This article by Sue South is taken from our summer 2014 issue. We thought that people might like to read it again…
The editor and I were talking on the phone about how to really encapsulate Exmoor on the cover of our nostalgic summer issue: “Well, I know just the picture that says ‘traditional Exmoor’ to me.” And so will all those who have enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Woollacott family at Oareford Farm over the years. This wonderfully evocative photo, taken for The Field magazine over 45 years ago (nobody can remember the exact date but Geraldine is clear that it was “before her time” – and she has been married to Brian, Jack’s son, for 40 years!), hangs proudly above the living room table.
“Don’t worry,” I said, as I set the tape going, “the editor has only asked me for 500 words and that’s nothing!” Brian was dismayed: “That’s more than I say in a year!” “Well, let’s get a year’s worth then!”
Jack Woollacott was born in 1895 and died in 1985. Always a farmer and keen hunter, his 90th birthday will long be remembered as the first time there was a joint meet of the Exmoor Foxhounds and Devon & Somerset Staghounds. Geraldine remembers that Jack was so poorly the night before the meet that “Susie, a family friend, sat with him all through the night, just giving him beer to get some liquid inside him to keep him going.”
Brian takes up the tale: “He’d had a bit of a turn, no-one had told him about the meet until a few days before, someone let it out and he just got a bit worked up about the meet and everything.” In the event, hundreds of people turned up, despite the snow and ice. “We started cooking the pasties at midnight because we didn’t know before then if we were going to go ahead.” Twenty gallons of punch and two crates of scotch added to the enjoyment and very delicious and warming they were, I seem to remember!
When I asked the name of the horse featured in the picture (top), Brian said “Well, they didn’t always have names then; there was normally one in the stable so if we needed to ride out we would just go out to the yard and take the horse that was there. When I was young we had the tractor and link box if a sheep had to be picked up, but normally it was just lots of walking. Father never drove though, just rode the pony.
“At lambing time there was one helper, Raymond Vellacott, and myself, and the sheep came into a field closer to the farm, not into a shed. Once that field got muddied up, we had to move on to the next. It was just the cows around the shippons. They were fed oaten sheaves but not the sheep. The ewes weren’t fed then like they are now, so there was a lot more running around with a bottle of milk! Once we started feeding them cake it was different.”
Having reflected, Brian and Geraldine agreed that the horse in the cover picture must have been Queenie. Another which they recalled was ‘Pone’ (as in ‘bone’), an Exmoor Pony that Jack had for many years. As well as shepherding and hunting on Pone, Jack regularly rode all the way to the Ship Inn at Porlock, where the pony was tethered under the archway, with Jack’s Mac thrown across its back. Jack’s refreshment breaks could last for hours but Pone managed to get them both home safely.
“Did you hear the story of when Father was riding home one night, over the top of Porlock Hill, coming back from the Ship really late and he dozed off a bit in the saddle and his false teeth dropped out! He couldn’t get off to pick them up because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get back up again. So he waited for a bit and a car came along, he waved it down and said to the lady who got out, “Can you find my false teeth and pick them up for me?” Which, bravely, she duly did. Father never admitted to that; we heard it from her!”
Jack Woollacott passed away many years ago now, but stories like the brave rescue of his wayward false teeth have been flowing thick and fast these last 40 years, as if such happenings took place yesterday. Like the picture in the living room, they take the listener straight back to a very different time and place – where tradition has tended to stick fast, and change, like lambing on Exmoor, comes late.
Thank you again to The Field for allowing us to use this image with the piece about Jack.
The following article appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Exmoor Magazine (see pages 18-20 if you still have it). It is reproduced here as many people have asked to read it since the sad passing of Gerald at the end of last year…
WORDS by Tony James, from winter 2015 issue
Gerald Down is telling us what makes a champion Exmoor Horn sheep but, strangely for someone who has just returned from judging the breed at the Royal Welsh Show, he seems to have other things on his mind.
From the kitchen wall of the cosy flat in Brendon Manor where he has lived since his retirement from a lifetime of moorland farming, Gerald takes down the picture of an elderly man. “That’s George Thorne of Simonsbath Barton. I worked for him for 20 years. He taught me everything I know about sheep and cattle, but even he
wondered whether we’d copped it this time.”
