In 1992 the Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA) hosted a Symposium on “Mining on Exmoor” at Exmoor House, which led to the formation of the Exmoor Mines Research Group. The following year Mike Jones was approached by the Environment Department of Somerset County Council and asked to prepare a Research Design Report on the WSMR, and in 1995 ENPA commissioned Jones to carry out the Brendon Hills Industrial Survey. The findings of this survey, which included details of all the structures associated with the West Somerset Mineral Railway, were received by the Authority in 2001. It was completed in 2005.
In 1998 Exmoor National Park Authority purchased the Incline and carried out emergency conservation work on the Winding House at its summit. These activities were financially supported by English Heritage and the Rural Development Commission.
In 2002 a meeting of all interested authorities, agencies, groups and societies was convened at Dunster, at which unanimous support for a project to conserve and interpret the Railway was voiced. Following this meeting the Exmoor Society took over the lead role in advancing the project and formed a project planning group under the chairmanship of Michael Hawkins OBE.
Project planning and grant application
In January 2004 the Exmoor Society was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Project Planning Grant of £46,000 to prepare a Conservation Plan, Audience Development Plan and Access Plan for the Railway. This work was carried out by a consortium led by David Sekers Consulting and completed in October 2004.
In 2005 the West Somerset Mineral Railway Project Executive Committee under the leadership of the Exmoor National Park Authority was formed, with Evelyn Stacey as its chair. The aim was to submit a second application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to carry out the work identified in the consultants’ reports.
In October 2005 the application for the full grant was submitted by Rob Wilson-North, Historic Environment Manager of ENPA. Funding of £603,500 from Heritage Lottery Fund was secured and a further £18,700 in Development Funding. In addition, significant financial contributions were made by partner organisations as well as in-kind contributions pledged by local volunteers and individuals working on the project. The final grant was awarded in December 2007.
With HLF funding secured, work began on the implementation of the project in February 2008. There were three core elements to the project: the conservation of structures; the extension of physical access to key sites; and the interpretation of the West Somerset Mineral Railway to visitors and to those unable to visit West Somerset. Broadly speaking, the project tackled conservation first, followed by physical access improvements and finally interpretation.
Three sites were conserved: Bearland Ventilation Flue, Langham Engine House and the Incline. These structures presented a number of extraordinary challenges to the builders, Corbel Conservation Ltd, under the guidance of Jonathan Rhind Architects. Several of the sites provide huge logistical challenges as well as technical problems. Work began in the nick of time for the chimney at Bearland, registered a Scheduled Monument At Risk: even as the scaffolding was erected around the chimney, masonry was falling from the structure!
By the end of the project physical access improvements have been completed at Langham Engine House (where an all-ability trail has been built), at Bearland Ventilation Flue (where the difficult path to the site has been improved), at the Incline (where a number of access improvements have been carried out) and in and around Watchet (notably the West Pier and the Watchet to Washford Trail).
Interpretation was perhaps the most complex part of the project. It took many forms and was intended to allow a wide range of people to discover the remarkable legacy of the West Somerset Mineral Railway and the people who contributed to this enterprise. Two major books by local expert Mike Jones have been produced, sharing the research and recording that has taken place over the last 20 years, and building on the earlier books by Roger Sellick.
A major programme of events and activities has been completed: a new website - this website - dedicated to helping people to understand all aspects of the WSMR, has been built for by the Project Assistant. Improvements to Watchet Market House Museum have been completed, including a working model of the Incline and of Watchet West Pier as well as panels and a digital image display of historical photographs. An education programme for local schools has been completed by the project's Heritage Education Officer. Leaflets and posters provide high quality information for visitors about aspects of the WSMR. On site interpretation boards –- although kept to a minimum -- provide essential information at key sites.
In the first half of the 20th century the WSMR had become a popular destination for excursions onto the Brendon Hills but by the time this project started, the fabric and popular memory of the West Somerset Mineral Railway was on the cusp of being lost. Although short-lived, this enterprise was remarkable and its vestiges are clearly worth preserving as a key element in the heritage of Exmoor and West Somerset.