The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Riding The Rails

The Swanage Railway is almost taken for granted by people of the town and of Purbeck, but what is it actually like to drive a mighty locomotive from Swanage to Norden? Peter Frost describes such a trip.

It is a Sunday morning at Swanage station on a beautiful sunny day and there is a gentle breeze blowing in from the bay. My steam locomotive is West Country class Bulleid Pacific No. 34028 ‘Eddystone’. The majestic 128-ton leviathan of steam was built in 1946 and withdrawn for scrap in 1964 before being restored from a rusting scrapyard condition.

Eddystone Steam Locomotive

West Country class Bulleid Pacific No. 34028 ‘Eddystone’ departs Swanage past the station’s signal box which was built from scratch by railway volunteers. The Bulleid Pacifics were a familiar sight on the Swanage branch during summer weekends from the late 1940s to 1966 when long London trains snaked their way down to the Dorset seaside resort.

My fireman is Pete Duncalfe, an old friend and fellow Swanage Railway volunteer since the late 1970s, who is normally a driver. When we started helping to re-build the fledgling steam railway from Swanage, we were teenagers and now we are middle-aged we still have the same enthusiasm. Thirty years on, the line has been re-laid seven miles and connected to the national railway network near Furzebrook. The award-winning Swanage Railway carries more than 200,000 passengers a year thanks to its Norden park-and-ride scheme.

Peter’s fire is already well built up in the locomotive’s huge firebox. Having taken water – 1600 gallons go into the massive 5250-gallon tank in the tender – he checks the boiler pressure is at 220 lbs per square inch and the shape and condition of the fire. With our train guard, John Stopher, blowing his whistle and waving his green flag, I release the brake and pull the regulator open. With two or three gentle tugs, I admit steam into the cylinders and the steam chest pressure gauge begins to rise to 100 psi. Gracefully, more than 300 tons of train forming the 9.50 am to Herston, Harman’s Cross, Corfe Castle and Norden park-and-ride eases out of Swanage station.

Running under the Northbrook Road bridge, we pass the locomotive depot with its restored turntable and Purbeck stone engine shed – both opened with the line from Wareham in May 1885 and abandoned by British Railways in early September 1966, when diesel replaced steam on the Swanage branch. Crossing the Swan Brook stream bridge, we head out alongside the King George playing field. We are into the 1 in 110 gradient as we pick up speed and run past the rear of King’s Road West and under the Victoria Avenue bridge. We are accelerating quickly and I adjust the controls so we are using more of the steam’s expansive properties. We pass Swanage’s industrial estate, formerly the site of the town’s gasworks, before passing the earth banks of the Swanage flood alleviation scheme as the Purbeck Hills rise in the distance.

Eddystone Steam Locomotive

With the dramatic Corfe gap in the Purbeck Hills seen in the background – and Wareham and the snowy hills near Blandford visible in the distance – ‘Eddystone’ gathers speed as it powers its train for Norden park-and-ride past Woodyhyde Farm.

Peter is already putting more coal on the fire as the exhaust is drawing the fire with every beat. The gradient eases to 1 in 300 through Herston Halt. I blow the whistle and we run through the halt at the line speed of 25 mph. Bursting under the Washpond Lane bridge, we are romping along and the train is soon into the next sweeping curve. The rolling landscape of the Purbeck countryside opens out with impressive views of Nine Barrow Down to our right beyond Windmill Knapp.

I ensure the regulator remains set well open, giving a steam chest pressure of 180 to 200 psi to maintain our speed. My fireman checks the water level in the boiler as we continue up the bank and along the straight to New Barn where we follow the curve over the girder bridge. We are on a fairly level section and sweep right to left before diving under the Purbeck stone arch of the A351 Nursery road bridge No. 24.

Ahead, the gradient rises sharply to 1 in 78 as I blow the whistle for the Pondarosa Farm crossing. We round the bend into the Wilderness and a half-mile straight through the ancient woodland. Rapidly, we approach the Quarr Farm level crossing and I look up at the approaching distant signal for Harman’s Cross. The gradient rises to 1 in 76 as we reach the home signal and the summit of the climb. Rounding the bend, the left arm of the double bracket signal is raised, giving us the road into the platform at Harman’s Cross. I shut the regulator. We pass under the lofty arch of the bridge carrying Haycraft’s Lane – formerly Dunshay Lane – and into the turnout for the passing loop into the ‘up’ platform. I gently apply the brake and we glide to a stop.

