Memories of the Strawberry Line by David Weeks and Melvin Hatch

Image of Melvyn courtesy of Georgina

When Georgina Hatch posted on one of the Clevedon social media websites that she had this document, “Memories of the Strawberry Line” in her possession, I was intrigued and made contact.

These memories date back to roughly 1975 covering a time span of ten years and were written by David Weeks and Melvin Hatch. David lived with his mother next door to Melvyn and they used to talk to each other “over the wall”. David knew that Melvyn worked for the railway so the conversation always included trains.

Melvyn described David as a loner who enjoyed travelling on several branch lines over a period of five years and loved discussing his journeys with Melvyn.

During this time Melvyn said jokingly, “you should write a book” to which he replied “you’ll have to help me with it then” and off they started.

Melvyn explained that it gave David something to do, and as he travelled to work as railway relief staff on the “Strawberry Line” to both Cheddar and Wells, he was in a great position to be able to help him with some of the descriptions.

Image courtesy of the Strawberry Line Organisation

I hope you enjoy this wonderfully romantic, quite charming piece of descriptive writing, lovingly transcribed by Georgina, Melvin’s daughter. My only disappointment in putting this together, is that I could not get photos of the wonderful railway workers he describes. If family members or friends  of Edgar Skinner, Mr Pullin or Mr Gilbert are reading this, then please get in touch.

“This is my own personal account  of my journeyings on what was the Cheddar Valley Railway Line, between  Yatton and Wells. It was often  referred to  as “The Strawberry  Line”, as in its heyday the fruits were transported by rail from Cheddar and Lodge Hill Stations, down to Yatton  junction and thence on the main line to the markets in London and the Midlands.

The  line  from  Yatton  to Wells was opened on April 5th 1870 by the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company.

However by 1878, the Great Western Railway Co. had absorbed the Bristol & Exeter Railway Co, including the subsidiary lines such as The Cheddar Valley Line.

Image courtesy of the Strawberry Line Organisation

My talk starts as one alighted at Yatton from the Clevedon train, and crossing the line, by means of a footbridge, proceeded along the down platform of the “bay” siding where our train was standing. As one approached the locomotive, an aroma of bacon and eggs greeted one’s nostrils, and one observed the driver or firemen cooking their breakfast by means of the  fireman’s  shovel, resting at an angle against the open doors of the engine’s firebox. The train was usually made up of an engine of the class, suitable for passenger goods traffic, a couple of non-corridor type coaches, and on occasions a goods truck or cattle truck, as wherever the circumstances warranted it, attatched to the train. In the winter the coaches were lovely and warm, heated by steam pipes connected to the engine, and very cosy they were too.

Image courtesy of the Strawberry Line Organisation

Just before departure time the guard would walk the length of his train, ensuring all was well. He was a local man, a Mr. Edgar Skinner, always immaculately turned out whatever the weather, and a cheeky word for the regulars and all passengers in his charge. During the Christmas period he would add a sprig of holly in his peaked cap, some difference in this day and age where the railway uniforms are a cross between a soldier in the last war in the jerry forces, and a stifle of hat which looks as though its wearer, by pulling the flaps down at the sides, could adapt it for use in ”Outer Mongolia”. At last with a “mind the doors please” and  a blast  from  the  whistle, we were off.

As we left the “bay”, railway men’s jargon for siding, slowly passing over points, and a wave to the signal men manning the large Signal Box on the upside of the line, the line slowly swung to the left. As one looked out, one observed  the receeding  village of Yatton, and behind it the slow rising wooded stones of Cadbury Camp came into view. The land either side of line running in small fields, with ditches running most of their length, and clumps of willow trees, and cattle or sheep contentedly grazing.

Image courtesy of the Strawberry Line Organisation

Then our first station on the line came into view, as we crossed the river Yeo, and under the road bridge carrying the main road from Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare. Here we are at Congresbury Street, or as  the locals call it  “Coomsbury”.

Congressbury Station demolished in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Harry Mottram

It boasted two platforms for the up and down side of the line, and a neat sturdy waiting room and booking office, a neat attractive Victorian building with gabled roof, and along its platform small  rockeries with gaily blooming flowers, according to the seasons.

The line was worked on a Token System, whereby the driver had to hand a token to the porter and receive another, thus indicating that the next stretch of track was clear to the next station. With a right away from our Guard we slowly drew out of the station. Just across from the station itself was the Station Master’s small cottage with its neat plot of vegatables and lovingly tended flower garden with the whole area surrounded by a neat, white painted picket fence.

On the left hand side, one observed the branch line which in its heyday  went to  Blagdon, and in latter  years only ran as far as the village of Wrington and until its closure it carried coal, and general merchandise, after passenger traffic was withdrawn some years earlier.  Then into a high cutting, a delight in the  early  spring  with  clumps  of  primroses and cowslips  interspersed along its entirety. Then into open country side  with  sloping  fields  and farms, until at last, we reached our next station “Sandford & Banwell.” As one looked out of the window, and observed the comings and goings, the local porter exchanging pleasantries with all alighting and boarding, or asking the guard to give the local Gazette to Harry, or ask him if he had any cabbage plants to spare to put them on the 10.30 from Wells.  It was typical of the line, everyone knew everyone the length of the run, and all the staff  were very courteous and a had a word for all and sundry.

