On and off the rails: Britain's old railway routes are being reclaimed

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The destruction of Britain's railway network in the 1960s was a disaster for millions of people. But now, as Simon Calder discovers, some of the old routes are being reclaimed

Deep in the heart of Somerset, a strangely straight path leads southwards from the river Yeo. On either side, a tangle of undergrowth and overgrown trees could convince you that you have somehow stumbled through a space-time hedgerow and ended up in darkest Peru – a sense amplified when you peer through the verdant muddle and discover evidence of ancient masonry.

These strange slabs are not the work of the Inca Empire, but of an even more creative force: Britain's Victorian railway builders. This is all that remains of Congresbury station: one of thousands of halts across the UK that were, in the 1960s, considered surplus to transportational requirements. The mesh of untidy twists and knots that suffocate the platforms at Congresbury makes it clear that this particular patient will never be resuscitated.

Besides, the "Strawberry Line" that runs from the main line at Yatton south-west through crumpled countryside towards Cheddar has been reborn as a 21st-century amenity. It is now one of Britain's most rewarding railway paths: walkers and cyclists can gently traverse some of Somerset's loveliest countryside through a delicious sequence of embankments and cuttings – plus a damp tunnel where you may imagine you hear the echo of a distant locomotive. Or perhaps it's just a truck on the nearby A38.

I pedalled the path this autumn while making a television programme about Dr Richard Beeching's vision of a new Britain, in which the railway network would be all the healthier for the elimination of "those parts of the system which are obviously unsound". Survival of the fittest might work as a strategy for nature – but for a man-made network on a small, densely populated island, the wholesale amputation of lines has proved a disaster for the nation's infrastructure. And nowhere illustrates that better than Somerset.

It's great, and it's western: Somerset, despite having bits lopped off in various boundary reconfigurations, remains one of England's most diverse and beautiful counties. Only one problem: how do you get around?

One fine Monday morning in September, I set off on a journey from the north coast of Somerset to the far west of the county – not for a nostalgic celebration of steam, but to see how tricky it is to get around without getting stressed or trashing the planet. The trip I made, from Portishead to Minehead via the pretty town of Cheddar and the hauntingly beautiful Somerset Levels, would have been a piece of cake until 1964. For a start, regular trains trundled from Portishead to Bristol Temple Meads in just over half an hour. Not any more.

I joined a commuter, Lisa Metcalfe, in Portishead, this coastal community with ambitions to be north Somerset's answer to the South of France. It boasts a marina with shops, restaurants and a certain sense of glamour. But the railway station was erased some years before Lisa was born, so she makes the 12-mile journey to her job with the Soil Association in Bristol by car. Very slowly. "It makes me want to cry," Lisa said, after we had spent just half an hour together.

As it turned out, the cause of her upset wasn't so much my company as the appalling traffic: in 30 minutes, we had moved less than a mile from her home. The 12-mile journey to the centre of Bristol took just over two hours. "I'm going to have to stay in town with a friend a few nights a week, so I can get to work on time."

I removed my folding bike from the boot of her car and set off for the most magnificent junction in Brunel's kingdom of the train, and the hub of the region's rail network: Temple Meads station. The trouble is, most of the spokes are now missing.

One that still exists is the main line south-west to Taunton, Exeter and Penzance. Dr Beeching concurred that the nation needed fast intercity trains – though it took an aviation magnate, Sir Richard Branson, to convince government of the need to provide regular "clockface" trains on the cross-country network. As you whizz through Yatton at 100mph, look east and you can make out the faint shadow of a branch line disappearing off to the left. This is the start of the Strawberry Line, which once transported children to school and soft fruit to the north of England, with equally gentle treatment for both. Were you to follow the path, you would stumble upon Somerset's own Machu Picchu, Congresbury station – which untidily sums up the damage wrought by successive governments to our once-glorious 19th-century infrastructure.