And the memories flood back over half a century to the worst Exmoor winter for 15 years, when Simonsbath was virtually cut off for nearly three months in 1962/63, snow drifted as high as the telegraph poles and was still lying in the combes in June.
Gerald has hazy memories of the previous great freeze-up of 1947. “I was only nine and it was all a bit of fun, but this time, when it started snowing on Boxing Day, it didn’t take us long to realise that things were going to be really serious.”
As snow fell relentlessly day after day and piled into house-high drifts, as many cattle as possible were brought under cover, but all George Thorne’s 600 sheep stayed out in fields next to the farm, where they were fed and watered and dug out of drifts day and night. “We didn’t lose a single sheep,” Gerald remembers. “I doubt if any other breed would have survived like those Exmoors did.”
It just goes to confirm Gerald’s lifelong view that there are no sheep like Exmoor Horns. His passion for choosing, preparing and showing them is undimmed. He’s a renowned judge of the breed throughout the South West and Wales and at 77, whilst recuperating from
serious illness, he braved lashing wind and rain at the last Porlock Horse Show to give the sheep class the once-over. “I’d judged some of them the previous week in Wales and just wanted to check that the Porlock judges agreed with me.” Hardly surprisingly, they did.
“The moor is my life and always will be. I still love going to shows and stock markets, meeting people and bringing back the memories.”
Gerald has other reasons to remember the wicked winter of ’62. As the snow fell on Boxing Day, his pregnant wife Eileen was taken into South Molton hospital. Hours later Simonsbath was snowed in and it was five weeks before Gerald saw his baby son Richard.
“The only way to get from Simonsbath to Exford was to walk through the snow five miles over the fields. You couldn’t see the hedges and you had to trust to luck you didn’t fall into a drift. My brother met me in Exford and managed to drive me to South Molton. Then I had to walk back another five miles in a snowstorm but it was worth it.”
Gerald has spent his life on the moor, although, as he explains, there has been a highly unexpected career change. He was born at Slocomslade, one of the hill farms above Brendon. When his father, a groom at Oare Manor, was called up for the Army, the family moved in with Gerald’s grandparents.
“Times were hard and money was very short. My mother would pick
whortleberries and sell them at Watersmeet and County Gate. I was
very close to my mother but she was very strict and you had to behave yourself. We all worked to help the family. My grandfather was the Brendon parish road-mender and grew all our vegetables.
“He also dug peat for the fire and I remember being sent up to the common on cold winter days with hot cocoa in a bottle with a sock wrapped around it to keep it warm, and beetroot sandwiches for his lunch.
“I always say I was brought up on rabbit and junket! Milk and rabbit was good cheap food and we would eat rabbit at least two or three times a week. From a young age I went out rabbiting with my ferret and my dog Spot. He’d ride on the crossbar of my bike with his front feet on the handlebars.
“I was always out on the moor and I couldn’t wait to leave Brendon School. I got a job with Bill Harding at Lower Tippacott, working the sheep, but soon afterwards Bert French asked me to become a fulltime rabbit-trapper. We’d do eight to ten days on a farm and then move on.
“It was hard work and very long hours. We would put out up to 200 gin traps a night – they’re illegal now – and if you got 80 rabbits from 100 traps you were doing well. Sometimes you would get a fox in a trap and that could be dangerous. The rabbits went to Dulverton station hung in special hampers to catch the ‘rabbit train’ to London. Apparently they sold eight for £1 up there, but Bert and I didn’t get anything like that.”
After George Thorne retired, Gerald managed a farm at Wellshead for 12 years and has watched the evolution of moorland farming with interest and not a little envy. “It’s still a hard life on the moor but certainly easier than when I started farming,” he says.
“Look at all the stuff they’ve got nowadays… state-of-the-art tractors, quad bikes. Any emergency and they fly a helicopter in. Before the small baler came in we had to sweep the hay up and
make a rick.
“No one digs up roots and turnips any more – it’s all cake now. Load a quad bike up with cake and take it out to the sheep. Job done in no time. But one of the really big changes on the moor has been the round bale. The bloke who invented that should have got a medal from the Queen!
“Shearing has been transformed in my lifetime. If I could shear 80 or 90 in a day I’d done well, but now it’s 300 or more thanks to new ideas from Australia. They use special shearing pens and have the radio going – you almost expect them to start dancing with the bloomin’ sheep!”
Sheep, dancing or otherwise, were Gerald’s life. He fully expected it to stay like that and had no complaints but then, in 1996, when retirement began to loom on the distant horizon, Gerald’s life
suddenly changed in a fairytale manner. He became a movie star. Gerald shrugs off the description, but that’s about the truth of it.
It started at Taunton market. “I was there with some stock and saw two chaps looking at me. When I next went to Cutcombe market they were there again and this time they came over and asked to have a word outside. My first thought was that they were from DEFRA or trading standards, but I couldn’t think what I’d done wrong.”
In fact the mystery men were film-company scouts looking for a non-actor to play the pivotal role of farm-worker Ratty in the £6 million production of The Land Girls, a story of three town girls recruited to work on a remote farm during the Second World War. Out of over 140 hopefuls, Gerald got the job.
Supposedly set in Dorset in 1941, the film starred Anna Friel, Rachel Weisz and Catherine McCormack and was shot mainly in Exmoor National Park and Dulverton. “I was filming for about three months and had quite a big part. My daughter Mandy helped me learn the lines.
“One scene I particularly remember was when we were out in the fields loading potatoes on a horse and cart. Anna Friel asked where she could go to the toilet and I had to say: “This is a two-acre
field but if it’s not big enough, there’s a four-acre field over there!”
“We did the Christmas scenes in a pub and I had to say to one of the girls: “If you’ll have a port and lemon with me, I’ll sing you a song.” I sang them ‘A Bunch of Violets Blue’, which my mother used to sing when we were little. Would you like me to sing it to you now?” and he did.
“I still get Christmas cards from the girls and everyone was really kind and friendly. I went to London for the première and walked on the red carpet. When the film came to Lynton I took everyone to see it, just to prove that I was really in it.
“I got paid really well – I’m not telling you how much – and for a while I was a bit of a novelty on the moor and was asked to open Dulverton Fête. The producer of The Land Girls even said I should try for the part of Compo in Last of the Summer Wine when Bill Owen died, but I didn’t pursue it.
“It was a whole new world to me and I wouldn’t have missed it, but I was glad to get back to the sheep.”
PHOTOS AT TOP and HERE: Gerald Down in the autumn of 2015, photographed by Andrew Hobbs.
You can read more about Gerald in an article on this site about the Lyles and also in David Ramsey’s book Unforgotten Exmoor, Volume Four.
A new feature has been installed at an Ilfracombe viewpoint, in memory of a man who did so much to improve the area and make it a wonderful place to visit.
A toposcope has been placed at the top of the Cairn, which is an area of mixed woodland and grassland owned by North Devon Council. The toposcope indicates the direction and distance of notable landscapes and places, such as Swansea, Tenby and Lundy Island.
The idea for the feature came from Jenny Kiley, whose husband Tony, Chairman of the Cairn Conservation Carers group, died suddenly in March this year. It has been funded by both the Carers and the Council.
The Council’s Executive Member for Parks, Leisure and Culture, Councillor Derrick Spear, says: “The Cairn Conservation Carers have done an excellent job over the years, carrying out various works like clearing paths, tree planting and scrub clearance. They also bring the area to life with bat walks, bug hunts and monitor bird boxes. So we are really grateful for all their efforts. As Chairman, Tony led this dedicated voluntary group, so we were more than happy to show our appreciation by installing and dedicating this new feature to him. I hope it will be well used for many years to come.”
On the toposcope’s plaque, the dedication from Jenny Kiley reads: “Tony worked hard to conserve and enhance the beautiful wildlife habitat he loved so much, readily sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm to inspire others to care for the Cairn.”
For more information about the Cairn Conservation Carers, please contact Mike Jones at North Devon Council on 01271 388326 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Quantock Hills AONB Service offers a warm welcome to their newest recruit. Rebekah West joins them as their new Quantock Hills AONB Ranger. Her role will include linking with farmers to ensure the continued protection of the conservation areas, such as the heathland hilltops and the ancient oak woodlands, and also helping people make the most of enjoying the hills and understanding more about their special character.
Rebekah previously worked for Caerphilly County Borough Council as an Apprentice Countryside Ranger in the Countryside Parks. This involved practical work such as tree felling, path maintenance, solving drainage problems and putting up fences and gates.
Rebekah says: “I was drawn to the position of the Quantock Hills Ranger primarily due to the area. Working for the Quantock Hills offers a fantastic opportunity to help manage the wild heathland with their breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. I am also looking forward to helping to protect the ancient oak woodlands, as these areas are particularly close to my heart.”
Quantock AONB Manager, Chris Edwards, says: “We are delighted to welcome Rebekah into the AONB Service, her expertise will prove invaluable in helping to conserve and enhance this nationally protected area.”
Rebekah will be posting regular blogs about her work on the Quantock Hills AONB website www.quantockhills.com and you can follow her on Twitter @quantockhills and on Facebook.
Regular readers will have seen the article about The Bulworthy Project in our summer issue last year. You read the whole article in our new ‘try before you buy’ sample issue on the main website. Anna and Pete, who run the charcoal-making project, are now building a house in the woods and we invited them to share their progress with us. “We are charcoal makers, not writers” they warned us – but we don’t mind – we want to see what they are up to! This blog is ‘Stage 6′. Here are links to the previous blogs in case you missed them: stage 1 stage 2 stage 3 stage 4 stage 5
After a much-needed break to celebrate the winter soltice and Christmas, we came back to the house-building project with renewed energy. It was great to have time to reflect on all that we have accomplished over the past six months.
This time of year is busy for us even without building a house. We stop felling at the end of February for nesting season so we need to have all of our wood stocks ready for this year’s barbecue season. If we get a summer like last year, that’s a lot of wood!
Having fitted the doors and got the house weatherproof, the building work is now mainly inside. Having had so much rain we are pleased to see that our slating was good enough that we have no leaks.
We have a few lights fitted now which makes the space much more usable and means that we can work in the evening. So, on wet and windy days we are working on the house and, in the better weather, we are harvesting wood. After five years of working outside it feels luxurious to have inside jobs to do. With this move towards inside work also comes a feeling that the most daunting tasks are behind us and the rest of the work lies within the realms of an ambitious DIY project. We are therefore starting to feel less out of our depth.
Throughout January we have been insulating the upstairs roof and walls and some of the floor. This is a time-consuming job as most of the insulation has to be cut to fit around roof trusses and electrical sockets. But, aided by the help of friends, we have almost completed this job and it will be well worth it for our comfort in years to come. Even without any heating in the house the insulation has made the space noticeably warmer.
We are aiming for an energy-efficient home so we are insulating to a higher standard than building regulations. Many people look at our lifestyle of living in the woods and making charcoal and think that wood is a free resource. On a financial basis it is practically free. There is a small cost of fuel for the chainsaw but that is minimal and we have to manage the woods anyway so some trees have to be felled. However, to process, stack and burn wood takes a lot of our energy and time. At the moment we are young and fit and this is not too much of an issue but as time goes on we will have less energy for these tasks. Also we see Bulworthy Project as an experiment in low-impact living and working. This should be low impact on us as well as the environment.
England’s longest heritage railway, the West Somerset Railway, is holding an open day for potential new volunteers on Sunday 11 May to find out more about volunteering roles on the Railway. Please note that advance booking for the day is essential. Potential new volunteers are invited to meet in the Gauge Museum on Platform One at Bishops Lydeard Station (four miles from Taunton on the A358 road) at 9.15a.m. The event includes a visit to Williton to view the workshops, signal box and station as well as the opportunity to chat to current volunteers, returning to Bishops Lydeard and dispersing by 1.45pm. Potential new volunteers should bring a packed lunch if required and should telephone 01935 429032 or email email@example.com to book a place and for more information.
