A brief history of the Swanage Railway
A brief history of the Swanage Railway
The Swanage Railway is situated on the Isle of Purbeck in the south east corner of the picturesque county of Dorset. The Isle covers approximately 100 square miles but it is not a true island even though the English Channel, Poole Harbour and the River Frome almost surround it.
Swanage Station on Opening Day 1885
The railway first came to Swanage in 1885 and was operated by the London & South Western Railway Company. Between 1847 and 1877 several attempts had been made to get a bill through parliament for a railway from the existing line at Wareham to Swanage. All these attempts were thwarted by the residents of Wareham who objected to the line going through the centre of the town. In 1880 a local businessman and magistrate, George Burt, succeeded in getting a bill before parliament for a Swanage branch avoiding the centre of Wareham. Construction of the line commenced on 5th May 1883 by the London firm of Curry & Reeves and the first public train left Swanage station on 20th May 1885.
In January 1972 British Railways closed the line and lifted all the track. However, this was not the end, as a group of enthusiasts got together to rebuild the line. In the summer of 1975 a licence was granted to the Swanage Railway Society to occupy the disused Swanage station site, since when the dedicated volunteers have lovingly restored the railway to what you see today.
Initially the track was relaid as far as Herston, on the outskirts of Swanage, and then onward the three miles to the village of Harman's Cross. 1995 saw the long awaited opening of the extensions to Corfe Castle and then Norden, followed by the opening of the signal box and passing loop at Harman's Cross in July 1997. 1998 saw the extension of the park and ride facilities at Norden, allowing visitors to leave their cars and enjoy to the full this journey back in time. A further step forward was taken on 3rd January 2002 when the remaining missing sections of track were laid between Norden and the Network Rail stopblock at Motala near Furzebrook. On 8th September 2002 the first through train from the main line at Wareham visited Swanage via a section of track which temporarily replaced the stopblock.
Work to improve the track continued over the next five years and a permanent groundframe and catchpoint system was installed at Motala. On 10th May 2007 a train of 4 large diesel locomotives was the first to use this permanent connection from the main line.Improvements by Swanage Railway to the track between Norden and Wareham have continued, and together with the permanent ground frame arrangements at Motala have allowed the planning and operation of special railtour services for the first time since 1972.
The first public passenger service between Wareham and Swanage since 1972 was "The Purbeck Pioneer", a 12-coach diesel-hauled railtour from London Victoria to Swanage, via Wareham on 1 April 2009. Due to huge demand for tickets, the diesel-hauled service was repeated on 2nd April 2009.
The first steam services between Wareham and Swanage since closure of the branch were "The Dorset Coast Express" on Saturday 2nd May 2009, followed by "The Royal Wessex" on Monday 4th May 2009.
A trip down the Swanage Branch from Wareham
After leaving the Waterloo to Weymouth main line, the single track Swanage branch enters a deep cutting. The track falls at 1 in 80 before crossing the River Frome on two iron viaducts, (one of six arches, the other of three) with 34ft span, to enter the Isle of Purbeck. The branch makes a wide sweep from the main line and passes about three-quarters of a mile away from the village of Stoborough. The line continues in a south easterly direction, driving under Holme Lane bridge, and then climbs at 1 in 78 to cross over the road to Creech by way of an iron girder bridge. The line continues through a cutting to reach the first summit of the line at Furzebrook. Just over 100 feet in altitude has been gained in this short section.
The section of the line we have just travelled has been used extensively by gas trains from the BP terminal at Furzebrook. During the first 10 years of production from the Wytch Farm oilfield, oil was exported by rail from Furzebrook. Then, as a major oilfield expansion in 1989/1990, BP converted the terminal from oil to butane and propane export and a new 56 mile buried pipeline was constructed to carry the oil to Hamble terminal on Southampton Water. Butane and Propane was stored at Wytch Farm gathering station and then piped to Furzebrook for loading onto the trains, the entire operation being computer controlled. At peak an average eleven trains a week arrived at Furzebrook to take the gas to BP's distribution terminal at Avonmouth, with the final trains running in 2005. Now the reduced amounts of gas are transported by road.
After leaving Furzebrook the line passes close to the Blue Pool, a very popular tourist attraction in the area. This interesting lake was formed when open cast clay mining ceased and the drainage pumps switched off. The resultant pit gradually filled with water and with careful landscaping formed the attractive pool you see today. The distinctive blue colour of the water is caused by minute clay particles suspended in the water refracting the sunlight. The branch then crosses the route of the former Pike Brothers tramway. This line linked their clay pits with Ridge Wharf on the edge of Poole Harbour, but the development at Furzebrook led to the eventual demise of this and other tramways.
Just beyond this point we come to the end of the line so to speak. Track beyond here was all lifted in 1972 and since 1975 has gradually been replaced by the dedicated volunteers of the Swanage railway. From here the route of the branch falls at about 1 in 80 to pass under the A351 Wareham to Swanage main road, at Catseye Bridge. The road improvements in 1987/8 have meant that the existing brick skew arch bridge has been superseded by a modern steel reinforced bridge alongside giving rail passengers the impression of a short tunnel. The track continues along an embankment through which the Middlebere tramway crossed the branch by means of a limited clearance tunnel. About half a mile further on another ball clay transhipment terminal, Eldon's sidings, was used until 22nd March 1966. This dealt with ball clay brought in by the Fayle & Company tramways network in the Norden area. The line then goes under the Arne road and passes over a new level crossing. This has been built by BP to allow access to the Wytch Farm oilfield. Once over the level crossing we reach Norden station and the current terminus of the line. Park and ride facilities are available here so that you can leave your car and enjoy to the full a trip back in time to Purbeck.
