Our popular WHS Talks are held at the Balsam Centre, Balsam Park BA9 9HB (accessed from Memorial Hall Car Park), usually on the last Wednesday evening of the month.
Doors open 6.30pm with the talk starting at 7pm. Our 9 talks throughout the year range widely, covering local and national topics such as the Roman Villa at the Newt, life of a local vet in 20th century, restoration of Earl of Shaftesbury’s house, the Nuremburg Trials.
A brief round-up of previous talks are available if you click the “Previous Talks” button further down this page.
The programme is being constantly developed so do revisit this site, check out our Instagram or Facebook and look out for our eye-catching posters in various locations around the town advising forthcoming subjects.
Entry Charges (per person):
Members and under 18s: free
From time to time Special Talks are being booked. The venue for these is the Memorial Hall. Last year we heard from John Blashford-Snell, and enjoyed a live performance of Flamenco dancing. Charges for these talks differ from the standard Talks charge. Keep an eye on this site for details.
Special Talks (per person):
Members: free (donation welcomed)
Non-members: See listing for prices
Joe Rogers: West Somerset Railway
31 May 2023 @ 19:00 - 21:00
The origins of this now heritage line lie in purely commercial intentions. From Joe we learnt that, in the mid-1800s, coal from the vast South Wales coalfields took a hazardous sea-route around Cornwall en-route to its various destinations. A proposed railway line from Watchet, then a prosperous and busy harbour, to Bridport/West Bay in Dorset would largely trim that route to a crossing from South Wales to North Somerset and be quicker. Once the battle of where the route would cross the Bristol and Exeter line was won, by Taunton rather than Bridgwater, building began. However, progress stalled on the route south-east of Taunton and it never did reach West Bay.
There were several gauges in use in the early days of rail, the line now known as West Somerset being a broad-gauge line. It soon became apparent that this wide variety worked against the growing need for an integrated system and what became known as standard, or Stephenson’s, gauge was adopted nationwide. In 1882 the changeover of the line serving West Somerset to the new gauge was accomplished in a startlingly short space of time.
In an era when people were travelling farther afield and, gradually, the Annual Holiday, often beside the seaside, was becoming a normal event for more people, Minehead grew in importance and the line was extended to serve it. There was talk of further extension to Porlock: it never happened, although, apparently, there are those, even now, who are convinced it did, as it has been known for visitors to the line to ask when that section is re-opening. With 10 stations between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead (one or two being request stops where, as with buses, you stick your arm out for the train to stop), the West Somerset is one of the longest heritage lines at over 22 miles, covering some interesting topography. There are, we gathered, no restrictions to boarding or alighting from a train at one of these stations – providing you have a valid ticket, of course. Thus, there is a wealth of Somerset to explore around this line.
Jumping forward to post-WW2 Britain, the line fell under the Beeching axe, closing in 1971, having operated for over 100 years. Almost immediately keen, capable, resourceful people got together to take over the stretch that has become known as the West Somerset and it re-opened as a heritage line in 1976, despite a lot of the infrastructure being predated during those five years.
For those who think heritage lines are steam railways, we were put right on that. Diesel engines run on them as well, having been at the core of the system since the mid-1950s.
An enormous amount of work goes into the operation of these heritage enterprises. What members of the public sees on a trip is a mere fraction, although a very important one, as the paying public is a significant part of what keeps these lines going. In the background is regular routine maintenance of the tracks, the rolling stock and infrastructure, with an increasing number of boxes to be ticked. For all this work you need people – dedicated aficionados, whether a nucleus of employees or the army of volunteers who spend anything from a few hours to most of their free time working on some aspect of keeping the line going and servicing the visitors.
A recent grant of £850,000 to the line has gone entirely on maintenance, and the bar has been raised significantly in the decades since the heritage railway industry was born in the aftermath of the Beeching cuts. Other hoops to jump through have included proscription of UK coal. West Somerset now sources coal from Kazakhstan; it has to be shipped, split to useable size and is of a different quality to the coal dug out of Britain’s land. Periodically the locomotives have to go for an “MOT” with a lot of the heavy work being done in the Midlands. For this the locos are invariably moved by road, mad though this may seem to us lay-people, as they do not have the relevant certification to roll on the mainlines.
However, the West Somerset line has a secret. There is a little used stop at Norton Fitzwarren, between Bishops Lydeard and Taunton. The heritage trains don’t run this far, but it comes into play when a special from the mainline is run as far as Minehead. The line can also claim a royal connection as the Royal train lay overnight at Norton Fitzwarren before Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Kings School, Bruton in March 2019.
One of the challenges facing the heritage railway world nowadays is catching the interest of the young who did not grow up with steam railways and live in a world where cars and planes are first choice of travel for distance, rather than boats and trains. The days when travelling by train to a holiday destination, whether the English Riviera, Scotland, Blackpool or Skegness, was part of the holiday, are passed. Joe plays his part in an industry that can help to stimulate such interest. He now works in electronic gaming, in his case the development of games based around trains. He sees this as a logical part of widening the appeal of the product he is so obviously completely hooked on.
In the space of an hour or so, Joe covered an enormous amount of ground, illustrated with some well-preserved photographs of the early days of the West Somerset line set against scenes of the same locations some 100 years later, some repeated during the closure of the line and after its reopening.
From the statistics Joe presented it is apparent the phrase “use it or lose it” applies to this industry as much as any other. Closure has already overtaken at least one heritage line up-country in the wake of the Covid pandemic. A leisurely day out in beautiful West Somerset, particularly for a celebration, is surely no hardship and supports this integral part of our heritage, without which people living in the later 19th and 20th centuries would not have started travelling farther and farther afield.
The questions that followed Joe’s talk ranged widely from keenly interested audience members; indeed, it seemed Joe learned one or two things from those with local knowledge.