Features: Banwell, Sandford and beyond

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Fashion: the model India poses in Banwell to echo the life and love of music of the eccentric Miss Emily

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: She loved men in uniform and formed Banwell’s fire brigade – the strange world of Miss Emily Fazerkerley

One lived in a haystack, one joined the Serbian army and another set up her own fire brigade. The world would be a much duller place without that most individual of human beings: the female eccentric. Harry Mottram reports.

Flora Sandes was the only woman from Britain to join the Serbian army and fight the advancing Austrians in the First World War. Louisa (no known surname) lived in a haystack near Congresbury in the late 18th century and for a time was something of a celebrity with fashionable visitors riding out to visit her. And finally we have Emily Fazakerley from Banwell. Born in Ynys Mon, Cymbru (Wales), in 1840 she was the daughter of Henry Fazakerley of Fazakerley House Lancashire, and lived in Plas Castell at Denbigh Castle and was educated in London. Emily moved to Banwell Abbey in 1883 for health reasons and was to leave a lasting impression when she arrived by train on the Strawberry Line at Banwell and Sandford Station. Looking slightly severe in her funereal black gown the Welsh aristocrat cut an exotic image of a cross between Mary Poppins and Queen Victoria.

Banwell's centre: the narrow streets of the village seen in 2012

Banwell’s centre: the narrow streets of the village seen in 2012

Described as a “wealthy, eccentric, lady bountiful” on Barry Mather’s website about the history of Banwell, the wealthy spinster of the parish was noted for her acts of generosity to the community. These included donating land and a cottage to set up a fire station in 1887, and buying a horse drawn fire engine and uniforms for the new fire brigade. Clearly Emily had an eye for theatre as she established a brass band and had special uniforms for the musicians made by Mr Lewis the village tailor. Once she had moved into the Abbey in Banwell (now split into four homes) Emily took a keen interest in the social life of the village. In the 19th century the village was like many in England – suffering from unemployment and in particular a lack of social services. Although the Education Act of 1870 had begun to provide elementary state education there was no formal provision for training and further education. Poverty was a problem and the utilities, health service and emergency services we take for granted barely existed.

Shopping street: the centre of the village in 1910

Shopping street: the centre of the village in 1910

It was recorded that: “On a sudden whim, she would invite all the women in the village to tea and they, numbering as many as 50, would march through the village escorted by the band. They were not only entertained to tea but sent home loaded with blankets, sheets, tea and every kind of household utensil – to the value of about £50 (a considerable sum in those days). When a tinker called at the Abbey she would sometimes purchase his entire stock – brushes, pans etc. to build up her stock of gifts to give to the village.” Many homes were still thatched and all houses used open fires – so the threat of fire was considerable to the tightly packed homes of the village.

Emily decided to set up a fire brigade complete with a fire station and the latest equipment. And her philanthropy didn’t end there. Emily also founded a village band – dressing the members in smart uniforms and equipping them with musical instruments. One of the band – the late Fred Day – recalled “Miss Fazakerley took a great interest in the band and invited it to play at the Abbey on many occasions – we used to go there nearly every night. We didn’t know many tunes and were not much of a band, but we used to struggle through two or three numbers such as Rule Britannia. However, she seemed very pleased with us and after we had played would call out to the Butler “Cornelius, march them to supper”. And what a supper it was.”

Eccentric lady: the only photograph we have found of the unusual resident

Eccentric lady: the only photograph we have found of the unusual resident

Cornelius the butler was also called upon to set light to bonfires in the grounds of the Abbey – so she could invite the firemen to demonstrate how effective they were. Whether these were official hoax calls is unclear – but then if you’ve paid for the fire brigade’s creation it is only fair you can call them out occasionally for your own amusement. Another passion of the extraordinary Miss Fazakerley was her legendary shopping trips to Bristol where she would sometimes hire a special steam train on the Strawberry Line. Setting off from Banwell and Sandford Railway Station accompanied by her staff and waited upon by Cornelius the butler she visited the chic shops of Bristol’s Corn Street, Victoria Street and Castle Street – no doubt stopping for lunch at the Tudor Dutch House on the corner of Wine Street and High Street.

Home ground: Miss Fazakerley's house is still standing - now a set of flats

Home ground: Miss Fazakerley’s house is still standing – now a set of flats

The friend of tinkers and the poor, founder of fire stations and village bands it seemed the eccentric Miss Fazakerley could do no wrong. That was until the incident of the church clock in 1884. It was one innovation too far. St Andrew’s parish church was in need of a new clock and so in her own individual way Miss Fazakerley had one brought from her family home in Denbigh Castle and paid for the workmen to have it installed on the church tower. Lit by gas which automatically switched on at night it appeared to be the perfect timepiece. However this was the 19th century and folks weren’t so keen on all modernisations. It would be the equivalent of a vast digital clock being put there today along with neon lighting. It would do the job but somehow not in the right way. The villagers took against the new clock and made their feelings felt.

It must have been a painful moment in the relationship between the parishioners and Emily – but she got the message and had the clock removed. A short time late the villagers replaced it with a clock of their own choosing – which is still there to this day. Oh well… you can’t win them all. In 1888 Miss Fazakerley died at the age of 48. Her death stunned the village with the residents in genuine shock. Her frail and imp-like body was laid in an oak and lead coffin and placed in state in the Abbey chapel. Hundreds of mourners visited the coffin to pay their last respects – an act of homage that has largely disappeared in our own times.

Her final journey was fittingly by horse and carriage to Banwell and Sandford station where her coffin was taken to London to be buried in the family plot. But it was a departure that combined her two defining characteristics: public theatre and community spirit. Accompanied by the Banwell Fire Brigade and of the village brass band hundreds of mourners made up of residents, family members and friends walked at funereal pace the mile or so to the station while in the distance could be heard the tolling of the church bell – rung in her honour.

Square view: the centre of the village around 1900

Square view: the centre of the village around 1900

One obituary recorded: “To give a general estimate of her character is a pleasing and by no means a difficult task. The impression that has gone abroad concerning her, needs modification. Her eccentricities and naturally excitable temper left sometimes a wrong impression. Her very follies leaned to virtue’s side. Her failings were her virtue. She was generous even to a fault. Her concern for the poor during the recent very severe weather was sometimes painful to witness. She had an idea that they were dying of hunger and cold and that she must provide them with soup, bread, meat, coals and clothing.

Her one aim was to do well, and had her life been spared she would have done still more good. As it is, she has left her mark upon Banwell so deeply engraved that while one of the present inhabitants still survive, her name will be held in grateful remembrance. Well may it be said ‘She was a lady, take her for all in all, we shall not look upon her like again’.” At the beginning of this article I called Emily a Great British eccentric – or words to that effect. But perhaps she was not an eccentric but rather an individual. Are not eccentrics simply people who do as they wish and are not bothered by the opinions of others and the conventions of society? Individuals who are happy as themselves. Why we need to pick on them is perhaps more to do with the fact that most of us are not particularly unusual. We blend in almost unnoticed in society – which is the way we like it. While Emily was certainly an individual – and although she was rich and could do as she chose – you don’t have to be wealthy to be called an eccentric as Louisa in the haystack proved – a lady who we may well revisit in a future issue.

Acknowledgements to Roy Rice of Banwell on his history of the Banwell Fire Brigade.

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Sarah Churchill

Sarah Churchill

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: When Sarah Churchill fell out with the Queen of England (and a lot of other people as well)

The North Somerset village of Churchill has connections with the super rich and powerful of England’s ruling elite of the late 17th century. Harry Mottram investigates a female duo who dominated affairs at the heart of Government.

When friends fall out, they can really fall out. In fact some friends will never speak to each other again. Money, love, gossip, trust and jealousy can all be the trigger – but there’s also that moment when the balance of the relationship changes. One friend moves on – perhaps for a new school or a job and the friendship fizzles out. But I’m sure most people have had a parting of the ways with a friend for a more personal reason. So it was with Sarah Churchill (nee Jennings) when she fell out with her lifelong friend Anne. Sarah Jennings (pictured above) had been pals with Princess Anne pictured below – later to be Queen Anne (1645-1714) – and had championed the cause of the future monarch when she was heir apparent. When Anne became head of state it left Sarah in a powerful position as adviser, confidant and bosom friend.

Queen Anne

Queen Anne

Born in 1660 near St Albans in Hertfordshire there is little connection between her and the Strawberry Line village of Churchill that lies next to Langford – once on a branch line from Congresbury. That is except through the family she married into and her dad’s ownership of Churchill Court – which is now a bed and breakfast establishment. John Churchill – later the 1st Duke of Marlborough – held the illustrious name – and was born near Axminster in East Devon. Churchill means literally ‘the church on the hill’ or ‘the place by the church on the hill’ – and if you look it up in an atlas you’ll see it’s not an uncommon name for a village. It dates back to pre-Anglo-Saxon early English and in some versions of the name is Celtic in origin and means ‘the spring on the hill’.

Married in secret

Drive through the village of Churchill on the A38 and you can’t miss the Churchill Inn with its image of Sir Winston Churchill on the pub sign. Churchill may be linked in younger generations to TV insurance commercials but over the centuries the name has never been far from positions of power and influence – and so it was true of Sarah Jennings when she got hitched in secret to John Churchill. The Jennings family were very rich and mixed socially with members of the Royal Court which is when Sarah met John. She also met Princess Anne at the same time as her job of maid of honour to the Duchess of York. The two became firm friends partly due to their Protestant faith in a Catholic court but also due to being two teenagers from similar backgrounds growing up together.

John Churchill was ten years older than Sarah and at first tried to get her to become his mistress – but she was having none of it. With her golden blonde hair, striking good looks and vibrant personality he quickly fell for her and proposed. Both families were against the couple getting married and so they wed in secret in 1677. John’s family however overcame some of their misgivings about Sarah when her brother died and she and her sister Frances became heirs to the Jennings estate. Despite their wealth, and pivotable position at court the couple had to tread a careful path in a country divided by religion and the politics of whig and tory.

