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LOOK BACK: The Big Freeze

The road out of Axbridge

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES – FEATURE: memories of the Big Freeze in the winter of 1962/63 and when steam trains connected Wells and Banwell (and when naughty school boys could lark about in the compartment carriages)

An article in the Strawberry Line Times magazine a few years ago about the winter of 1962/63 triggered lots of memories from readers. Terry Watkins who now lives in Australia recalled how he used a jack hammer to break the ground when installing cables in trenches in the lawns of residents. He got married that year in Axbridge – but it was in October before the freeze took place just after Christmas. He said: “As for it being cold, I worked at HV Cable Jointing and we had to have a heater trained on the cable drums to warm the cables up before they could be put in the ground. When we installed cables services into houses we had to use a jack hammer to dig trenches across people’s front lawns where the frost had made the turf solid.”

Meanwhile Pam Avery of Winscombe was at school in Churchill. She wrote: “I remember the winter very well. It was my last winter at Churchill Comprehensive. Hilliers Lane was narrow then before the widening for the many coaches. The snow came up to the top of the hedges. My father worked for Somerset County Council at Shipham Quarry at the time and, as he could not get to work, he was asked to help with clearing the snow. I remember the snow had blown into some beautiful shapes.” The Big Freeze 50 years ago clearly had a lasting impression. George Branch of Cheddar was a Shipham school boy at the time and his mother took a snap of the milkman. George had lent his sledge to the milkman Mr Wells who along with his son Geoff managed to deliver the milk to the villagers despite the ice using the sledge. Mr Evans had an open sided Bedford van for the round based in Winscombe and George said Shipham’s school was closed for two months in that winter due to the pipes freezing.

1962/63 Big Freeze: delivering the milk with Mr Wells – photo from George Branch

Alex Duncan of Axbridge wrote in: “I found Hugh Alsop’s article on the Strawberry Line very interesting. In 1946 I lived in Banwell and gained a place at Wells Blue School. To get there I had to cycle over a mile to Sandford and Banwell Station, store my bike in an outhouse and board the train. It was a harsh winter back in 1946/47. I had a half size bike with no gears and toiling up through Towerhead on snowy roads was an arduous experience. There was no thermal clothing either in those days. Every schoolboy wore grey shorts, long socks, lace-up shoes and an inadequate gaberdine raincoat Can you imagine it, shorts during that winter! Oh! I forgot something. We also wore a school cap – not much comfort in that. Anyhow, what of the train itself?

“I recall the 0-6-0 pannier tanks with great affection. Bossy little engines that accelerated quickly on their small wheels and somehow personified the eccentricity of the Great Western Railway. I never got half the thrill from the lordly Kings and Castles whistling their way out of Temple Meads. I was always mildly disappointed when a conventional tank engine turned up but I did like the diesel cars. They looked like something designed for a Flash Gordon movie and if they didn’t work that well; did it matter? After all this was God’s Wonderful Railway being clever.”

“Railway carriages were not open-plan in those days. The compartments provided a degree of privacy. There was room for six people seated three each side or more if you squeezed up and a corridor along the side of the carriage linking them together and also leading to the toilets at either end. However, Hugh Alsop is right. Many carriages were of the non-corridor type which had room for eight people per compartment and no toilets. They were OK on short commuter routes but to a bunch of school kids they were a godsend. I will leave to your imagination what went on with us naughty boys during the trip through Shute Shelve tunnel.

Brrr: this gives a view of the crossroads at Cross during that winter when motorists attached chains to their cars to grip on the ice

“The school day in Wells finished half an hour before the train home and we were supposed to stay on the premises for some of that time. However, we soon learned from our elders that if we walked to the other station, the old Somerset and Dorset one, we could get the pick of the seats and also ‘enjoy’ what only this type of station could provide. Let me explain. The designer must have been a farmer at heart. The station building was basically a big barn with an arch at either end for the train to get in and out. Imagine it, an enclosed barn for a steam train! Of course, it always filled up with a choking cloud of steam and smoke – fun if you were 11 but would I enjoy it now? I doubt it.”

Send your memories to harryfmottram@gmail.com

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There are more stories from Harry at www.harrymottram.co.uk

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