The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Through the heart of Wessex

Guy Smith tells the story of the former Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway

The 1.05 pm train from Bristol Temple Meads leaves Dorchester West for Weymouth in the summer of 1965

One hundred and fifty years ago, on 20 January 1857, the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway officially opened. The event marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Weymouth and the end of a twelve-year struggle to complete the line. Authorised by Act of Parliament in June 1845, the WSWR was built during the time of ‘railway mania’ and was largely the product of the ‘gauge wars’ fought between the Great Western and London and South Western railways. When the LSWR proposed a standard-gauge (4 feet 8½ inches) route from Basingstoke to Swindon in 1844, the GWR responded with a plan to extend its broad-gauge (7 feet ¼ inch) network to the south coast at Weymouth, deep into LSWR territory.

The WSWR was created by the GWR as a means to attract local financial backing, but by 1848 the money had already run out. Only twelve miles of the line had been completed from Thingley Junction, on the main Bath to Salisbury GWR line, to Westbury when construction was halted. The south coast was still 120 miles away!

Fearing that the LSWR might reach Weymouth first, the GWR took complete control of the project in March 1850 in a bid to see it completed. However, within two years financial difficulties once again halted construction. When work did begin again in 1854, the GWR faced the threat of a suspension of its dividends if work was not completed within two years. By the time it was completed, the GWR had spent £1,433,000 on the line and was anticipating making an operating loss. Plans for branch lines to Sherborne and Bridport and a link between Weymouth and Weymouth Harbour were shelved indefinitely.

An excursion from Weymouth to London passes through Dorchester West in February 2004

None of this bothered the inhabitants of Weymouth, who celebrated the line’s opening in fine style. The Dorset County Chronicle states that on 27 January 1857 a ‘general holiday was observed by all classes’. Flags were hung from buildings and a pair of triumphal arches erected by the council at the entrances to St Mary’s and St Thomas’ Streets. A procession, led by the mayor, marched from the town hall accompanied by the band of the 15th Hussars who were stationed at Dorchester. Arriving at the station, the marchers discovered ‘an immense train was prepared for their reception’. The GWR provided 300 free tickets for an excursion to Yeovil which departed at 11.30, arriving in Yeovil one hour later ‘having been greeted at the various stations along the line by many sympathising demonstrations in the shape of colours displayed, the firing of cannon, and the shouts of crows of spectators’. Later in the day a dinner was held at the royal Hotel which was followed by an ‘exceptionally well attended’ ball at the Victoria Hotel.

Five years later, the Dorset County Chronicle (28 August 1862) was reporting rather more sobering news: an accident at Weymouth station of ‘a rather extraordinary character’. The report detailed the demise of the last Great Western train of the day which ran out of control on its approach to Weymouth and crashed through the station buffers, ‘advancing some little distance into the road towards the Somerset Hotel, in which the shock was plainly felt, Fortunately the speed was arrested without violent concussion among the passengers, but the stoker, who was in front of the engine applying sand to the rails, jumped off to save himself, and received a few slight injuries.’

In spite of such incidents, the line provided a great boost to the prosperity of Weymouth which only the year before had witnessed the arrival of a 22-carriage train carrying 850 passengers! Visitors from Bath, Bristol and London flocked to the resort, as did employees from the GWR works in Swindon. ‘Swindon Week’ (superseded by ‘Swindon Fortnight’) quickly became a part of the local calendar.

There is no doubting the scenic beauty of the line

Not all visitors came from so far afield. Besides Weymouth, the WSWR boasted five other Dorset stations: Dorchester (later Dorchester West), Frampton (almost immediately renamed Grimstone and then Grimstone and Frampton!), Maiden Newton, Evershot and Yetminster. The GWR ran six trains a day to the south coast. The LSWR meanwhile began services to Weymouth on the same day as the GWR. To accommodate both companies’ locomotives, the line between Dorchester and Weymouth was built as ‘mixed gauge’ track and remained so until June 1874 when the WSWR was converted to standard gauge. Over the years extra stations were opened along the route (which eventually became known as the Bristol-Weymouth line) and although some have since closed, Thornford, Chetnole and Upwey remain open.

Despite surviving the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, the line’s viability was constantly being called into question. As a result, the Bristol0-Weymouth Rail Partnership was set up in 1994 to safeguard the future of the line. The Partnership brings together nine councils including Dorset CC, West Dorset DC and the Weymouth and Portland BC. Its aims are: ‘to promote the railway, improve local information provision and encourage growth in local economies without encouraging more road congestion and pollution.’ It also funds and co-ordinates improvements to stations. Both Maiden Newton and Dorchester West (nominated in 1989 as one of the worst stations in the country!) have recently been renovated and equipped with CCTV. Meanwhile a competition saw the line re-named ‘The Heart of Wessex Line’, a title also adopted by the Partnership.

A train in Heart of Wessex livery at Dorchester West

In December 2005 the First Group was awarded the new ‘Great Western’ franchise (of which the line is a part), beating off competition from Stagecoach and National Express, and formally took over the running of services in April 2006. First Great Western, as the train operator is now known, appears to have inherited a rejuvenated line with passenger journeys up from 671,000 in 2002 to 910,000 in 2005. Catherine Philips, Partnership officer, believes this ‘phenomenal growth’ (36% compared with a national average of 13%) is due to a large extent to the Partnership’s policy of involving local communities. ‘Our being able to fund local volunteer groups has made a huge difference,’ she says. Barry Thirlwall, Chairman of the Partnership, is similarly impressed. ‘The line is an essential rural link,’ he points out before adding a note of caution, ‘but despite the growth it will never be out of subsidy. There just aren’t enough people living near the line to put it into profit’. To this end the Partnership has instigated and supported schemes such as the ‘Rail Ale Trail’, which has so far generated nearly 10,000 recorded visits to participating pubs up and down the line by visitors from all over the world.

Suggestions to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway in Weymouth include the running of a special train service and the naming of a locomotive after the resort. Of most significance, though, is the renewed confidence felt by those involved with the line. The Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway, may be 150 years old, but ‘The Heart of Wessex Line’ certainly appears to have a future.

Pam Raynham’s suggestion of ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ won a public competition to name a locomotive.  She is seen at the naming ceremony with John Peake of Dorset CC.

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