The best of Dorset in words and pictures

From railway to trailway

The old Somerset & Dorset Railway is undergoing a transformation into a ‘Trailway’. Jan Seymour looks into the progress and aims of this project and the benefits it will provide to the community.

Visualise the beauty of Dorset which can be enjoyed away from the noise, the fumes and dangers of traffic which is freely available for walkers, cyclists, families with push-chairs, horse-riders and people of all ages and ability; and you have just visualised a trailway.

The Trailway is a haven for dogs and those who walk them

The Trailway is a haven for dogs and those who walk them

The ‘North Dorset Trailway’ is being developed on the trackbed of the old Somerset & Dorset Railway line, which closed to rail traffic in 1966. The disused railway line provides an ideal route for the Trailway, which links many of North Dorset’s towns and villages as it meanders through areas of outstanding beauty. Accessible for a wide variety of users, the Trailway is an eight-foot-wide multi-purpose pathway which provides benefits to the community far beyond recreational activities. The friendly surface is ideal for mobility vehicles, can provide children with a safe route to school, or a pleasant commuter route to work. The Trailway has almost endless uses for us all to leave our congested roads behind and really appreciate the rolling countryside of Dorset. It has been through the dedicated efforts of numerous groups of people who appreciate that such a national treasure should not be left to decay that this historic rail route is now being restored to provide a haven of leisure activities for the general public to enjoy. The moment you step on the Trailway you can sense the potential for a memorable day out. There is a whiff of nostalgia in the air; you can almost hear the steam-worked trains of the past.

The Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway commanded considerable loyalty from railway enthusiasts. Generally referred to simply as ‘the S&D’, it came into existence on 1 November 1875. The arrival of main-line railways to Dorset was relatively late in the development of the general rail network. The county had a small rural agricultural population with few industries or significant mining to generate the revenue required to offset the expense of putting the railway infrastructure in place. When the railways did arrive it encouraged the growth of dairy farming (to the detriment of arable farming), as milk and associated products could now be transferred quickly and efficiently to London and the Midlands. There were also steadily growing seasonal trades, such as watercress and mushrooms, with the much sought-after stone from Purbeck being transported all over the country.

From this spot on the Sturminster Newton to Shillingstone section it is a short walk to Fiddleford Mill and Manor

From this spot on the Sturminster Newton to Shillingstone section it is a short walk to Fiddleford Mill and Manor

The attraction of the line was its quirky individuality, the fascinating and varied scenery as it wound its way through tunnels and soared over viaducts. At Masbury the line climbs to 810 feet and contained several single-line sections. During summer months, especially on a Saturday, every possible locomotive was brought into service to cope with the holiday trains from the northern towns going to the coastal resorts of Dorset. At its peak the S&D operated 114 miles of standard-gauge track with 48 stations. The route remained steam-worked throughout its life.

Due to the character of the terrain and load fluctuations, the S&D attracted an unusual combination of locomotives. Assistance over some of the steep gradients was usually required, with the S&D home fleet of locomotives being augmented by strangers such as the Jubilee Class from the north and Pacifics from the West Country. Some of the historic steam engines which ran on the line have now been restored and preserved for future generations to enjoy, including the iconic 92220 Evening Star which has been given a new lease of life on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. Her sister, 92207 Morning Star, was not so fortunate and now stands out in the open at Shillingstone Station, awaiting funds to commence restoration. Most of the stations along the route were demolished but that at Shillingstone, arguably the most picturesque, survived and is now being restored to its former glory (see the February 2010 issue of Dorset Life). This small station, built to the north-east of the mile-long village, played host on several occasions to King Edward VII and is overlooked by Hambledon Hill, whilst the River Stour meanders by in the foreground. The station is now the responsibility of the Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust, who lease the 300-metre-long site from the Dorset CC with the aim of creating a Railway Heritage Centre to provide historical learning for future generations.

The Trailway passes through many wooded sections, affording walkers shelter even in the depth of winter

The Trailway passes through many wooded sections, affording walkers shelter even in the depth of winter

When the line eventually closed in 1966 under the Beeching axe it was widely mourned, confirming that public transport is not run for the convenience of the public. But yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s transport problems were ill-founded and it would have been better to study our roots more carefully before wielding an axe which had such a serious impact on rural culture.

The creation of the North Dorset Trailway is a very complex project involving many groups, councils, volunteers and trusts. This bold project aims to create a multi-use trail along as much as possible of the former S&D trackbed between Templecombe and Poole. Since its closure much of the route has been bought back by local landowners, who now use the trackbed as farm tracks; the project involves painstaking negotiations with the landowners, an ongoing task which is not expected to be completed until 2013. The concept of a multi-purpose Trailway was first considered in 1998 and was motivated by Dorset CC and North Dorset DC. The current project is community-owned and is maintained and paid for by both DCC and NDDC, who are assisted by volunteers and community groups also Liveability and Local Transport funding.

At Bere Marsh Farm the Trailway leaves the old track bed before rejoining it at Hayward Bridge

At Bere Marsh Farm the Trailway leaves the old track bed before rejoining it at Hayward Bridge

As negotiations continue to purchase the trackbed, sections that were once small and isolated have been joined to create a more significant length of route. One of the most interesting sections now runs from Sturminster Newton to Gains Cross, while the route from Blandford Forum to Spetisbury also has its own character. At present there are five sections you can visit, which take you through spectacular countryside along the meandering River Stour with breathtaking views of Hambledon Hill.

One of the major obstacles is the reinstating of the derelict bridges. The replacement of the bridge at Fiddleford cost over £200,000; the next major bridge project is at Gains Cross, and when this is completed (according to the schedule, in August this year) it will extend this part of the route right through to Blandford, creating the first major section of the Trailway from Sturminster all the way to Spetisbury – a distance of around eighteen miles.

The four main areas of the Trailway have been carefully mapped so you can plan your excursion, or join these remarkable scenic walks at various points along their way. There are wooden finger-posts indicating all access points and large signs at the main entrances to the different sections. The National Cycle Network have incorporated the Shillingstone section as part of their Route 25, which runs from Poole to Frome. This section of the Trailway is also part of the Blue and Red routes of the Shillingstone Round Village Trails.

Approaching the Wilson Haines footbridge over the River Stour near Sturminster Newton

Approaching the Wilson Haines footbridge over the River Stour near Sturminster Newton

The Trailway Network Group is a steering/pressure group with a committee made up of members belonging to different organisations all dedicated to assist the North Dorset Rangers in completing the Trailway project. Besides the walker, cyclist and commuter, the Trailway attracts many professional people, such as Volunteer Ranger Graham Rains, who braves the wind, sleet and sometimes snow to capture the ever-changing scenes of the Trailway on camera. His perseverance captures the true outstanding beauty of the countryside surrounding and cloaking the Trailway.

Panel:

North Dorset Trailway experience leaflets can be obtained from Blandford and Sturminster Newton Tourist Information Centres; or visit www.dorsettrailways.co.uk.

Credits

1-5            Graham Rains

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