“However John’s star rose during the short reign of the king when he defeated the Duke of Monmouth at Westonzoyland in 1685”

Back at court the couple were out of step with King Charles II who encouraged a catholic court which continued when his son James II became our last catholic head of state. However John’s star rose during the short reign of the king when he defeated the Duke of Monmouth at Westonzoyland in 1685. The King promoted Churchill for his loyalty but must have felt betrayed when John switched sides to favour another challenger to James. This time it was the protestant William of Orange who headed a rebellion – taking control of the country in military coup in 1688 when he invaded with a Dutch army. James II had cheesed off much of the protestant establishment with his a desire to return Britain to the Roman Faith. He was losing friends and finally parliament when he was toppled by the so-called Glorious Revolution. All seemed fair for Sarah and John but despite further successes as a military commander under the new administration John and Sarah weren’t out of the woods yet. A fictional popish plot was linked to John Churchill and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sarah’s friendship with Princess Anne was strongly disapproved of by William’s wife Queen Mary – who had her evicted from her London flat and tried to get her sacked from her job in Anne’s court.

The Seven Years War

Fortunately things changed when first Mary and then William popped their clogs. With Anne on the throne finally John and Sarah Churchill – now the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were secure. John’s military career continued with his role in the Seven Years War – victor of the battles of Blenheim and Ramillies – and architect of the defeat of France in the conflict. Sarah was able to advance her husband’s interest and that of her family with the complete confidence of the Queen – making her and John two of the most powerful people in Europe outside the heads of state. They had a family of seven children, enjoyed fabulous wealth through salaries and pensions from the state – and an unprecedented popularity amongst the ruling classes and many ordinary folk as well. But. And you knew there was a but coming up. Sarah’s celebrated strong will was to get her into trouble – first with her own daughters with whom she was to fall out with – and later with her bosom pal the Queen. The reason was simple. Despite her gift at making friends and influencing people in her role of leader of a Hanoverian band of bosom buddies – Sarah Churchill and the Churchillettes – she was bossy. Queen Anne had enough of her when she insisted she wear different jewellery to one state function. Telling her who to appoint as an adviser was one thing but to tell the Queen what to wear was another – and Sarah got sacked as Anne’s best mate. Sarah’s fall from grace wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

In another era she could have faced the Tower or the scaffold. She was still very rich and powerful and set about building Blenheim Palace. An astute business woman, manipulative and charming, short tempered and witty, Sarah was clearly a highly intelligent woman. Her failing was she as she often told people was she knew best. Years passed, Queen Anne died and her husband John Churchill died – but there was life in Sarah yet. She managed to fall out with a few more people including her daughter, the architect of Blenheim Palace, prime minister Robert Walpole and the new King George II and his wife. But she turned down various offers of marriage and so kept the name Sarah Churchill when she died at the age of 84. Sarah ensured her children married into the most influential families in the country – the most famous descendants being Lady Diana Spencer and Sir Winston Churchill.

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The Victorian Guide to the Strawberry Line

Victorian cyclist hobby horse rider

What was it like to visit the Strawberry Line in 1899? Using an 1899 guidebook Rupert Bridgwater took a trip from Clevedon to Wells in a tweed Norfolk suit in search of Victorian Somerset.

Cyclists should dismount when descending Cheddar Gorge and Clevedon is not condusive to bathing but does have smart shops. These and other useful tops help to make up an 1899 copy of Black’s Guide Book sold for one shilling in Winscombe’s stationer of the same era. Edited by A R Hope Moncrieff the author notes in his preface that as may be expected in a pocket guide to the British Isles that “everything has not been said that might be said; but so far as our limits allow, we have tried to point out to strangers what is best worth seeing in this most attractive corner of England.” And so with guide in hand having first put on a very stiff and itchy Norfolk suit I set off in search of Victorian Somerset travelling from Clevedon to Wells – by bicycle. Traffic excepted and also the considerably greater number of houses built in the last 113 years there are surprisingly many things that haven’t changed a jot.

Judge for yourself with these notes:

Clevedon: “This town straggles roomily on and beneath heights overlooking the Bristol Channel, and has an agreeably informal aspect in its winding lines of villas and open terraces. To the right for the Pier, the smart shops, and the cliff quarter known as Walton, the Bristol end, where a sea walk leads along the edge to a nook called Ladye Bay.” It’s a description that wouldn’t be incorrect today of the town that’s “sheltered from cold winds by the bank of Dial Hill”. However the guide warns that bathing is not tempting due to the beach not being “very salt or sea-like,” but recommends Ladye Bay where “a good swim can be had when the tide is up.”

Somerset, Clevedon

Yatton: “A thriving-like village, just outside of which on the east side stands a solid tower, capped by the uncommon feature of a truncate spire, marking the church, which contains a fine altar tomb and other monuments of the Newton Family.” Sadly there’s no record of the shops, blacksmith or pubs in the guide although it suggests a walk to Weston – now nicknamed Weston-super-Mare – because it’s a pretty town and quite lively. Presumably due to the vast numbers of Welsh miners who descended on the resort by paddle steamer and the day trippers from Bristol’s growing suburbs in search of fun and frolics on their high days and holidays.

Congresbury: “A village graced with a fine church with a pleasant walk to wooded Wrington just four miles away.” The guide notes Congresbury is pronounced “Coomsbury.” The walk to Wrington warns of a ruined mill and a circuitous route along a river bank in order to approach the little town of 1,500 people noted for its connections with John Locke and Hannah More. It describes a path to Goblin Combe via The Golden Lion pub to “the savage glen, edged by Limestone cliffs and banks of screes.”

Winscombe: For some reason the author glosses over Banwell and Sanford and arrives by train in Winscombe – no longer called Woodborough – which he describes as a scattered village. Like all good Victorians he heads to the church “with its fine yew” and “fine outlook”. He quickly embarks by trains for Axbridge through the tunnel from whence “we glimpse Brent Knoll; to the south swells the broken ground of Wedmore, and beyond an isolated hillock is seen the tower of Glastonbury Tor.”

Axbridge: “One the chief towns still having such dignity as petty sessions, a workhouse, and two banks can give but only 700 inhabitants.” He notes the “quaint old houses and stately church,” and claims to see the River Axe “below on the plain”.

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Cheddar: “The station is about a mile from the entrance of the gorge, for which conveyances (4d) are usually in waiting. The Cliff Hotel, near the foot of the gorge is the goal of driving excursions.” The guide is clearly taken with Cheddar as it affords more space than anywhere else in the pocket book – even than Wells. It describes the fierce rivalry between the owners of both main caves, Gough’s and Cox’s – both charging 2/- entrance fee and both lit up to display their “stalactite wonders” for the “patronage of pilgrims.” We also get considerable description of the gorge and the surrounding country which clearly was the big draw for visitors seeking something of a lost wilderness that once covered England from end to end. He cautions cyclists to dismount once they arrive at the end of the wooded part of the top end of the gorge due to “not knowing what may be around each corner.” Something that some motorists should pay heed to today.

Wedmore: Our guide instructs us to take a short four mile walk across the pastures to Wedmore, a village of 3,000 people with its “rambles pleasant by contrast to the environing flats.”

Wells: “A city of under 5,000 inhabitants, wears a look of quiet diginity.” He describes the Town hall and Council Chambers with its exhibition of portraits, the two stations within easy reach of the cathedral and reiterates the truism that nowhere is a city with so many buildings still being used for their original purpose.

Wells High Street Edwardian era 001

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STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: The art of the conman – in Rome and in Cross near Axbridge

You’d think a village in Somerset would be the last place Italian con men would operate in – but the other day Harry Mottram almost fell for a scam that is more common to the streets of Rome than Cross near Axbridge.

I was crossing the road to the New Inn at Cross to deliver magazines when a white sporty looking new car pulled up. Inside were two prosperous looking well fed Italian men (they introduced themselves as Italians). They asked for directions to Gatwick saying they were lost – I showed them the route on their map and in thanks they immediately handed me what appeared to be a Rolex watch. They insisted I have it as a thank you – but I tried to hand it back. They then thrust a second watch into my hands saying it was for my wife. Again I tried to give the watch back – and then they said as they had given me a watch could I lend them cash for petrol as their card wouldn’t work at a cash machine. I smelt a rat and threw the watches back through the window of their white sports car. The car sped off at high speed leaving me somewhat bemused. According to the police these chaps have been operating in the area – although whether they managed to con anyone is a mystery.

A quick scan of a tourist guide to Italy and travel websites revealed how common these scams are. This is from bq125 Belfast writing on Tripadvisor: “There is also a mature Italian man stopping unsuspecting tourists and asking directions. He thanks you and then offers some cheap clothing samples and then he says that he is out of petrol and could you lend him some money. As he has given you something for nothing you almost feel obliged to help. A refusal will see him grab the clothes back and make of at great speed.” And this is from Brenda Reed at the website Virtual Tourist: “We were walking to the Colosseum area when a small oldish car pulled up to us and the driver asked if we spoke English. He proceeded to tell us how he was running late and needed directions to the train station (which was right around the corner). In the process he told us that he was from Milan and worked for a famous designer – even showed us a well-worn notebook of pictures. We used his map to explain how to get there and he wanted to thank us with a gift. He ‘just happened’ to have a really nice leather jacket in Hubby’s size and a designer handbag for me, and he was sure to point out how much they cost. When we refused, he said we offended him and he tried to talk us into keeping them. As we stood there holding the stuff trying to get out of this conversation politely, he then showed us his broken credit card and asked for gas money. Hubby quickly threw the “gifts” in the car and we walked away.”