“The Grade II listed building of Sandford Station on the Strawberry Line is still largely intact. It houses a Heritage Centre and with the addition of rolling stock looks much as it actually did in the 1950s although the track only runs for a few yards.” Image courtesy of Harry Mottram

The whistle blew, and off  we  went on our merry way passing a siding which ran up from the main line to the local quarry at  Sandford,  who had their own small engine which bought the laden trucks down to the main line. The engine painted blue and red with gleaming  brass work.

The  local  signalman at Sandford,  was a Mr Gilbert, who grew lovely sweet peas, and in later years was Station Master at  Nailsea and Backwell.  So, on into another long cutting then emerging the line on a high embankment, the houses of the small market town of Winscombe.  The porter here was a real cheery man, and was greeted by all leaning out of the carriage windows, seeing who was getting on, and off.  Behind the  station, Winscombe  nestled in a hollow  semi – circle,  with its neat lines of houses, and small bustling shops. Then off once again, as one left the station the line curving slightly passing small market gardens, and local growers busy at work amongst their crops, stopping to look up to give us a wave, and a wave by the passengers from carriage windows, and a toot from the driver, as we went on our merry way.

Image courtesy of Harry Mottram

From the rising slopes of The Mendips, one observed the imposing building of The Sidcot Hotel, and below the main Bristol Bridgewater highway. Then into a very high  cutting and into a long tunnel, as one emerged to the left the slopes of Shute Shelf, and on the right the very long rolling moors stretching down to Bridgewater and Sedgemoor, where the last battle on English soil was fought, between the Duke of Monmouth and the army of King James. Then over the road bridge and into a rocky cutting, and Shute Shelf Hospital nestling just below us, and the engine driver giving a cheery blast on the whistle, and a wave to any patients one could see in the wards in the hospital buildings as we steamed by. So, with a steady application of brakes we arrived at the next of our stations, Axebridge.

Image courtesy of Blue Pelican Railway
Image courtesy of Harry Mottram at the pageant in 1979.

On one side the ground rising steeply, and to the other the picturesque town of Axebridge, full of lovely old buildings and a delightful market square, and half-timbered buildings such as The Courthouse.

With a whistle, once again we left the station, then one caught sight of the Strawberry Fields, the rows laid out like guardsmen on parade and in the season dozens of people engaged on harvesting the luscious fruits. At the end of the fields, small huts were observed where the baskets for picking were stored, or a handy shelter for the pickers if the elements took a turn for the worse. Then as one approached the road bridge which carried the main road into Cheddar, on the side of the permanent way, a large notice inscribed thus “Whistle one Crow” was to be seen. One wonders what the  significance  of it  meant, did it signify that the train was a certain distance away from the next station, I do not  know even to this day, the origin of that notice. Passing under the bridge and emerging the other side, the large reservoir was to be seen, and during the angling season, anglers were to be observed fishing away around its perimeter. To the other side of our train the vast towering cliffs, and Cheddar Gorge were to be observed. The town itself nestling around its slopes. Then the line curved left and with the gentle application of brakes Cheddar station came into view.  The  station  was  totally enclosed by a high wooden roof, which gave it a somewhat gloomy atmosphere, although it was reputed to be one of the finest examples of Victorian Railway Station architecture in the country. There was more hustle and bustle here, porters pulling their trolleys up to the guards compartment to load mail, and unload general merchandise.  On occasions, one saw the Station Master giving packets of documents to the Guard, then  walking  along  the  trains  length stopping to consult his G.W.R timepiece and looking up at the station clock.

Then with the slam of carriage doors the guard waving his flag, a toot from the engine, we slowly emerged once more into the daylight of the outside world.

The line once again running on a fair sized embankment, and one saw the churchyard and small cottages as we increased our speed. On one side the rolling countryside interspersed with small wooded mounds the well tended fields used for the cultivation of strawberries, and market garden produce, on gently rising ground behind the main Wells road.  Then  the train  slowing  as  we approached Draycott Station. This boasted level crossing gates and as you drew into the platform, on one end  a  small railway  man’s cottage, and carefully tended flower garden with clumps of holly hocks reaching to the sky.

Behind the station itself,  a  small  hostelry  “The Railway Hotel” where one might slake one’s thirst before going up and down the line.  And one suspects that the  porter come crossing  keeper, managed a quick jar in between trains and his duties. The station only had one platform and on the other  side, the vegetable plot carried surplus crops of cabbages and cauliflowers and other produce, perhaps the odd lumps of coal had a beneficial effect on the ground , as everything was of prime quality

.

