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24 September 2014

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West Somerset Railway

Point 1: West Somerset Railway

The Minehead Meander begins at the train station, which is run by the West Somerset Railway.

Minehead station is the headquarters of the West Somerset Railway (WSR) and is the largest station on the branch line, which takes steam trains inland to Bishops Lydeard near Taunton.

The line was built to broad gauge and designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was converted to standard gauge in one day in October 1882.

The terminus at Minehead was opened on 16 July 1874 by the original West Somerset Railway Company.

By 1876, along with the rest of the line, it was absorbed by the Great Western Railway. Later it became part of the nationalised British Railways.


On 2 March 1964, the calm at Minehead station was shattered by the screams of hundreds of schoolchildren.

Teachers at local schools gave in to demands for time off from the classroom, and a large crowd of excited teenagers gathered by the railway tracks.

The Beatles in 1965

But what was the reason for all this excitement?

The Beatles were in town shooting scenes for their first movie, A Hard Day's Night, and no one was going to miss the chance to see their heroes!

They travelled to Somerset on a special charter train of five coaches from London Paddington.

The arrival of the Beatles and the crowds of fans were filmed by a BBC Points West crew and were reported on the BBC's national news.

The crowds turned out at other stations down the line too, despite the route of the train being kept a secret.

At Crowcombe, the film crew halted to shoot a little scene where the Beatles run along the platform shouting to a retired army officer.

The end of the line

British Railways closed the branch line from Taunton to Minehead in 1971 as part of the Beeching cuts, and almost all the facilities at Minehead station were removed.

The WSR came to the rescue that same year. Somerset County Council bought the branch line and then leased it to the WSR.

On 21 December 1975, the WSR was able to run its first train from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead.

In the next few years, the WSR reopened the line bit by bit, starting from Minehead. By 1979, the line had been reopened all the way from Minehead back to Bishops Lydeard.

The next stop

Let's flash forwards to the present-day West Somerset Railway and Minehead station.

At 20 miles, the WSR is the longest privately owned passenger rail line in Britain.

During the summer, the railway employs 28 people, in addition to many volunteers. It carries 180,000 passengers each year, and by the end of 2003 had transported more than three million people.

Although the branch line is still connected to the national rail network at Norton Fitzwarren, you will need to catch a bus from Bishops Lydeard station to get to Taunton station; the line from Taunton is used on Gala Weekends and by charter trains though.

West Somerset Railway

The station canopy at Minehead is Grade II listed and, at 180 feet, is the longest such structure to have been preserved.

Recently, it has sheltered events as diverse as the BBC's Antiques Roadshow and a beer festival organised by the Somerset branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, which pays a visit each September.

On the far side of the tracks, you should see the old goods shed, which has been converted into a locomotive shed.

Almost all of the tracks you can see have been installed since the railway was restored in the 1970s.

The most recent thing to be built is the siding the other side of the carriage shed. This was added in 1997 for unloading stone to be used in the Minehead sea defences - we look at them later on the walk.

All the signalling you will see is new. There was none at all in 1976 - the last signals were at Dunster.

You might be able to see a wooden signalbox; it is the only wooden one on the line and was moved from Dunster by rail in 1977.

Just beyond the far end of the station, you might be able to see a level crossing.

This was opened in 1990 as part of the relief road (Seaward Way), which brings tourist traffic from the main road (A39) directly to Butlins and the seafront without it needing to go through the town.

The walk continues on Warren Road. As you come out of the station, turn right and follow the seafront in the direction of Butlins.

last updated: 13/07/05
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