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As early as 1856, a meeting was held in Chard to discuss a proposal to build a railway from the town to Taunton. Seven years later, in 1863, while the canal was in its declining years, the records of the Combe family tell us that they were already negotiating with Rennie, Logan and Matthews, the contractors for the railway, about excavation of stone from a field west of Herne Hill known as Bellows Nose; "this to be quarried - stone considered to be at a depth of 9ft. The stone to be used for embankments etc." Although the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company used the broad gauge of 7 feet 1/4 inches for their track, this was later (1891) converted to the standard gauge 4 feet 8 1/2 inches - the last section of broad gauge to be converted on the GWR in Britain.
In the early summer of 1865 the work began. Irish navvies duly arrived and set about their astonishing work in digging the cutting and constructing the embankments. It must have been a difficult time for the village having bands of strange rough men living close by. Donyatt cider probably had a part to play in the numerous fights reported in the district. What is surprising, perhaps, is that although the line opened on Tuesday, 11th September 1866, Donyatt did not get a halt until 1928 - Donyatt villagers had waited 62 years for a train to stop !
Records for Donyatt Halt state: "This halt, opened on May 5th, 1928, has a single platform edged with wooden sleepers, and a small wooden shelter. A pathway leads up from the platform to the road, which crosses the line by an overbridge at the Ilminster end of the platform. An ornate oil lamp stands at the top of the path and there are various posts with brackets for hanging oil lamps in winter." It would be the guard's duty to light and extinguish these lamps. Five trains a day operated in each direction taking about 45 minutes for the 15 - mile journey from Taunton to Chard, having made stops at Thornfalcon, Hatch, Ilton, Ilminster and Donyatt.
Defence emplacements, legacies of the Second World War, can be found all along this track. Although the Germans did no damage to this railway, some 20 years later an Englishman did. In 1962, as a result of Dr Beeching's 'axe', thousands of miles of rural railway lines across the country were abandoned.
The railway through the village suffered the same fate. As the Irish labourers were ripping up the rails, one remarked to Alan Hull, a local farmer: "Our grandfathers laid this track, we're taking it up, and bejeebers in a few years you'll want us to put it back in again”.
The last train ran on Saturday 11th September 1962.
Donyatt Halt 23rd April 1962.Photo courtesy of Mr Sid Sponheimer - Cornwall Railway Society.
Other Ideas for the Cutting
If you think that the closure of the railway marked the end of the village’s interest in the abandoned line and railway cutting - you would be much mistaken. For years The huge railway cutting remained almost undisturbed - Mother Nature setting about her reclamation. Despite the man-high stinging nettles. brambles and flooding, a few hardy souls used to regularly try to walk its length, and each year it grew more difficult. Eventually, by default, it became a sort of 'no- go' area for humans, but a veritable haven for wildlife.
In 1981, Somerset County Council gained planning permission to use the railway cutting as a dump for waste material from the ‘construction industry'. The South Somerset branch of Friends of the Earth (FoE) mounted a vigorous protest. Opposition to this outrage was pushed aside by the County Council - it looked a certainty that Goliath would win again - that is until David stepped up.
To support their case, the FoE had brought in David Bellamy, the highly popular TV naturalist - petitions were signed, meetings held and protests multiplied. Following a FoE survey discovering 176 different varieties of plants and 56 species of birds, FoE campaigners were interviewed on the Radio 4 "Today" programme.
After nearly two-years of battle, the SCC decided not to implement their planning consent and agreed instead that the railway cutting should function as a County site for wildlife.
Donyatt Halt in a dilapidated state prior to the refurbishment
The Halt as it is now, with the cycle path leading towards Ilminster
One of the noticeboards telling the story of the Halt and the Stop Line defence network
In 1998, one hundred and thirty three years after it was dug as part of the transport link, and which once seemed doomed, local volunteers started a two year work plan on clearing the cutting.Once completed, it was incorporated into the National Cycle Network (Sustrans).
Following the successful clearing of the cutting and the other parts of the old line between Ilminster and Chard, and several further years of hard work and planning, on 19th June 2008 Councillors and community members from Ilminster, Donyatt, Knowle St Giles and Chard gathered at Donyatt Halt to unveil plans to give the former railway line a £69,000 face-lift.
The Old Railway Heritage Community Project had received backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund to tell the story of the five-mile section of the Sustrans cycle track between Ilminster and Chard.
The project aimed to give people a history of the abandoned railway line, which was a major transport link before it was lifted in 1963.
The Donyatt Village Plan Steering Group has spearheaded the campaign since 2002, alongside South Somerset District Council and community groups from the four main points along the route.
Group chairman David Willis said: "The idea behind the project is to celebrate our local history, as well as bringing more visitors to the area.
"We've done all the planning, it's just a question of bringing everything together - the sooner we can get stuck in the better."
The makeover, which got underway that summer, included the installation of six interpretation boards along the route, improved footpath networks and wildlife information.
It also featured the exposure of several gun emplacements and tank traps, as the route was once part of the major military Stop Line built to protect the country from invasion during the Second World War.
The focal point of the project was the complete restoration of Donyatt Halt, including the old station sign, which disappeared when the railway closed, as well as the platform and the station hut.
Gervais Bellamy, brother of David Bellamy, read out a message from the famous botanist at the unveiling.
He said: "Your wondersome community project is a visionary and excellent example of a green renaissance.
Together you are ensuring that the future generations of Somerset can glean common sense by touching history both natural and people made."
Project manager Brian Harper said at the time: "I'm very pleased that the project is finally getting underway, it has been a community effort and we have worked our socks off to get this far."
Ilminster Mayor Carol Goodall added: "It is an exciting time, a lot of work has gone into the project and there is lot more to come. We have the funding now so I don't see why we can't go the whole way."
Work was completed in May 2009.
Villagers are now able to join the route at Donyatt Halt and, just as in the age of steam, choose to travel anywhere in the country – this time on a huge network of dedicated cycle paths.
(Certain excerpts from the book "The Story of Donyatt".
Thanks also to Chard & Ilminster News for allowing an amended reprint of
their story on the refurbishment of Donyatt Halt)