Somerset’s Garden Route

PUBLISHED: 15:47 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013

Full steam ahead on the West Somerset Railway

Full steam ahead on the West Somerset Railway

I've always regarded train spotters as rather wanting in other excitement. However, there is one train journey that has turned me into something of a spotter myself! It is not, however, the engine numbers I am after; my quest (surprise, surprise) ...

Hop onto one of the romantic steam trains that runs on the exquisitely restored 23-mile West Somerset Railway from Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, to the quaint seaside resort of Minehead, and all will be clear. There are 10 delightful stations along the way and every one boasts its own station garden, and it is these that have enticed me on the journey, turning me surreptitiously into not a train spotter but a 'station garden spotter'!

Spot the Diverse Gardens

The gardens are as varied as the remarkable diversity of scenery along the route, which starts off in the Vale of Taunton, cuts through the picturesque Quantock Hills, skirts the Bristol Channel coast and terminates in Minehead. The 10 station buildings themselves are not without merit. Made of the warm, red sandstone quarried locally, most were built in the mid-19th century and some are Listed.

First stop is Crowcombe Heathfield. As the splendid Somerset and Dorset 7F on which we are travelling pulls up, the immaculately manicured beds and bedding displays swing into view. This is one of the best-preserved stations in the country and winner of the West Somerset Railway (WSR) Best Kept Station Awards for a record number of times.

It has an slightly old-world image, with begonias and marigolds lining a picket fence, bedding plants bursting from ancient chimney pots and snapdragons and roses in vibrant shades dancing in borders of yellow sisyrinchiums. The station has featured in a number of films including 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Land Girls'. The signal box and original metal advertising boards (promoting 'Brook Bond Dividend Tea', 'Bovril' and 'Fry's Pure Concentrated Cocoa') look perfectly at home amongst the flowers and enhance the feeling that you are stepping back in time when you alight here.

The whistle blows and we're off again. Next stop is Stogumber, my favourite. As we pull up, a jaunty, smiling, snowy-haired station mistress greets the passengers. Despite her 92 years, Iris Horn devotes all her time to caring for the station and its wonderful gardens, and has become as famous as the station itself. She used to run Stogumber with her husband, a signalman here since 1919, but since his death a few years ago, aged 97, she has continued to run the show alone.

"It gets into the blood. I couldn't leave the railway," says Iris. "I enjoy it very much, I meet all my friends and I love keeping the garden tidy."

Thriving in the sheltered location, a mass of perennial sweet peas, honeysuckle, pink roses and geraniums flower early, engulfing the station building and its painted fence. A tall acacia with a gnarled trunk forms a centrepiece in a circular bed of day lilies, cotton lavender, pineapple mint and golden marjoram, and all around antiquities such as churns, sack trucks and a knife-sharpening stone add to the rural idyll.

I venture to ask how much Iris can manage to do physically in the garden at her age and, to my amazement, it's a substantial amount. "I deadhead all the plants and plant out all the new bedding plants - the geraniums, petunias and so on," she says. "A man comes to mow, but I water all the tubs. I do it early in the morning because I feel most energetic then. There are lots of tubs just here and on the other side of the platform, about 20 in all. I carry a watering can; we did have a hosepipe but someone stole it."

The guard waves his flag and on we go to Williton where cascading hanging baskets adorn the platform. Next is Doniford Halt, a request stop sporting an unusual pagoda-style station building.

Now we get glimpses across the Bristol Channel before steaming into Watchet. The platform has been prettied up with bedding plants and a clever pebble mosaic made by a group of disadvantaged locals. Martin Snell, from WSR Association [], believes this station has made huge strides with its image recently. "Watchet is the most improved station. In the last seven years they have really raised their standards," says Martin. "A great band of 'Friends of Watchet' have made a real difference, especially with the garden aspect. Now this is the third busiest station on the line, with many visitors stopping off here to go around the town."

Crowcombe Heathfield station has featured in a number of films including 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Land Girls'

As we leave the station, a sweep of pink valerian forms a dramatic carpet of colour on the bank and an impressive knot garden on adjacent land causes a stir amongst the passengers. Made of box, it has been lovingly tended by the owners for two decades, becoming a well-known landmark along the route.

The train gently chuffs across a low-lying stretch of coast where sea campion, bird's-foot trefoil, ox-eye daisies and fennel grow wild on the shingle, and soon we draw into Blue Anchor station. Here an entire bank is ablaze with a mix of annuals, perennials, cultivated and wild plants including nemesia, osteospermum, red poppies, marigolds, clipped rose of Sharon and the dainty daisy-like flowers of erigeron karvinskianus.

At Dunster station I spy a Victorian wheelbarrow packed with plants for sale, but there's no time to grab anything as we head quickly on to the final destination at Minehead. This is the largest of all the stations, which is important when it comes to handling the 200,000 passengers that pile on and off each year.

As with all the stations, the carefully restored antique signs and station plaques add to the historic ambience, and 19th-century lamps look elegant amongst the hanging baskets, tubs and flowerbeds.

The West Somerset Railway thrives largely due to the help of its 900 volunteers who turn their hand to virtually everything that needs doing. Each station garden has its own associated group of volunteers and great rivalry builds amongst them as they compete for the coveted Best Kept Garden Award.

An Endless Nature Trail

The formal gardens are not the only floral attraction along the West Somerset Line; in fact, the ribbon of land that snakes beside the line is itself a kind of endless nature trail and home to a wide range of wild plants and animals. In springtime the banks are cloaked with primroses, violets, sweet woodruff and anemones, and later on orchids abound.

No less than three County Wildlife Sites can be found dotted along the line, each with its own special plants. Thanks to the work of railway and wildlife enthusiast David Bailey and his wife, Jenny, the West Somerset Railway Association now recognises that their railway line is a valuable habitat for flora and fauna, and that this is as much of an attraction as the trains and the gardens.

The West Somerset Railway thrives largely due to the help of its 900 volunteers

The Wildlife Special trains that David runs in springtime, with a commentary on the nature along the way, are always a sell-out. For David, a past Chair of the Somerset Wildlife Trust and a long-standing member of the West Somerset Railway Association, this tie-up between plants and trains is a dream come true. "Heaven can't be much better than being trackside, walking along looking at the wildflowers and seeing the trains, too!" he says.

Following intensive surveying over more than four years, David has discovered far more plant species than he could have anticipated, including a number of rare species such as the bythinian vetch and early purple orchids on a third of the area. He realised that the practices carried out on the line side for the safety of the trains, which included cutting back large shrubs and trees and the annual flailing of grass, must have been just the management needed to encourage the wild plants. "This is like having a 23-mile nature reserve which the public can't get onto, so the plants here are not disturbed, but the public can still enjoy it by seeing it from the trains," says David. BY REBECCA POW. PHOTOS BY LYNN KEDDIE

For details of train times or if you are interested in working as a station garden volunteer or cutting back on the line side, contact West Somerset Railway Association, The Railway Station, Bishops Lydeard, TA4 4BX, tel 01823 433856, On Wednesdays, from 4 June - 24 September, the special 'Hestercombe Express' steam train runs from Minehead to Bishops Lydeard with a bus link to Hestercombe Gardens Call 01643 704996 to book.

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