For some inglorious 20th-century infrastructure, stay on the express to Taunton, a once-noble junction now cloaked in shabby renovation. I arrived on an Inter-City train to discover that I had missed the last train to Minehead. By 37 years. The 26 miles between Taunton and Minehead comprised one of the last lines to be closed, with the final departure from Taunton leaving in January 1971. Yet, as with many stretches of line, the British passion for railways meant it was soon reopened as a "heritage railway". The West Somerset Railway is now one of the most successful in the UK. The same seductive mix of steel, steam and scenery that led to it being chosen for the Beatles' 1964 film, A Hard Day's Night, now attracts an average of 1,400 people a day in summer. Yet it reaches tantalisingly close to the national rail network, with a gap of just four miles between Taunton and the station at Bishop's Lydeard, now the terminus for a line to nowhere – sorry, to Minehead.

The holiday resort has been in the same realm of inaccessibility as Mali and Mongolia due to the surgical removal of the line by the Beeching Axe. If it were reconnected, the sinking fortunes of the seaside could be revived. As it is, you need a car – or a bike – to cover the ground.

It took me 20 uncomfortable minutes to cycle from Taunton to Bishop's Lydeard along the A39, passing a sign that warned "161 casualties in 5 years". Dr Beeching was never asked to take into account the cost of lives lost or shattered in road accidents, nor the damage wrought on communities. After huffing and puffing through tranquil countryside, and then grazing the Somerset coast, the train finally wheezed its way into Minehead.

As I surveyed this handsome resort, I sipped a cup of tea and wondered what they must have put in the politicians' tea, to bring about the collective transportational madness that descended on Britain in the 1960s. "I know," someone must have said at about the time that London's magnificent Euston station was being demolished, "let's build a supersonic airliner that will cause immense harm to the environment while transporting a very few very rich people across the Atlantic in half the time of a conventional plane. And, while we're at it, let's emasculate the rail network on which millions of ordinary folk depend."

Besides the ill-conceived Concorde, Britain has given the world much to be proud of: Shakespeare, football, folding bikes. But the greatest gift of all is the railway. Somehow, though, in the 1960s we let the wheels fall off: nobody blew the whistle on the all-stations departure to oblivion.

'Beeching's Tracks with Simon Calder' is on BBC4 at 8.30pm on Thursday 27 November

From Beeching to 'bustitution' to bikes

Poetry, but no motion: "Abbey Town, Acrow Halt, Acton Central, Addingham, Adlestrop..." The first five stations to be listed alphabetically on page 109 of the Beeching Report, under the heading "Passenger Stations and Halts to be Closed", have a wonderful rhythm that rattles through 13 pages, finishing "Yeovil Town, Yetminster, Yorton". If yorton – sorry, your town – has no station, it's probably due to "The Reshaping of British Railways", published 35 years ago.

Plus ça change: the economy was in a right old mess, and the railways – which had fewer passengers than they do now, were, in financial terms, a severe drain on the Treasury. The Conservative transport minister, Ernest Marples, brought in the technical director of ICI, Dr Richard Beeching, to transform Britain's railways.

He certainly did. "The changes proposed are intended to shape the railways to meet present-day requirements by enabling them to provide as much of the total transport of the country as they can provide well".

Marples, who had close links with a road-construction business, gave Beeching the narrowest of terms in which to consider the railways. He was to look only at the financial performance of each line, with no regard to wider social benefits, or the costs to society of closure. "Bustitution" was the sop offered to communities suddenly cut adrift; but replacement bus services were slow and unreliable, and rarely lasted.

Those with cars were expected to drive to the nearest station to get the train. In practice, though, once people get behind the wheel, they tend to complete the journey by car.

The dismantling of the network reached a peak in 1964, when more than 1,000 miles of track were closed. Labour came to power in October, and promised to roll back the programme of cuts; instead, it continued, and more miles of track were closed under Labour than by the previous Tory administration.

Some lines that were clear candidates for closure survived: the Mid-Wales line and the West Highland line were preserved thanks to political pressure. A few have been reinstated, and more reopenings are on the drawing board, such as the Galashiels-Edinburgh line.

Ironically, the enthusiasm for removing "duplicate" lines created the conditions for the National Cycle Network to take root. One of the links between Bristol and Bath was resurrected by the Sustrans charity as the prototype for safe cycle paths across the country.

Suggested Topics
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
PROMOTED VIDEO
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit