Double-headed MENDIP magnificence!

The pairing of the sole surviving Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway locomotives, 7F 2-8-0s No. 53808 and 53809, now both liveried in BR black, was the highlight of the West Somerset Railway’s immensely-successful spring gala, which marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the legendary line across the Mendip Hills. However, it might not be the last time that we see the pair working together in the country, as Robin Jones and Brian Sharpe report.

A Steam Recreations photo charter was operated using the two BR Black 7F 2-8-0s Nos. 53808 & 53809, both freshly outshopped after 10-year overhauls. The two locomotives are seen pounding past Sampford Brett, near Williton, in lovely light on March 4. DON BISHOP

A total of 6627 passengers travelled on the West Somerset Railway during the line’s landmark spring gala to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway system.

As we closed for press, the railway was holding talks with the owning group of guest S&D 7F 2-8-0 No. 53809 for it to remain at the railway for at least the next few months.

Bulleid Battle of Britain Pacific No. 34053 Sir Keith Park ran as No. 34098 Templecombe for the second weekend of the gala following sponsorship by the Friends of Templecombe Station supporters’ group. Here it is seen standing on Minehead shed after renaming and awaiting its official temporary ‘renaming’ the following day on March 8.

Its contract for the visit expired at the end of March. Long based at the Midland Railway – Butterley, it will continue to run alongside sister No. 53808 as part of the home fleet.

7F 2-8-0 No. 53808 climbs past Castle Hill, south of Williton. SIMON WEBB

The pair are the only two S&D locomotives to survive, and for the first time since the legendary trans-Mendip line closed on March 6, 1966, the two S&D engines were based in Somerset.

The classic S&D combination of 4F 0-6-0 No. 44422 and 7F 2-8-0 No. 53809 pass Kentford on March 11. EDWARD DYER

The March 5-6 and 10-13 gala featured eight locomotives of classes associated with the S&D. As well as both 7Fs, the event featured LMS 4F 0-6-0 No. 44422, Stanier 8F 2-8-0 No. 48624 (a late substitution following successive problems with the availability of ‘Black Fives’ Nos. 45379 and 44871), BR Standard 9F 2-10-0 No. 92214, Bulleid Battle of Britain Pacifics Nos. 34053 Sir Keith Park and 34070 Manston and Standard BR Standard 4MT 2-6-4T No. 80072. No. 80072 was renumbered as classmate No. 80043, which worked one of the final trains on the S&D.

BR Standard 4MT 2-6-4T No. 80072, in the guise of ex S&D No. 80043, powers past Whiskey Trail crossing with the 9.50am Bishops Lydeard to Minehead train. ANDREW SOUTHWELL

The most popular train of the gala was the doubleheader featuring both 7Fs on Saturday, March 12.

Operationally, the only problem was a visiting engineers train on March 10, which prevented the triangle at Norton Fitzwarren being used for one turning manoeuvre on March 10.

Elsewhere, the 50th anniversary of the closure was remembered at other heritage locations on or connected to the S&D. On the Avon Valley Railway, a plaque unveiling ceremony performed by former Flying Scotsman owner Sir William McAlpine and Lord Richard Faulkner, president of the Heritage Railway Association, at Avon Riverside. It was also attended by Dame Janet Trotter, Lord Lieutenant for Gloucestershire and Coun Alan Hale, vice chairman of Bath and North East Somerset Council. AVR

As 7F No. 53809 had worked tender first from Minehead on the affected train as a late substitute for No. 80072, this wasn’t a problem, and apart from this, all locomotives were turned to run chimney first from each end of the line throughout.

Deputising for 7F No. 53809, LMS 4F 0-6-0 No. 44422 departs from Minehead with a goods train on March 10. Visiting 4MT 2-6-4T No. 80072 had failed and 7F No. 53809 had substituted on an earlier train so the 4F took over the goods instead of piloting Manston as planned. BRIAN SHARPE

For March 10-13, the Friends of Templecombe Station sponsored a change of identity of No. 34053 to long-scrapped classmate No. 34098 Templecombe. Stations along the line were all renamed as well-known S&D stations for the duration of the event.

SDJR 7F 2-8-0 No. 53809 pilots SR Bulleid Battle of Britain Pacific No. 34070 Manston away from Washford. ANDREW SOUTHWELL

Also in action were Peckett 0-4-0ST Kilmersdon, which worked shuttles in and out of Minehead station and which gave passengers the first chance to travel in S&D first class coach No. 4 for the first time since 1930 after many years of restoration work by the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust at Washford.

Fowler heaven: A major feature of the S&D-themed gala at the West Somerset railway was the unprecedented return to action of no less than three Fowler-designed locomotives, all having had major overhauls finished just days before the event. All three gathered at the end of the Saturday of the gala at Minehead, a unusual paradise for Midland railway lovers! 4F No. 44422 is now a permanent resident on the line for the next 20 years, 7F No. 53808 is now finished in BR late crest BR black and visiting 7F No. 53809 is expected to stay for the rest of this season. DUNCAN LANGTREE

Making its gala debut was another 0-4-0ST, Barclay No. 1219, which has been restored by apprentice Ryan Pope at West Somerset Restorations in Williton, and which shunted at Washford.

LMS 8F 2-8-0 No. 48624 pilots Bulleid Battle of Britain Pacific No. 34070 Manston on the first train of the day from Minehead on March 10. BRIAN SHARPE

A busy trade was reported at the stations and in the shops and catering outlets along the route of the WSR. Of those who travelled, 5328 journeyed over March 10-13, with March 5 and particularly March 6 being quieter.

WSR general manager Paul Conibeare said: “We knew from advanced bookings that we were going to be busy and that we had attracted visitors from all over Britain and further afield, but it was good to see that we were also welcoming family outings with many of those too young to have known the Somerset and Dorset.

Newly-overhauled resident 7F 2-8-0 No. 53808 passes Bicknoller with the 9.50am from Minehead on March 10. BRIAN SHARPE

“It is that younger market that we will have to continue to attract to make gala events financially viable into the future.”

Paul celebrated an anniversary of his own – 10 years in charge of the railway – by driving the 8F on March 13 the last day of the gala.

Recently-restored ex-Croydon gasworks Sentinel No. 7109 – a sister to the scrapped S&D pair Nos 47190 and 47191 once based at Radstock – in steam at Midsomer Norton on March 6, 50 years to the day of the last services. ROGER WORNER

He said: “It’s been a fantastic experience over the last 10 years. It’s been a terrific learning curve too, as those who run a major tourist attraction will know.

“I started during a Somerset & Dorset gala and have celebrated 10 years at a Somerset & Dorset gala.

The 50th anniversary of the closure of the Somerset & Dorset was remembered on the far side of the world. On March 6, the Steam Locomotive Society of Victoria, Australia, ran member Dave Smith’s S&D 7F No. 53807 with a temporary headboard marking the occasion. JOSHUA WHITNEY

“It is a team effort. I have very good support from our board, and without the support of 1000 volunteers and 50 full-time staff we couldn’t stage this event.”

Paul started on the railway in 1979 as a volunteer involved in restoration, then moved to work on the Bure Valley Railway in Norfolk before returning in 2003 as traction inspector.

He beat off opposition from 120 other applicants for the general manager’s job when it was advertised in 2006.

No. 53809 departs from Blue Anchor on March 10. BRIAN SHARPE

On February 26, a senior member of WSR staff escaped serious injury when he became trapped between Sir Keith Park and its tender while it was being unloaded from at Bishops Lydeard after arriving from the Severn Valley Railway by road.

He was taken to hospital but was found to have suffered only minor injuries and was eventually allowed home.

Green-liveried BR Standard 9F 2-10-0 No. 92214 departs from Minehead on March 10. Although the green-liveried No. 92220 Evening Star hauled the last ‘Pines Express’ over the S&D, the National Railway Museum declined the request for No. 92214 to carry Evening Star’s identity for this event. BRIAN SHARPE

The incident was reported to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and the Office of Rail and Road, which is now carrying out an investigation.

The unnamed staff member sufficiently recovered to watch the gala action from the platform at Bishops Lydeard.

New book details last few days of Somerset & Dorset system

Swanage Railway volunteer Bob Bunyar has produced a new book detailing the last weeks, days and hours of the Somerset & Dorset main line between Bournemouth, Blandford, Templecombe, Evercreech and Bath to mark the 50th anniversary of the route’s closure.

Bob, 62, has carried out signing sessions of Somerset and Dorset Swansong – The Last Days of a Steam Railway outside the railway shop at Swanage station, at exhibitions at the Museum of Bath at Work and in Evercreech, at restored Midsomer Norton station and at the Gartell Light Railway, part of which runs on the S&D trackbed .

Bob recalled: “My last train ride on the Somerset and Dorset before it closed was on Saturday, March 5, 1966 from Bath to Bournemouth and return on a Great Western Society special hauled by Stanier 8F 2-8-0 No. 48706.

“My memories of this last train trip are of seeing large numbers of people out in fields and on station platforms watching the death-throws of the line with the last trains passing before closure and demolition,” he added.

A pupil at Oldfield boys’ school in Bath, Bob remembers lying in bed as a 13-year-old and listening to the sound of two BR Standard tanks hauling the last timetabled service train into the city’s Bath Green Park station just before 11pm on March 5.

He said: “Hearing the final ‘up’ passenger working arrive back into Bath is a poignant and very sad sound that I will always remember – it was the end of an era. Both locos ran from the Devonshire Tunnel down into the city with their whistles fully open and the sound rebounded around the hills of the city.

Bob Bunyar at Swanage with copies of his new Somerset & Dorset book. ANDREW PM WRIGHT

“I lived by the Somerset & Dorset line at Wellow as a small child and have fond memories of sitting on the station platform or playing in nearby fields watching the trains pass, which gave me my love for railways.”

With 67 photographs – many never published before – the new 97-page softback is published by Wild Swan, of Bath. Bob said: “To my knowledge, the final sad hours of the Somerset and Dorset have not been recorded in detail before. I have detailed all train workings and locomotive moves on Sunday, March 6 and Monday, March 7, 1966, which was the closure day.”

The most interesting piece of information that Bob unearthed for his new book was the use of one of the Somerset and Dorset’s old tunnels, Windsor Hill, in the late 1960s for testing a new jet engine to destruction.

Bob explained: “It was the testing of the Olympus engines in the Windsor Hill tunnel after the tracks were lifted. The engines were destined for Concorde – having been tested in the air on Vulcan bombers – and were tested to destruction in the tunnel by running them without lubricating and cooling oil.”

Bob concluded: “I have two very different lasting memories of the Somerset and Dorset. The first is watching the steam trains rumble through Wellow station on long hot summer days. The second is when I had a ride in the brake van of a demolition train from Radstock to Binegar in 1968 hauled by a diesel. Dereliction was everywhere and it was a very sad sight indeed.”

➜ Copies of Somerset and Dorset Swansong – The Last Days of a Steam Railway cost £14.95 and are available from the Swanage station shop or on-line at www.swanagerailway.co.uk

Read more News and Features in Issue 238 of HR – on sale now!
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