Brenda said that normally the gift bearer demands more than a token for gas (after all, he gave you such nice things) and once the duped tourists walk away with their jacket and handbag, a motorcyclist quickly rides up and grabs the stuff so it can be reused on the next victim. On the Fodors website Europe Forums Tom had this story again in Rome: “I have been approached by three scam artists in the last 24 hours. The first was yesterday as I was headed to Castl st Angelo. It was the ‘found ring’ scam. I must admit, the lady was pretty smooth. But as soon as I saw her bend over and come up with a gold ring, I just kept walking. The other two happened today about 30 minutes apart. The first one was the ‘Versace Salesman Gift’ I was near Ponte Palantino, when he pulls over and asked for directions to the French Embassy near the Vatican. After I showed him how to get there he offered me a ‘gift’ which at this point I kept walking. “The third one happened less than 30 minutes later as I was walking be Circus Maximus. It was the ‘Phoney Cop – Let’s See Your Money’. It was instigated by a man acting as a tourist stopping me and asking for directions. As I was showing him on the map, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a slight wave of his hand. Within 30 seconds, another man showed up in ‘uniform’ with a badge and an ID that saying “police”. He then goes into this spiel about fake money and asks us both to see our passports and wallets to see if we had fake money.

“His partner whips out both. But for some reason, his partner only has $100 bills US. I tell him that I have no money or wallet and just show him the photocopy of my passport. Then I just turn and left. Off to my left I see their third partner, a lady that I had seen earlier up the street reading the newspaper.”

Ironically I played the spiv in the Axbridge Pageant in 2010 – and performed a comedy show entitled Harry The Spiv at the Roxy in the town based on an incompetent dodgy black marketeer. Judging from these stories – incompetent spivs are not as unusual as you might think. All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t fall for the scam in Cross – I might never have been able to live it down.

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Strong brew: George Orwell had more than a few things to say about what makes a decent cuppa

Strong brew: George Orwell had more than a few things to say about what makes a decent cuppa

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: Loose leaves or tea bag, milk or lemon? The arguments over the making of the perfect cup of tea

It has led to family arguments, marital bust-ups and even war. How to make a perfect cuppa has exercised the minds of the great, the good and countless maiden aunts since the leaf-based beverage was first sipped in England in the 17th century. George Orwell identified the reason in his essay on the subject in 1942. The author of 1984 said there were 11 rules – but only two were universally agreed and a further four were highly controversial. Having read his article I suggest none of his 11 points are widely accepted – and some could lead to legal action in the kitchen such are the passions raised. And that’s the point – nobody appears to agree on any of the main steps in making a perfect cup of cha, char, te, tai, herbata or tea. Ask anyone you know and they all have their own idiosyncracies and often family traditions. I’ve known people to throw away a cup of tea in front of the person who has made it and then declare they’ll make it themselves. It’s one of the most insulting things you can do – and yet who can honestly say they’ve never tipped away a cuppa made by someone and quietly made it again – their way. Generic cuppa

To start with there’s a variety of tea. My late husband (who would declare several times a day that he was dying for a cup of Greyer’s as he called it) would only drink Earl Grey – and sadly it was the reason for his untimely exit from life’s fragile existence. He was run over crossing the road to a café in London where he knew they served Earl Grey. Personally I only drink Builder’s – as I call it. Strong, Assam, with milk, from a tea bag and with four sugars. I know George Orwell wouldn’t have approved of that. He said tea should never be sweetened – something my occasional friend Mrs Pople would agree with. Builder’s of Earl Grey? A simple choice – but of course there are numerous others including black, oolong, green, yellow, white and pu-erh.

Next is tea bag or loose leaf? I never use tea bags – although the quality has improved and I admit you can get a decent cuppa from teabags – as long as the tea is good quality. Almost all cafes and tea rooms serve tea in tea bags – dropped into a small pot and provide you with all the necessities such as milk and sugar allowing you to serve yourself. Even some public houses serve tea these days – something which I think is a great improvement. By and large the standard of tea served in the tearooms of England these days is good to excellent – except for one exception and that are motorway service stations where a sort of luke warm stewed tannin is the order of the day sold at £2 a cup – the same price incidentally for they pass off as tea at Bristol City’s football ground.

So, having established the tea you want, you must decide on the temperature of the hot water. Boiling or 80C? Call me old fashioned but boiling soft water is best – and the tea pot should be warmed first – very important. Pour in the boiling water straight into the pot and allow it to stand for two minutes and fifty five seconds. The University of Northumbria spent considerable time on researching the amount of time you should allow tea to brew.

Quick cuppa: the photo is of Miss Hibbott, a Lyons Tea Room waitress back in 1939. If only tea could be served like that again

Quick cuppa: the photo is of Miss Hibbott, a Lyons Tea Room waitress back in 1939. If only tea could be served like that again

They reckoned on 17 minutes and 30 seconds. However after more research the boffins concluded that the best method was to add boiling water to a tea bag in a mug and leave for two minutes. You should they said then remove the bag and add the milk and leave for six minutes until it reaches optimal temperature of 60C. Leave too long and it drops below 45C and the flavours destroying the “all round sensory experience” – said the white coated ones.

Apparently the average time we allow it to brew is 40 seconds. A scandal – that allows for no real taste to emerge from the leaves. Two minutes and 12 seconds is my recommended time for brewing for a tea bag but for leaves, two minutes and 37 seconds is best. If you use leaves then one rounded teaspoon per person and a half for the pot for every other person. It guarantees a second cup – as is testified by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland: “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.” “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” If there’s not a drought then always boil fresh water (even George Orwell agrees with that one) Dr Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University said: “Use freshly drawn water that has not previously been boiled. Previously boiled water will have lost some of its dissolved oxygen which is important to bring out the tea flavour.” So there.

Far East: tea originated in China but has become a global drink with the English in particular clasping it to their tea pots

Far East: tea originated in China but has become a global drink with the English in particular clasping it to their tea pots

One rule given by George Orwell which must be challenged is: “After making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.” Shake a tea pot? Give it a wiggle maybe – but don’t stir – leave nature to take its course. I never pour in the tea first – always the milk. And yes, porcelain is best – but for years I use an old battered enamel mug for my so-called gardening cups – served in the shrubbery – and it tasted just as good. Although the author of Animal Farm begs to differ. He said: “One should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.”

So just to recap: instructions for the perfect cup of tea for two 1 Warm the pot 2 Put in two teaspoons of tea and one for the pot 3 Allow to brew for two minutes and 12 seconds 4 Add tea and milk to taste to your cup 5 Pour in the tea 6 Stir the tea and drink

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Hungary 1956

How the Hungarian revolution changed the life of one man in the Strawberry Line District

Hungary is in the news this week as the River Danube continues to flood forcing thousands of people to move from their homes to seek higher ground. The BBC reported that in Budapest the nation’s capital some 55,000 are at risk from the floods. Hungarians make up a small amount of workers who have moved to England since their nation joined the EU a decade ago – around 50,000 is the figure estimated by Government sources – with many living and working in the Strawberry Line District. They have come in peace to work – and to return home from time to time. It was not the case in 1956 for one resident of this area. But over half a century ago this autumn, the streets of Budapest in Hungary, rang to the sound of machine guns. Hundreds died in heavy fighting.

A popular uprising kicked out the Soviet-backed government and for a few glorious days the citizens breathed the intoxicating air of freedom. It was not to last. Russia’s Nikita Krushchev ordered in his armed forces and the country was torn apart in a bloody counter-revolution as thousands of Russian tanks and soldiers poured across the borders. In the violent aftermath, thousands fled their country for a new life in Britain. One such man, Jozef Vizi, has reflected on the turbulent events of 1956 from his Somerset home. Rumours abounded in Jozef’s home town near Budapest that fighting was taking place in the capital one October afternoon in 1956. He said: “I worked at a steel mill as a fire prevention officer. After the 2pm shift ended, few people came back to work. Rumours were flying around about the events in Budapest. About 4pm someone said that a couple of people from Budapest had been arrested by the local secret police. Lots of people marched down there to ask if there was anyone in the cells, and the big red star above the entrance was torn down. We heard on the radio that fighting was going on in Budapest.”

Feelings were running high amongst the local population as entry by the police was refused. In Hungary in 1956 the secret police and the army ruled the communist state with an iron fist. Swept up in the crowds Jozef headed for the army camp nearby where guns and ammunition were stored. The commander of the camp refused them entry and after listening to a deputation ordered the crowds to disperse. Moments later shots rang out and the villagers scattered. Despite several casualties the demonstrators held their nerve. Later the camp delivered up its guns and the Hungarian Revolution took hold in Jozef’s village. Jozef Vizi was born in Hungary in 1930, the oldest of four brothers. His parents had a small farm but had suffered under the new collectivisation policies of the Communist regime installed in 1945. He had been in the Hungarian army and was a crackshot with a rifle.

Due to his training and confidence with a gun Jozef was an enthusiastic member of the revolutionary forces that rapidly formed to overthrow the Government of Erno Gerö in October 1956. After the events of that October afternoon, he volunteered to go to Budapest with some friends in a lorry to deliver food to the fighters battling with the secret police and soviet troops in the city. He also took one of the newly liberated rifles and plenty of ammunition. There then began a strange life for a few days for Jozef. He would commute into the capital by day with his comrades, spend the day fighting, and then return home at night.

“It was only five days. We sorted out the Russians with Molotov cocktails and machine guns. I shot at those firing at us and as far as I could know they didn’t fire back. I didn’t see anyone die but I’m a crackshot and I was a sergeant in the army,” he said. “We were fighting for freedom. Under the communists you couldn’t say much. If you spoke out you didn’t know if a lorry would come in the night and take you away.” Jozef had already had a run-in with the authorities. He had refused to join the Communist Party and was punished by being dismissed from his job. Fortunately he had secured a new post at the steel works in 1956. By the end of the month the forces of repression were on the run and the revolution had succeeded.

