West Somerset Railway
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- Last updated: 29/06/2018
The West Somerset Railway, dating back to 1845, was once a mainline route serving the holiday resorts along the Somerset coast to the town of Minehead. Its importance continued to grow and was essential for moving troops and equipment during both World Wars. In post-war years, it continued to operate until the early 1970s and the line was finally closed on 2nd January 1971.
Five weeks later, on 5th February 1971, the Minehead Railway Preservation Society intervened to save the historic line. Three months later, the West Somerset Railway (WSR) had been formed, saving the track and trains began to operate once again. Today, a regular steam train service continues to operate between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, more than 20-miles of track, to make it the longest stretch of preserved heritage track in the country. The line continues beyond Bishops Lydeard to form a ‘triangle’ at Norton Fitzwarren, where the train can manoeuvre to turn around to face the right direction for the return journey.
The WSR hosts a series of special events throughout the year, one of which is the ‘Spring Steam Gala’, featuring a topical theme. For this year’s Steam Gala, which was held between 22nd and 25th March, the event organisers thought they would try something different and set about creating a schedule with a 1940s theme. Along with the regular passenger trains, the timetable included a military supply train, loaded with vehicles and covered wagons.
I was lucky enough to be invited along to join several re-enactors in uniform, to ride on the supply train, acting as guards. My old friend Andy Norman, who is a military vehicle owner and volunteer with the WSR qualified to work on locomotives, fitted me out with a uniform. He told me that we would be travelling in the ‘brake van’ at the rear of the train. It all sounded exciting and indeed it was. However, what I did not know was that we would be standing outside on the ‘veranda’. The experience proved to be thrilling, but it also proved to be very cold as we travelled across the Somerset countryside at speeds up to 20mph.
The experience placed me in the enviable position of being able to look along the length of several loaded wagons of the supply train, in much the same way that troops must have guarded the train during the war. The locomotive was an Americanbuilt wartime engine of the S160 Class, produced for the US Army Transportation Corps. Around 2120 of these locomotives were produced, of which 800 were modified for use in Britain in the build-up for D-Day. This fact made the train as authentic as possible and as we journeyed along the track, there were plenty of steam enthusiasts lining the route to photograph this unique depiction.
The Steam Gala event served a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it proved that the WSR 1940s theme could attract interest among the General Public and with the re-enactors and vehicle owners, of whom a number turned up to support the event. Secondly, it served as a platform (no pun intended) to announce the official launch of the railway’s full 1940s Weekend, which will be held over 15th and 16th September this year. As an added side bonus, the Steam Gala gave vehicle owners the opportunity to practice their skills in loading vehicles onto railway flatbed waggons. Loading vehicles onto railway wagons is not a common manoeuvre and so it was a practice run for the drivers, also.
I’m pleased to say the event was a success in both cases and the organisers more than satisfied with the results. Firstly, the Public were thrilled to see such an unusual combination of a train loaded, albeit a much-reduced cargo capacity, with wartime vehicles and weapons. One of the weapons was a ‘Quad’ .50-inch calibre machine gun in a Maxson mounting for air defence. Secondly, it was something different for vehicle owners and re-enactors to engage in. Seeing it from my position on the inside, so to speak, it was like stepping back in time and allowed me to see parts of the railway track which can’t be seen from inside passenger carriages. This included the pillboxes and other defences built to protect the railway line during the war.
In effect, the Steam Gala was a ‘taster’ as well as a ‘tester’ for the much larger 1940s Weekend planned for 15th and 16th September, which promises a wealth of attractions stretching the full-length of the railway, while also featuring a full daily service to step back in time and travel on steam trains. Looking ahead at what is planned for the event, the WST is offering a complete experience with something for everyone.
For example, there will be military vehicles at three of the stations, including Watchet, Washford and Minehead, where there will also be a ‘Spitfire’ experience. At Watchet, with its small harbour, there will be a Women’s Land Army display along with Home Front, which will extend into the town itself. In fact, at Watchet there is a small wartime pillbox overlooking the bay, which can be accessed by foot. It is hoped that there will be a good mix between civilian re-enactors and military depicting both British and American, just as it would have been during the war. At Minehead, enthusiasts can see the rare event of locomotives being turned around on the huge turn-table.
Naturally, we can expect the unexpected and surprises will be encountered with depictions of other Allied units, no doubt, joining in as the WSR takes us back to Britain in the wartime years. There will be policemen and ‘spivs’ looking to sell something on the ‘black market’. It is hoped that Winston Churchill and King George VI will drop in to make visits. In all, there are ten stations along the route, each of which will present its own individual characteristic to recreate the period. The military supply train will be recreated and on display at Minehead and Bishops Lydeard stations. Wartime entertainment will add to the atmosphere and get everybody in the mood.
The stretch of line does have a direct wartime association, being used to service Norton Manor Camp used first by the Royal Army Service Corps and later by American units. The route also served to transport troops and vehicles to the nearby training areas and later the Cross Keys prisoner of war camp, No. 665, where some 300 Italians, and later low-risk category German prisoners, were held. In fact, some of these were used as labour force in the immediate area. On the 3rd of November 1940, there was an air raid around Norton Fitzwarren and bombs dropped, which destroyed several buildings. The following day, a collision between two trains at the station left 27 dead and 56 injured. In September 1942 the Americans were using the facilities as an important logistics depot at Norton Fitzwarren, designated Army Depot G50, and a major medical supplies depot in readiness for the build-up for D-Day.
Wartime steam train events such as this are extremely popular with all ages and are just about as interactive as any reenactment event can get. This event promises to be fully immersive in nostalgia. The feed-back from the Spring Steam Gala weekend is positive and already people are looking forward to the September event and with eager anticipation. With all the hard work, which has gone into the planning, it is bound to succeed. This is very definitely an important event to put in your diaries; so, mark down 15th and 16th September 2018. Keep up to date with developments either on Facebook at; WSR 40’s weekend 2018 or visit the website at www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk.