Portrait of a Parish - Page 30

Railways

 The late 19th century was a time of maniacal railway expansion. The GWR (Great Western Railway) link from Bathampton to Frome ran with stations at Midford and Limpley Stoke. The Midland Railway reached Bath at Green Park. The Somerset and Dorset decided to extend its line from Radstock to Bath via Midford. As the trains emerged from the Combe Down tunnel, thundering under the new viaduct, the noise and lights fascinated local small boys.

So far Monkton had escaped any direct incursion by the railways and the hectic days of the building of the Somersetshire Coal Canal were a distant memory, but Monkton was not to be left in peace. At the turn of the century the decision was taken to build what became known as the Camerton line, using the line of the abandoned coal canal.

Monkton Combe Parish Council was in favour of the development, as were many entrepreneurial bodies, hoping to get rich on the movement of coal from the already failing North Somerset Coalfield, whose coal was good but difficult and expensive to mine. In 1904 the project was approved and in 1907 work started at Limpley Stoke. For the next two years life must have been exciting for the people of Monkton, as steam shovels and labourers tore the ground apart to build this new line. It was one of the last and shortest lived projects of this type and its days were over by 1925, when it ceased to carry passengers and handled only a very limited amount of goods traffic.

For such a short line, just under eight miles in length, a considerable amount of civil engineering was involved. There were seven overbridges, thirteen underbridges and two large viaducts, one nestling underneath the mighty Midford Road viaduct. During the course of construction, in 1907, the GWR paid Monkton Combe School 1,246 for a strip of land across its playing field, no bad deal for a school who had paid only 1,000 for the whole of the playing fields only a couple of years previously. The line was finished in 1909 and opened for traffic in 1910.

Passenger traffic was carried by motor rail cars, the direct ancestors of the little Sprinters that now rush back and forward along the Avon valley. There were five passenger trains each way everyday, the fares were 1s 9d to Hallatrow and 1s 2d to Trowbridge from the bright new station at Monkton with its adjacent level crossing. On the opening day the passengers included the Reverend and Mrs. Pitcairn and Mr. Freeman of Freeman's Flock Mill. In 1911 a halt was added to the line at Midford, noted for the 1 in 6 slope to the platform. At this time the line carried plenty of coal but few passengers, the route was not really convenient for anything and to get to Bath involved at least one change of train.

The line was closed to passengers from March 1915 to July 1923 and passenger services ceased completely in September 1925. By that time Monkton was a one man station, that man being responsible for the level crossing, the signals and the gardens. The 'Station Master' was Mr. Stanley Plummer whose father George was Station Master at Limpley Stoke. Mrs. Plummer was kept busy running the village Post Office and Store. Traffic was limited to a few goods wagons to the mill, some coal traffic and the highlights of the year were end of term time, when a special train, with two or three covered wagons for trunks and cases, collected the boys from Monkton School.

For the villagers the bus service and later the private car, had replaced whatever need they may ever have felt for a train service. As the fortunes of the collieries dwindled, so did that of the railway and the line was finally closed in 1951.

The line was to have perhaps its only moment of glory in 1952 when it briefly came to life again as the location for the film Titfield Thunderbolt. An Ealing Films comedy, still regularly shown on Bank Holiday TV and providing a chance for locals to see the Cam valley as it was in the 1950's. This was not the line's first brush with the films though. In 1931 it was the site for the film the Ghost Train, Gainsborough studios, written by Arnold Ridley, actor and Bathonian, better known to this generation for his part in the Dad's Army television series. It was also used in 1937 as a location in an Edgar Wallace thriller called "Kate plus Ten".

The story of the Monkton Combe railway is one of triumph of greed over commonsense; when built, the pits on which its profits were to be made were already closing. There was nothing wrong with the coal but the seams were thin and the mines difficult to operate, and other ways already existed for the product to be got away from pits. There was obviously little passenger potential and even at the time of building, there were alternative, quicker and cheaper ways to town for most of the passengers. "Station Cottages" and "the Clank", as the road from the mill to the viaduct is locally called, remain to remind us of the old "Slow and Dirty" line. Nowadays also referred to as the "Swift and Delightful".

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