On leaving Norden station the line passes under Skew Bridge. This fascinating latticed iron girder bridge has an inclined surface and was part of the Fayles tramway system. Emerging from a cutting at falling gradients of about 1 in 260 the line goes over the B3351 Studland Road by means of the majestic Purbeck stone Corfe viaduct. Immediately past the viaduct the line plunges into a steep sided cutting through Challow Hill and over a small iron girder bridge into Corfe Castle station.
Corfe Castle station buildings were built of local stone by Bull & Son of Southampton. When the line was closed in 1972 the station buildings were purchased by Dorset County Council and leased to a computer technology company. When this company ceased trading in 1992 the County Council granted the Swanage Railway a licence to restore the buildings. Corfe Castle station has now been restored to as near original condition as possible.
Towering over Corfe Castle station are the magnificent ruins of Corfe Castle. Strategically set on a commanding site at the only break in the Purbeck hills this remains one of the most impressive castle ruins in England. It was built in the late 11th century, during the reign of William the Conqueror and was strengthened by his son King Henry I to make it the safest fortress in England. During the civil war the castle was besieged for about three years. At the time it was owned by Sir John Bankes who supported Charles I against Oliver Cromwell. The castle fell into the Roundheads hands in February 1646 and in March of that year Parliament decreed that the castle be demolished. The order was carried out over the next few months to leave it more or less as you see it today. Corfe Castle is now administered by The National Trust.
Returning to the branch, Corfe Castle station originally boasted a large signal box situated on the Down platform next to the present waiting shelter. This box however was closed on 17th June 1956 and the porters' lobby on the Up platform was extended to become the new signal box. The 12 lever frame controlled the signals and points and was interlocked with electric token instruments at Swanage and Worgret Junction to ensure safe working of the single track branch.
In 2011, following several years of construction by volunteers, Corfe Castle station's new 'Victorian' signal box entered service on the Down platform. This box controls the existing signals and points and has capacity to control future working towards the main line at Worgret Junction.
On leaving Corfe Castle station the track climbs at 1 in 80 and out across Corfe Common. The countryside changes as the line passes through pleasantly rolling farmland. A mile from Corfe Castle station the line passes again under the A351 near Afflington Farm and continues through a short cutting before coming out on an embankment to pass by Woodyhide Camp Site, the largest in the area. The gradient having dropped slightly from Afflington now rises at 1 in 132 to arrive at the second summit of the line at Harman's Cross station.
Harman's Cross station was opened in March 1989. The new signal box was constructed with a local stone base and timber cabin, and together with the passing loop has made Harman's Cross the main crossing point for trains between Swanage and Norden. On leaving Harman's Cross station the line goes under Haycrafts Lane and into a short cutting on a descending gradient of 1 in 76. About half a mile from Harman's Cross the line passes over Quarr Farm Crossing and into the Wilderness. The line then crosses over Ponderosa Farm Crossing which provides access to a popular camp site. From Ponderosa the line dives into a cutting and yet again under the A351 Wareham to Swanage main road by Nursery Bridge and out onto an embankment. The line continues through lush meadows on both sides where on some days deer can be seen grazing. Also worth looking for are buzzards who can often be seen gliding gracefully about the sky. Soon the approach to Herston is signalled by the Signal & Telegraph Store area on the right as the line passes under Washpond Lane bridge and into Herston Halt, one mile from Swanage.
Herston Halt was opened at Easter 1984, nine years after the project first received a licence to occupy the Swanage site. A simple wooden platform construction which will take two coaches, Herston has now become a request stop following the opening of the line to Corfe Castle and Norden. On leaving Herston the line falls at 1 in 300 then, steepening to 1 in 110 goes past Swanage Industrial Estate. Here the project has taken over a large building as a locomotive, carriage and wagon workshop. This facility is a far cry from the open air muddy yard we vacated. Just past the industrial estate we pass under for the last time the A351 main road and continuing down a 1 in 110 gradient pass King George's Playing Fields on the left and into Swanage station limits.
As the train slows down through the approaches to Swanage station we pass on the left the original LSWR engine shed, with the 50ft. turntable which was rescued from London Transport's Neasden Depot. The train then passes under Northbrook Road bridge and then passes the new signal box on the left and the Victorian goods shed on the right and into Swanage station proper.
Swanage station is the terminus of the line and is exactly 11 miles 70 chains from Wareham station. The original station was constructed in 1885, but in 1937 was extensively altered to cope with increased traffic. So far as the buildings were concerned, the goods shed was almost doubled in length, the station buildings were extended to their present size, all this with matching materials and in design blending well with the 1885 original. The new facilities provided a parcels office (now the shop), ticket office (still in use), a waiting hall and newsagents shop, subsequently used as Wilts & Dorset's bus office, but now closed.
When the project took over the Swanage site in 1975 the Bay platform had been filled in. Due to the building of a supermarket on the old goods yard site we have been able to reclaim the bay platform. The platform arrangement at Swanage has now been returned to the original layout The goods shed was built for approximately £600 and has been twice extended (1898 and 1937) to cope with increasing loads. We now use the goods shed for carriage restoration.
We hope you have enjoyed your trip back in time on our railway and will want to visit us again. Indeed, even better, you may wish to join us and help run the railway. Whichever it is, thank-you for visiting us and we look forward to welcoming you again to our railway.