New Prime Minister Imre Nagy reversed the previous pro-Soviet policies of Erno Gerö and the nation rejoiced in their new found freedom. It was a brief period of liberty. On November 4, Jozef heard a desperate radio broadcast from Budapest pleading for support. More than 1,000 Russian tanks had invaded the country and aeroplanes were bombing the capital. He immediately went back with his comrades to resist the onslaught but it was no use. Outgunned the revolutionaries were forced to flee. Back in his home town Jozef considered making a last stand by building gun emplacements at the entrance to the community. However, the forces that overthrew Imre Nagy’s new government were vast. Tens of thousands of occupying troops swamped the surrounding countryside. Then an old friend of Jozef’s tapped him on the shoulder: he bizarrely was a secret policeman. The former footballing buddy told him that he would be arrested the next day and shot as a traitor along with his brother. Jozef had three choices: to fight on, be shot or run. Jozef told his parents and his brothers he and his brothers had to go. His parents didn’t want him to go. But they agreed he should take the two older brothers leaving the youngest behind.

His father went with them to the edge of the village. It was agreed they would call themselves the Three Ladybirds and they would try to get a message through to the Red Cross that the three ladybirds had escaped. Jozef’s father said to him, ‘you must be the father now, take my place and keep together’. His father shook hands with them and said, ‘I hope we can meet again.’ They watched their father walk back to the village before setting off for the Austrian frontier.’ The Three Ladybirds walked at night and slept by day, using inside knowledge of the minefields to eventually cross the border into Austria to freedom. A few days later the Red Cross broadcast a message that was heard by Jozef’s neighbour: “The Three Ladybirds have landed.”

The three brothers were able to travel to England, and Jozef took a job with the RAF as a cook and settled in Buckinghamshire, before finding employment in the building industry. Back in Hungary his father suffered at the hands of the secret police and suffered many beatings in retaliation for Jozef’s revolutionary actions. A few years later Jozef met Joan, a teacher from Bristol and got married. In the 1970s the couple were able to visit Jozef’s parents in Hungary and retired to Axbridge in 1988.

Timeline of Hungary’s 1956 Revolution

September: The Communist Government led by Erno Gerö, came under mounting opposition by workers to reinstate the former leader Imre Nagy who had introduced liberal reforms.

October 24: First Secretary Erno Gerö made a radio broadcast denouncing those who wanted to break away from the influence of the Soviet Union. In the evening a demonstration at the radio station in Budapest led to violence as workers stormed the building demanding freedom from the communist regime. The government re-instated Imre Nagy as prime minister.

October 25: Confusion reigned as Soviet tanks stayed on the streets. Hungarian security forces opened fire in Parliament Square killing hundreds of demonstrators and the revolution began. The communist party sacked Erno Gerö.

October 26: Fighting between hardline elements in the police, security and army and anti-soviet revolutionaries who back the new government of Imre Nagy. October 30: Soviet tanks begin to withdraw from Hungary.

November 4: Soviet forces re-enter Hungary and swiftly overthrow the government and replace it with a hardline soviet puppet regime. Imre Nagy is captured and eventually executed. 200,000 Hungarians flee their country in the turmoil that follows.

1989: Communist rule ends in Hungary and is replaced by a multi-party democracy.

2004: Hungary joins the European community.

2006: A newly elected government is attacked by demonstrators at Budapest’s television station over a secret tape in which the prime minister says he lied to win the election. This time there is no revolution.

Harry Mottram

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A walk around the Res with Amanda Cornwall

Amanda Cornwall walks around Cheddar Reservoir and finds history in the streets of Axbridge. One of my aunt Jasmine’s reoccurring demands for a gentle afternoon walk is it must be flat. Flat! I point to the Mendip Hills, Crook Peak and Cheddar Gorge and she refuses point blank to come out. So one walk I’ve found very popular with my difficult relative is one where there’s only the odd slope and it’s nearly all paved. And you can get a nice cup of tea at the end. The town of Axbridge straddles the Strawberry Line – lying between Cheddar and Winscombe in the shadow of the hills and on the edge of the Levels. It’s an east to west layout with an elongated High Street and West Street due to its position squashed between the steep hills to the north and marshes immediately to the south.

The focal point is the Square – an area that hosts pageants and plays, markets and concerts – and the few remaining shops. Close to the town centre is Cheddar Reservoir which provides a cirucular extension to the town walk – again – all on the level. So to start park your car in the free car park in Meadow Street just a few yards from the Square off Old Church Road. If you’ve come by bus then alight in the Square itself as it’s from here that we begin. The Square is one of the finest in England having been used as a market place probably from the 9th century AD when a Saxon fort or burgh was in existance. Whether the fort formed the shape of the square or lay to the south is not known, but by 1086 the town had numerous wealthy traders and by the time of King John in the early 13th century it was granted a Royal charter for a market. The timber framed museum known as King John’s Hunting Lodge is open for a small fee most afternoons in the season. It has no connection to the King John of the time as wasn’t constructed until nearly 200 years later and probably refers to an alehouse on the premises – now long forgotten. Other buildings in the Square include The Lamb Inn, the town hall, The Oakhouse Hotel, The Old Angel and the Guildhall.

The Lamb Inn serves teas, coffees, meals and all the usual alcoholic drinks including Thatcher’s Cider from Sandford and Butcombe ales from Wrington – again only a short distance away. Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon with a pint of something nice and watching the world go by is one of the most popular past times for visitors and locals alike. The pub’s frontage dates to only 1830 when it was a coaching inn – but part of the interior housed the Guild Hall which was the town’s seat of governance until it moved to the balconied and pillared frontage of the town hall built at the same time. The Oakhouse Hotel also offers food and refreshments with tables and chairs in the Square, while tucked away at the top of Moorland Street is the Almshouse Tea Rooms. The almshouse was the original medieval hospital come retirement home for the poor and needy which was used from 1475 to 1837 when the Axbridge Union Workhouse opened. That building can be glimpsed from Houlgate Way but is now private flats and not open to interested observers of Victorian institutions. Other buildings in the Square include a strange house with a fake top floor.

Look to the south to the building to the right of the town hall. There’s a house with a false frontage – with black windows with no glass in and nothing behind them! Clearly the Georgian owners were keen to impress but were short of cash. In the corner of the Square are stone steps leading up St John The Baptist parish church. Wheel chair users can use a side street leading off St Mary’s Street a few yards away but you’ll still have to mount the final few steps to the door. It’s worth it as the interior of the church is worth a visit in its own right. With its 100 foot high tower the 13th century church dominates the Square. It features a beautiful 17th century ceiling, and a sculpture of Henry VII in a niche by the west door. From the Square head up the slight meandering slope of the High Street past the Manor House – probably older at its base than King John’s Hunting Lodge – past the Roxy Cinema – formerly a pub – and on all the way up West Street to Compton House at the top by the roundabout. This fine pre-Civil War manor house was the home of the Prowse family who have a particularly beautiful statue of the lady of the house in the church. It’s now a guest house and hosts weddings and receptions – so unless you’re a wedding crasher you won’t be able to get a drink.

Over the road is the urban motorway monstrosity of highway planners built in the late 1960s – a roundabout and accident black spot – a fly over and a huge slip road that would look more at home on the M5. The bypass follows the route of the cycle route above much of the town slicing past the romer railway station – now used for youth activities. Follow the road back to the Square – or descend Houlgate Way which will also lead you to the centre of the town again. Now we head out for the main part of the walk. Head up St Mary’s Street past the The Crown Inn and the Old Court House with its high stone wall and into Jubilee Street and into Cheddar Road. Note The Pennings on your right. It’s the high Georgian building in style – but it’s a modern reproduction – in fact there was a petrol station there until recently.

 

Opposite is Chestnut Hill Farm – formerly Station Road Farm. It’s a bright pale pink colour and was featured on one of those TV property programmes due to its beautiful restoration. Keep going up the road until the sign for the Reservoir on the right and follow the lane down an avenue of silver birth trees. At the bottom is the circular reservoir – some two and a half miles round. You could cheat and just walk as far as the Bristol Corinthians Sailing Club or keep going all the way before arriving back where you started. The walk gives breathtaking views of the Mendips, the Levels and Brent Knoll in the distance. Looking south from the far side are endless fields with oak hedges stretching away towards the Isle of Wedmore. In two or three or so years that will become a vast building site as Bristol Water construct a second reservoir – the same size as the one you are walking around. It can be very blustery around the Res – but there’s always so much to see. The sailors and the sailboarders, the fishermen after pike and the skateboarders in the park on the Cheddar side – and of course the people – chatting, walking, dog walking and picnicing. And so it’s back towards Axbridge for that cup of tea at the Alms House or a pint of beer sitting in the sun in the Square. You’ve earned it.

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Castles, cakes and getting stuck in a swallet hole

