Weston, Clevedon & Portishead Light Railway: A history

One of the trains at the station in Weston. Courtesy of Sharon Poole.

One of the trains at the station in Weston. - Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Poole

At the turn of the twentieth century, the seaside towns of North Somerset were arguably far better connected than they are today.

Around 14 miles of railway linked the towns of Weston, Clevedon and Portishead until shortly after the outbreak of war in 1940. 

The Age of Steam was drawing to a close, but the marvels of man's creations stood firm and plenty in Weston. A tourist could ride not just the tank engine but trams, horsecars and omnibuses too.

Out of Weston to Worle and Wick St. Lawrence, over the River Yeo to Clevedon, through the Gordano Valley and into Portishead, a railway connected the people of these places for 43 years.   

The Weston, Clevedon & Portishead Light Railway (WC&PR) was just as the name suggests. Many relics pointing to its past has since been forgotten to time, but a few hints remain if you know where to look.

The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway.

The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway. - Credit: Courtesy of WC&P Railway Group

A historical club has worked to keep the tales of the railway alive and well. The WC&P Railway Group has archived its past for future generations to enjoy. 

The group has helped North Somerset Council open sections of the line to the public with a cycle route planned from Weston to Clevedon. A true replica of Wick St. Lawrence station halt is also planned to be included as a gateway feature for the cycleway. 

Wick St. Lawrence station halt 1938

Wick St. Lawrence station halt 1938. Looking towards Clevedon with Wick Road in the foreground. An accurate replica of the station is due to be built here as a heritage feature of the 'Pier to Pier' cycleway, a length of track will be laid alongside the station using original rails and some original sleepers. Picture: Peter Strange. - Credit: Courtesy of WC&P Railway Group

Secretary of the group, Paul Gregory, said various laws had to be passed in Parliament to authorise the railway's construction.

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He said: "Building of the Weston to Clevedon section began in 1887, but due to financial problems, it wasn’t opened for another 10 years. 

"Some of the track had to be re-laid from earlier development because the sleepers had rotted.

"And the track along the Boulevard, where it was originally planned, was taken up before the line opened due to complaints from the council."

First envisaged in the 1840s, it took more than 50 years for the railway to begin full commercial operation.

The WC&PR was in direction competition with Great Western Railway (GWR), who at the time was seen as the more favourable option for travel.

GWR trains were larger and far more powerful, with speeds that could reach 100 miles per hour, compared to the maximum 25 miles per hour of the light railway.

The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway.

The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway. - Credit: Courtesy of WC&P Railway Group

The company also used a strange assortment of second-hand engines in various irregular colours, that would often break down on trips, and was renowned for not running on time. 

These somewhat inferior irregularities to the competition led to the railway getting mocked by the national press.

Local historian Sharon Poole commented on the 'chaos' that 'seemed to follow the company for the rest of its life'.

Sharon said: "Before opening, engines hadn't been ordered and a number of level crossing gates in Clevedon were pulled down because nobody had realised what they were for.

"To showcase the line, an engine was brought to a stop on the Yeo bridge for passengers to admire the view, but it didn't restart for much time until it was put in reverse.

"The WC&PR was also the butt of much humour; from its initials for a toilet - the WC&P."

Due to the less stringent regulations for light railways, the company also had its fair share of accidents.

One such occurrence was in 1938; a train from Clevedon to Weston collided with a motorbike carrying two young men at the ungated Worle crossing - both died in the accident. 

A bus driver cycling to work stopped to render first aid and tragically discovered that one of the victims was his son.

Nevertheless, the Weston & Clevedon enjoyed around one quarter of a million passengers and a healthy profit in its first full year of operation. It wasn't until the company decided to expand into Portishead that it became plagued by serious financial hardship, and fell into receivership in 1909 until it closed.  

In 1911, Colonel H. F. Stephens took over the running of the WC&PR to manage the railway out of financial ruin with somewhat success.

Colonel Holman Fred Stephens. 

Colonel Holman Fred Stephens. - Credit: Colonel Stephens Railway Museum

Hailed as the light railway king, Lt. Col. Stephens managed 16 light railways in England and Wales until his death in 1931.

Named in memory of him, Col. Stephens Way in Ashcombe Road runs at the start of the original line in Weston.

Passengers would alight here and a horse drawn omnibus would take them to and from Birnbeck Pier.

Colonel Stephens Way

Colonel Stephens Way follows the start of the line at Weston. The former station master's house is visible. - Credit: Google Street View

In Clevedon, evidence of where the train used to run is still visible; Station Road is an obvious clue, as is the now empty pub, the Railway Arms, at The Triangle. 

A Clevedon by-law stipulated that trains passing through The Triangle must not whistle on approaching or departing near the church, and staff must also accompany the train at walking pace - four miles per hour - with a pair of flags to halt busy motorcar traffic. 

The railway passed through The Triangle in Clevedon. 

The railway passed through The Triangle in Clevedon. - Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Poole

During the 1930s light railways fell out of fashion, but the WC&PR managed to buck this trend by transporting stone from local quarries.

This wasn't enough to save the railway however, and after 43 years in operation, the railway closed with sections of the track and its trains sold or used for the war effort. 

The railway was much-loved by locals at the time though, evidenced by many songs and poems dedicated to it.

Below is an extract from a song written by a poet from Portishead, Ken Rollings:

From Portishead to Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare, 

Along the iron roadway and thro’ the country fair, 

That local locomotion was the best by far, 

It was great to ride to see the tide on the W-C-P-R.