June 9th will mark the 40th Anniversary of the West Somerset Railway re-opening the section of line through the Quantock Hills between Stogumber and Bishops Lydeard for timetabled passenger trains, becoming England’s longest “heritage railway” in the process.
Over the weekend of June 8th and 9th 2019 a special Anniversary Weekend to mark this historic occasion.
The WSR began to reopen in 1976 (after closure in 1971) with the first train services running between Minehead and Blue Anchor. By May 1978 trains were running as far as Stogumber. Similar to now, there was no run round loop at Stogumber, therefore this meant that the section of the line had to be worked by diesel multiple unit trains.
Earlier in 1978, a special steam hauled train had battled through heavy snows in February to Bishops Lydeard to establish contact with the rest of the country, but this was specially sanctioned as a one-off by the Department of Transport. It was not until the following year that the line was inspected and passed for regular use.
Time travellers going back to 1979 would recognise the West Somerset Railway, but would find it very different in almost all aspects to the Railway of today. At Bishops Lydeard the up platform had not been extended and the signal box stood clear of it. Tickets were sold in the down side platform building and the shop and Gauge Museum were some years off. The passing loop at Crowcombe Heathfield had not been reinstated and there was no signalbox there. And so it went all the way along the line.
Locomotive wise there was also a major contrast. In 1979 there were three steam engines to work the trains. The pride of the fleet was GWR pannier tank 6412 (now based on the South Devon Railway) and two powerful industrial steam engines, Bagnall tanks “Victor” and “Vulcan”. It was “Vulcan” that set off from Bishops Lydeard with the first steam hauled train to Minehead for the first time in 15 years. It struggled with the load on the climb to Crowcombe Heathfield. Today the Bagnalls can be found in the Lake District and on Tyneside. The steam locos working the West Somerset in 2019 are bigger and more suited to the work. 7822 “Foxcote Manor”, 7828 “Odney Manor”, 6960 “Raveningham Hall” and 7F 53808 (the last named was at Washford in 1979 but did not enter service until 1987). One loco that was active on that day, two generations ago, and is still very much part of the WSR was “Hymek” diesel hydraulic D7017, owned by the Diesel and Electric Preservation Group who were then becoming established at Williton and whose current facilities there will be worth visiting over the weekend. “Hymeks” were a familiar sight and sound with holiday trains to Minehead from 1963 to 1970.
D7017 is shortly due to have a heavy overhaul and the Anniversary Weekend will be one of the last chances to ride behind it before the work begins (it will also feature in the Diesel Gala Weekend). Although the original diesel multiple units have left the line, one example of these workhorse trains, which offer fine views of the scenery through which the WSR runs, is still in action.
A trio of Great Western Railway “Small Prairie” tank engines were purchased by the West Somerset Railway Association for future use on the line, numbers 4561, 5521 and 5542. Today numbers 5521 and 5542 are privately owned and not based on the line, although both have visited, whilst 4561 is owned by the WSRA and is being overhauled at Williton courtesy of funds raised by the Association’s Locomotive Restoration Fund.
Over the Anniversary Weekend we will have extra attractions along the line and hope to augment our locomotive fleet with some “guests”.
A new book “Stories of the West Somerset Railway” is being compiled by Ian Coleby, author of the definitive history of the Minehead line from early plans to 1971, and Allan Stanistreet, whose latest work is an updated edition of “Railways Round Exmoor”. The book will feature memories of the early days of the WSR
More details of the weekend will appear here as they are confirmed by the planners