Tag Archives: wells

STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES Feature: A guide to the railway line back in 1899 when Axbridge had Petty Sessions in the Court House and it cost 2/- to visit Cheddar Caves

Axbridge Square before the arrival of the motorcar

What was it like to visit the Strawberry Line in 1899? Using an 1899 guidebook Harry Mottram 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
Clevedon Bay back in the day

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.

When Yatton was just a small village

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 station in 1905

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.

An early coloured postcard showing the road to the Gorge in Cheddar

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 at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries

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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)

A steam train emerges from Winscombe Tunnel

An article in the Strawberry Line Times magazine four 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.”

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