STRAWBERRY LINE PATH
Cheddar to Yatton
Thursday, August 18, 2016
The Strawberry Line Path follows part of the former Cheddar Valley Railway branch line for 17.1 kilometres through the Mendip Hills and North Somerset, from Cheddar to the mainline at Yatton. The broad-gauge line was opened in August 1869 by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company, after almost two and a half years construction. It was soon nicknamed the Strawberry Line as one of it's main economic benefits was in transporting locally-grown strawberries to markets in London. The line was also used to transport stone from quarries in the Mendip Hills, coal, milk and, of course, passengers. In November 1875 the line was converted to standard-gauge in only four days, and the following year became part of the Great Western Railway.
After almost a century of operation, the line fell to Beeching's Axe, carrying its last passengers in September 1963 and freight services ended a couple of years later. In 1979, the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk Society was formed to preserve what remained of the trackbed and turn it into a long-distance walking and cycle path. Today there are plans to extend the path eastwards from Cheddar along the remainder of the Cheddar Valley Railway's route to Wells and Shepton Mallet and northwards from Yatton along another disused branch line to the coast at Clevedon.
Strawberries are still grown on the Mendip Hills today -- on the bus ride from my accommodation in Wells to the start of the walk in Cheddar, I spotted three roadside stalls selling strawberries and other local produce.
A couple of days before this walk I had spent a day in Cheddar to do a circular walk around the gorge and explore the caves and village.
Cheddar Gorge is England's largest and deepest, formed at the end of the last Ice-age. After climbing the 274 steps of Jacob's Ladder to reach the path along the southern lip of the gorge, there are spectacular views down the gorge, over Cheddar Village and the Cheddar Reservoir, and beyond across the Somerset Levels to the Bristol Channel (picture 1). In the opposite direction, England's highest inland cliffs, 150 metres tall, overlook the upper part of the gorge (picture 2).
Far below, the lower part of the gorge is home to several tourist attractions, including Gough's Cave, which stretches a few hundred metres inside the cliffs. It is also possible to walk part of the way up the narrow road that winds it's way uphill along the floor of the gorge (picture 3), though the road was quite busy with cars and tourist coaches when I did so. Back down in the lower part of the gorge is a picturesque mill pond (picture 4) on the edge of Cheddar Village.
The Strawberry Line Path begins about a kilometre away, on the other side of the village. After alighting from the bus near Cheddar's fine medieval market cross (picture 5), I headed westward past the Bath Arms pub (picture 6) and along Station Road, which bears slightly left at the next junction to head into an industrial estate. The second street on the right leads up to the start of the Strawberry Line Path, where an untidy path runs between wire fences by the gates of a building supplies business. An information board showing a map of the first section of the path provides some reassurance that this unpromising spot is the correct starting point for the walk.
The enclosed path winds it way between industrial sites to join the original trackbed next to housing that was built over the site of the Cheddar Station after the Strawberry Line's closure. From here, the quality of the path improves as the trackbed is followed north-west, soon passing under the stone Five Ways Bridge and continuing onwards through the outskirts of the village on a pleasant, shady stretch of the path (picture 7).
In a few minutes the last houses give way to the Sharpham Playing Fields on the left, and beyond these the trackbed passes a short distance from the shore of the Cheddar Reservoir (picture 8). The reservoir, which covers a little over one square kilometre, was constructed in the mid-1930's to supply water to the growing population of the city of Bristol. It has its own sailing club and is a popular with anglers, being stocked with several species of fish.
Off to the right there are views towards Cheddar Gorge (picture 9), while on the left the shore of the reservoir (picture 10) gradually curves away as the old trackbed continues north-westwards to reach a gate by the busy A371 road at the edge of the small town of Axbridge, which has a history dating back at least as far as the Anglo-Saxons of the 9th century.
Almost immediately after the Strawberry Line closed, the next section of the trackbed was used to enable the A371 to bypass the town, the new road opening in 1967. The Strawberry Line Path must therefore leave the original route for a while and instead heads left along Cheddar Road and into the town. On the corner of Cheddar Road and the A371 stands a large stone bearing the town's arms, depicting a lamb and flag, and the date 2007 (picture 11). Cheddar Road becomes Jubilee Road and then St Mary's Street, passing the Axbridge Town Hall (picture 12) before reaching The Square in the centre of town.
The attractive square is flanked by several colourful buildings (picture 13) and by the 15th-century Church of St. John the Baptist, which occupies an elevated position in the north-east corner (picture 14).
On the west side of The Square stands King John's Hunting Lodge (picture 15), built around 1460 as the house of a wealthy wool merchant, and thus actually having nothing to do with King John, whose reign ended almost 250 years earlier. The lodge is owned by the National Trust and houses the town's museum.
The Strawberry Line Path leaves The Square between King John's Hunting Lodge and the Lamb Inn, climbing along High Street and passing the Axbridge Methodist Church (picture 16) as High Street becomes West Street. At the far end of West Street, the route crosses over a complicated junction of roads and climbs a lane to rejoin the trackbed in a picnic area beside the A371.
The path along the trackbed has a good view over the village of Cross (picture 17) before swinging northwards into the Mendip Hills on a narrowing wedge of land between the A371 on the right and the A38 on the left. Just before the two roads meet, the path crosses over the A38 at a pedestrian refuge then continues northwards on the tree-lined railway embankment with green fields on either side (picture 18). This area is known as Shute Shelve.
