This month (March 2022), the original section of the West Somerset Railway, England’s longest heritage railway, is 160 years old. Between 1862 to 1874, the first section of the Minehead Branch Line ferried passengers and freight between the Somerset county town of Taunton to the seaside port of Watchet.
The West Somerset Railway, originally part of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, engaged Isambard Kingdom Brunel to define the route, with Watchet as the endpoint. It was decided that the line would branch off at Taunton, passing through the foothills of the Quantocks, near the quarries at Crowcombe and Triscombe, the village of Stogumber and onto the Bristol Channel and Watchet via Williton.
On 27th March 1862, the first train left Taunton for Watchet. This train was a Director’s Special, and it was not until a few days later, on 31st March 1862, that passengers were able to use this line for the first time. Though today the West Somerset Railway does not run from Taunton (though mainline charters, ballast trains and the occasional shuttles do), the section from Bishops Lydeard to Watchet can still be enjoyed after 160 years. The line begins its season at the end of March, with a number of railway galas and special events lined up for the rest of 2022.
Besides the switch to Standard Gauge, little has changed in terms of scenery in this part of Somerset, and the biggest difference is at Watchet itself, where a new development exists at East Quay. The town maintains its historic harbour, and the railway line continues on to Minehead after its extension to the seaside town in 1874.