Exmoor is known for its sheep and cattle, its red deer and Exmoor ponies. It is less known for its iron ore. Yet scattered across the area are the remains of old iron workings, some of which can be dated back to the Bronze Age. Walk the area after a heavy rainfall and red-stained water flooding down paths and across roads is a sure sign of the presence of iron. The building in this picture, the Old Mineral Line Winding House, is pivotal to the story of extracting iron-ore from Exmoor in the industrial age. The story points to the imagination, eccentricity and uniqueness reflected across so much of Exmoor. It also speaks of energy, hope and daring.
There are substantial deposits of iron ore on the Brendon Hills but the question faced by our nineteenth century forebears was how can it be transported to where it needed to be smelted. The answer came in 1853, when a company was formed to extract ore from mines along the spine of the Brendons to transfer it to Watchet Harbour and across the Bristol Channel to South Wales. The quickest and shortest route to Watchet was by train and so the West Somerset Mineral Line (known locally as the Old Mineral Line), which only required 12 miles of track, came into being. However, half way along, the train, with its load of iron ore, would need to negotiate the drop between hills and coast: a height of 1000 feet. Accordingly, a 1 in 4 incline was constructed so that wagons loaded with ore could be safely rolled down to sea level while at the same time empty wagons, attached by chains to cables, would be hauled to the top to make their way to the mines. Who would have thought that such a daring system would work? But it did. The Winding House, which accommodated two massive cable drums and the home of the brakesman, who oversaw the hauling and lowering, was central to the operation. Without the Winding House, the mines could not function.
This industry brought life, energy and a real buzz to the whole area. People’s lives were changed and enriched by this venture. Locals gained employment; miners, shopkeepers, railwaymen, teachers, builders and missionaries flocked to Exmoor. New villages were built, old villages enlarged and shops sprung up. Chapels were constructed and preachers tramped across the moor, forming congregations in welcoming cottages. A room in my house was used for this very purpose.
But too soon, after only 20 years, the industry, which was never really profitable, collapsed. Mines were closed; people lost their livelihoods; villages were deserted; the Mineral Line was abandoned; station houses were turned into cottages. People were confronted by the fragility and unpredictability of life and livelihoods: at the same time their lives would have been changed – maybe positively or maybe negatively – by this venture. The only part of the operation that is still functioning is the prominent, strategically-placed Beulah Chapel, originally built by a group called the Bible Christians to serve those attracted by the mining. It is now a Methodist Chapel.
There is something attractive, alluring and energizing about the Winding House. Frequently, I drive past it: occasionally, I stop to go into it. I continue to be filled with wonder at its role in bringing life and hope into a neglected area where living was tough and unpredictable and aspirations low. In the stillness it is almost possible to smell the smoke from the fireplaces that remain in the brakesman’s house and to hear the heavy rumble of those massive cable drums hauling up and lowering down their heavy loads.
Today, the Winding House, deserted and without its community, is a reminder of the ultimate fragility and unpredictability of life. Its presence also points to the hope that if, in the good times, we can grasp life with energy and daring, then these experiences will provide us with inner resources to face the difficult times.
Contemplating Exmoor – Gallery
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Who would have thought it! How easy to forget the hard times our forebears went through, and the dissociation between the workers and the (usually rich) entrepreneurs. They, no doubt could move on to other projects elsewhere, leaving behind the destitution and poverty of those who worked for them and were left behind. It feels a bit like those who dared their all to start businesses pre-pandemic, and who now have not only lost their livelihood, but also their hopes and dreams.