IMG00329-20120528-1947 Always start with cake. That’s what my grand mother used to say – and then work backwards until you have breakfast at supper time. It’s an idea that has always puzzled me – but one that always reminds me to think cake. Frankly I can’t resist a lemon drizzle or a Victoria sponge washed down with a latte after a stiff morning workout in the vegetable patch with Rustic Reg – my man who does. After a late morning cake-induced sugar rush I got talking to my cousin “Strange Sally” about some of our favourite places in the district. She likes bus stops and traffic islands on the A38 – which is why I call her Strange Sally. For me there’s King John’s Hunting Lodge in Axbridge – that quirky building on the Square that defies gravity as it doesn’t seem to have a back and appears to be about to fall forward into the street. With its angled floors and impossibly steep staircase it’s always been a favourite while the two skeletons dating from Romano-British Axbridge have a strange fascination for me. They lie in state relieved from their burdens of speaking Latin with a Westcountry accent and trying in vain to sell central heating to the Celts in their wattle and daub huts. Talking of strange buildings I visited Banwell Castle recently – not realising it is not open to the public in the winter – although I didn’t realise this until I had wandered up the front drive past two mysterious looking women putting out the rubbish in evening gowns. All I can say is they are a bit dressy in Banwell. The castle is not a real castle but rather a grand house built between 1837 and 1847 in the Gothic revival style to a design by Augustus Pugin and commissioned by the owner Joseph Dyer Sympson – a London lawyer. Since then various families have lived in the rambling ramparts, played croquet in the gardens and lay awake at night wondering how they could pay the heating bills. The present day owners are William and Hugh Parsons who run a bed and breakfast business, serve cream teas in the summer and promote a restaurant in the gatehouse run by Carmino D’Agostino. One day I’ll book a table with my cousin Strange Sally who is the only person I know who can impersonate the peacocks who live in the grounds. Rustic Reg has a soft spot for market crosses. He’s made it his life’s mission to photograph, draw and chart them – something I admire but don’t understand. In fact I think he’s nuts. He says one of his favourites is the ancient stone cross in Cheddar as you can sit there with a sandwich and a thermos and watch the world go by. Personally I would fear a passing taxi driver might have a bout of hiccups and crash into me. The one in Wells is more to my taste mainly because it is surrounded by shops, pubs and cafes. I don’t know if you know the one in Westbury-sub-Mendip but I think it looks a bit like a bar of soap that’s been rather over used. It seems worn and unloved – and definitely needs some ancient rural types in smocks to come along and use it to sell large cheeses and fresh eggs. Now there’s a place I always enjoy a hike along and that’s Burrington Combe. In the 1970s I used to have a friend whose parents ran a farm near the top of the narrow chasm of rock and bracken clad escarpments. We used to ramble through the woods in search of magic mushrooms, take a swig from a bottle of barley wine and have a crafty drag on a Number Six. The combe’s slopes are deceptively steep and after one particular expedition I slipped and rolled down in a violent ball of spinning denim and surf beads onto the road below narrowly missing a Renault Fuego. One thing I wouldn’t recommend is to enter Sidcot Swallet in Burrington Combe – as I did once after visiting the pub. I became stuck (I was wearing a bulky leather top) – until Strange Sally managed to pull me out in the gathering gloom of a summer’s evening. She made this terrible joke about me being stuck between “a rock for ages” and I was a right “toplady”. A joke I might say I have I resisted to this day to find either funny or relevant. But that’s Strange Sally. Here’s my recipe for said Victoria sponge cake: Ingredients: knob of melted butter, 8oz of soft butter; 8oz caster sugar; 4 large free-range eggs; 8oz self-raising sifted flour. For the filling 6 tbsp of strawberry jam. To decorate: runny icing trickled over the top. Preparation: preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Grease and line your cake tins. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, using a whisk or a wooden spoon. Beat well to get lots of air into the mixture (this should take a couple of minutes). It will also build up muscles! Method: Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add a tablespoon of flour if the mixture curdles; then fold in the flour using a large metal spoon but be careful not to over-mix it. Next pour the mixture equally between the two cake tins and level off the top with a spatula. If you don’t want them to be pointed in the middle.make a slight dip in the centre with the tip of the spatula and make a wish. Bake: Place in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when pressed gently with a finger and are pale golden in colour. Remove from the oven and take them out of the tins after about 8 minutes. Place them on a wire rack to cool completely (for about half an hour). Guard against cats and dogs. Finishing: Spread the sponge with the jam then carefully sandwich together. Decorate with liquid icing and serve. ———————————————————————————————–

Cycling the Strawberry Line – and ending up in a hedge

IMG00282-20120521-0536 Before doing anything strenuous you need to have a hearty breakfast. Indeed in my book before doing anything at all you need a hearty breakfast. And so before setting off from Yatton Railway station with my friend Tubs, we entered the stone portals of the Strawberry Line Cafe and watched a few trains whoosh by whilst we munched our way through bacon sandwich after bacon sandwich. What a pity I said that we couldn’t catch a train to Cheddar – and not have to cycle all that way. Tubs pointed out it’s only 20 miles to Cheddar and back along the path – a distance we should easily complete in half a day – even with a brief stop for a thirst quenching pint. “She who is in charge” said to call her when we got back to Yatton so she could collect us in the car – or if we wimped out – from where ever we had got to when it got dark – it was mid February. I assured her we wouldn’t wimp out. Yatton’s railway station is the only one on the Strawberry Line that is still a railway station and houses the cafe that has become something of a departure point for those heading off down the cycle path. The lines that once ran north west to Clevedon and south east to Wells have long since vanished. Instead at the end of the car park the Cheddar Valley cycle and walk way begins – marked by a metal sculptured arch. So after our hearty breakfast we peddled along the path into the countryside. The path sweeps south of Yatton with open farmland stretching away on either side leaving us to the sounds of birdsong and the occasional moo from a grazing cow. Only a couple of miles went by and we approached the A371. The path is diverted briefly along a new section of path that follows the banks of a river before crossing the road with a pelican crossing and rejoining the old rail track at the sad remains of Congresbury Station. Tubs scratched away at the ivy and brambles along the platforms and we both agreed it was a tragedy the once busy junction on the Strawberry Line and the Wrington Vale Light Railway was now like a lost Inca temple given up to the jungle. We cycled into Congresbury but found the pubs not yet open and feeling we’d only just set out returned to the remains of the station and headed for Sandford noting a fishing lake that advertised tea and snacks for sale. Again we pressed on and after a diversion through the orchards of Thatchers Cider found ourselves on a stretch of main road between Banwell and Sandford. The Railway Inn was not open yet but the cider shop at Thatchers Cider was and Tubs insisted on stopping to buy a few bottles which he loaded into his back pack. He started chatting to a very pretty girl pumping up a tyre on her mountain bike outside. On her recommendation we peddled a bit further along the main road to Sandford Village Shop where a cafe served cakes and coffee – and we could read the morning papers and argue about who we’d date: Kate Moss or Susanna Reid. Refreshed we set off to find Sandford’s railway station – which we discovered in a complex of retirement homes. Who ever had restored the station has done a brilliant job. It’s as though the station never closed – there’s even a carriage and trucks alongside the platform on a stretch of track – the only sadness being the whole place is marooned in on a sort of heritage island – the tracks stopping suddenly at the end of the platform where the retirement homes are. On again and a rural ride on muddy paths, dank cuttings and scenic viaducts with views of back gardens and more interestingly windows where residents could be seen watching daytime TV. The views were soggy – across muddy February fields to Banwell and a misty Crook Peak. Soon we arrived at the Millennium Green in Winscombe. It was around this time that Tubs said he was feeling unwell and needed something else to eat. There is nothing quite like tucking into piping hot fish and chips and so we found ourselves at the Winscombe Fish Bar on Sandford Road. Despite my New Year’s Resolution to only eat salads for two months we had cod and chips – not just once – but twice. It necessitated a visit to the Woodborough for a couple of pints of cider to allow the batter, chips and copious amounts of tartar sauce to be digested. By now it was afternoon and in the watery sunshine of a February day we cycled up the Strawberry Line past the Rugby Ground and a dark corridor of trees to Shute Shelve tunnel and then out into the brightness of the Somerset countryside. Or so we thought. A sign declared the tunnel to be closed for repairs (it has since reopened) – meaning a lengthy diversion – not via roads as indicated by the signs but on Tubs’ insistence through woods, bramble-covered banks and along muddy tracks. It was thirsty work. So a pint or two at The Lamb Inn, Axbridge, was called for. It was getting late and we needed to sober up. We nipped over to Axbridge’s tea rooms in Moorland Street where we reflected on the fact we had only cycled about seven miles – with over 13 still to do. It was this realisation that spurred us on, pedalling like men possessed up Cheddar Road and out of the village – and missing the cycle path completely. How we ended up in a housing estate off Round Oak Road I’m not sure – but we were very relieved when we stopped to ask directions from a chap who was trimming his hedge – and he graciously offered us the use of his lavatory. Well, by then we were bursting. Back in the saddle and we discovered the cycle path by an industrial estate – where a cycle shop marks the end of that section of the Strawberry Line in Cheddar. Tubs had an accident with his “outfit” and chose to nip in and buy a new pair of cycle shorts – a vast improvement on his British 8th Army style kaki long shorts. And so it was back up the path to Axbridge after only a brief cycle around the village where Tubs bought something I strongly disapprove of – a packet of cigarettes. By now the sun was rapidly sinking below the distant bump of Brent Knoll in a blaze of glorious orange – blinding me for a moment. I wobbled, causing a coming together with Tubs and a barbed wire fence. Now Tubs idea of first aid is to dab a tissue over any wound and open a bottle of cider. Which is what he did. We were still miles from home – it was getting dark and cold and it began to rain. It was February. I dialled “She who is charge” and before I could speak she said: “You’ve wimped out – haven’t you?” I meekly agreed – and gave her our very approximate position: a hedge between Axbridge and Cheddar.

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Axbridge Station in the 1950s

Axbridge Station in the 1950s

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: the scandal of why the Strawberry Line Railway was closed back in the 1960s (and the extraordinary last ever passenger service along the line)

It’s more than 50 years ago since the Strawberry Line was closed by the infamous Beeching axe writes Harry Mottram. A regrettable and wholly unnecessary act of industrial vandalism. Now the line is partly a forgotten and overgrown track and partly a walkway and cycle path. It’s slowly being rediscovered by a new generation who never knew the rail service that connected Draycott to Didcot and Winscombe to Westminster. Those of a certain age can still recall those long lost days when steam trains puffed their way through Shute Shelve tunnel or up the branch line to Clevedon with a carriage full of revellers from a night out in Yatton. Reading back through the archives of the summer of 1963 Britain seemed like a different country. The media was gripped by the Profumo affair, the Great Train Robbery and the naming of the ‘third man’ in the Russian spy case as being Kim Philby. Closer to home a trial was about to get under way with a hearing in Axbridge following the murder of a girl in Banwell, the Hillman Imp went on sale in garages in Weston-super-Mare and Bristol Lulsgate Airport’s runway was extended to cater for the passenger jets connecting Somerset to Spain. The previous winter had dominated life in the first months of the year with the Big Freeze. It left the county looking like Siberia as trains were snowed in at Draycott, the A38 was blocked for days at Redhill and the sea froze at Clevedon. By March there were still mountains of slushy ice piled up in the streets as the thaw finally set in.

