Royalty, poets and moss
Shillingstone station is coming to life again after forty years. Tony Burton-Page looks at the restoration project.
Published in February ’10
‘No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe,’ sang Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in their astonishingly moving song Slow Train, which laments the closure of thousands of miles of railway and, in particular, the hundreds of stations on them during the Beeching axe of the 1960s. ‘They’ve all passed out of our lives…’
The Somerset & Dorset Railway was one of the most lamented of the closed lines and since its closure 43 years ago it has become as much a symbol of Dorset as Thomas Hardy himself. The line went from Bournemouth West to Bath, running on its own track north of Broadstone, with branches from Evercreech to Burnham-on-Sea, Bridgwater and Wells. Dr Beeching wielded his axe thoroughly, leaving not a track behind, and now the S&D is indeed such stuff as dreams are made on – although as much of the blame for this must go to Ernest Marples, the one-man mission to keep Britain rail-free: surely the only British Minister of Transport to have his own road construction company.
Almost nothing of the S&D survives in Dorset today: some rails in the road at Stalbridge, a pair of gates at Sturminster Newton – even the memorial buffers at Blandford are not actually from the S&D. But at Shillingstone, thanks to a few quirks of fate, the entire station still exists. After closure, Dorset CC earmarked the trackbed for a proposed Shillingstone bypass and bought the stretch of track from Haywards Lane to a point past the Holloway Lane bridge, a purchase which happened to include the station buildings. In the 1980s the buildings were taken over by a furniture company, who adapted them as a workshop for their own purposes; but after a change in ownership, the firm went into liquidation and the station was empty again. But by now the building of bypasses had become less acceptable in both environmental and financial terms, and in 2002 Dorset CC eventually shelved the idea on a permanent basis by declaring it superfluous to requirements and putting it up for sale. The North Dorset Railway Trust had been formed in 2000 with the idea of restoring the station to its 1960s state, and three years later Dorset CC finally agreed to let them have the lease, although it was not signed for another two years. Bureaucracy moves at a speed of such geological stateliness that even rural rail travel seems dizzyingly fast.
Since then, the NDRT volunteers have been working extraordinarily hard to catch up with forty years of undone maintenance. Anyone who has left a garden to look after itself while they go away on holiday will know how quickly nature takes over; factor in the accumulation of man-made rubbish which an industrial estate breeds and you have a Sisyphean task before you. For example, once the track bed between the platforms had been cleared, it was noticed that the hitherto invisible platform supporting walls were in a dreadful state and much of it needed to be re-built. The situation was neatly summed up by the sight of a tree growing out of the station’s central chimney stack.
All this is a far cry from its days of glory. The station opened during the days of ‘railway mania’, when lines were being built all over the country. The Dorset Central Railway had linked Blandford and Wimborne in 1860. The intention was to proceed northwards to Cole in Somerset and join the Somerset Central Railway’s line to Burnham-on-Sea, thus making a rail connection with the Bristol Channel (at Burnham) and the English Channel (at Hamworthy). The two railway companies amalgamated, even before the line was finished, to become the Somerset & Dorset Railway in 1872. It became the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway in 1875 when the railway was let on a 999 year lease to the Midland Railway and the London & South Western Railway, after the line had been extended to Bath: the complex engineering works necessary to pass through the Mendip Hills and the Somerset coalfield had bankrupted the company.
Shillingstone station itself was built by the Dorset Central Railway and opened on 31 August 1863, the day that the service from Blandford to Templecombe began. The event was celebrated with a general holiday in the village: the rector and his wife entertained so many villagers that the rectory barn was called into service.
As with so many country villages, the arrival of the railway transformed life there. Until then it had been as cut off from the rest of the world as it had been in the middle ages; now a short walk to the station was the start of a journey to previously unattainable destinations. For the first time, a day out at the seaside could be more than just a dream for Shillingstonians.
It was not only social life which was revolutionised. Shillingstone had its own goods yard, and from it local produce could be despatched not only to Bournemouth and Poole but also, via the junction at Templecombe, to London. In the station yard a loading bay was built, enabling milk churns to be loaded onto wagons destined for the metropolis. Live rams for breeding purposes could also be moved using this bay, and Shillingstone gained a reputation as a livestock transportation depot. The ‘cattle dock’ at the north end of the down platform became such a crucial part of Shillingstone life that the restoration team made its rescue a priority: its platform walls have been re-built and once again it has rails – and at a recent open day there was actually an old cattle wagon on them.
A rather more unusual local industry was moss gathering. This was not the sedentary activity which one would assume it to be, for the moss was collected from the north-facing slopes of Okeford Hill, raked from the grass or gathered by hand and then taken to the station. It was taken to Waterloo (again via Templecombe) and thence to Covent Garden, where it was used for the dressing of the stalls in the flower and fruit and vegetable market. Shillingstone’s moss rather than anywhere else’s was Covent Garden’s choice until the closure of the line made it impossible to get the moss there at an economic rate, but the industry is commemorated in Tim Laycock’s nostalgic song Shillingstone Moss.
The station has both royal and poetic connections. King Edward VII used it on his visits to Iwerne Minster House (now Clayesmore School), where he was a frequent guest on account of the quality of the shooting there: the birds apparently flew high enough to give good sport for the guns. It was thanks to these royal visits that the station was granted a canopy over the platform.
The poet in question is Rupert Brooke. He and his comrades of Hood Battalion boarded trains at Shillingstone to Avonmouth Docks in Bristol on 28 February 1915. From there they sailed on troopships to Turkey, where the horrors of Gallipoli awaited them. Brooke, however, did not survive the journey: he fell ill and died on 23 April. Why the troops boarded at Shillingstone, which involved a ten-mile march from Blandford Camp, rather than using the much closer station at Blandford, is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps it was an attempt by officialdom to keep the army’s movements secret. There was certainly a news blackout at the time: the Dorset County Chronicle, having mentioned on 25 February that the division was due to leave camp, was totally silent about the subject in the next issue.
One of the most popular services to use the line was the ‘Pines Express’, which ran from 1910 to 1976, taking passengers from Manchester to Bournemouth West. It did not deign to stop at Shillingstone; it did, however, stop at Stalbridge, and perhaps there is some poetic justice in the fact that there is no trace of Stalbridge station today, whereas Shillingstone is going from strength to strength. The station roof has been repaired and trees no longer grow out of its chimneys. The interior has been completely refurbished, a task which involved much structural repair. The parcels shed has been restored and now houses a museum full of fascinating railwayana. The porter’s cabin has been re-built in authentic style. The ladies’ waiting room is fully functional and considerably less spartan than the gentlemen’s equivalent, which boasts the original slate partitions in the urinals. And the sixty feet of track by the platform is now graced by the presence of a locomotive – admittedly, a small diesel shunter, but Class 9F 2-10-0 Morning Star sits in the yard awaiting restoration. Perhaps one day it will steam into the platform: stranger things have happened in the world of preserved railways. In the early 1980s, the situation at the Swanage Railway looked very similar; now it is one of Purbeck’s best attractions. Given the enthusiasm and dedication at Shillingstone, it would not be surprising to see a parallel success story.
Shillingstone Station is at the northern end of the village on St Patrick’s Industrial Estate, DT11 0SA.
Opening times: Saturdays and Sundays (also Wednesdays from Easter) 10.00-4.00.