There was never a station at Harman’s Cross during British Rail days. Opened in 1989, Harman’s Cross was the first wholly new station built in Dorset for more than 50 years. We wait for the train from Norden and Corfe Castle to run into the station, hauled by ex-BR Standard Class 4 tank No. 80078 – built at Brighton in 1954 and rescued from the Barry scrapyard in South Wales before being brought to Swanage in September 1976. After being given the green flag from the guard, I ease open the regulator and the massive six feet two inch wheels of ‘Eddystone’ start to move. We pass the signal box and cross onto the single line – running downhill to the dip at Woodyhide Farm and rapidly back up to the line speed of 25 mph. Looking ahead, I admire the spine of the Purbeck Hills, while high on the hills to the south is the outline of the church tower at Kingston.

Drivers eye view of Corfe Castle Station

A driver’s eye view as ‘Eddystone’ runs into Corfe Castle station. Closed and abandoned by British Rail in January 1972, the station lay derelict for almost twenty years – and was nearly demolished for a bypass – before being brought back to life by dedicated Swanage Railway volunteers.

We are now running at a steady pace and, with the regulator shut, we run over the 1 in 132 gradient to the summit just short of the A351 Afflington road bridge. Momentarily level, we then coast downhill all the way into Corfe Castle, sweeping across the ancient common. We pass the distant signal for Corfe Castle station before thundering under the ornate stone Common Bridge. I apply the brakes as our 300-ton train pounds over a cattle creep girder bridge at Battlemead and our speed is down to 15 mph as we approach the passing loop at Corfe Castle station. Peter keeps the boiler pressure steady at 220 psi as I release the brakes just before we pass over points and into the loop. With the gaunt castle ruins rising above the station buildings, we run into the platform.

Eddystone Steam Locomotive pauses at Corfe Castle station

With the gaunt medieval castle ruins towering above, ‘Eddystone’ pauses at Corfe Castle station en route from Swanage to Norden. Originally built during the 1940s with an air-smoothed casing over its boiler and so nick-named a ‘spam can’, ‘Eddystone’ was modified and had its boiler casing removed during the 1950s.

Looking at the restored and bustling station, it’s hard to recall what is was like when disused between 1972 and the late 1980s – and sobering to think that it was nearly demolished for a bypass. Our guard gives us the ‘Right Away’ and we are off as Peter puts more coal on the fire. The rhythmic beat of the exhaust chatters from the chimney as we run along the embankment below the castle ruins and approach the cutting through Challow Hill.

We rumble over the Sandy Lane bridge and the stone village rooftops and castle ruins disappear as we enter the cutting, its chalky sides inches from the train. Bursting out of the cutting, we re-emerge into the daylight and silhouetted against the sky to our left is the imposing ruin of Corfe Castle towering on its mound. We accelerate and ahead, the four-arched Purbeck stone viaduct spans the B3351 Studland road and the combined tributaries of the Wicken and the Bile streams skirting either side of the castle mound. Rumbling like thunder, we pound over the viaduct, punching up the 1 in 264 gradient towards the start of Scotland Heath. We sweep round the curved approach to Norden with the station coming into view through the skew-arched narrow-gauge clay tramway bridge. One more blast on the whistle announces our arrival at Norden park-and-ride as we run into the station and I bring ‘Eddystone’ train to a smooth stop – right on the mark!

Peter Frost at the controls of the Eddystone Steam Locomotive

A founder member and Swanage Railway volunteer since the beginning in 1976, Peter Frost worked his way up from cleaner and fireman. Here he is at the controls of ‘Eddystone’. Bulleid Pacifics hauled prestigious express trains between London, Southampton, Bournemouth and Weymouth from the mid-1940s to the end of steam across southern England in July 1967.

Dorset Directory