Sandford and Banwell Station back then - it still looks the same now - but there are no trains alas

Sandford and Banwell Station back then – it still looks the same now – but there are no trains alas

On 27 March the Western Daily Press reported an announcement by Dr Richard Beeching on behalf of the Government. It called for massive cuts to the nation’s rail network with the closure of more than 2,000 railway stations, the scrapping of some 8,000 coaches and the loss of 68,000 jobs. As the year progressed more details were released and a feeling of gloom descended on those employed by the railways, the passengers who depended on the service and the scores of strawberry growers who used the line to move their produce to market. The reason according to Beeching was simple: the railways were losing money – and being in Government ownership it meant the tax payer was picking up the bill. However, many at the time disputed the way the railways were run. The Government didn’t look to privatise parts of the network or even to turn some over to heritage lines – or simply to mothball some of the track with an eye to reopen them in the future. With railways being upgraded, high speed trains being planned and passenger numbers at an all-time high it seems from today’s perspective the Beeching axe was a big mistake. But that was then and the Government of the day didn’t have today’s hindsight. Jim Lukins of Axbridge who used the line for transporting farm produce said the railways were slow to modernise – with no facilities to forklift goods on and off the train. Everything took ages to load compared to the convenience of lorry transport – with the eternal problem of shunting goods wagons into place – something that was very time consuming.

From Shirley Hudd's collection - at cheddar station - blackberry barrels - fruit collected locally for jam making - 1930s

From Shirley Hudd’s collection – at cheddar station – blackberry barrels – fruit collected locally for jam making – 1930s

Many farmers and small holders had at one time owned their own rail wagons – but it was a practice that was dying out in the 1950s. By 1963 much of the freight that had been carried by train had transferred to road including milk. Under the Milk Marketing Board most milk in the district was collected by lorry and taken to either Cheddar Valley Dairies at Rooksbridge or to the London Co-operative Group Dairy at Puxton. There is was purified and pumped into milk tankers and driven to London. Before the war there had been eight daily milk vans from Wells alone heading for the capital – so it was a big loss to the railways. Other contracts ended – even the one taking barrels of blackberries from Axbridge – but including in the 1950s some 200 growers of strawberries sent their produce by rail in the Cheddar valley. Now there are just a handful of strawberry growers left. Somerset’s loss has been Spain’s gain. From the 1920s the rise of the car and the lorry as forms of reliable transport foretold the end of the golden age of steam. By 1931 passenger transport was discontinued on the branch line to Wrington and Blagdon. In Wells Priory Road Station closed in 1951 when the Somerset and Dorset branch line from Glastonbury and Street was shut down while over in Clevedon the Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway closed in 1940. Reading the national press of the time it is clear the fate of the railway branchlines was under threat. There was talk of future uses such as relief roads and bypasses – which eventually happened in Yeovil and Axbridge. During the spring and summer of 1963 the transport ministry was busy releasing news of the impending closures to the railways. Promises were made about providing a national lorry freight network, more buses would be put on to cover rural areas hit by the cuts and as many workers as possible would be found new work in other industries. Such is the stuff of Government spin – no different then to what it is now. The brutal reality was thousands of workers would be out of work and many in isolated communities would be left to stranded. The newspapers and trade journals of the time were filled with adverts for cheap cars and bikes – no coincidence that thousands of rail commuters would have to find new ways to get to work. A new NSU Prinz 4 car that featured a heater, a clock and four gears could be bought for £526, while a 175cc Lambretta scooter would put you back £109 and ten shillings.

Travelling by steam train back in the day - this image is from http://missvictoryviolet.com/2015/02/vintage-trains-and-tweed/

Pic http://missvictoryviolet.com/2015/02/vintage-trains-and-tweed/ – style back in the day

And so it came to the last few day of the line. In recognition the train used for the last run on Saturday 7th September was a cleaned up 0-6-0 Collett GWR locomotive. Some 93 passengers crammed onto the train at Yatton including the parish chairman Maurice Crossman who cheerfully admitted he’d never caught the train. Wilf Hodges of Eastvillage was the driver and Tony Harris was the fireman. Colin Forse of Yatton was also onboard. The late Mr Forse was the driver stranded in a snow drift earlier that year when his locomotive was buried under 12 ft of snow at Draycott. From Wells the last train was driven by Harry Vile while David Shepherd was on duty as fireman. Some 250 passengers were on board by the time it left Axbridge, and some high spirited youths placed a coffin marked The Strawberry Line RIP in white letters on the tender as the train huffed and puffed its way back along the cutting and over the bridge towards Shute Shelve tunnel and history.

There’s more features about the past in the area on the website www.harrymottram.co.uk
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Cycling the Strawberry Line – and ending up in a hedge

IMG00282-20120521-0536 Before doing anything strenuous you need to have a hearty breakfast. Indeed in my book before doing anything at all you need a hearty breakfast. And so before setting off from Yatton Railway station with my friend Tubs, we entered the stone portals of the Strawberry Line Cafe and watched a few trains whoosh by whilst we munched our way through bacon sandwich after bacon sandwich. What a pity I said that we couldn’t catch a train to Cheddar – and not have to cycle all that way. Tubs pointed out it’s only 20 miles to Cheddar and back along the path – a distance we should easily complete in half a day – even with a brief stop for a thirst quenching pint. “She who is in charge” said to call her when we got back to Yatton so she could collect us in the car – or if we wimped out – from where ever we had got to when it got dark – it was mid February. I assured her we wouldn’t wimp out. Yatton’s railway station is the only one on the Strawberry Line that is still a railway station and houses the cafe that has become something of a departure point for those heading off down the cycle path. The lines that once ran north west to Clevedon and south east to Wells have long since vanished. Instead at the end of the car park the Cheddar Valley cycle and walk way begins – marked by a metal sculptured arch. So after our hearty breakfast we peddled along the path into the countryside. The path sweeps south of Yatton with open farmland stretching away on either side leaving us to the sounds of birdsong and the occasional moo from a grazing cow. Only a couple of miles went by and we approached the A371. The path is diverted briefly along a new section of path that follows the banks of a river before crossing the road with a pelican crossing and rejoining the old rail track at the sad remains of Congresbury Station. Tubs scratched away at the ivy and brambles along the platforms and we both agreed it was a tragedy the once busy junction on the Strawberry Line and the Wrington Vale Light Railway was now like a lost Inca temple given up to the jungle. We cycled into Congresbury but found the pubs not yet open and feeling we’d only just set out returned to the remains of the station and headed for Sandford noting a fishing lake that advertised tea and snacks for sale. Again we pressed on and after a diversion through the orchards of Thatchers Cider found ourselves on a stretch of main road between Banwell and Sandford. The Railway Inn was not open yet but the cider shop at Thatchers Cider was and Tubs insisted on stopping to buy a few bottles which he loaded into his back pack. He started chatting to a very pretty girl pumping up a tyre on her mountain bike outside. On her recommendation we peddled a bit further along the main road to Sandford Village Shop where a cafe served cakes and coffee – and we could read the morning papers and argue about who we’d date: Kate Moss or Susanna Reid. Refreshed we set off to find Sandford’s railway station – which we discovered in a complex of retirement homes. Who ever had restored the station has done a brilliant job. It’s as though the station never closed – there’s even a carriage and trucks alongside the platform on a stretch of track – the only sadness being the whole place is marooned in on a sort of heritage island – the tracks stopping suddenly at the end of the platform where the retirement homes are. On again and a rural ride on muddy paths, dank cuttings and scenic viaducts with views of back gardens and more interestingly windows where residents could be seen watching daytime TV. The views were soggy – across muddy February fields to Banwell and a misty Crook Peak. Soon we arrived at the Millennium Green in Winscombe. It was around this time that Tubs said he was feeling unwell and needed something else to eat. There is nothing quite like tucking into piping hot fish and chips and so we found ourselves at the Winscombe Fish Bar on Sandford Road. Despite my New Year’s Resolution to only eat salads for two months we had cod and chips – not just once – but twice. It necessitated a visit to the Woodborough for a couple of pints of cider to allow the batter, chips and copious amounts of tartar sauce to be digested. By now it was afternoon and in the watery sunshine of a February day we cycled up the Strawberry Line past the Rugby Ground and a dark corridor of trees to Shute Shelve tunnel and then out into the brightness of the Somerset countryside. Or so we thought. A sign declared the tunnel to be closed for repairs (it has since reopened) – meaning a lengthy diversion – not via roads as indicated by the signs but on Tubs’ insistence through woods, bramble-covered banks and along muddy tracks. It was thirsty work. So a pint or two at The Lamb Inn, Axbridge, was called for. It was getting late and we needed to sober up. We nipped over to Axbridge’s tea rooms in Moorland Street where we reflected on the fact we had only cycled about seven miles – with over 13 still to do. It was this realisation that spurred us on, pedalling like men possessed up Cheddar Road and out of the village – and missing the cycle path completely. How we ended up in a housing estate off Round Oak Road I’m not sure – but we were very relieved when we stopped to ask directions from a chap who was trimming his hedge – and he graciously offered us the use of his lavatory. Well, by then we were bursting. Back in the saddle and we discovered the cycle path by an industrial estate – where a cycle shop marks the end of that section of the Strawberry Line in Cheddar. Tubs had an accident with his “outfit” and chose to nip in and buy a new pair of cycle shorts – a vast improvement on his British 8th Army style kaki long shorts. And so it was back up the path to Axbridge after only a brief cycle around the village where Tubs bought something I strongly disapprove of – a packet of cigarettes. By now the sun was rapidly sinking below the distant bump of Brent Knoll in a blaze of glorious orange – blinding me for a moment. I wobbled, causing a coming together with Tubs and a barbed wire fence. Now Tubs idea of first aid is to dab a tissue over any wound and open a bottle of cider. Which is what he did. We were still miles from home – it was getting dark and cold and it began to rain. It was February. I dialled “She who is charge” and before I could speak she said: “You’ve wimped out – haven’t you?” I meekly agreed – and gave her our very approximate position: a hedge between Axbridge and Cheddar. Editor’s note: Strawberry Line Times does not endorse drinking and cycling. Both Rupert and Tubs have been severely ticked off.

