1983-May-pg52-53_Durston to Yeovil Railway

1983-May-pg52-53_Durston to Yeovil Railway

This article came from the Chronicle published May 1983. Pages 52-53



Author: David Greenfield (SIAS Field Officer) Website: http://www.sias.me.uk/


Somerset County Council’s proposal to re-use the route of the old Durston to Yeovil railway, between Cartgate on the A303 and Alvington, as a road to by-pass Montacute, has engendered a research into the history of the rival transport systems in this area.

The opening ceremony for the new road could never match the scale of feasting and speechifying which greeted the arrival of the first, lavishly garlanded train along this line into Hendford on a stormy October day in 1853. At the celebratory banquet, C.A.Moody, M.P., declared that ‘This district has laboured under great disadvantages from a want of that speedy and cheap communication which is given to others; and certainly such is the area of this part of the county that it ought not to be left without a railway.’

The spread of rqilways brought improvements and benefits to most, but it is perhaps ironic that it sounded the death knell of the transport system which had carried Britain into the industrial age – the turnpike roads; ironic in that road has now superseded rail to a great extent. Since the first turnpike authority was set up in 1663, travellers along the main roads from towns such as Yeovil, Ilchester,and Ilminster, paid tolls to the local turnpike trust and these helped to finance the repair of the roads in those areas. Conceived during the period leading up to the ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s, that mirrored a ‘Turnpike Mania’ less than a century earlier, the Durston-Yeovil line was originally intended to have been a branch from the main line of the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company to Weymouth. In the event the B & E R Company decided on the more modest project of a line to Yeovil. The ‘Yeovil Branch’ received its Act in 1845.

The proposed line caused concern not only to the local turnpike trusts but also to Lady Georgiana Fane who objected early in 1845 that the railway would intersect her Brympton estate. The Company’s engineer, one I.K. Brunel, was able to assure her ladyship that they would ‘take such measures as she should suggest to make the line ornamental instead of a deformity’. Other problems developed as construction commenced. Wells at Brympton and Houndstone ran dry as a result of the nearby railway cutting. The town watchmen of Yeovil asked for, and were granted, an additional shilling (5p) in 1846 on account of the number of navigators or navvies in the town. Quarries which had been opened to supply stone for the roads now became suppliers of railway ballast, and many landowners were able to offer suitable stone to the contractors. The bill for the extra wear and tear on the roads, however, had to be footed by the turnpike trusts.

Heavy financial commitments in their other schemes caused the B & E R Company to cease work on the line in 1849. By that time broad gauge lines had been laid as far south-east as Martock. Three years were to pass before ‘an easier money market’ enabled work to proceed again. Further complaints were made about the state of the roads, but nothing could now halt the ‘coming of the iron’ and the line was duly opened on 1 October 1853.

In the years that followed the pattern of road traffic movements altered, the roads now tending to act as feeders to the railways. With the heavy long-distance traffic being carried by the railways the turnpike trusts gradually closed down. The Yeovil and Ilchester Trusts were dissolved in 1874; the Ilminster Trust in 1879. Many relics of these three Trusts can still be found alongside their roads. Several tollhouses can still be identified.

In 1964 it was the turn of the railway line to close as road transport became more competitive again. Cartgate railway bridge was demolished during road improvements on the A303, and in the course of these works an impressive section of the original turnpike road was revealed beneath the approaches to the bridge. Lengths of old broad gauge rail have been converted to a new use, serving as fence posts along parts of the line. The fine bridges which carried the railway over and under roads and streams are, for the most part, to be converted in a sympathetic manner to their new role in the County Council’s scheme.

(We are grateful to Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society for permission to reproduce the above contribution which first appeared in that Society’s Bulletin No.30, September 1982, and to the author, David Greenfield. – Ed.)