In the mid 19th Century, trains from London Paddington took the ‘Great Way Round’ to Cornwall. The great Western Railway took passengers to Bristol, from where the Bristol and Exeter Railway travelled through Taunton to Exeter. Then it was the South Devon Railway to Plymouth, the Cornwall Railway to Truro, and the West Cornwall Railway to Penzance. By 1899, although the whole line was controlled by the GWR, the route had not changed. In that year the GWR decided to build new lines to cut down on journey times, and one of those lines came through Stoke St Gregory, making use of part of an existing branch line from Taunton to Yeovil. The connecting track was built from Castle Cary through Somerton and Langport. The picture below shows the adequeduct behind Langport Tescos before the railway crosses the River Parrett. Rex Champion, "Stoke's Biggest Builder", remembered being told that his grandfather and great uncle moved from Essex to work on the new railway, and his great uncle was killed working on the Langport viaduct.
The Yeovil branch line from Taunton had opened in 1853, and was the first railway to reach Yeovil, at what was then Hendford Station. It was originally a broad gauge single track through Langport and Martock. The "Athelney West" signal box (which stood adjacent to the present level crossing), pictured here, is now at Bishops Bridge on the South Devon Railway.
When the new main line route was opened through Athelney, the track was replaced with a double track standard gauge. The opportunity was also taken to raise the embankment across West Sedgemoor, where regular flooding had caused serious dispruption to services. This included times when engines had failed because flood water had entered the firebox, dousing the fire. The lines diverged again at Athelney Junction, with the new line following a new cut to Cogload Junction. The old branch line continued to Durston.
The station handled many goods from Stoke, including poor quality hay for the South Wales pit ponies. It was particularly important in delivering the huge quantities of locally grown willow destined for the large urban basket making workshops. In addition, special sidings were built to accommodate the wagons used to take the locally made willow chairs to the city market. In the 1950s, as car ownership increased, and willow and local basket production dwindled, traffic was greatly reduced.
The branch line to Yeovil fell victim to the Beeching Axe. Stoke's station at Athelney closed in June 1964, although main line trains from Paddington to Devon and Cornwall still cross the River Parrett here. The waiting room was dismantled and reassembled on the village playing fields, where it functioned as the sports pavilion until 2021.
Athelney Station Waiting Room on 13th June 1964, the last day of passenger services from Taunton to Yeovil.
Photo courtesy of Michael L. Roach ©
The station provided an important link between Stoke St Gregory and Taunton. Many people used it daily to work and on Saturdays special shoppers' trains enabled locals to visit the shops.
Update 16th January 2022 - The Railway revisited
The Back Story
The stations along the Yeovil branch of the Bristol & Exeter Railway had all been built in stone, often, as at Athelney, with mullioned windows. Although it was only a single track branch line, it kept up the traditions of the Great Western Railway. It would also be a busy line, as Yeovil was yet to get it's own station on the main line from London.
The poster on the wall of the station building shows the date as July 1906, which was the year the new mainline from Paddington opened. This building was not replaced by the new wooden structures until 1908. We wonder what happened to the building stone. Did it get taken away for other railway works, or was it used locally?
The signal box on the north side of the railway was built in 1881 and had a 14 lever frame. It was in use until the new main line was built in 1906. The crossing gates in the photo lead to the Athelney road and then to the bridge over the River Tone. The ‘S' plate on the side of the box indicated the state of the signalling (S) or telegraph (T) equipment. If all was well the plates were displayed with a white letter on a black ground. If there was a problem then they would be reversed to show a red letter on a white ground. The idea was that they could be seen by linesmen or inspectors travelling on passing trains.
Map of Athelney Station when first built
The Signal Box was the smaller of the two pink coloured buildings on the map
The new box (at First Athelney West then renamed Athelney) was built on the south side of the track in 1908. This had 37 levers to cope with the main and branch lines. There were now also two goods sidings and a 30 cwt capacity crane. The centre signal was for the main line, the right hand one was for the single line to Durston, and the left hand one was for a goods loop, which was used until 1979. The box closed in April 1986 and was bought by the South Devon Railway to become Bishops Bridge signal box.
Snowfight at the Level Crossing
The Athelney Inn in the Flood of 1929
The Railway Hotel (later The Pigeons), built near the Station
This map of 1939 shows the double track through the station, and the sidings and cattle pens to the south of the line. The sidings were used for the local willow furniture destined for the London market.
During the First World War they were used for the vast amount of withies that were sent to the city factories to make shell cases, panniers, aircraft seats and other military equipment.
Memories of the Last Days
Catherine Monaghan remembers “catching the train from Lyng Halt to Langport West & then walking to St Gilda’s convent school in Langport. I remember once losing my Beret out of the train window at Athelney & my dad walking along the track later to find it , which he did - it had a hole in it!”
Lyng Halt. This was a short halt and was opened on 24th September 1928. It was on the old Durston loop and closed on 15th June 1964. The Halt was at the eastern edge of the vilage of East Lyng.
Mary remembers: "The Signal Box was still there and functioning although the station wasn't, when we were kids. Depending who was working me and my cousin Sharon Fraser used to be allowed in on occasion (obviously not officially) to 'change the tracks' using the big old handles."
Sue Hembrow and Mary Nash both remember being allowed to operate the levers in the Signal Box. Sue: "Many a happy afternoon was spent with Reg Hembrow in the signal box. Learning how to change the points and operate the signals by levers. The sign on the door read. Strictly no admittance to anyone other than GWR employees. When a train went through we had to hide in case an Inspector was on board. Once it had passed, the lessons on signalling continued. Happy Times!"
Jean Pimm remembers: "I went to Huish Episcopi school, and on a Saturday played hockey for the school. I use to cycle from Windmill where I lived to Athelney and take my bike on the train to Langport, when the game was over I would cycle home to Stoke, yes happy memories."
The railway could also be a lifeline for the village, as Jean also remembers: "During the harsh winter of 1963, when the deep snow cut the village off, my brother Horace, my friend Diane David and I all worked in Taunton, somehow we managed to get to Athelney and caught the train to Taunton and stayed with an Aunt for almost 3 weeks, so we could go to work. Once the first bus managed to get through to Stoke we came home."
The last train that stopped at Athelney Station.
Photo courtesy of Michael L. Roach ©
Amongst others, John Musgrove, aged 10, was on the train. Sue Hembrow remembers being on the platform with her parents when the last train came through.