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Land of blue remembered hills and quiet railway stations

Original Axbridge Station in 1950s Let me take you along the line from Yatton to Wells – for it’s still as vivid to me now as it was when I was a schoolboy after the war. From Yatton station the line set off across the flat moor between rhynes for a few minutes passing under the A 370 road bridge to Congresbury as the engine built up steam across the levels. The first place of note was the junction for Wrington Vale – where a spur led off north east towards the Mendips. As the low moorland covered hills approached the branch line began to rise as the rattling, clunkling carriages were pulled up the embankment towards the villages of Sandford and Banwell. We were now approaching the Mendips with views of Dolebury to the east and Bleadon Hill to the west. After the open ground of the flat moors you now viewed villages on both sides. Churchill and then Shipham on the higher ground, and then Sidcot and finally we’d pull into Winscombe. There’s a clattering of bags, shouts and footsteps before the whistle is blown and we begin the ascent to the highest point on the line and dramatic entry into Shute Shelve tunnel. On both sides the heavily wooded Winscombe Hill cutting closes in with its moss covered rocky walls. Then the sudden blackness of the tunnel, the dim yellow lights of the carriage and a feeling your ears are popping. Moments later the train bursts into daylight after the darkness of the subterranean passage and then the steep descent rattling down around the bend, over the A38, through the rock cutting, and finally braking hard to arrive at Axbridge station. But what a view as you come through the cutting: the gateway to the Cheddar Valley. It still captivates today from the cycle path and the picnic area above the town. The distant Isle of Wedmore, the A38 streaking away through Weare and away towards Tarnock. The blue hills of the Poldens and in winter the frost covered slopes of Exmoor rising above the smudged coastline of West Somerset. Easing the brakes off, with the slightest touch of the regulator and the train rattled down past the reservoir and St Michael’s Cheshire Home to Cheddar with a trumpeting sound as it passed under the station canopy. A feature which was supposed to indicate the higher standing of the village! The station complex had a licensed bar, loading facilities for stone and lime from the three local quarries, goods facility and delivery lorries. In the early 1900s there was a linking bus service operated by the GWR (Great Western Railway to the young and also known as God’s Wonderful Railway by enthusiasts) to serve Wedmore, Mark and the complex of villages between Cheddar and Highbridge. With two platforms, Cheddar had two approach road inclines to get to the station which sat at the top of a slight hill. Incidentally, I was always led to understand that an ‘up’ platform was the one which led to connections with trains GOING to London, whereas a ‘down’ platform received trains which would have COME from London; this was irrespective of the points of the compass. As the train set out from Cheddar it immediately crossed the Wedmore Road by a stone bridge and ran on an embankment some twenty five feet above meadows – a view which must have been unnerving to trainee locomotive crews, crossing the Cheddar Yeo river by the twin bridge near the gas works. The track then led over Labourham Drove through a narrow cutting rising into the slopes of Draycott whose station came under the Cheddar station master. From Draycott through Stoke Cutting on to Lodge Hill with farmlands on either side and views of those intriguing little rounded hills which form a unique feature of the southern end of the Cheddar Valley. Between Lodge Hill and Wookey, at Easton there was a very tight rock cutting which I felt was within a foot or so of the carriage windows. Wookey had little passenger trade and it was undoubtedly the paper mill which kept it on the map. The time to Wells from Wookey was only a couple of minutes, passing, in my early days, a stone loading siding fed by an overhead ropeway from Underwood Quarry. There was also a view of the prisoner of war camp at Penleigh, this latterly became the site of the EMI electronics factory. Then into Wells, a station with the full range of railway facilities for passenger and goods traffic, the animal feed mills of Messrs Sheldon, as well as houses for railway staff and licensed accommodation in the form of the Cheddar Valley Inn at Tucker Street. The entire journey from Yatton to Wells of twenty or so miles took just under the hour. Generally the trains were of non-corridor coaches in the charge of tank locomotives, 0-6-0 ‘matchbox’ or 2-6-0 type, running in forward or reverse fashion to avoid the need of turning the engine at journey’s end. During the 1940’s there were a number of services run by diesel autocar coaches. (The sound of the diesel horn ‘par-par, dee-sel’ became regular to us lads.) These were considered to be the latest development for rural routes, comprising two saloon coaches with a driver’s cabin at both ends to facilitate running in either direction; indeed they were very similar to today’s sprinter services. Unfortunately diesel technology was not up to the demands of the system. The winter of 1946/47 was a very severe one with many restrictions on fuel and power. The last up train out of Wells at 8.30pm was a diesel car unit. Making its way between Lodge Hill and Draycott one night, there were two passengers Bob Long and Ken Ham – in the otherwise empty coach. They noticed a burning smell which they were sure was coming from the engine compartment beneath the centre floor. The fire brigade was called and duly arrived from Cheddar. But to no avail, water could not be brought over the fields and the vehicle was left to burn out. It was then towed to the Cheddar siding, now a ruined shell. That was a major contribution to the end of this diesel venture and steam continued to rule for another ten years. Another winter tale: Boxing Day 1962 closed with a very heavy blizzard, further snowfalls occurred into New Year with extreme cold. The whole of Britain was gripped in an exceptional spell of winter. Cheddar was only accessible by rail. The routes southward to Wells were blocked by drifts, the roads to the hilltops impassable. No buses ran for several weeks. I seem to remember that the last of the packed ice was being chipped off the street pavements in mid-April. Everyone had epic stories to tell. Although the branch line was due to close later in 1963 it had one last burst of active service taking supplies in out of the village and carrying commuters to Bristol and Weston via Yatton. The route beyond Cheddar was blocked by what seemed to be a ridiculously small drift just north of Draycott station. The snow storms blew down off Draycott Sleight filling in the road by Nyland cross roads and the shallow rail cutting to a depth of four to five feet. A locomotive equipped as a snow plough was sent from Bristol to clear the line; after repeated attempts it conceded defeat and it lay idle in the drift. A day or so later a second 2-6-6 loco was sent to add muscle. That also could not clear the route in a joint effort. Both engines sat helpless. Then a heavy diesel was sent after a similar delay. Surely this modern machine would soon have the problem sorted out. But no, it too could neither make forward progress. Because of the sheer weight of the three locomotives now concentrated on the short length of single track constructed to take only limited weight, it was decided to admit defeat. The diesel returned to its base, the fires of both steam locomotives were raked out and the two left there in ignominy, gathering rust awaiting the thaw several weeks later. •Do you have memories and photographs of the era of steam travel along the line? Contact the editor Harry Mottram on 07789 864769, or email him on strawberrylinetimes@hotmail.co.uk, so we can share them with our readers. —————————————————————————————–

From trains to the National Cycle Network: transformation of a line

Shepton Mallet station 001 Trains still run near the Strawberry Line – just. Despite the closure in the 1960s there are places where the sound of steel on steel can still be heard. At Yatton the mainline trains connecting the West Country to London thunder by while at the other end of the line at Cranmore the East Somerset Railway keeps alive the heritage of steam. But for most of its length it is either an overgrown wilderness, a cycletrack, turned into roads or has been developed into homes, gardens or businesses. Since it closed as a railway line in 1965 residents have used parts of the route as unofficial walks. In 1987 several public spirited individuals formed the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk Society which persuaded the district council to buy much of the line and lease it to the society as a walk and nature reserve. The walking society teamed up with the Axbridge to Cheddar Cycleway Group and the Yatton & Congresbury Wildlife Action Group, to eventually create a ten mile long walk and cycleway between Yatton and Cheddar in partnership with North Somerset and Somerset County Councils. Eventually the combined groups hope to extend it through to Wells and possibly also to Wrington and Clevedon. The land between Yatton and the A38 is a designated Local Nature Reserve, the largest in North Somerset. The railway lasted almost a century opening in 1869 and closed in 1963 to passengers although freight transport continued for a couple more years. It became known as The Strawberry Line because of the amount of the soft fruit that were taken by rail to market throughout the summer. At Wells it joined the East Somerset Railway to make a through route via Shepton Mallet railway station to Witham and at Yatton another line headed north to Clevedon on the coast. In the 19th century railway companies were private and numerous which accounts for the bit part nature of the railways in later years. There was a section from Wells to Shepton Mallet, another company operated through Wells and another to Cheddar. Yatton was under the control of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, which opened the branch through to Cheddar on 3 August 1869. The Bristol and Exeter was acquired by the GWR in 1876, and two years later had integrated the whole line. 1878. The line was single-track for most of the journey between Yatton and Wells, apart from the junction at Congresbury. On 4 December 1901, the Wrington Vale Light Railway opened a branch from Congresbury to Blagdon. This survived until 14 September 1931 for passenger traffic, and 1 November 1950 for goods traffic. The Cheddar Valley Line survived until the “Beeching Axe”. Dr Beeching was commissioned by the Government in the early 1960s to review the state of the railways as they were losing money. His main findings were simply to close down vast numbers of lines in order to save cash. Despite the cuts, the network continued to lose money, but it gave a massive boost to one industry: those involved in building motorways. Since those short-sighted days, many of the disused lines have reopened, new lines and stations have appeared while the Government is committed to an expansion of the national high speed train network. These are perhaps some of the reasons why Dr Beeching’s name now inspires such contempt. The first attempts to legalise the route as a walkway began in 1976 when residents in Winscombe approached British Rail through the Parish Council to ask for a section in the village to be used as a safe walkway for school children. This fell on deaf ears. Landowners then began to fence off the railway to increase garden size or for grazing which led to a battle between those using the track as a path and the land grabbers. A campaign by a newly formed action group led to the decision by the train company to sell the line – which eventually was purchased on the residents’ behalf by the district council. Opposition to the line came from farmers and householders in Winscombe who wanted the land for themselves and it took more civic battles before the Winscombe section eventually became a public right of way in 1983. More work had to be done to join up the path from Cheddar to Yatton before the entire stretch became the cycleway and walkway we know today. Of course, there’s still another 10 miles to be opened up from Cheddar to Wells, plus the off shoots to Clevedon and Wrington. In the meantime what has been achieved is now part of the National Cycle Network route 26. And it is all thanks to the work of those early pioneers back in the 1970s and 1980s who began to make it a public right of way. —————————————————————————————-

The age of the train is returning – but as branch lines reopen will men start wearing triby hats again?

