The Swanage Railway
Swanage is a seacoast town located on the Isle of Purbeck, in the county of Dorset, in southwest England which is just one quarter of a United Kingdom. Why the area is called the Isle of Purbeck is a mystery to me as it's not an island at all, but a peninsula. Probably for the same obtuse reason as the word "Mall" is pronounced "Mel", as in Mel Gibson, or Keighley which is pronounced Keethlee. English... it's a foreign language.
Now the reason for visiting Swanage is their heritage steam railway, known as the Swanage Railway, which runs between central Swanage and a parking lot 6 miles to the northwest at Norden. The railway wasn't always 6 miles long, at one time today's little heritage railway was part of the national network of rail lines connecting at Wareham Junction 3 1/2 miles past Norden.
Today regular steam hauled passenger trains can make up to 7 return trips per day along the route. In addition there is a dining train named the "Wessex Belle" plus special events held throughout the year.
Along the Way
The dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle stand on a natural hill guarding the principal route through the Purbeck Hills. It guards the gap between the south of Purbeck, where Purbeck marble was once quarried, and the rest of England. Nothing could pass in or out without going past the Castle.
It may have been a defensive site even in Roman times and Corfe Castle certainly has had a colourful history. The first castle buildings would have been built of wood.
In the latter half of the 11th Century the Castle was rebuilt in stone by William the Conqueror and for the next six hundred years was a royal fortress used by the monarchs of England and latterly their constables. By 1572 warfare had changed and Corfe Castle was sold by Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Christopher Hatton, her dancing master and favourite.
In 1635 the Castle was bought by Sir John Bankes, who was Lord Chief Justice, as an occasional private residence. As trouble brewed for Charles I, the Bankes family took up permanent residence.
By 1643 most of Dorset was occupied by the Parliamentarians, and Lady Bankes and her supporters successfully withstood a six week long siege. Sir John Bankes died in 1644 and the family endured a series of half-hearted blockades by Parliamentary forces.
Late in 1645 Colonel Bingham, Governor of Poole, started a second siege, and treachery by one of the garrison allowed a Parliamentary force into the castle in February 1646. The Roundheads allowed the family to leave the Castle and then it was systematically destroyed by Parliamentarians. Captain Hughes of Lulworth was given the job of demolishing it. His sappers dug deep holes packed with gunpowder to bring the towers and ramparts crashing down, resulting in the yawning gaps and crazy angles we see today.
Sir Ralph Bankes, son of Sir John, built a new home named Kingston Lacy House to the west of Wimborne and managed to gather together many of the plundered possessions to furnish the new house. The Castle remained in the ownership of the Bankes family until 1982 when it was bequeathed as part of the Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estate to the National Trust by Mr. H.J.R. Bankes.
As you can see from the timetable it takes just 25 minutes to travel the entire line in just one direction including stops along the way. If you take your time it's easy to spend an entire day exploring the railway.
Swanage - Starting at the town of Swanage it's a short walk from the station to the Northbrook Road overbridge. From this vantage point there is a clear view of the engine shed, turntable, and coaling facility located on the north side of the narrow stone bridge. The signal box, sidings, platforms, and station building may be seen looking in the opposite direction. Arrive early in the morning and you may watch the locomotives being steamed up for the day. A small grassed area on the west side of the tracks offers a bench with a closer view of the operations.
Herston Halt - This is a flagstop on the line. You must inform the guard before arriving if you wish to get off the train here. The train driver will stop for a clear hand signal from the platform when you wish to board a train.
Harmans Cross - When North American opposing trains meet at a siding to pass each other it's called a "meet". When this happens in Britain the trains are said to "cross" each other. So you can guess how the name for this station was derived. There is a signal box and two small wooden stations with platforms located here, well one station at the time of writing, as the east station (The "down" line. British railway trains are designated as either up or down trains. Up for trains travelling towards London, down for trains leading away from London.) building was nearing completion. It's a fair walk along pathways leading south from each platform to overbridge number 23 where you may cross over the line.
