Updated: Nov 15, 2020
'257 Squadron' Steaming Through Purbeck
The eastern corner of Dorset, known as the Isle of Purbeck, is beautiful; rolling hills, a rugged coastline, fields, woodlands and stunning beaches. No place then for the noise and filth of a heritage steam railway. I have friends who would be passionate advocates of such a statement and whose arguments are indeed thoughtful and compelling. However it is not a ride that I am able to be fully on board with.
Allow me to clarify. Those of you who have read some of my earlier posts will be familiar with my unconventional stance on conservation. In the context of nature and the landscape I am always eager to support and maintain our familiar sights and views, our ecosystems and their essential biodiversity. At the same time I understand that what is familiar and seemingly permanent to us was, at one point, very unfamiliar or even non-existent to our ancestors. It is very easy to settle into a position and take a snap-shot of our life today and imagine that it represents the ideal, the ultimate point of arrival. This ignores thousands of years of human involvement that has continually moulded and influenced our surroundings, in good ways and bad. Perhaps more than any other outside agent, the railway has defined the land around us; embankments built up, cuttings and tunnels blasted through, woodlands cut down and replaced by stations and bridges. "Foul play!" I hear you shout. At the time, yes possibly, however we benefit greatly from freedom of movement today, and its effect on business and progress has delivered many positive advancements to our lives and society. The landscape remains the best document we have of this progression and we should understand it, not so much as a museum piece to be admired, but as a fluid expression of our endeavours. Just a quick reference back to the 'filth.' Burning coal isn't good and I'm keen to see our carbon emissions minimised, but we need to be realistic about this - it is no longer our primary source of energy and the quantity here is so insignificant as to be negligible, and more than offset by the railway's replacement of 40,000 cars per year on the road between Corfe Castle and Swanage.
Enough of that - let's get on board and talk a little more about the Swanage Railway, a 10 mile branch line that weaves its way through the Purbeck countryside, terminating in the seaside town of Swanage.
30120, Letting off Steam at Swanage
August 1982. I am almost 10 years old and for the first time my parents have taken us (me and my three siblings at the time) on holiday to Swanage for the week. We are staying in 'Dozen Steps' a charming house owned by family friends on the west side of town. Sitting on the steps and looking down the street affords a pleasant view towards the Purbeck hills, blue and soft-focus in the distance. A wispy trail of smokey-grey steam moves along the foot of the hills, stops, dissipates, then returns in the direction it came from. Then a whistle, no more than an apologetic wheeze; once, and again a second time. Further research is required. In the town centre we find Swanage Station, open but only just and certainly requiring some love and attention. A small tank engine is in operation, pulling and shunting a couple of carriages one mile up the line to Herston Halt, then back again. Not so much a Restored Heritage Railway, rather a boy's Hornby train set and a partially assembled one at that. Yet there is something wonderful and compelling about it: the locomotive's mechanical parts - clanking, shiny steel, precisely milled; the smell of hot oil and a faint whiff of sulphur in the steam; the unmistakable 'thunk' of a carriage door closing; the fireman, one half grey and sooty, the other glowing orange from the light of the firebox, peering through a mask of smudged coal dust. The Reverend W. Awdry would have most certainly approved.
Originally opened in May 1885, a 10-mile branch line was built for operation by the London and South Western Railway, joining the mainline at Worgret Junction near Wareham. Taking passengers into Swanage, via Corfe Castle, the railway saw Swanage change dramatically from a quarrying and fishing town to a popular seaside resort. Sadly, British Rail closed the line in January 1972, removing the track and allowing the infrastructure to fall into disrepair. With only one road into Swanage from Wareham, the railway was of great significance to the region and sorely missed. A group of volunteers were granted permission to rebuild the line in 1976 and it opened for the first time again to the public in 1979. These were early days though for the volunteers; funding limitations and engineering obstacles made for slow, but dogged progress, almost sleeper by sleeper at times.
August 1989. Back in Purbeck, and each year since 1982 there has been incremental progress on the Swanage Railway. Firstly, inching its way from Herston Halt, and then on to a newly built station at Harmans Cross which had opened the year before. We are in Corfe Castle for the day and decide to walk down to the old, disused station. It is in a sad state; green and yellow paint from its old Southern Railway days, cracked, flaking, and faded to hues that Farrow & Ball would describe as Nuclear Winter and Rancid Haddock. We walk along the old track bed, overrun with grass, brambles, and young ash saplings. Bright pink rosebay willowherb, purple buddleia and a solitary foxglove add splatters of colour in an attempt to cheer us up a little. Just visible through the weeds are discarded track chairs, bolts and fishplates, slowly disappearing, digested by the decade's dereliction; it doesn't take long for nature to gain the upper hand once more. As the grime-coated ballast crunches underfoot I reflect on a popular initiative to extend the line through to Corfe Castle and to reopen the station. "A thing of dreams - it's never going to happen" I muse. Curiously, near the end of Platform 1 a short length of track, no more than a few meters long, has been roughly assembled. Symbolic perhaps, or simply wishful thinking? It feels like the latter: there are no cheerful whistles to be heard here today, just the jarring call of an agitated magpie and the rumble of traffic on the A351. I can't help thinking that it really shouldn't be like this.
The track bed was cleared, the line relaid and Corfe Castle station reopened, painted and resplendent, to passenger trains in August 1995.
80104 Arrives at Corfe Castle
June 2020. I am back in Swanage for the day. We are already two months into the Covid-19 lockdown. Non-essential retail has just reopened and I have some new original paintings to deliver to the Mulberry Tree Gallery. The town has a pleasant, albeit somewhat restrained sense of busyness to it as vendors and purchasers feel their way forward once more. But something is missing. Throughout the day there have been no whistles, and in the coming days I will learn from speaking with friends in the town that many have missed the friendly greeting of Swanage Railway's locomotives running up to Norden and back. The railway is unable to reopen as a result of the restrictions in place and it is sad to learn of a worrying funding shortfall that threatens the future of the railway, a mismatch between the need to keep incurring costs and no revenue to offset them. Over the years I have developed a deep affection for Swanage and it is impossible to imagine the town, and the wider region, without the railway. The vision, dedication and perseverance of so many volunteers over decades cannot be lost, and the sound of an engine's whistle must return to the Purbeck landscape once more.
Happily, as I write this post Swanage Railway has been able to open over the summer and it has launched the Save Our Service Appeal to help address the funding shortfall. As soon as I became aware of this I explored various ideas to help with the initiative, which is ultimately the reason for this post. I created these four paintings in collaboration with the Mulberry Tree Gallery and Swanage Railway and 250 Limited Edition prints of each painting are available to purchase at the Swanage Railway shop, or online through the Mulberry Tree Gallery and also my own online shop. All of my profit margin on sales and the gallery commission will be transferred in full to Swanage Railway's Save Our Service Appeal (you can read more about it by following this link https://saveourservice.co.uk) Any support that you are able to give is greatly appreciated, and if you have a penchant for railway paintings then so much the better.........
31806 Heads the Last Service to Swanage