Lost infrastructure: Congresbury Station in 1930 Lost infrastructure: Congresbury Station in 1930 Michael Portillo said one thing of interest in his BBC TV programme on the Strawberry Line. Standing in Yatton and looking down the cycle path he remarked that is was sad so many branch lines were closed – but now they seemed to be reopening. Today he seemed to muse was the age of the train. Well he may be right. There’s no plans to reopen the strawberry Line – but other lines are under inspection in the region. A petition has been launched asking the Government to reopen the Somerset and Dorset Railway. Created by James Type, the petition asks “For the Government to consider reopening the Somerset and Dorset Railway, this is now a much needed transport link from north to south. “The railway went from Bournemouth to Burnham-on-Sea via Shepton Mallet, Glastonbury and Wells and closed to passengers in 1966. The petition closes 21 November. To sign go to epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/41959. What an amazing thought – you could take a train from coast to coast – through part of the Strawberry Line. If you look on Google maps you can trace much of the former track – it makes you think what the possibilities would be. Although it will be interesting if the dress code changes back to the heyday of rail with men wearing trilby hats. Meanwhile in Bath councillors have openly discussed last month (and put on hold) a planned reopening of the Radstock to Frome railway. It’s been put back as it could cost around £40m to reopen – although it’s advocates say that would be recouped with new tourists, business and employment. Bath and North East Somerset Council’s cabinet discussed a report looking at the cost of reopening the line that shut in 1988. The document from engineering consultancy Halcrow said the £40 million project would not be cost-effective. However Councillor Eleanor Jackson (Lab, Radstock) encouraged the cabinet to look at the rise in the popularity of rail travel nationally. Dr Jackson said: “The estimated cost is £41.3 millionwhich makes it much cheaper than any comparable road option, while it would become easier to ship out goods from Westfield Industrial Estate and other manufacturing areas in the Somer Valley, reduce congestion in Bath, the carbon footprint and attract tourists.” If these two plans seem some way off then a third one may be a reality soon. The Bristol to Portishead railway is still intact – used regularly by freight – the line has stations, track and sleepers – it just needs passenger trains. With the vast increase in the population of Portishead and the overstretched road into Bristol it seems a likely possibility. The track runs along the Gorge on the Somerset side emerging in Bedminster. Mass public transport: this is Weston-super-Mare in the late 1940s - now passenger numbers are high again Mass public transport: this is Weston-super-Mare in the late 1940s – now passenger numbers are high again This spring Dr Liam Fox, MP for North Somerset, said he was “more upbeat than on any previous time” about the prospect of seeing trains running to Portishead. Dr Fox attended a meeting with Transport Minister, Simon Burns, and members of the Portishead Railway Group shortly before Christmas and said: “We were all very optimistic following the information that the Minister was able to give us. I hope that we will now see trains running in 2017 and expect that we will get a definitive announcement on dates and funding in Parliament before the summer recess”. Dr Fox expressed his thanks for the support given by the Portishead Railway Group, North Somerset Council and the hundreds of local residents who have given their support. For more on this campaign visit http://www.portisheadrailwaygroup.org/ Meanwhile a lengthy article in the Sunday Observer last month lambasted the decision by the Macmillan Government to close the branch lines by Dr Beeching. The article by Robin McKie in his feature entitled “How Beeching got it wrong” wrote: “There are few men more vilified in British history than Richard Beeching. In popularity rankings, the former ICI boss – who was, after all, responsible for axing 5,000 miles of UK rail network – usually ranks somewhere between Richard III and Robert Maxwell.” McKie said: “Published on 27 March 1963, Beeching’s report, The Restructuring of British Railways, outlined plans to cut more than 5,000 miles of track and more than 2,000 stations. Dozens of branch lines that linked villages with market towns were rated egregious loss-makers to be culled, along with great chunks of mainline. Today the makeup of UK transport looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. Rail passenger figures have almost doubled over the past 10 years; commuter trains are crammed; young people are deserting the car for the train; and Britain’s railway bosses are struggling to meet soaring demands for seats. The legacy of Beeching – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the network, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.” Interestingly McKie raised the point that some have tried to claim that “Beeching actually saved the railways by taking his axe to the lines that were losing the most money. Had he not done so, worse cuts would have followed in later years, it is claimed.” However he pointed out that Richard Faulkner, co-author with Chris Austin of Holding the Line: How Britain’s Railways Were Saved, will have no truck with any revisionist sympathy for the man. “Beeching had only one recipe for saving Britain’s loss-making railways and that was to make the network smaller and smaller. He lacked vision and we are paying for that today. Of course, he was not the only public figure who completely misunderstood railways but he was certainly the most prominent.” ——————————————————————————————-

How far can the Strawberry Line go?

Lawrence Untitled-2 Cycle paths across Britain are expanding as more people use their bikes to discover the countryside. Originally the Strawberry Line ran from coast to Cranmore. Only part of it is used a viable cycleway and path. Harry Mottram asks could it really run all the way from Wales to Wiltshire? Imagine being able to cycle from Winscombe to Wales and back in a day. It’s not an impossible dream. If the Severn Barrage gets the green light in the next few years then a road complete with cycle and walkway would cross the estuary from Lavernock near Penarth and to Brean Down linking up with the M5, A38 and of course the Strawberry Line at Shute Shelve. It’s one possiblity for the future development of the line following the decision by Welsh MP Peter Haine to back the Corlan Hafren consortium last year who plan to construct a barrage across the sea to harness energy from the tidal surges. They have suggested the scheme would include transport links allowing a new crossing across the Bristol Channel. That’s one possible direction. The other more likely expansion is the completion of the missing links to the original railway line. Namely the Yatton to Clevedon section which currently runs along lanes across Kenn Moor, and the sections from Cheddar to Wells and from Wells to Shepton Mallet and on to Cranmore where the East Somerset Railway occupies the remainder of the line. Another possible route for the future is the opening up of the old branch line to Wrington and Blagdon from near Congresbury. There are still sections of the embankment left which could be incorporated into a Mendip gateway cyclepath. Those sections are partly in place but are owned by a variety of individuals making access fraught with delicate negotiations. A small number of individuals and organisations from the Strawberry Line Association to North Somerset Council are involved in these talks. Apart from the technical issue of who owns which bit of land there’s also a shortage of public money to buy real estate. It’s a question of those involved exploring ways to gain consent and access without resorting to the more obvious but remote possibility of purchasing land. From my experience local politicians and representatives have little or no interest in the project as a whole. They will offer verbal support to activists, but district, county and national government has little cash earmarked for expanding cycle networks and the Strawberry Line in particular. It is a short sighted attitude as tourism along the line has increased in the few short years it has been established. If you cycle from Cheddar to Yatton of a summer’s Sunday afternoon you’ll realise just how popular the route has become. Literally hundreds of cyclists, families, dog walkers and groups of people jam some of the busiest sections with large numbers of cyclists sitting outside pubs such as the Lamb Inn in Axbridge and the Woodborough in Winscombe. And yet while billions of tax payers’ cash is spent on roads – very little goes on the National Cycle Network – of which the Strawberry Line is part. The Strawberry Line however is not just the one-time railway. In this magazine’s definition the line refers to a broad corridor of land including the Cheddar, Axe and Yeo Valleys, the Mendips and much of the levels and coastline. Those using the line can branch off in all directions at all points of the route – with the most attractive being the most level. In the Cheddar valley you can head off across the moors towards the Isle of Wedmore along lanes and droves. Beyond the isle the levels stretch away for miles to Glastonbury and Huntspill – hour after hour of hill free cycling. There’s the circular route around Cheddar Reservoir and from Axbridge you can cycle along the foot of the Mendips at Cross all the way to Bleadon and Uphill on the coast and in either direction along level lanes to Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare. Northwards and there are more possible routes for cyclists and walkers. The Mendip Way for those on foot leads off at Shute Shelve in either direction for miles of hill walking while for those on bikes there’s more level cycling along the lanes at Kenn – or up the valleys to Wrington or to Blagdon. The National Cycle Network links the Strawberry Line to Bristol, Bath and beyond – but don’t be fooled. The routes may be well marked, but much of the routes are on roads, main roads at that with often no pavements or cycle path marked. Plus they follow routes that will take you up hills that will test the fittest riders. One day the National Cycle Network will feature only routes that have designated cycle lanes or paths so you can enjoy traffic free cycling as is mostly possible on the Strawberry Line. Until that happens then a good map is often a better option that slavishly following the network’s suggested routes. The other option for the the Strawberry Line is simply to upgrade the pathways. Much has already been done with signage and improved surfacing but with miles of hedges and copses to maintain there’s plenty of scope for more picnic spots, benches and even rain shelters for those sudden downpours. And when it rains those who use the paths on wet days know it can become very muddy in some sections with a tendency to flood in others. Clearly a lot of money could be spent on simply improving the current route to make it more attractive to the visitor and tourist. Information about the route has been added on neat boards but there is room for signs suggesting places that lie a mile or three off the path which would make for an easy excursion. Many cyclists miss the short path to the reservoir in Cheddar, others can pass through Winscombe and Yatton without realising the amount of shops, cafes and pubs just a few yards from the line – and Congresbury, Sandford and Banwell can be missed completely if you don’t have an ordnance survery map on you. It’s come a long way dince the 1980s when spirited individuals pioneered the route from Shute Shelve to Winscombe and on to Sandford. With your help, eventually the line could go all the way from coast to Cranmore and make the line one of the most popular tourist trails in Somerset.