Swanage Railway Swanage Railway Swanage Railway


Published: March 17, 2016

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

A dedicated Swanage Railway volunteer has written a fascinating new book detailing the last weeks, days and hours of the long-lamented Somerset and Dorset line between Bournemouth, Blandford, Templecombe, Evercreech and Bath – marking the 50th anniversary of the route's controversial closure.

Copies of the newly published 'Somerset and Dorset Swansong – The Last Days of a Steam Railway', by Bob Bunyar, have received  acclaim from readers after a signing session on the platform outside the railway shop at Swanage station.

A life-long Somerset and Dorset fan, Bob has carried out similarly popular signing sessions at a Museum of Bath at Work exhibition and a display in Evercreech, at the restored Midsomer Norton station, as well as at the Gartell Light Railway on the trackbed of the former main line.

After several years of being run down by the Western Region of British Railways, the Somerset and Dorset – dating from 1862 – was recommended for closure in the Government's infamous 'The Reshaping of British Railways' report by Dr Richard Beeching in March, 1963.

After the last day of timetabled public trains on Saturday 5 March, 1966, Sunday 6 March saw two special trains for enthusiasts run along the 70-mile route before closure came on Monday, 7 March, 1966.

Bob recalled: "My last train ride on the Somerset and Dorset before it closed was on Saturday, March 5, 1966, from Bath to Bournemouth and return on a Great Western Society Special hauled by 8F steam locomotive No. 48706.

"My memories of this last train trip are of seeing large numbers of people out in fields and on station platforms watching the death-throws of the line with the last trains passing before closure and demolition," he added.

Now living in Swanage, the 62-year old retired Avon fire-fighter grew up in Bath's Pulteney Street – within sound of the old Somerset and Dorset line – and before that he and his family lived next to the line in the village of Wellow in Somerset.

A pupil at Oldfield boys' school in Bath, Bob remembers lying in bed as a 13-year-old and listening to the sound of two British Railways Standard Tank steam locomotives hauling the last timetabled service train into the city's Bath Green Park station just before 11pm on Saturday, 5 March, 1966.

He remembered: "Hearing the final 'up' passenger working arrive back into Bath is a poignant and very sad sound that I will always remember – it was the end of an era. Both locos ran from the Devonshire Tunnel down into the City with their whistles fully open and the sound rebounded around the hills of the City.

"I lived by the Somerset and Dorset line at Wellow as a small child and have fond memories of sitting on the station platform or playing in nearby fields watching the trains pass which gave me my love for railways," he added.

With 67 photographs – many never published before – the new 97-page softback published by Wild Swan of Bath book covers, in detail, the death throes of what was, and probably still is, the most affectionately remembered and mourned railway line in the country. When reading Bob's book, you feel as though you are there.

Clearly delighted with his book, Bob said: "To my knowledge, the final sad hours of the Somerset and Dorset have not been recorded in detail before. The book is not just aimed at  enthusiasts but also people with a casual interest in railways.

"It's important that we remember and record history and human experience for future generations and the Somerset and Dorset is one line that has gone down in railway folk law," he added.

Now retired and living in Swanage, Bob's new book was born more than two years ago after a friend asked him about the closure of the Somerset and Dorset and its final train and locomotive workings of the Somerset and Dorset.

A Swanage Railway volunteer since the mid-1980s, Bob said: "I started doing research into the subject which just snowballed and my interest grew. I did an article for the Somerset and Dorset Railway Heritage Trust magazine and received more information – so much so that I thought I would try to get it into print.

"The book details the final days and workings of the Somerset and Dorset as well as the times leading up to closure. I have detailed all train workings and locomotive moves on Sunday 6 March and Monday 7 March, 1966, which was the closure day.

"There are lots of Somerset and Dorset books, but I don't think any have so much detail. I have also put in a few stories as well as locomotive and train workings of interest from 1962 onwards," he added.

The most interesting piece of information that Bob unearthed for his new book was actually non-railway – the use of one of the Somerset and Dorset's old tunnels in the late 1960s for testing a new jet engine to destruction.

"It was the testing of the Olympus engines in the Windsor Hill tunnel just after the tracks were lifted. The engines were eventually destined for Concorde – having been tested in the air on Vulcan bombers – and were tested to destruction in the tunnel by running them without lubricating and cooling oil."

For Bob, the Somerset and Dorset has always been the 'swift and delightful' rather than the 'slow and dirty'.

"My trips over the line from Wellow into Bath were always fairly quick, but the line itself was delightful mostly because of the very friendly staff . It had  a unique atmosphere. The engines might have looked dirty but I always remember the mostly Bullied carriages to be clean and tidy.

"But the Western Region of British Railways had no interest in the Somerset and Dorset and was determined to close it at all costs.

"Passenger counts were carried out in school holidays – when passenger numbers were lower – and diesel locomotives, together with diesel multiple units, were never tried over the line which might have saved on operating costs.

"Long inter-regional trains from the midlands and the north down to Bournemouth were taken off the route in September, 1962. Steam locomotives were getting run down with a lack of servicing and all was becoming very tired. The Somerset and Dorset was sabotaged and defeated," he added.

Although Bob has carried out what he describes as "endless research" in the hunt to find answers, there are still some mysteries about the end of the Somerset and Dorset that he cannot find answers for.

"I have yet to find out how and when the carriages from the last 'up' passenger train into Bath were removed from the station and by what.

"When was Templecombe Lower Yard cleared of 20 wagons as well as a departmental coach and van that remained at Templecombe after closure? Nobody can answer these two questions.

"Also, a Pannier Tank locomotive was steamed after closure at Bath and the story has it that it went for a journey down the closed line.

"I have a report from a BR relief area manager to say this happened,  the Pannier was certainly steamed after closure and photographs exist of this  but I would like to get further proof  that this run actually took place.

"There are still plenty of stories to be told about the Somerset and Dorset – and more tales keep on turning up plus photographs.

"You never know, there may be a further book sometime, but I'm now working on a book about a former Second World War  airfield at Charmy Down just outside Bath.

"I have two very different lasting memories of the Somerset and Dorset. The first is watching the steam trains rumble through Wellow station on long hot summer days.

"The second is when I had a ride in the brake van of a demolition train from Radstock to Binegar and back in 1968 hauled by diesel locomotive No. D7045. Dereliction was everywhere and it was a very sad sight indeed," added Bob, who retired from the Avon fire brigade in 2003 – after 30 years service – and moved to Swanage.

A Swanage Railway volunteer train guard for 20 years until 2005, Bob is part of the dedicated team that maintains and develops Harman's Cross station while also being on the Swanage Railway's marketing committee.

Copies of 'Somerset and Dorset Swansong – The Last Days of a Steam Railway' are £14.95 and available from the Swanage Railway shop at Swanage station or on-line at www.swanagerailway.co.uk.