With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions. Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust. Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.
The Brendon Hills, part of the Exmoor National Park, are less well-known than the barren moorland to its west that gives the park its name. Here the landscape is a patchwork of lush, green fields and of woodlands bordered to the north by the sea. It is a quiet landscape with only the sounds of birdsong and the occasional farm vehicle to disturb its peace. It wasn’t always like this, however, for during the nineteenth century it was the centre of a great, albeit relatively short-lived, mining venture. Today, much of this has been forgotten.
The West Somerset Mineral Railway was built to link iron ore mines with the seaport of Watchet for transportation to the steelyards of south Wales. Much of its route can be walked and there are several ruins, some of national importance, that have been conserved. One of the most dramatic is the Incline, where trains hauled truckloads of ore – and passengers – up a 1 in 4 steep hillside, climbing 800 feet in just over half a mile*. I have written about this feat of Victorian engineering in an earlier post and this can be found by clicking on the link here.
A ruin less impressive than that of the Incline but no less extraordinary in its day is the Langham Hill Engine House built in 1866. All that remains now is the footprint of the building but a good idea of what it must have looked like and how it worked can be had from the artist’s impression by Anne Leaver shown on the nearby information board.
The engine house was created to draw the iron ore from three separate workings to the surface by sinking a new shaft at Langham Hill. Powered by steam engines, the ore was pulled up to ground level by trams rising from a depth of up to 650 feet. The miners who had to descend by ladder were protected from falling by a series of wooden platforms upon which the ladders rested – if they fell they would only drop the length of each ladder, reducing the risk of serious injury. The steam engines also powered underground pumps to keep the shafts clear of water; this was filtered, stored in reservoirs and reused by the engines – an early example of recycling. Once the ore was brought to the surface it was tipped into trucks to be carried away by the railway.
Another extraordinary feat of engineering was the aerial tramway that brought iron ore to Langham Hill in buckets from another mine over half a mile away. A length of the steel cables, which are over four inches in thickness, can be seen coiled by the engine house. The figures are staggering: the overhead cable was a single, endless 6700 feet length supported on wooden pylons, at times carrying the ore 300 feet above ground level and crossing a 2000 feet wide valley. No wonder the miners called it ‘the flying machine’.
It is hard to imagine, when visiting the engine house now, the noise, bustle and industry that took place here just 150 years ago. Two hundred miners and their families, mostly from Wales came to live and work here, yet within fifty years all mining had ceased. The engine house only survived for ten years: its engine and even the house itself, dismantled and reused in mines elsewhere. The aerial tramway lasted an even shorter time being in use for only three years before new transportation technology overtook it.
Today all is silent, the site surrounded by trees and ferns. For many years the remains of the mines remained hidden until the combined efforts of a number of individuals and groups fought to preserve them. The West Somerset Mineral Railway Project came into being and has succeeded in doing so; it has also created a permanent exhibition housed in the museum in Watchet. Its research of the history of the mines is available online – visit their website here.
Sandwiched between barren Exmoor to the west and the rugged Quantocks to their east, the Brendon Hills appear remarkably fertile with their neat, small fields testament to a rich farming tradition. Now incorporated into the Exmoor National Park it seems to be as devoid of human life as it’s more visited partner. It has, however, a surprising past: travel back in time one hundred and fifty years and you would find yourself in a thriving community at the forefront of Industrial Revolution technology.
A corner of the ruined building
For years, I had been intrigued by a ruined building close to one of the few roads that leads onto Exmoor proper. Obviously once substantial, what could this building, miles from anywhere, have been and who lived there? There were no clues as I first approached but the ruins, now stabilised, have had information boards giving its history placed within. It was the site of an extraordinary Victorian venture that extracted iron ore and then transported it to the coast to ship to Wales for the steel industry. Although, there was now just this one ruined building, in its heyday over two hundred miners and their families lived close by in houses built especially for them.
Click on the image to enlarge the poster
The explosion of railway building in the mid 1800’s had created a huge demand for – and, consequently, a shortage of – iron ore. Mining had taken place in the region on a very small, localised scale for many centuries but the small quantities found had never been a commercial prospect. With the rapid rise in price and with advances in extraction the Ebbw Vale Company – Welsh steel works – developed the mines. A major problem was how to transport the ore the eleven miles from the furthest mine to the coast from where it could be shipped across the sea to Wales. The first six miles from the port of Watchet was straightforward enough, the final six miles along the top of the Brendons, although more costly, also did not create a major problem. It was the mile that included the climb of a 1 in 4 hillside that proved to be a challenge and a costly one at that – over ten times the amount required for the same length elsewhere and over £2 million in today’s prices. ‘The Incline’ was completed in 1861 and took just four years to build, rising almost 800 feet in just 0.6 of a mile.
The ruins of the winding house as seen from the top of the incline
Trucks of iron ore were lowered or raised down the incline on twin rails, their steam locomotives held in place by steel cables. The huge drums that were required to do this were housed in the ‘winding house’ with the cables travelling through stone tunnels, now the silent home of bats. The force of gravity brought empty trucks to the top in twelve minutes as the weight of the full ones descended. At the top of the incline the trucks passed over the roof of the winding house. Communications between the men at the top and bottom were by semaphore.
The winding house – the trains passed over its roof
The cable tunnels
The price of iron ore and the methods of extraction continued to change rapidly and the railway never made a profit, with the mines closing just eighteen years later. Remarkably, the railway continued to carry passengers for a further five years seated on wooden planks bolted to the tops of the iron ore trucks. It must have been an extraordinary experience to be hauled up the incline and travelling back down couldn’t have been for the faint-hearted!
The incline today belieing the industry and grit of the men that created it
An even more short-lived attempt to re-open the mine was thwarted by the outbreak of the Great War and in 1916 the sleepers and rails were requisitioned and the drums blown up, demolishing part of the winding house building. A further attempt to rebuild the winding house for agricultural use was abandoned during WWII and it was only with the help of a National Lottery grant that the buildings were recently stabilised and the incline cleared of scrub and restored.
For further information including many early photographs and drawings visit the West Somerset Mineral Railway website by clicking here.