Taking the train to Yeovil Junction (and celebrating 25 years of its heritage offering)
PUBLISHED: 13:41 11 March 2019 | UPDATED: 13:42 11 March 2019
Stephen Roberts dons colourful trousers and takes the train to a Somerset railway station where a special anniversary is taking place this year
I fancy myself a mini Michael Portillo, but possibly without the colourful jacket and trouser combos. I’m often to be found photographing at railway stations as I undertake one of my own journeys around the British network, the results (words and pictures) appearing in railway mags. A couple of times I’ve rocked up at Yeovil Junction station, in Somerset. Patrons on trains and platforms often mistake me for a ‘spotter’.
I had first been to Yeovil Junction in April 2017, the most important station here today, yet not the first to arrive (1860). Yeovil Pen Mill, on the Bath to Weymouth line, got here first (1856). There was also an impressive Yeovil Town station (1861) on the line to Taunton, which closed in the 1960s. The Yeovil Junction site also hosts a heritage offering which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
I mused on Yeovil briefly. It’s famous for livestock markets, gloves (hence its famous giant-killing football club is the ‘Glovers’) and for helicopters. Remember the ‘Westland Affair’ of the mid-1980s? Meanwhile, Yeovil’s junction station was rebuilt between 1907 and 1909 and has two ‘island’ platforms, although only one of these is used by today’s mainline station, the other is now the province of the Yeovil Railway Centre. Beyond the eastern end of the station is the little-used spur to Pen Mill (an hourly bus service connects the two stations). Yeovil Junction station is served by South Western Railway and is on the line betwixt London, Waterloo and Exeter.
A footbridge takes passengers from the station’s car park across to an island platform for platforms 1 and 2 for National Rail services. There’s the ticket office and waiting room over here, plus the Rocket Café, which I was able to use in 2017, but sadly mistimed my most recent visit to find it just closed. It’s described online as ‘a hidden treasure’ and is refreshingly retro, like being on the set of Brief Encounter.
The southern side of the station (or down side to use rail parlance), including some original buildings, has been preserved by the Railway Centre, which has existed since 1994, and utilises what used to be the station’s Platform 3. Even when regular steam ceased on the mainline, steam specials would still use the old, rarely used Platform 3, plus the turntable, and it was a desire to see steam continue in this part of the world that saw both the preservation of the 70ft turntable (built in Glasgow and essential for turning around the loco) and the setting up of the South West Main Line Steam Co, which was granted permission to use one-third of a mile of the old Clifton Maybank goods branch (which diverged from the Pen Mill to Weymouth line, and had been closed in 1937). A disused water tank was acquired from a factory site just outside Glastonbury and has been reassembled on the Railway Centre site.
The site includes the old Grade II-listed transfer shed (1864), a legacy of the days when the London & South Western Railway’s (LSWR)) West of England main line was standard-gauge, whilst the two Great Western Railway (GWR) branches (the Weymouth and Taunton lines) were both broad-gauge. This meant that the rival railway companies could not run wagons on one another’s tracks, necessitating a manual transfer operation, with goods being manhandled from one set of tracks to the other, in the aptly-named transfer shed. It was all a bit chaotic and testimony to the hubris of one Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who insisted the GWR would have a different gauge to everyone else. The problems at Yeovil only persisted until 1874 when it became a purely standard-gauge operation.
The Railway Centre began using this shed from 2002 for exhibitions, plus its shop. It’s also available for wedding receptions, plus parties of a more general nature, and shows. There’s also a new engine shed, which opened in 1999. The centre is accessed easily from the mainline station, a short walk up the approach road bringing one to a low bridge, where it’s possible to cross underneath the mainline tracks at the western end of the station.
On my most recent visit the Railway Centre was open, with a diesel mechanical built in 1947, nowadays dubbed No 44 Cockney Rebel, providing brake-van rides, with a shunting engine called River Yeo, built in 1961 and saddle tank steam locomotive from 1915, Lord Fisher, also lined up in the platform. Here was a pleasing juxtaposition of old and new, as people of all ages enjoyed brake van rides to the south, whilst the mainline station saw modern diesel units setting down and picking up at Yeovil Junction on express services between Waterloo and Exeter.
The Railway Centre can be visited on Sunday mornings (for static viewing), when the shop is also open (new and second-hand railway and transport books and videos, plus other merchandise), plus on event days, which are publicised on the centre’s website. Regular Train Days take place between March and October, which feature both brake van rides and turntable demos (light refreshments are available when brake van rides are operating). The centre has its own collection of locos, plus a selection of freight wagons to add period authenticity. There are also special events, especially around Christmas.
‘Experiences’ are offered, including a driving one for individuals (three hours) and groups (full day). If you fancy getting dirty you can also prepare the engine for its day’s work on one of the centre’s Train Days, and then drive it too. Santa Specials, which first ran in 1995, also operate in the lead-up to Christmas, plus a Steam Train Day – Mince Pie Special just after Christmas, when you can enjoy unlimited brake van or coach rides on the one-third mile line, plus endless trips on a miniature railway as well, with light refreshments, a model railway, displays and exhibits. There are also main line steam days, when you can experience the nostalgia of a steam-hauled journey between Yeovil Junction and London, Waterloo.
Main line locos will sometimes be present at the centre for servicing or stabling between rail tours.
Now, I’m not a great lover of cars, so a perfect day out would be to take the train to Yeovil Junction station, partake of refreshments either at the station buffet, or in the Transfer Shed at the Railway Centre, where a thorough exploration, including browse of the shop, could be followed by a bus ride to Pen Mill to see Yeovil’s other extant station. What’s not to like?
Ok, Yeovil it is. Now, where did I leave my pink shirt and green trousers?
- Yeovil Railway Centre is located adjacent to Yeovil Junction station at Stoford, Yeovil, BA22 9UU.
- The shop is open Sundays 10 am to noon (except Christmas/New Year) and normally during events.
- Buses from Yeovil Bus Station (half-hourly Mon-Sat, but not public holidays).
- Parking at the centre is subject to availability or pay & display parking at Yeovil Junction.
- Membership is available. Membership journal The Turntable issued three times a year.
For more information, visit yeovilrailway.freeservers.com.