The West Somerset Railway operates train services over 20 miles of line between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead with ten stations along the way. It has some 1,000 volunteers on its books already who assist in an operating season which runs from February to December with maintenance work going on all year round. Volunteer jobs can include the visible parts of the operation including signalling, driving and firing locomotives, guards, ticket inspecting on buffet cars. For those who like exercise in the fresh air there is track and signalling maintenance or helping to control line-side vegetation. Stations need to be staffed and maintained and there are tickets to sell in booking offices. DIY enthusiasts may enjoy the challenge of restoring vintage items of rolling stock. Training is given as appropriate and volunteers in some grades have to pass a fitness exam. However, there is work for most ages and abilities with the youngest volunteers being in their teens and the oldest in their eighties!
Somerset and Devon County Councils are seeking a chair and up to seven trustees to lead an important new charity. To be called the South West Heritage Trust, the new organisation will help to protect and celebrate the rich heritage of Somerset and Devon. This independent Trust will deliver the heritage services currently provided by the two councils, with guaranteed funding of £10m over five years.
Successful applicants will use their experience and passion for the heritage of Somerset and Devon to lead and shape the trust. It will be a rewarding and challenging opportunity. The Trust’s role will include managing the Museum of Somerset in Taunton and the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury (which has recently secured funding of £1.6m for redevelopment), curatorial care of more than three million museum objects ranging from Bronze-Age gold to modern art, caring for and making available the written evidence of Somerset and Devon history from the eighth century to the present day, and protecting Somerset’s historic environment.
Regular readers will have seen the article about The Bulworthy Project in our summer issue last year. You read the whole article in our new ‘try before you buy’ sample issue on the main website. Anna and Pete, who run the charcoal-making project, are now building a house in the woods and we invited them to share their progress with us. “We are charcoal makers, not writers” they warned us – but we don’t mind – we want to see what they are up to! This blog is ‘Stage 5’. Here are links to the previous blogs in case you missed them: stage 1 stage 2 stage 3 stage 4
When we started building our house earlier in the year many people asked us if we were going to be in by Christmas. We always knew that we wouldn’t be but hoped to have the house weatherproof before snow arrives. We’ve been lucky with the weather this year. Following a great summer, the winter has – so far – been mild (no snow yet).
When we wrote the last instalment of this blog we were just about to start slating the roof. We were quite daunted by the job as we had no experience of slating. Our building experience prior to building the house consisted of a shed, a barn and a couple of compost toilets. We started on the north side of the roof as it is less visible than the south side and does not have solar panels to complicate matters. It is a big roof and a big task (possibly bigger than we had thought). We learnt a lot from mistakes made on the north side and some more from the south side too! If we were to do another roof we would be much better at doing it. However, we have no desire to build another roof right now! The end result is like a homemade Christmas card. It doesn’t have the crisp lines of one you might buy in the shops but it has a lot of ‘us’ in it. To make the house weatherproof we have yet to finish the gable ends and the walls behind the glass roof and get the doors on.
We’ve had a lot of luck on the electrics; not least in meeting Will Diggle who works in his family firm as an agricultural electrician. As such he is used to off-grid electrics and DC systems. He is passionate about sustainability and therefore understands our motivation for a house with low-energy needs. We had discussed our house electrics with a couple of electricians before we met Will. They were completely baffled by the system that we had in mind. It is due to Will’s advice that we are having a 24v rather than a 12v system (because the voltage drop is less). He’s designed the system to have the shortest possible runs of wire which is important for DC systems and has sourced all the system components at great prices. Thanks to Will, first fix is now complete.
A big milestone to end the year is the completion of our reed bed sewage system. This now allows us to get the inside plumbing done and move further forward to making this house a home.
Regular readers will have seen the article about The Bulworthy Project in our summer issue. You read the whole article in our new ‘try before you buy’ sample issue on the main website. Anna and Pete, who run the charcoal-making project, are now building a house in the woods and we invited them to share their progress with us. “We are charcoal makers, not writers” they warned us – but we don’t mind – we want to see what they are up to! This blog is ‘Stage 3’. We hope that you enjoy reading it. You can go back and read stage 1 in our post from 2 July, stage 2 from our blog on 13 August and stage 3 from our blog on 27 September.
