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PIONEERING VOLUNTEERS MARK THE 40th ANNIVERSARY OF RESTORATION WORK STARTING AT SWANAGE STATION

Published: February 27, 2016

Story and pictures by Andrew P.M. Wright                                                                                             Swanage Railway official photographer and press officer

Pioneering Swanage Railway volunteers have gathered to mark the historic 40th anniversary of the start of restoration work at a derelict and disused Swanage station back in 1976.

Then teenagers, the railway preservation stalwarts are now aged in their 50s and still involved in the award-winning Swanage Railway which has been rebuilt from nothing after the branch line from Wareham was controversially closed and demolished in 1972.

It was on Saturday, 14 February, 1976, that members of the fledgling Swanage Railway Society moved into the boarded-up Victorian station building to start restoration work after obtaining a one-year lease from the Swanage Town Council.

Forty years on, to the day, some of those original railway restorers gathered on the platform at Swanage station to exchange stories and anecdotes about that historic development in the re-building of the Swanage Railway.

Present were station porter Jonathan Burke, steam locomotive drivers Nigel Clark, Peter Frost, Bob McGaw and Nick Hanham, Neil Tatchell and carriage restorer Jeremy Weller.

Retired to his home town of Swanage, Jonathan Burke said: "My memories of that first day of restoration work at Swanage station are of achievement and a realisation that there was a very long way to go.

"Many people said it would never happen so it was good to gain access to Swanage station. The railway was very dear to my heart and it still is," he added.

Aged 14 in 1976, Nigel Clark recalled: "My mother and father had been involved in previous attempts by the Isle of Purbeck Preservation Group to keep the railway open in the late 1960s. My dad later died in 1976 but I stayed involved with the railway as did my mother.

"It was only after a referendum among townspeople in Swanage that resulted in an overwhelming majority in favour of the railway society that the town council gave us a short-term licence to move into the station house, the old parcels office – now the shop – and the goods shed.

"We took the boards off the windows of Swanage station and gained access to the station with a lot of enthusiasm and felt that we were going to do it, which we have," he added.

Growing up in the village of Corfe Castle, the British Rail branch line from Wareham to Swanage was Peter Frost's childhood playground with the railway staff being his friends.

"When the opportunity came to rebuild the railway with the formation of the Swanage Railway Society, I leapt at the chance. Society chairman Andrew Goltz provided a real opportunity to achieve the dream when the group was given a lease of the station site.

"We were able to recreate part of our history and rebuild the railway. Swanage was in a recession in 1976 and the winter months in the town were dead because the visitors stopped coming.

"We were enthusiastic youngsters 40 years ago. Eventually, we ground down the opposition through the power of our rationale behind rebuilding the railway and the progress being made on the ground," added Peter, aged 17 in 1976.

Bob McGaw started volunteering with the Swanage Railway Society after looking for a hobby when he gave up playing football.

"The Swanage Railway has successfully negotiated many pitfalls  – the meetings with local councils and the Corfe Castle bypass issue which threatened to stop the railway from going any further than Harman's Cross.

"Now we are getting through to Wareham which is tremendous. We are used to delays, it happens with everything. It has been good – I have met and worked with some interesting people," added Bob who travelled to Swanage from his home in Christchurch.

Nick Hanham, from Poole, was aged in his 30s when he joined the Swanage Railway Society and was among the first volunteers to gain access to the Victorian-built station in February, 1976.

"We converted the old parcels office – next to the station house and the old booking office – into a shop and it's still the station shop today, 40 years later.

"Back in1976, we didn't know what was in store, the battles we would fight, the hurdles we would overcome. We just carried on – relaying the track and bringing in the locomotives, carriages and other items by road needed to rebuild a railway.

"Our spirit was very determined. The moral is never give up. Just plough on, no matter what the problems. We've solved many problems over the years and the Swanage Railway is still solving problems and moving forward – 40 years later.

"The Swanage Railway has been a huge part of our lives and the sacrifices have been worth it. The backing of our wives and girlfriends has kept us volunteering and pushing the Swanage Railway forward," added Nick who lives in Poole.

For Neil Tatchell, 13 years old in 1976, it was his volunteering on the fledgling Swanage Railway as a teenager that would lead to his working career as an engineer.

He remembered: "On that first weekend, I remember sweeping up glass everywhere. I'm very proud to have been part of the Swanage Railway's pioneering days.

"We brought or own tools and we had whip-rounds to buy petrol for our first locomotive, a small shunter called 'Beryl'.

"A lot of work during the Swanage Railway's first months was carried out by teenagers. The Swanage Railway influenced many people's lives, especially young people," he added.

Also aged 13 years in 1976, Jeremy Weller is still a Swanage Railway volunteer 40 years on – patiently restoring heritage carriages from the 1930s and 1940s for use on the Swanage Railway.

"That first day was very strange because the derelict station buildings were marooned in a wasteland of rubble, grass and old stone track ballast.

"To be allowed to go on to a disused railway station and start to restore and rebuild it was fantastic. It was a unique experience and something very special. I've been very lucky to have been a part of it for 40 years," added Jeremy who lives in Poole.

Twenty-five year old volunteer locomotive cleaner James Wheatley – who joined the Swanage Railway in 2014 – has nothing but praise for the youngsters from 1976 who started the restoration of Swanage station as the base of the heritage railway.

"I'm very appreciative of those early railway volunteers who started with nothing at Swanage and have, through decades of work, built the heritage railway that so many people enjoy today.

"Those early Swanage Railway volunteers are certainly people to look up to. Without their determination many years ago, our generation wouldn't have the opportunity to work on steam locomotives and keep the skill of the footplate alive.

"It took a lot of courage and determination on the part of those pioneers from 1976 who moved into a derelict Swanage station as success wasn't guaranteed and their huge efforts against all the odds could have ended in nothing," added James.

For an informal chat – and to find out more – potential Swanage Railway volunteers should contact Swanage Railway volunteer co-ordinator Mike Whitwam on 01929 475212 or email '[email protected]'.