little change in the past few years. For the enthusiast who fancies a day in the attractive countryside, WSMR has much to commend it; food and drink should be taken because south of Roadwater there are few houses and Gupworthy is in the middle of nowhere. (We would suggest that a copy of Roger Sellick's book, "The West Somerset Mineral Railway" - David & Charles, 1962 - should be taken also; it is a very useful history and guide. - Hon. Eds.)