Railway Tourism in Somerset and Dorset
In my last article, I described how I went unwillingly to Port Isaac and was surprised at the number of tourists who were attracted by the location of a TV drama. I would now like to continue with the theme of what I did on holidays and describe some other tourist venues which inspired me to think how Lyme Regis could increase its tourist economy.
I might also call my theme confessions of an engineer because this article is about steam railways and, until this month, I was under the impression that an interest in such things was something to keep quiet about. And so it was that a few weeks ago, I crept out early from the house we were staying in near Okehampton to drive to Bishops Lydeard to see a railway exhibition before the rest of the family were up and about.
I expected to arrive at a deserted station and have the place to myself but I was in for a shock, The car park was full and the platforms were crowded with coach loads of tourists on package tours there to enjoy the delights of a ride on the West Somerset heritage railway. I don't know if any were using the steam train to travel to Minehead on the coast but it is possible.
Now there are many heritage railways around Britain (click here to see a list) and some are more successful than others. The key factors for success must include an attractive location which is not too remote and an interesting destination. The Swanage Railway would be another example which enjoys all these features and significantly was a branch line which served a seaside resort in Dorset. As you can see from their website, the railway is a busy part of the tourist industry in Swanage.
All this got me thinking if the railway line from Axminster to Lyme Regis could be restored. Dr Beeching did not see it as an economic proposition in 1965. However, the importance of tourism has grown since and so has the market for travelling on steam trains. I am not aware of any campaigns to date to restore the line. There may have been in the past but I would suggest that with renewed interest in public sustainable transport, this is more likely as time goes on. The campaign to re-open sections of the Somerset and Dorset Railway illustrates this.
The winding route which the train took from Axminster may not have been the quickest way into Lyme Regis but I'm sure it would be the most picturesque and if restored could provide a memorable railway journey for anyone wanting to follow the travels of Tolkien and Chesterton to The Three Cups HOTEL.
It should be recognised that most heritage railways do not run steam trains all the time and have to rely on diesel engines or self propelled units for most services. However, if the sole surviving steam locomotive from the line could be borrowed for some of the summer season from the Bluebell Railway, that would be a great boon as this type was synonymous with the Lyme Regis branch in its latter years. Here are some pictures of the old Adams radial tank engine. Somehow, I could just imagine G.K. Chesterton riding in a carriage behind one of those.
By the way, from some of Tolkien's writings, you would think that he hated all things mechanical in the modern world and railways in particular. However, last year someone bought me the book of Tolkien's Father Christmas letters to his children and I read there many references to the purchase of Hornby model trains. So perhaps he would have enjoyed travelling by Southern Railways to the coast.
There was of course one writer who definitely loved railways, namely John Betjeman. Here is a link to a film he made praising another branch railway, that from Evercreech Junction to Burnham on Sea on the old S&D. (I've also embedded it below.) Listen to his prophecy about the future of railways from about 7 minutes 50 seconds into the first section.