Image courtesy of Blue Pelican Railway

Once again we set off, passing herds of Shorthorn and Friesian cattle grazing away, some stopping to raise their heads  at  the strange  puffing  object,  as  we  bowled merrily along, small brooks running under culverts on the line, with clumps of primroses providing a splash of colour, and small spinneys with areas carpeted with bluebells, and the fields with clusters of cowslips. Then, as we moved into a long embankment a glimpse of Rodney Stoke church and a fine avenue of trees, on under yet another road bridge, then once again the line rising high on an embankment , and in the distance the outline of the village of Westbury – sub – Mendip and its station Lodge Hill.

The station derived its name from a high hill which overlooked the line and station concourse at its summit a large wooded expanse, which was always carpeted with white violets and wild  anemones, bluebells and primroses.

The Station Master used to be a Mr. Pullin, an imposing looking gentleman, who lived in the Station Masters Cottage at the rear of the station. In the winter months a good fire burning in the General Waiting Room and on occasions I  was invited to his  inner sanctum whilst waiting for the train. Around the station there was an extensive orchard, where I used to go “scrumping”  whilst  waiting for the school train into Wells. Apples rarely seen now, huge golden “yellow” Morgan Sweets and “Tom Putts” and one would board the train satchel bulging with apples.

I spent the War years at Westbury-sub-Mendip, having been evacuated from Clevedon, by my parents. But our journey is not quite over yet. So off we set, the line rising, as one leaves the station, the laboured puffing as our train chugs up a slight gradient, past farms and fields ploughed and sheep grazing away and herds of dairy cattle browsing their way in the lush pastures. Then the line goes under the road bridge once more, and into the steep  rock cutting  at the small village of Easton.

Image courtesy of Blue Pelican Railway

The roar of the train vibrates off the rocky sides, through cuttings and finally emerging into open countryside and nearing our last station before Wells, at  “Wookey Hole”. As one approaches the station to the left  a  large paper mill with sidings running from the main line, and trucks full of wood pulp, used in the making of paper. “At last “Wookey  Station” a smaller less imposing structure with a small wooden building serving as a waiting room and ticket office. Behind it an extensive timber mill, and surrounded by a fringe of trees. Then leaving the station behind through a high long embankment once again, more fields and the gently rising fields reaching up to the wooded slopes, we start to enter a valley, and the outlying fringes of the city of Wells, are to be observed.

Now the train is almost neared its destination, and the line enters a long high towering slope, covered with small  trees and gorse bushes, and on its top fringes large Victorian houses cluster along its edges. At last we are slowing down, on one’s left a large imposing goods shed, then under our last road bridge carrying the Wells to Glastonbury main road, we drew into the platforms of Wells Tucker St. Station, our journey completed, one alights  to  the  cries  of  “Wells all change”. The engine standing at the  head  of  the  train  station  gently  hissing, its crew enjoying a well earned rest. Having given our ticket to the porter one emerges through the confines of the station building, and begins the long walk along the streets approach road up into the Cathedral City of Wells.

Image courtesy of Roy Richard Llowarch

Passing a neat row of railway mens’ cottages, in the centre of the town is a large square where until the bus station was built at the lower end of the city, all the buses used as their terminus. On one side of the square stands the Old Assize Court, and the dominating centre piece is the magnificent structure of Wells Cathedral itself, next to it The Bishop’s Palace surrounded by a moat and tree lined walks. As you approach the main doorway of the Cathedral high on the stonework are carved gargoyles, and figures sculptured into its weather beaten sides, some carved out of stone, and some of lead. It is said that during the Monmouth Rebellion, the Duke’s followers pulled a vast amount of lead figures down within their  reach, to melt down and make bullets for their muskets, and that even a troop of horses were quartered in the confines of the Cathedral itself.

Image courtesy of the Strawberry Line Organisation

However, my tale is almost coming to its conclusion, with the increase in road transport, the strawberry growers used to more and more send their famous produce by road, and as the years went by the decline of the Cheddar Valley or Strawberry Line, as its affectionately known, became evident. So, on September 9th 1963, the last train passenger service  wise  left  Yatton for Wells. A mock coffin was carried aboard and accompanied by mourners appropriately dressed for the occasion. At each station, the whole community turned out, the engine blowing its whistle like mad, and detonators going off on the line. One wonders what thoughts must  have  passed  through the various porters at each station as they locked up for the last  time, the mixed emotions as people went back to their homes.

A way of life no more, a moment for nostalgia, as not only the passing of their own railway, but of a way of life they had enjoyed for many a good year. However, freight was carried on the line until 31st of March 1969, when the end had come at last. What I have written down is the line as I saw it, and my own personal observations.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge  my thanks to the Booklet “ Railways in the Wells Area”; by Mr Richard Hayes who was the last Station Master at Wells from 1957-1964, and the interesting facts, and some of the information which I have imparted into my own account of  “The Strawberry Line”.

Huge thanks to Melvyn and Georgina for helping bring this story to light. Loved reading it and researching for the images.

                                                      

 

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