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West Somerset Mineral Railway

Standard gauge mineral railway providing iron ore for the Ebbw Vale smelters and notable for its double track inclined plane.

Red Wheel Site:
Transport Mode(s):

Watchet Market House Museum, Market Street, Watchet, Somerset TA23

TA23 0AB
Visitor Centre:

About West Somerset Mineral Railway

The West Somerset Mineral Railway, constructed under an Act of 1855, was one of the more unusual of Britain's minor railways. The line was opened in stages from Watchet on the Somerset coast to Comberow, a hamlet some six miles to the south at the foot of the Brendon Hills. In order to reach the ironstone mines at the top of the hill, to serve which the line had been principally envisaged, an incline was constructed. This was 1008 m. (1100 yds) long on a gradient of 1 in 4, lifting the railway 243 m. (800ft) to the top of the hill.

Although not completed until 1861, the haste to despatch iron ore along the railway was such that the incline was opened to traffic in May 1858. Ore was sent to the Ebbw Vale Ironworks in South Wales, the Ebbw Vale Company being closely associated with the railway.

From the top of the incline, the railway was extended westwards in 1864 to serve other ironstone mines. But recessions in the demand for ore, due to imports of cheaper foreign ore and a general fall in production of the industry, caused a reduction in the activity on the railway after 1883. In 1898 the railway was closed, most of the locomotives and rolling stock going to Ebbw Vale. There was a brief reopening of the mines by a syndicate between 1907 and 1910, using the lower section of the railway, the incline and a yard close to the head of the incline. The westward extension was not resuscitated but remained derelict.

The Angus system of automatic train control was demonstrated on the line near Watchet in December 1911. The Ministry of Munitions commandeered the line between 1917 and 1919. After an Act of Parliament abandoned the line, the land and property was auctioned in 1924 and the company was wound up in 1925. 

Elements of the line are still visible, although some of it is private property. It runs parallel to the West Somerset Railway from Watchet to Washford, then curves south west, partly in the form of a road, past Cleeve Abbey and Roadwater village to Combe Row. The yard that was at the foot of the incline can be identified at Comberow, to the west of the bridge that carried the incline.

The OS map shows a public footpath crossing the incline about two-thirds of the way up and the remains of the summit winding house are reasonably accessible with care, immediately west of the junction of B3190 and B3224 where the chapel built for the miners and their families still stands.

Exmoor National Park Authority is leading a consortium of local and national partners - including West Somerset District Council, the Forestry Commission, Somerset County Council, Watchet Town Council and English Heritage - to to conserve this remarkable legacy of Victorian industry, both within Exmoor National Park and along the West Somerset Coast.

By road: Off A396, via B3224, Withiel Hill.

There are a number of remnants still standing, some in private ownership. The track is a marked footpath leading out of Watchet.

1. West Quay, Watchet:station building and goods shed.

2. Near Leighland Chapel a stone arched bridge over a road.

3. At the foot of Brendon Hill incline another stone bridge over a road. The incline itself is visible.

4. At top of incline the winding house and Brendon Hill station, now a private house.

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Biddle, Gordon & Nock, O.S.,
The Railway Heritage of Britain : 150 years of railway architecture and engineering, Studio Editions, ISBN-10: 1851705953 (1990)

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Madge, RobinSomerset Railways, Dovecote Press, ISBN-10: 094615922X (1984) (1984)

Sellick, Roger, The Old Mineral Line: An Illustrated Survey of The West Somerset Mineral Railway from Watchet to The Brendon Hills As It Was And Is Today, Exmoor Press, ISBN-10: 090013139X (2000)

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Sellick, Roger, The West Somerset Mineral Railway and the Story of the Brendon Hills Iron Mines, David & Charles, ASIN: B001ANMUHW (1962)

Thomas, D. St. J., A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, West Country, ISBN 0 7153 6363 8 (1973)

National Transport Trust, Old Bank House, 26 Station Approach, Hinchley Wood, Esher, Surrey KT10 0SR