9th November 1858. The East Somerset.
Today in 1858 the East Somerset Railway was opened from Witham, on the Bristol to Weymouth Line, to Shepton Mallet and in 1862 to Wells (Tucker Street) (see map below). Shepton 129 miles from London could now be reached in 4 hours!
Built in ‘Broad Gauge’ and planned by Brunel, the East Somerset was not profitable and by 1874 the Great Western Railway (GWR intended to convert the line from Witham to Weymouth to ‘Standard Gauge’.
However the East Somerset couldn’t raise the cash to convert and sold out to the GWR, with the line changing to Standard Gauge between 18-22 June 1874.
Four Years’ later the GWR joined the East Somerset to the Cheddar Valley Line extending to Yatton on the main line.
Centres of population in Somerset as elsewhere throughout the country, were keen to be served by the new railway routes, aiding the two-way distribution of produce.
In Somerset it opened up markets for Yeovil gloves, sheepskin-dressing, boots and shoes at Glastonbury, paper-making at Watchet, Wookey and Wells and cloth-making.
The extended line in its heyday boosted tourism especially as Bank Holidays were first introduced in 1871. People now flocked to places such as Cheddar Caves, Wookey Holes and the nearby seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare.
Locally produced Cheddar Cheese, milk and strawberries and other perishables found new markets helped by the Railways and Canal Traffic Act 1854 which obliged rail companies to be ‘common carriers’ of all things, animal, vegetable and mineral.
The East Somerset helped by two World Wars continued until the Beeching Axe which saw the line closed to passengers on 9th September 1963, and to goods traffic a year later.
The Line between Cranmore to Mendip Vale was saved by the artist David Shepherd and others in 1972 as a Heritage Railway thus joining many others in preserving the age of steam for posterity.