The West Somerset Mineral Railway Project

Burrow Farm Engine House (© ENPA 2013)

(The ruins of the engine house and associated features at Burrow Farm; © ENPA 2013)

The Incline (© ENPA 2009)The West Somerset Mineral Railway, together with its iron mining sites, and the communities that lived and worked on it, has been described as one of the most important industrial landscapes in West Somerset. In 2004 the Exmoor Society, with the assistance of the National Park Archaeologist, Rob Wilson-North, set up a project for the conservation of the remains of this industrial landscape. After more than two years of preparation and with the help of a consortium of local and national partners led by Exmoor National Park Authority, the project received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a programme of conservation of the physical remains of the enterprise. Work on site began in 2008 and was completed late in 2010.

Conservation works included the repair and surface upgrading of part of the railway trackbed, an existing right of way between Watchet and Washford, and the provision of public access to the kilometre long 1:4 railway incline from Comberow to Brendon Hill, which had not been maintained for almost a century (see image above left). Fortunately the incline, one of the most significant twin-track standard gauge inclines in the country, had been bought by Exmoor National Park Authority in the 1990s and a great deal of work was needed to bring it into a suitable condition for public access.

The winding house, at the summit of the incline was conserved at the same time as two of the iron mine sites about three miles to the west. The building at Burrow Farm, which housed a winding and pumping engine for the mine had been conserved by the Authority in the 1990s, and had already been opened for 'permitted' public access.

Langham Hill engine house (© Aerial-Cam 2008)At Langham Hill, about two miles farther to the west, on Forestry Commission land, was the site of another mine engine house (image to left), which had been dismantled and the site entombed in mine waste at the insistence of the then landowner in the 1880s after the mines closed. The site had been excavated in the late 1990s, jointly by Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society and Exmoor Mines Research Group, to understand something of the purpose and layout of the building. As part of the project, those parts of the building that remained above ground were carefully cleaned and consolidated by a specialist contractor.

The same contractor also consolidated another structure, in Bearland Wood, about half a mile to the west. Here, also on Forestry Commission land, stood an isolated masonry chimney stack about six metres high, which had been recognised as a ventilation flue for a mine adit below. It is the only complete example known to exist in South Wales and South West England. A fire was kept burning inside the chimney and drew air through a timber duct from the working face of the adit below to admit fresh air into the mine. The chimney stack is a Scheduled Monument and, as part of the project has been made more accessible with an interpretation board provided nearby.

Mike Jones

Further Reading

West Somerset Mineral Railway website