– – – Exploring The Countryside and Lanes of Dorset – – –
This week, there was a turning back of the clock…….by some 45 years! I was a part of it 45 years ago, and I was a part of it this week, and what a great day it was. You see, something that was abandoned as being not needed all that time ago is now back in place because people wanted it so! What is it? It is a branch line railway that closed way back in 1972 but this week was reopened. But that is not all of the story.
The line in question was the Purbeck line that ran from the mainline station at Wareham through to the Dorset coastal town of Swanage. It operated until 1972 and I remember traveling that line as a child and teenager, but the powers that be decided that it didn’t pay and they closed the line. In the short space of just 7 weeks in 1972, despite protests from local people, most of the track was torn up in what now seems a gross act of vandalism. But fortunately some people had a vision to restore the line and this week they achieved a massive goal. What took 7 weeks to destroy has taken 45 years to rebuild!
But that is still not the whole story of this blog. You see, I thought I’d like to be part of this historic day and I came up with a plan to get to Wareham Station, by train of course 🙂 , and catch the first train of the new service to Swanage. Then I would spend the day walking. But you know that expression, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men…..’
I arrived at Wareham Station only to find that the first two trains were already fully booked out to staff and volunteers! So I put into place Plan B, which actually I didn’t have prior to that moment, and decided to walk the 15 miles from Wareham to Swanage and then catch the last train back. At least that way, I would still be part of that first day, if not the first train 🙂 ! Oh, but just to make sure, I phoned ahead and pre-booked my seat!
So, I set out on a beautifully sunny day, walking through Wareham initially to reach the quay beside the River Frome. This is a great start to any walk because the first mile or so follows the river, with lovely dappled light spreading across the path and boats and swans bobbing on the water.
As with a lot of walks, my route did involve some country lanes but I enjoy walking these at this time of the year because there is so much to see in the hedgerows, and anyway, the lanes soon gave way to open heathland. I knew that the railway crossed the heath and I wondered if I would reach the line before ‘my’ train went through but, Murphy’s Law, the train went through literally minutes before I crossed the line. I heard the throaty diesel but I couldn’t see it.
From town, to riverside, to country lane, to open heath, and now to woodlands, dense and ancient with ponds and rivulets. Birdsong accompanied me as I walked and I could hear, but not see, deer rustling through the trees. It was delightfully shady and cool under that overhead canopy on this warm day.
Eventually, my route brought me out into the open again as Corfe Castle, standing proud on its hilltop, came into view across the valley. You can see why it was built at that particular point at a break in the Purbeck ridge that stretches out both sides of the castle. And in the dip to the left of the castle, I could see the railway line that would be my way back……if I made it in time to catch the last train!
I continued straight through Corfe and climbed up the hill the other side to reach the top of the Purbeck Hills that stretch for miles in both directions. The hills are not really that high but the climb up is long and slow, and I sat down part way for lunch. Skylarks were singing their hearts out overhead, and the views were just awesome. What could be better. These hills are special to me as I ‘cut my walking teeth’ on them when I was a child, and I have walked them ever since.
Much of the rest of my walk was along this lofty ridge, along mostly grassy paths, and as the afternoon drew on, I reached the point where I could look down and see Swanage below me. At this point, I knew I had about an hour to get down off the hills, walk along the seafront and through the town to reach the station. With the still glorious weather, it seemed a shame to be ending my walk and I was tempted to just keep on walking into the evening, but the draw of the train on this memorable day was too strong.
Now I have to say at this point that I am not a steam buff nor a railway geek, I just enjoy train travel, and enjoy revisiting our past heritage.
I joined the Dorset Coast Path, and dropped down off the hilltop into the town and made it to the station with 20 minutes to spare. The platform was crowded, the train was waiting and of course, the BBC were there filming. This was an occasion!
So how did this project reach this landmark after the devastation that was left in 1972? Well, that very same year, the Swanage Railway Society was formed, and those involved ‘had a dream’! In practical terms, it all started 4 years later when the group were granted a one year lease over the, by then, near derelict Swanage Railway Station. A few hundred yards of track were laid and by August 1979, diesel trains were running along it, followed the next year by steam. Little by little the track was extended until in 2002, exactly 30 years to the day after its closure, a temporary connection was made again with the main line.
There was still more to do however because a regular service could not be introduced due to essential signalling work being required. Finally this was carried out in 2014 along with other upgrading work to bring the line up to the required standard to make it permanent. All this work, at the cost of millions of pounds, was completed last year.
It just seems amazing that what took just 7 weeks to destroy, has taken 45 years to re-instate, and it is thanks to the tenacity of an increasing group of volunteers. It is thanks to them that I was able to board the train on Tuesday for my first journey to Wareham since I was a young man.
At this stage the trains are being pulled by diesel engines, double ended because there is nowhere for the engines to turn at Wareham. The current service is part of a two year trial which hopefully will be extended to make this a permanent feature of Purbeck again.
What a memorable day. It hadn’t worked out exactly as I planned but nevertheless, I had an amazing walk, taking in a whole variety of different terrains, and been part of a historic day in the Isle of Purbeck.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler
If you would like to contact me, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org – comments and feedback are always welcomed.