The second meeting of the season took place at Wells Town Hall on the 14th October when we enjoyed a splendidly illustrated lecture by Dr Robin Thornes on ‘Mineral Railways on the Mendips‘. The story began with the opening of the branch line of the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway between Frome and Radstock in 1854. Soon afterwards a private mineral railway was built by the Westbury Iron Co. from this line to serve collieries near Coleford and a quarry at Vobster. Associated with the quarry was William Beauchamp who invented the stone crusher there and this led to him being regarded as ‘the father of the roadstone industry’. Later another line was built from the Frome – Radstock line through Vallis Vale to serve the quarry at Whatley.
Next to develop were quarries at Doulting and Waterlip in the 1860s and 1870s and these were linked to the East Somerset Railway by narrow gauge tramroads. Later extensions were to serve the andesite quarry at Moon Hill, near Stoke St Michael and finally in 1907 to a quarry at Downhead. The last-named, however, only had a short life, closing in 1925. Over the years Cranmore station became a significant transhipment point to the GWR and a large stone-crushing plant was built nearby. In the 1920s the narrow gauge tramroad from Waterlip to Cranmore was rebuilt as a standard gauge railway and this remained in use for many years. The early lines were originally worked with horses but small steam locomotives appeared from the 20s, whilst surprisingly electrically-powered wagons were tried at one time for shunting at Waterlip.
The opening of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway extension from Evercreech Junction to Bath in 1874 acted as a stimulus for the development of new quarries to the north of Shepton Mallet – at Winsor Hill, Ham Wood and Downside. Each of these had short connections to the main line. Although not a mineral line as such, Robin included the narrow gauge line from Binegar Station to serve the Oakhill Brewery. The brewery originally used traction engines to convey beer barrels to the station but this led to complaints from Shepton Mallet District Council regarding damage to road surfaces. The company then decided to build its light railway and this opened in 1904 but this was not to last beyond the early 1920s.
In 1919 Somerset County Council acquired the roadstone quarry at Underwood just outside Wells and this was connected to sidings on the Cheddar Valley line near Wookey Station by an aerial ropeway. Robin surprised us all by then showing a photograph he had discovered of this ropeway – something most of us believed had never been so recorded. Looking further west, the only quarry with direct connections to the Strawberry Line was that at Sandford, the railway system there surviving until 1964.
For a brief period the Waterlip Quarry was owned by a company called Mendip Mountain Quarries Ltd but this merged with the Teign Valley Granite Co Ltd in 1924 to form Roads Reconstruction Ltd. Ten years later this company led an amalgamation of several quarry companies in the Mendip area and this in due course was incorporated into the large ARC Ltd undertaking.
Although from the 1950s, rail operation in the surviving quarries gave way to the use of large dumper trucks and road transport, several important developments were to follow. In 1969 the major Foster Yeoman quarry at Merehead was linked to the East Somerset line and the operation of regular stone trains began. In 1974 the Vallis Vale line to Whatley Quarry was replaced by a brand new railway, involving the boring of two lengthy tunnels, also to enable long stone trains to gain access to the national railway network directly from the quarry. At the instigation of the Foster Yeoman company, powerful new American-built diesel locomotives were introduced and the weight of the aggregate trains leaving the Somerset quarries daily for various depots throughout the country was substantially increased. Subsequently the main line railway operations of Foster Yeoman and ARC were combined by creating a new company, Mendip Rail, and, on one occasion, an experimental test train was run with a staggering 11,000 tonnes of stone behind the locomotives – a record not likely ever to be broken. Robin concluded by commenting that the quarry industry in the eastern Mendips was still very busy with the supply of aggregates required for such major projects as Crossrail in London and the site for the new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point.
A vote of thanks was given to Robin for his excellent and exhaustive survey of a subject of great local interest, by Chris Challis.