When the recent potential hurricane was forecasted we had just got the breathable membrane onto our roof but the ends of the roof were still open. In effect we had created a vast sail. We didn’t sleep too well that night but woke up in the morning to find no real damage. Luckily for us the storm was not too bad where we are. We lost one tree from our woodland but it was a tree that we were going to cut down anyway.
Soon after the previous instalment of this blog we winched the last truss into place and could finally see the full shape of the house. We then had to brace the structure to prevent it collapsing under the weight of the slates or the force of high winds. Our building control officer came out to check that this was adequate. As self-builders with almost no experience we find it quite reassuring to have an expert cast their eye over the build.
Because it has generally been quite gusty recently we had to wait for suitable weather to get the membrane on the roof. As soon as the wind died down we’d get a strip of membrane stapled into place and put down the batten that we will nail the slates to. We could then climb up the batten to staple down the next strip of membrane. We had always been quite concerned about how well we would cope with working up on the roof. The reality is that with all the batten that we have put up we have created an oversized climbing frame. At 45º (an angle chosen for solar panel efficiency) the roof is steeper than average. However, 45º is only slightly steeper than a set of stairs.
Before putting the gable ends onto the roof we had to get our 1,000-litre hot-water tank in as it is too large to get in afterwards. Our friend Brian lifted it into place using a front loader on a tractor. The tank is an accumulator tank which is specially designed for use with solar hot water systems and it allows us to heat water efficiently with solar and wood. A thermostatically controlled valve uses the water from the solar panel to heat the top of the tank if it is above 53ºC or the bottom of the tank if it below 53ºC. This means that the top of the tank is always hot and the bottom of the tank contains preheated warm water. When the woodburner is lit it takes warm water from the bottom of
the tank, heats it and puts it into the top of the tank. Woodburners work most efficiently when burning hot and this system allows for short periods of using the woodburner on a high setting. The capacity of the tank allows us to store water heated on sunny days and use it through cloudy days just topping up using the woodburner when the weather is persistently overcast and during the colder months. The tank is extremely well insulated so that it does not lose heat into the house. When the woodburner is not lit the house will be heated with underfloor heating using the water from the accumulator tank.
Next we start installing roof windows and solar panels and slating. Three of us are doing the this. None of us have any experience of installing roof windows or slating!
Half a century has passed now since the vanishing from the Exmoor scene of two parts of its railway history, although they will be briefly recreated when the West Somerset Railway holds its 2014 Spring Steam Gala between 27 and 30 March next year.
The better known and probably more fondly remembered was the “Atlantic Coast Express” which linked North Devon and North Cornwall with London Waterloo, Mondays to Saturdays. What was remarkable about the “ACE” was it contracted during its journey west and, conversely grew as it went eastwards. Other express trains sometimes “slipped” special coaches from their rears as they approached stations where the main train stopped (as the express roared through the station and into the distance the slip would drift in behind it under the control of its own guard) but the “Atlantic Coast” took its time.
So the train would run down from Waterloo to Exeter Central at high speed behind one of the crack steam locomotives of the Southern Railway or the Southern Region of British Railways, such as one of the “Merchant Navy” Class. At Central this came off the train which then began a steady process of division which continued at such spots as Halwill Junction until finally one or two coaches would reach Barnstaple, Ifracombe, Bude or Padstow after a journey which must have seemed almost interminable to those who didn’t know what to expect or were enthusiasts. That process took place in reverse on the way back. What looked like a couple of coaches setting out on a local journey eventually became part of a big express train for the rush back to the capital. All sorts of steam locomotives could work the portions in Devon including the half-century old T9’s. Once the premier express engines of the one-time London and South Western Railway in the first decade of the 20th Century the last survivors finished their days in North Devon and could still show a spritely turn of speed. Alongside them were the revolutionary “Light Pacifics” which Oliver Bulleid designed for the Southern Railway and which were built between 1945 and 1951. With their “air-smoothed casing” exteriors they looked like nothing else on rails in Britain and many carried names associated with the West Country including “Exmoor”, “Lynton”, “Watersmeet” and “Braunton”. These modern machines could take all but the very heaviest expresses along at speeds in the ninety mile per hour range but they could also be found ambling through North Devon with two or three coaches on a local passenger service where the guard and the signalman could have a leisurely chat at the village stations along the way.
Another bucolic line was one that ran across Exmoor itself, the route from Taunton to Barnstaple. This was one of those railways that was nowhere near as busy or important as its Victorian promoters had intended it to be but it served its communities until the rise of the rural bus and then the private car caused it to close in the Beeching era. Amongst the towns and villages that knew it along the way were Wiveliscombe, Dulverton (Although the station was actually in Brushford), South Molton and Filleigh.
The line had been built as the Devon and Somerset Railway and it left the Great Western main line at Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton. Opening took place piecemeal between 1871 and 1873 as a shortage of money dictated (it had received its Parliamentary Act as early as 1864.). There was even an outbreak of trouble when the navvies building it weren’t paid, which was never a good idea with these powerful, long-headed group of workers. It was originally built to the Great Western Railway’s broad gauge of seven feet and a quarter of an inch as devised by I.K. Brunel but was converted to standard gauge in 1881 which allowed trough trains to run round from Barnstaple Victoria Station to Barnstaple Junction and further on into Devon. Going as it did across the grain of the countryside there was plenty of civil engineering to be done including two major viaducts at Venn Cross and Filleigh and tunnels at Bathealton, Venn Cross, Nightcote and Castle Hill.
At Morebath Junction near Dulverton it met the other major railway route across Exmoor, the line from Stoke Canon along the Exe Valley and via Tiverton and Bampton. Although the junctions were at Stoke Canon and near Morebath trains in fact ran from Exeter St Davids to Dulverton. The Exe Valley was steam worked throughout its history and closed in October 1963.
Steam trains between Barnstaple and Taunton lasted until 1964 and from the viewpoint of the lover of locomotives were noteworthy as a last stronghold for the Great Western “Moguls”. Designed by G.J. Churchward in 1911 they were maids of nearly all railway work except the heaviest and fastest and a final few could be found at Taunton locomotive shed as Beatlemania was gripping the country half a century later. With the Devon and Somerset having been constructed as cheaply as possible Taunton’s “Moguls” had steps and other projections specially cut back to cope with tight clearances.
As with many other rural lines in the West of England traffic along the 57 miles of line varied from year to year and with the seasons. There were the usual staple traffics such as coal and perishable goods for the village merchants and grocers to collect or have delivered but until myxomatosis was introduced with such devastating effects rabbit specials were run to take a cheap source of meat to towns and cities. Passenger trains for most of the year were made up of two or three coaches but in the 1950’s and early 60’s with seaside holidays at a peak and private car ownership in its infancy that changed completely on summer Saturdays. From Paddington and the Midlands long distance trains ran to Taunton where they divided with one portion setting off for Minehead along what is now the West Somerset Railway and the other heading for Barnstaple and Ilfracombe with the “Moguls” steaming along with twice their normal loads. Unfortunately it was a journey that too many holiday makers could recall for the wrong reasons. Elderly and generally unused coaches were pulled out of sidings for an annual session of work, often without corridors and toilets, and with much of those 57 miles across Exmoor being on a single line of track with other trains to pass at wayside stations along the way the last bit of the journey was little fun for families with small children. Once they were home again the car showroom window and the hire purchase agreement were worth serious consideration. After steam had gone the holiday trains followed them from the scene and in October 1966 the last trains ran through a dark evening, with the Devon and Somerset seven years short of achieving its century of service. Today sections are nearly untraceable (Milverton station site is, with irony, under a traffic roundabout at the edge of the village) but other sites can be found and if you are minded to follow the old route with the help of a map you will of course be able to enjoy some of the finest scenery in all England.
As said in the opening paragraph the West Somerset Railway is planning to mark the anniversaries between March 27th and 30th with appropriate guest steam engines and plenty to see along the route between Bishops Lydeard (near Taunton), Watchet, Dunster and Minehead. Details are on the website at www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk or please call 01643 704996.