Allen Jackson continues with Part II of his series on Great Western Railway Stations. You can read Part I here. We left off last time at Chippenham, of Westinghouse fame, in the county of Wiltshire, heading ever westwards along the route of the Great Western Railway.
We start off at Bath, that most ancient of Roman cities a clue to whose most famous feature is in the title. Hot springs bubbling up from below ground were known to have curative powers in Roman times and so a city was built around the need for visitors to ‘take the waters’ in an immersive rather than a drinking sense. In the 18th century it became a fashionable and exclusive place to live and Miami Beach springs to mind in a US context. It is now a commuter base as well and the elegant Bath Spa station fits in well with the stone architecture hereabouts.
Bristol Temple Meads was the home base of the old GWR and it was from Bristol that the line was supported and financed by those merchants who wanted their goods in London quicker and cheaper than it would be by ship all around the south coast of England. By sea the journey is about 620 nautical miles and by railway about 115 statute miles. The Kennett and Avon canal was a slower solution meaning a journey of, perhaps, a couple of weeks without the tempestuous possibilities of the English Channel but the railway cut this to a couple of hours on the faster trains. The railway was originally engineered to the ‘Broad Gauge’ of 7 feet and ¾ of an inch and wholly converted to standard gauge in 1892.
From Bristol the original railway company was the Bristol and Exeter Railway, still engineered by Brunel, which adopted a revolutionary means of propulsion in the 19th century. Trains were attached to a shuttle in a pipe and the pipe then evacuated of air. This drew the train along until air was admitted to the pipe whereupon the train stopped. The inability to make a vacuum tight seal last a long time was its downfall.
Yatton is a small town that could reasonably be said to be within commuting distance of Bristol but was the junction for a couple of branch lines axed in the 1960s. The station retains the aura of a sleepy country junction sixty odd years after it ceased to exist on the main line railway.
Weston super Mare is a seaside resort that is well known to those who live in the southern counties and midlands of England. It was also well known to the old GWR employees who worked at Swindon. It was the most popular destination for ‘Swindon Trip’ which was a GWR paid for day out for everyone that worked at Swindon. Quite how the GWR got 14,000 people and their families away for a day out was a masterpiece of logistics that would be re-employed later when tens of thousands of children were evacuated from London in World War II to escape the bombing. The old GWR also had a hand in bringing home 334,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk. Weston super Mare continues today with holidaymakers and the recent ‘staycation’ holiday boom has been reflected in the town.
Bridgwater was an inland port and important market town for north Somerset county but now houses some commuters for Bristol or Taunton. The nearby nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is a source of radio-active freight traffic at Bridgwater and rail is seen as the safest way to handle this most dangerous of cargoes.
Taunton has long been the county town of Somerset and the geographical centre and hub. The town’s station hosted a number of branch lines and the heritage West Somerset Railway runs from near Taunton to a seaside resort at Minehead. It is one of the longest preserved lines in the country and has a delightful array of differing scenic vistas to enjoy. Figure 1. The route from Bath Spa pierces a stoney outcrop that is to characterise the stone in the buildings in the city. From there to Bristol the line follows the valley of the River Avon and whilst the Thames Valley was flat and straight for some part, this section is curvy and more up and down. The coast in the form of the River Severn Estuary is reached at Weston super Mare and here the railway was in competition with the paddle steamer for the holiday trade. Visitors would come over from Wales, particularly on a Sunday, for a visi to the seaside plus alcohol on the boat as there would not be any on land then. Bridgwater was an inland port on the River Parrett and Taunton a travel hub as well s the county town of Somerset. Exeter has an ancient cathedral as well as a modern Meteorological Office that is supposed to predict the unpredictable British weather. Figure 2. The honey coloured stone is a feature of Bath’s buildings and Brunel’s station fits in well to what is a beautiful city. Far from being a 19th century structure, as constructed, it is redolent of the 17th or 18th century classical style which it is attempting to imitate. The station is constructed on a curve and the station building here reflects that. The station proper is on raised ground above the city as