Strawberry Line

A Saunter Along the Strawberry Line

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Between the end of World War I and 1970, thousands of miles of railway line were closed in Britain due to various cost-cutting and efficiency measures. The most famous round of closures came in the 1960s as a result of the infamous Beeching Report from then British Railways chairman Dr Beeching. The Cheddar Valley Line, also known as the Strawberry Line, linked Wells, Cheddar and Yatton and was one of those lost to Beeching’s cuts. However, like many other routes axed at this time it now has a new lease of life as a walking and cycling route. Many of these lost lines are also valuable spaces for wildlife so earlier this week I decided to follow the old route and see it for myself.

The History of the Strawberry Line

The line between Cheddar and Yatton opened in 1869, with an extension to Wells following in 1870. Yatton served as an important junction with the main Bristol to Exeter line, allowing villages to the south to get goods easily to and from larger metropolitan centres. As well as local stone and milk, the large quantities of strawberries grown on the slopes of the Mendip Hills could now reach Bristol and London much quicker, hence the line’s nickname. Its construction involved some incredible feats of engineering. From Yatton south to Sandford, the line was built on an embankment across the shifting peat moors. The southern section had to use deep cuttings and tunnels to deal with the limestone of the Mendips.

Strawberry Line Track
A remnant of old track at Winscombe

As road travel became easier and cheaper following World War II, people used the line less and less leading to Beeching’s closure recommendation. The last passenger train rain in September 1963, with the last goods train a year or two later. Locals very quickly began using the closed track for walks and in 1978 they formed the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk Society (now the Strawberry Line Society) to make things official. The society persuaded Somerset Council to buy a section of the original route and lease it to them to run as a walking trail and nature reserve. It is now also on the National Cycle Network. The route currently runs for about 10 miles between Yatton and Cheddar. There are hopes that one day it can extend to Clevedon in the north and Wells and Shepton Mallet in the south, plus link into a wider car-free circuit of Somerset.

Strawberry Line sign
The line got its nickname from the strawberries it carried

Quenching Bristol’s Thirst

Most guides recommend doing the walk from north to south, but I decided to go south to north, starting at Cheddar. This was mostly because I was travelling from Bristol by public transport and wanted to do the longer journey at the start of the day. At time of writing, local bus firm Libra Travel link Wells to Cheddar, but routes and services do of course change. From the walk’s start, it didn’t take me long to reach Cheddar Reservoir, one of six artificial lakes supplying the city of Bristol. A short detour took me to the footpath circling the reservoir for a closer look at its birdlife.

Cheddar Reservoir
Water levels at Cheddar Reservoir were extremely low

Despite low water levels due to this summer’s drought, there was a huge variety of species using the area. There were hundreds of teal and coots, along with mallards, cormorants and great crested grebes. Incredibly, though, at least 25 great white egrets were standing around in the morning sunshine. Not too many years ago, the presence of just one of these birds would have resulted in birders from the surrounding area flocking (sorry) to the see it. Now, however, these recent colonists are breeding on the Somerset Levels in ever greater numbers. Around 50 young fledged in 2021 from the Levels alone. The sight of so many together at the reservoir was quite something. As an added bonus, I also spotted a lone ruff and three little stints at the water’s edge.

Great white egrets
Just some of the 25 or so great white egrets at the reservoir

Into the Mendips

Turning back onto the old railway route, I carried on through the pretty village of Axbridge. The line then leaves the village and climbs up to a section of glorious ancient hedgerows. Dense and full of autumn’s bounty, these hedges included a large variety of species, indicating they have been here for hundreds of years. Spindle, hawthorn, blackthorn, ivy and dog rose were all present and bursting with fruit. In places, the vegetation formed its own tunnels, as though hinting at the route’s past history. Long-tailed tits leapfrogged each other along the hedges, followed by smaller numbers of blue tits and goldfinches.

Strawberry Line hedgerows
Ancient hedgerows full of blackthorn, hawthorn and spindle line the path
Strawberry Line hedges
In places, the hedgerows form their own tunnels to echo the manmade ones

The most obvious signs yet of the railway appeared as the path headed through a section cut deep into the surrounding limestone. Hart’s tongue ferns grew densely up the banks, and the sunlight struggled to reach the footpath. The highlight of this part of the walk is the Shute Shelve Tunnel, a 165-metre tunnel through the rock. This is an atmospheric reminder of the path’s former history, although bringing a torch is advised as the ground underfoot is uneven. I didn’t stop to explore but for arachnid fans, the tunnel is apparently home to some interesting cave spiders. Bats also roost in the tunnel.