Corfe Castle - This would be the main stopping point for any visitor to the railway. A typical stone station building lies on the west side of two tracks with a steel pedestrian overbridge connecting both platforms. Opposite the station is the 2011 award winning signal box complete with operational levers, and two electric token machines. The very interesting village of Corfe Castle is just a short walk from the station. The Dragon's Village Bakery offers fresh pasties and baked goods daily that are a real treat. Then there's the ruins of Corfe Castle itself. See the inset to learn more about the castle history.
Norden - Currently this the northern end of the line with one platform, a run-around loop, small cafe, and a parking lot. Trackage continues to Wareham Junction about a mile and a half west of Wareham but regular trains do not operate here. On special occasions visiting locomotives or trains will uses this connection to the national rail network. It is hoped daily commuter service between Swanage and Wareham will be developed in the future. If so, it is unlikely Swanage Railway steam power would operate past Norden.
Between 1847 and 1877 several attempts were made to get a bill through parliament to construct 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 their 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 5 May 1883 by the London firm of Curry & Reeves. The first public train of the London & South Western Railway left Swanage station on 20 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 then dedicated volunteers have lovingly restored the railway to what you see today.
Initially the track was re-laid as far as Herston, on the outskirts of Swanage, and then onward the three miles to the village of Hartmans 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 Harmans Cross in July 1997.
1998 saw the extension of the park and ride facilities at Norden, allowing visitors to leave their cars and enjoy a journey back in time. A further step forward was taken on 3 Jan 2002 when the remaining missing sections of track were re-laid between Norden and the Network Rail stop block at Motala near Furzebrook.
On 8 Sep 2002 the first through train from the main line at Wareham visited Swanage via a section of track which temporarily replaced the stop block.
Work to improve the track continued over the next five years as a permanent ground frame and catch point system was installed at Motala. On 10 May 2007 a train of 4 large diesel locomotives was the first to use this permanent connection to the main line.
Improvements by Swanage Railway to the track between Norden and Wareham have continued. Installation of the permanent ground frame at Motala allowed the operation of special rail tour 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 rail tour from London's Victoria station to Swanage via Wareham on 1 Apr 2009. Due to huge demand for tickets, the diesel-hauled service was repeated the next day.
The first steam service between Wareham and Swanage since closure of the branch in 1972 included the "Dorset Coast Express" on 2 May 2009, followed by the "Royal Wessex" on 4 May 2009.
Two folders published for the 2012 season are displayed below.
Click on either to view a larger image.
Swanage Steam Locomotives
LSWR 0-4-4T class M7 No. 30053 - Post-war Southern Railway black as number 53. News Articles
SR 4-6-2 "West Country" class No. 34028 Eddystone - BR lined green with late crest.
BR 2-6-4T class 4MT No. 80104 - BR lined black with late crest.
GWR 0-6-2T 5600 class No. 6695 - BR lined green with late crest.
1 Apr 2009 - Historic Passenger Train Returns
29 Jul 2010 - Swanage Railway Reconnection to Network to Go Ahead
14 Mar 2012 - Get a Driver's-Eye View from Steam Loco's Cab
5 Apr 2012 - Swanage to Wareham Daily Service
18 Apr 2012 - Princess Elizabeth Locomotive to Haul Banbury to Swanage Train
27 Apr 2012 - Banned Clan Line Steam Locomotive's Return Trip
11 May 2012 - Steam Trains Set to Visit Weymouth This Summer
17 May 2012 - Corfe Castle's New Railway Signal Box Opens
Swanage Railway Magazine
35 pages magazine
Swanage Railway Trust
Station House Swanage Dorset BH19 1HB
The Swanage Railway - Halsgrove Railway Series
144 pages hardcover
9.1 x 8.5 inches
Swanage Railway: A Pictorial Guide
David Anthony Green
18 pages paperback
Swanage Railway Company Ltd.
Associated Web Sites
Swanage Railway Trust
Steam Train Galleries
Swanage Route for MSTS