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.
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.
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.
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