Hart's tongue fern
Hart’s tongue ferns cover the banks of the cutting
Shute Shelve Tunnel
Shute Shelve Tunnel is 165 metres long
Shute shelve tunnel
The tunnel is home to cave spiders and a number of bat species

Cider Country

A few miles further on the former station at Winscombe has been repurposed as a lovely green space for locals and walkers alike. The old platform is clearly visible along with some of the railway’s old sleepers, seats and light fixtures. The walk then continued through more thick hedgerows with views along the Mendips to reach Sandford. Here the scenery changed as I left the Mendips and entered the orchards of cider country. Somerset is famous for its apples and cider with producers including Thatcher’s who have been here since 1904.

Winscombe Station
Winscombe Station is now a community space and picnic area

Traditional orchards are biodiversity hotspots because of the mosaic of habitats that make them up. The mix of hedgerows, trees and unimproved grassland provides habitat for a range of species. Fruit tree flowers attract a host of pollinators and autumn windfalls provide food for invertebrates, birds and mammals. The trees and hedges also provide homes and refuges for wildlife. Sadly, traditional orchards have declined by an estimated 90% since the 1950s. I saw plenty of insects in the sunshine around the trees and a beautiful male bullfinch. Bullfinches were actually once culled in their thousands around orchards, with bounties sometimes offered. Because they eat the flowering buds of trees, farmers believe this impacts the crop later in the year. Licences to kill them are still occasionally issued by Natural England which seems incredible for an amber-listed species.

Strawberry Line orchards
Orchards surround the walk near Sandford

Moors and Rhynes

The orchards’ end marked the start of the final leg of the walk. This crosses the North Somerset Levels, a land of big skies, reeds, rough grassland and long drainage ditches called rhynes. The Romans first used these ditches to drain land below the level of the highest spring tides. Drainage accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tall, dense hedgerows still bounded the path, full of tit flocks and the odd chiffchaff. I heard an elusive Cetti’s warbler from a stand of reeds, but summer’s reed and sedge warblers departed weeks ago. Common darters were still on the wing, though, despite it being mid-October. Kestrels and buzzards hovered and soared overhead.

Strawberry Line rhyne
The North Somerset Levels are crossed by drainage ditches called rhynes
Common darter
Common darters were still on the wing

Just after the road crossed the busy A370 and then the Yeo River at Congresbury, I was treated to the sight of quite a few European hornets settling on the leaves of the trees by the path. I had seen a few in flight around the orchards, presumably attracted by the windfalls, but not in these numbers. Once settled, some would preen themselves while others seemed to just bask in the sunshine. I’ve never had such good views of hornets before. The sight gave an added boost to tired feet as I covered the last couple of miles to the end of the line at Yatton and, fittingly, a train back to Bristol.

European hornet
European hornets are large and beautiful insects

This is an incredible walk with such varied and interesting scenery and wildlife. Moving between the Mendips, orchards and Levels means there is a different feel to each section. There is also the added bonus of Cheddar Reservoir and its water birds. For history and transport enthusiasts, there is much to see with lots of information boards along the route detailing the history of the railway line and surrounding area. There are plenty of refreshment stops along the way and good transport links to each end (at present). Because the route is also a cycle path, the surface is good for most of the way and there are only two short on-road sections. I will definitely be back to walk the Strawberry Line again to see what the different seasons bring.

Strawberry Line start/end
The end (or start) of the walk at Yatton

Further Reading

The Strawberry Line Society’s website is a good starting place for information. There are also details about their campaign to extend the line and how to support them.

The charity Railway Paths Ltd owns and manages a number of former railway lines, providing walking, cycling, wheelchair and riding routes. They work closely with Sustrans and an interactive map on the site allows you to find a walk near you.

This brilliant guide includes over 100 more railway walks across mainland Britain. Each route is accompanied by the line’s history as well as full access details and maps.

For a more general exploration of the railways routes axed in the 20th century, this is a good introduction. The book highlights the sort of architecture to look for to identify a lost line as well as places to visit to see the best examples.

Macdonald and Gates’ lovely book shows us the orchard through each month of the year. Despite being a manmade habitat, we see how full of wildlife they are and why it is important to save them. The book also includes a brief history of orchards in England.

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