The railway came to Burnham in 1858. People sometimes assume that it was another of those annoying dead end branches off the main line that the Great Western Railway was fond of, but it wasn't.
Highbridge to Burnham was originally part of the Somerset Central Railway. That railway originated in 1854 with a line to link Glastonbury with Highbridge wharf to get freight from one to the other. I suppose most of us think of railways as a means of carrying people but it was freight that sustained the trouble & expense of building them and the loss of that freight to road transport that eventually condemned so many. Highbridge was the Somerset Central's base, with its workshops. Four years later the company decided to try to develop a link to South Wales by extending the line to Burnham & building the jetty, which is still there, so that vessels could get alongside, but still the passengers had to walk from Burnham station which was at that stage in effect the terminus of the main line.
Where was the station? In 2015 after a good deal of effort by local enthusiasts a set of buffers was put up approximately where the main line ended, though rails also ran down the jetty. The station was to the landward side of those buffers where the road, recently renamed Old Station Approach, now is and the car park was a coal yard. The main line ran away along what is now Marine Drive until it reached what is now Apex Park. The path through the park and out to Highbridge at the other end marks the rest of the line. Those of you who know Highbridge will at once realise that meant the line had to cross the main road, the A38. That it did by a level crossing. What fun it would be to have a level crossing on the A38 today! The line did not at that time run through a park. The lakes in Apex Park are former brick earth pits and there was a brick and tile works there.
The Somerset Central Railway, pursuing more freight and passengers as all the small and disconnected railways at that time did, agreed that an amalgamation with the Dorset Central railway would be in both their interests, from a line which by this time had got beyond Glastonbury to Evercreech: 24 miles and an hour and ten minutes from Burnham, so the journey was fairly relaxed. The plan was in due course to be able to run from Burnham down to Poole on the South coast and thus enable traffic from South Wales to France. The Burnham to South Wales shipping service was not popular, and the formation of the Somerset & Dorset was the beginning of a process of linking, new line development and railway amalgamation that to some extent left the Highbridge to Burnham line as a rather remote offshoot of the main operations. At its busiest there were eleven trains daily from Highbridge to Burnham in the Summer in addition to six a day to and from Evercreech Junction and one to and from Wells. The Reed Arms, Pier Hotel and Belmont Hotel all clustered round the station and many passengers stayed in them. The Reed Arms survives still. It was excursion traffic that kept the line open until 1966. Regular passenger services were withdrawn fifteen years earlier. In 1962 John Betjeman made a film entitled Branch Line Railway to support saving the Burnham line and as much as possible of the rest of the Somerset network but without success.
For many years after the lines were taken up, the old carriage works in Highbridge built over, roads and new housing and a supermarket built, more or less all trace of where the railway to Burnham had been, apart from a reference in the name of The Railway Arms and an odd unbuilt area and unusually wide grass verges towards the seaward end of what was Marine Drive, had vanished. Much of Somerset's former railway network is celebrated, as privately run steam railway such as the West Somerset, cycle track such as The Strawberry Line or in railway museums and other mementos. It seemed a pity that Burnham should not celebrate its part of this heritage: hence the buffers.
Burnham Heritage Group was formed in 2015 as the ‘Burnham on Sea Railway Heritage Group’. The aims of the group were to support and encourage all aspects of the commemoration of the railway heritage of Burnham on Sea, particularly the installation and maintenance of railway artefacts as a memorial to the Somerset & Dorset line from Highbridge to Burnham on Sea.
This group was successful in raising funds and support which over the years enabled the erection of a number of replica railway artefacts along the route of the line. We were also influential in the change of name of the modern roadway which now follows the track bed of the line to Old Station Approach. The Group went on to produce a walking trail along the line from Burnham to Highbridge with information boards at points of interest.
Building on this success, several non-railway heritage information publications were developed and distributed in the local area. This broadening of the areas of interest led to the change of name to simply Burnham Heritage Group in 2020. Since then, several successful publications have been issued and in 2022, as part of the Jubilee celebrations to mark the 70 anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II, the group organised a very well supported Heritage Exhibition in the Council Chamber.
Project fund-raising continues, and whilst our aims are to ensure that the heritage of Burnham on Sea is celebrated, it is a major goal of the group to launch a permanent Heritage Centre for Burnham and the immediately surrounding area.
The Heritage group with help and funding from many groups and organisations have produced walking trails and leaflets on the history of Burnham, Highbridge and its railway. These can be found by clicking here.
If you think you can help with future projects or wish to sponsor a new project, contact us here.
A Replica Signal, adjacent to the base of the original signal, controlling the entrance to the station / coal yard has been installed.
A replica station name board has been located on the original site of the excursion platform of the station.
Marine Drive from the entrance to Burnham on Sea Holiday Village to the junction with Pier Street has been renamed Old Station Approach. This section of roadway largely follows the track-bed of the line from Burnham on Sea to Highbridge.
A replica signal box has been installed in Old Station Approach at the same spot where Burnham-On-Sea’s railway station was once located. A ribbon was cut to mark the opening by a former member of the railway staff who worked at Highbridge’s railway station signal box.
A weather vane, the pointer of which is a railway locomotive carrying the number of the last engine to leave Burnham-On-Sea, has been positioned on the Town Green.
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