it had to be squeezed in long after most of the rest of the city had been built. The station retains its GWR country station feel despite looking after 6.4 million passengers a year. August 2016. Figure 3. Perpendicular Gothic is a popular Victorian style and its most famous example is the House of Commons in London on the banks of the River Thames. Its most famous detailer was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin who, like Brunel, was to die early. Exhausted by the sheer volume and intensity of the work they carried out. Bristol Temple Meads is a celebration in stone and a statement of wealth and worth. At any rate no one has sought to mess with any of it in 180 years. August 2016. Figure 4. Bristol Temple Meads from the Bath Road overbridge. A Class 43 and Class 150 DMU lurk within otherwise the station is fairly quiet with trains but some passenger know different. There was a steam depot constructed by the GWR in the 1930s that could be seen from here and diesels took over but not for long as the depot was not suitable for the HST sets that dominated West Country services for about forty years. The HSTs were serviced at the former GWR steam freight depot in Bristol at St Philip’s Marsh. May 2012. Figure 5. Yatton station on a soggy day. Both platforms had a bay platform behind the main line face for branch lines to Cheddar (of the cheese fame) and Clevedon on the north Somerset coast. There was even an engine shed here to house the branch tank engines that would start off the early morning services from Yatton.There was a bookstall here and in the 1920s, forty staff. The signal box had 129 levers. Both branch lines lost their passenger services in the 1960s. June 2016. *Figure 6. Weston super Mare station is solidly built from stone and judging by the width of the stairway on the left was built to process large numbers of passengers. Even so a second station had to be built nearby named Locking Road to accommodate the ever swelling number of holidaymakers. In 1951, as a salute to the Festival of Britain, the station hosted an express named train in the ‘Merchant Venturer’. The stub platform on the bay platform on the right tells the story of a facility to unload full milk churns and load up the empties into waiting wagons. The former goods yard retains a Bristol and Exeter Railway signal box as a preserved building. The two car Class 158 158960 DMU is sufficient for today’s traffic. June 2016.* Figure 7. Bridgwater station is very tidy and litter free and acts mostly as a commuter vehicle. The weather shields at the end of the canopies were only employed in certain places where the wind does blow. The station building, unusually, is rendered as a protection against the weather. August 2016. Figure 8. The dockside branch at Bridgwater survives, partially, as a loading area for nuclear flasks that are sent for re-processing from Hinkley Point power station. There are two flasks for loading and here they are entrusted to two Direct Rail Services Class 37 Co-Co diesel electric locomotives. The flasks were tested in 1984 by ramming a Class 46 diesel electric locomotive, 46 009, and a five coach train into a nuclear flask at 100 mph. The flask survived intact and so does the nuclear transportation service. The protection of nuclear assets is one of the few activities in Britain where the use of deadly force is authorised as routine. August 2016. Figure 9. Taunton station was substantially rebuilt in the 1930s. The Great Depression was in full swing and the British government enacted the Loans and Guarantees Act that enabled railway companies to improve their infrastructure helped by the taxpayer as a means of alleviating unemployment. There was a similar scheme in the US where, among others, the Hoover Dam in Nevada was constructed. The works around Taunton involved increasing the running lines from two to four in some places. As it turned out these works would probably have been needed in World War II with the terrific increase of traffic of a nation at war.Taunton station had numerous platform bays to accommodate trains from the various branch lines that ran in there. One of which was the Minehead branch that later became the West Somerset Railway. July 2016. Figure 10. Bishop’s Lydeard station on the West Somerset Railway is the base nearest Taunton and was imposed on the WSR as unionised bus drivers objected to the preserved railway running into Taunton station. As the railway union was one and the same, British Railways gave in and refused permission for the WSR to access Taunton station. No matter there is more parking at Bishop’s Lydeard and the railway does a roaring trade nonetheless. GWR designed Manor Class 7828 Odney Manor waits to set off on a post pandemic excursion to Dunster. September 2021.
Great Western Railway Stations, by Allen Jackson, is available courtesy of Amberley Books: https://www.amberley-books.com/great-western-railway-stations.html
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