After about 500 metres, banks rise steeply on both sides as the path enters a deep cutting on the approach to the Shute Shelve Tunnel (picture 19). The path heads through the 165-metre tunnel (picture 20), passing under King's Wood to emerge on the north side of the Mendip Hills.
The tunnel was a good deal darker than in the picture, which I deliberately over-exposed to show the rough-cut walls in the southern half of the tunnel. The northern half is lined with brick, as the geology changes from hard limestone to soft mudstone. The tunnel was the first part of the Strawberry Line to be constructed, dug out using only picks and shovels.
After emerging from the tunnel, the tree-lined trackbed continues northwards, initially between fields but soon reaching the village of Winscombe (picture 21), with houses on the left and large recreation grounds on the right. After passing under a stone road bridge, the trackbed becomes raised above the surrounding land, passing more houses before crossing a railway bridge over the A371 near the centre of the conjoined village of Woodborough (picture 22).
A short distance further along the path is the site of Winscombe Station, which was originally named Woodborough when the line opened in 1869, but was renamed to avoid confusion with Woodborough in Wiltshire. The station platform still exists (picture 23), though the station buildings that once stood at the northern end of the platform are long gone and the area was transformed into a Millennium Green in 1999 (picture 24).
The next stretch of the path is quiet and shaded, flanked by fields on the left and houses on the right until the path passes under the latter of two identical stone bridges (picture 25). Beyond the bridge there are good views across the fields to the wooded hill of Banwell Camp (picture 26), a six-hectare Iron-age hillfort.
Another kilometre further north, on the edge of the village of Sandford, the path is forced to bear left off the original trackbed and around the site of Sandford Station, which has been built over by a large retirement village. The original station building still exists in the centre of the retirement village as the Sandford Station Railway Heritage Centre. I had planned to visit, but it turned out that the Heritage Centre is only open on weekends.
The path soon meets the A368 Station Road, where one must cross over and walk about fifty metres to the right to find a ramp leading up to the original trackbed. However, before that I first continued along Station Road into the centre of Sandford, passing the large Thatcher's Cider factory to find the Railway Inn (picture 27), where I stopped for a late lunch and a pint of Thatcher's finest. The factory is one of the largest local employers and its orchards stretch out to the north of the village.
Returning to the Strawberry Line, the path only goes about 200 metres from Station Road before leaving the trackbed again, turning right through a tall metal gate to follow a path through one of Thatcher's orchards (picture 28) to meet the quiet Nye Road just behind the factory. According to a sign on the gate, the path through the orchard is Katy Way.
The route follows Nye Road northwards, passing more cider orchards and the buildings of Droveway Farm before crossing a stone bridge over the trackbed (picture 29). To the right of the bridge a couple of large ponds have been dug where the Strawberry Line used to run and these are the reason for the diversion off the trackbed and through the orchards.
Before long a blue National Cycle Network sign on the right points the way along a quiet permissive path (picture 30) and after a couple of minutes the route reaches a fork and bears left to rejoin the trackbed, now travelling in a north-easterly direction.
At first the path is quite narrow, with scrub encroaching on both sides, but had gradually become a much broader path by the time it passed a large solar energy farm (picture 31) and a golf coarse after about a kilometre.
The path is now well and truly into the flat land of the North Somerset Levels and the path crosses over several of the drainage ditches, known locally as rhynes, which were dug in medieval times to transform this huge expanse of marshland into fertile farming land (picture 32).
Beyond the golf coarse, the line swings very gradually from north-eastwards to northwards as it makes its way through a patchwork of small fields for another two-and-a-half kilometres to reach the site of Congresbury Station, where the platforms on both sides have almost disappeared under vegetation (picture 33), quite a contrast to the neatly manicured station green at Winscombe.
At the end of the platforms the path meets the A370 Weston Road, which originally crossed a bridge over the railway, but when the line closed the road bridge was demolished and the road was rebuilt at ground-level.
A few metres to the right is a pedestrian crossing, where the Strawberry Line Path crosses the A370 and climbs a zigzag path onto the floodbank of the River Yeo (picture 34). A bridge carrying the tracks over the river was also demolished, so the path has to follow the floodbank westwards beside the road for about 300 metres to the next bridge over the Yeo. The floodbank has good views north-eastwards across farmland to Cadbury Hill (picture 35), the site of another Iron-age hillfort.
From the bridge, a tarmac farm drive is followed for about 400 metres until the path crosses a wooden footbridge over a rhyne to rejoin the trackbed for the final two-kilometre stretch up to Yatton Station. To the left of the path is the Biddle Street Wetland (picture 36), an area of small fields divided by rhynes, which has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its rich variety of plant, insect, reptile and bird life. Across fields to the right of the path is the large village of Yatton, home to around 7,500 people.
The path follows the edge of the wetlands (picture 37), remaining amongst fields and keeping its distance from the houses on the west side of Yatton. Beside the path is a colourful bench depicting some of the wildlife that can be found in the Biddle Street Wetland (picture 38).
Eventually the trackbed curves around to the right as it approaches the junction with the Bristol to Exeter mainline at Yatton Station, passing under an attractive sign that marks the official end of the Strawberry Line Path (picture 39). A short distance beyond a carpark is the entrance to Yatton Station (picture 40).
It was only about five in the afternoon when I finished the walk, so before catching a train I went for a wander up and down Yatton's long High Street. Among my discoveries was the Cork & Fork, a wonderful little farm shop where I filled my backpack with some interesting locally-made snacks for my next few days' walking and a couple more samples of the local cider.