The second Iron Age

By Contributed in Local People

NORMAN MAUDSLEY writes: A group of 10 Teignmouth and Dawlish walkers headed to the Brendon Hills in Somerset, led by voluntary walk leader Mike Strickland around a 12-mile route on a sunny day.

Once there, we passed the parish church of St Giles in the village of Leighland, and coming through woodland we came out at Comberrow.

Here we climbed a metal staircase taking us to the lower end of an inclined railway trackbed once used to transport iron ore to Wales for the steel mills.

By 1830 supplies of locally-mined ore in South Wales were becoming exhausted at the very time when demand for wrought iron rails was increasing due to the spread of the railways.

It became economically profitable for a period in the mid to late-19th century to mine the ore in the Brendon Hills and ship it to South Wales for smelting.

The trackbed was three-quarters of a mile long with a 1-in-4 gradient.

At the top of the incline, built into the hillside, was a winding house containing two 18ft drums. Steel cables allowed the weight of iron ore in descending trucks to raise the empty ones.

When the mine closed, a small engine was installed to take passengers up the incline in a truck, free – but at their own risk.

The incline took four years to build, and 25,000 cubic metres of rock were blasted from the cutting to form the embankment – the equivalent of 25 Olympic swimming pools. It cost approximately £40,000 to build – about £2.6 million in today’s money.

The community of the Brendon Hills at that time were hard-working men, employed in unpleasant and dangerous conditions down the mines for six days a week, and on Sundays they attended church or chapel.

Temperance was encouraged, particularly by the rector of Treborough who often spoke to the men on pay day about it.

The chapel had a Sunday school, and a church at the top of the incline was used as a school on weekdays for the miners’ children.

A miners’ institute and reading room were opened in 1862, where evening classes and lecturers for miners were held.

We climbed the trackbed to have our packed lunch in the remains of the engine house where a steam-driven beam engine had provided power.

Mike had a surprise for us as we were presented with a typical, Cornish-style engine house here in Somerset at Burrow Farm mine. Built circa 1860 it once housed a rotary beam pumping engine, serving a dual purpose of pumping and winding – one of a number that had been built in the Brendon Hills

We saw the remains of the only Cornish-type beam engine house surviving on Exmoor.

This building at Burrow Farm mine, along with the remains of the mine shaft and the cutting for the West Somerset Mineral Railway (WSMR) provided graphic evidence of the impact of the mining industry upon the landscape.

The engine house is open to public view, with access by permissive path along the trackbed of the WSMR.

The remains are a reminder of the importance of the iron mining industry of the late 19th century at a time when the British e­­­­mpire was exercising great influence world-wide.

Leaving the engine house behind we followed the large cutting of the WSMR.

It was soon time to head back along the Brendon Hills to the cars.

Passing the start of the River Tone and Beverton Farm, walking through woodland we realised we were hiking alongside Clatworthy reservoir.

With Mike thanked for a fascinating walk we headed for home.

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Chris Sampson, Secretary WSMLA · 47 days ago · Report

For more information about the West Somerset Mineral Railway and the associated mining works visit www.WSMLA.org.uk where you'll also find a programme of monthly walks along the line lead by members of the West Somerset Mineral Line Association.

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