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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

What Might Have Been - The Taunton 'Stop' Line and Wartime Archaeology

The Church of St. Mary, Donyatt

To the village

Today I walked a section of the Chard to Bridgwater National Cycleway, a 32-mile cycleway that follows the course of an old railway for much of its route. I accessed the cycleway at the pretty Somerset village of Donyatt, which lies close to the source of the River Isle. Just outside the village is Donyatt Halt, the site of a small country railway, which opened in 1928 and closed in 1962. And it is at Donyatt Halt that the visitor can see the obvious signs of the Taunton Stop Line, a largely forgotten aspect of the history of World War II, and a reminder of what might have been.

Donyatt Halt

Along the Trailway

Donyatt Halt and The Taunton Stop Line

The Taunton Stop Line was a World War II defensive line in southwest England, which was designed to stop any German advance from the west, should the enemy have succeeded in landing on the coast and breaking through the outer defences. The Taunton Stop Line was one of more than fifty similar defensive lines that were constructed around England in WWII, all designed to compartmentalise the country to contain any breakthrough until reinforcements could arrive. Stop Lines used a combination of geography and construction to make continuous defences. The innermost and longest was the GHQ Line, built to protect much of the south-east of England, where any German invasion was most likely to happen. This Stop Line ran north–south for nearly 50 miles (80 km) through Somerset, Dorset, and Devon, roughly from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel.

One of the defensive concrete pillars, with Donyatt church in the background

A similar obstacle at the river bridge. Slots can be seen in the concrete pillars, in which steel beams or railway track could be placed, forming a barrier to enemy tanks

Apart from the natural obstacles created by canals, rivers and railway embankments, there were numerous anti-tank obstacles in the form of concrete posts, cubes, and pyramids, and by early 1942 the line was defended by hundreds of machine gun pillboxes, and static anti-tank gun emplacements. And charge chambers were cut into all bridges, ready for their demolition. To reinforce the line and deny access to the major east–west routes that passed through the line, twelve "Defensive Islands" were added to the line in 1941, which were mined and wired, as well as being defended by pillboxes and other gun emplacements. An amazing undertaking, considering the circumstances that faced the British in 1940.

'Dragon's Teeth', used to block access from the trackway

A pillbox for a light-machinegun

A view towards Herne Hill

Thankfully, the defences were never needed, but the remains of the Stop Line (and they are everywhere) are a sobering reminder of what have been, and that the history of World War II could have been quite different. On a beautiful Spring day, contemplating Donyatt as a battleground was very sobering. On a more positive note, there is a statue and plaque to Doreen Ash, an 8-year-old from the edge of London, who was evacuated here when war broke out and the bombing of London seemed imminent. Luckily, Doreen was billeted with another girl, who was also a neighbour, with a local couple, Bill, and Violet Hutchings, who cared for the girls until they returned to their parents.

A modern statue, dedicated to Doreen Ash and the millions of other evacuee children

Doreen's Story

I shall look forward to exploring the rest of this wonderful cycleway!

All photos by Roy Nicholls

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