The train not at platform 1
Brian Cormack looks back over the past and forward to the future of the Spetisbury Station Project
Published in September ’16
Fifty years since the final passenger train ran through it and sixty years since the last one stopped, Spetisbury station has gradually re-emerged from a tangle of brambles, nettles, rubble and weeds half a century thick. That which Dr Beeching had deemed surplus to British Rail’s requirements was gladly welcomed back to Nature and so it remained until May 2012, when a small – but endlessly enthusiastic – team set about reclaiming the mark made by the railway on the landscape. ‘When we got here on Day One, our plan was to start at the foot of the up platform and work our way along that side and down the other – that was about as much of a plan as we had,’ remembers Dean Cockwell of the Spetisbury Station Project.
Plans being what they are, of course, it didn’t take long for some serious re-thinking to take place. Once the group had discovered the outline of the old station buildings on the up platform – for trains heading north towards Blandford – they could not resist concentrating their not inconsiderable efforts on unearthing the 1901 station office, waiting rooms and lavatories.
‘I don’t know how much rubble and earth we moved, but it felt like it must have been a hundred tonnes, all by hand,’ says project member Moira Connolly. ‘All of it was carefully put to good use in-filling or recycled, none of it was dumped. We try to be very eco-friendly and wildlife-aware.’
This month, on the 60th anniversary of the day the station closed, the group will host a family open day at the station with ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’, the touring exhibition that celebrates the Somerset and Dorset Railway. As well as photos and a book signing, there will also be a new display of photos and artefacts unearthed from the ruins of Spetisbury Station.
Never having been blessed with facilities such as electricity and running water, the station buildings were heated by coal fires and lit by oil lamps, drinking water arrived in churns and the buckets that constituted the ‘conveniences’ were emptied daily by the station ‘lad’ under the instruction of the stationmaster. ‘There weren’t any houses over the back of the down platform when the station was in use, but I wouldn’t mind betting those that are there now have got some cracking roses!’ Dean laughs.
The notion to build a station at Spetisbury goes back to the mid-1850s and in November 1857, workers excavating what would become the Dorset Central Railway found more than 120 human skeletons in two mass graves, probably victims of the Roman suppression of the Spetisbury Rings hill fort. Having satisfied the demands of mid-Victorian archaeology, work continued with the railway and the line from Wimborne to Blandford duly opened on 1 November 1860 and with it Spetisbury station, which then comprised a single platform with a brick-built ladies’ waiting room and timber gents and booking office. Within a couple of years Dorset Central Railway had amalgamated with the Somerset Central Railway to become the Somerset & Dorset Railway and in 1863 the lines were linked so services ran between Bournemouth and Burnham on the Bristol Channel.
In all, the active history of the railway in Spetisbury barely lasted a century and yet, as elsewhere, it made a lasting impression. ‘The railway was a major part of life in the village,’ says Dean. ‘Even though Spetisbury is not particularly well-suited to the railway because you couldn’t get goods carts or wagons up here, when you consider the stationmaster and his staff, the maintenance people and the permanent way gangs that travelled up and down the track checking what needed doing, the railway must have provided a livelihood for about two dozen blokes.’
Even though access from a steep path leading up from the main road made it difficult to get freight vehicles to the station, not only did trains carry passengers to and from Poole and Blandford, or further north to Bath and beyond to the Midlands, local milk and dairy produce was transported by rail from Spetisbury, as was watercress. ‘We’ve got stories about the workers in the watercress beds never needing to wear watches because they could tell the time by the trains coming through,’ says Moira, referring to the fascinating archive of first-hand stories about the station, many of which are available to read on the project’s website.
‘We’ve been very lucky in that people like sharing information about the station and what the railway meant to Spetisbury, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions,’ says Kevin Mitchell, the third of the three pairs of hands that can almost always be found every other Sunday at the station where, in return for a donation, they provide tea and coffee with biscuits and cake to passers-by.
By 1934, when railway companies were looking for cost savings, passenger numbers being what they were meant few objections were raised as Spetisbury station – along with Stourpaine & Durweston and Charlton Marshall – was downgraded to an unmanned halt where trains would stop only if requested. ‘Passengers aboard the train would ring a bell to let the driver know they wanted to get off, or if they were on the platform they raised an arm to indicate they wanted the train to stop,’ says Dean.
In 1956 the station was abandoned altogether, the brick buildings pushed in on their foundations and the signal box broken up. Trains no longer stopped there, although they used to slow to a walking pace so a certain Miss Bartlett could get on and off on her way to and from work in Blandford. The story goes that when the railway bosses heard about it they wrote to all the guards and drivers to make the rules clear – and nobody took a blind bit of notice!
A decade later and Beeching’s notorious axe fell on the entire line, with the last of the track being taken up in 1970 and Nature left to reclaim the site until the mid-1990s, when Dorset County Council established a path for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders that is now part of the North Dorset Trailway, which runs along the track-bed through the station.
Having secured permission to pursue their restoration plan, the Spetisbury Station Project has made giant strides since those early days in 2012, formulating a project plan in consultation with the village that will eventually see a timber station-style café built on the down platform with views across the Stour Valley to Badbury Rings in the distance and, looking further down the metaphorical track, the rebuilding of the offices on the up platform as well. ‘This is much more than a railway project,’ explains Kevin. ‘It’s more of a community project. When we first started, concerns were raised that we might try to bring trains back here, but there’s no permission for that, that’s not what we want to do and the council is very happy with the restoration.’
Earlier this year the project parted (still on
good terms) with the New Somerset and Dorset Railway, which continues to pursue its aim of restoring the whole line, laying track and running trains where possible.
‘We’ve managed to do quite a lot,’ says Moira, ‘but I don’t know if it will ever be finished. People are very kind and donate things to us – the benches and every plant we’ve put in the ground here have been donated, but we always need help and not just physical help. We’d love to hear from local people who would like to sponsor and maintain a flower bed, for instance.’
Until then, Dean, Moira and Kevin – with occasional visits from the group’s fourth member, Mick – will soldier on, chipping away at what needs doing, passing the time of day with those that happen by, from railway buffs to Spetisbury’s transitory dog walkers and inquisitive families.