Blue remembered hills

Axbridge Station

From Yatton to Wells and down the line

An article written in 2014 by Alex Duncan on the Strawberry Line

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.

Congresbury Station being destroyed after the closure

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.

Shute Shelve Tunnel

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.

Congresbury and the bridge on the A370 – now gone

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.

Sandford Station

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 Draycott incident during the Big Freeze

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.

Axbridge Station

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.

Axbridge showing the sidings

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