Published: October 19, 2016
Story and Photographs by Andrew P.M. Wright Swanage Railway official photographer and press officer
A classic Somerset and Dorset steam locomotive that hauled passenger and freight trains between Bournemouth and Bath – via Poole, Broadstone and Blandford – for almost 40 years has starred in the Swanage Railway's three-day Autumn Steam Gala.
The annual event saw Friday and Saturday evening timetabled passenger trains run in the dark on the newly restored four-mile line between Norden and the River Frome, near Wareham, for the first time since January, 1972, when British Rail closed the branch line to Corfe Castle and Swanage.
There were also nostalgic goods trains that ran between Norden and Swanage, re-creating the everyday railway scene from yesteryear.
Built in 1925, the Somerset and Joint Railway Fowler-designed 7F No. 53809 ran on one of Britain's most popular railway lines among railway enthusiasts – the Somerset and Dorset – which was closed 50 years ago in 1966.
Also taking part in the three-day steam gala was a fellow visitor – a powerful Stanier 8F locomotive No. 48624 which spent its working life based in the London area.
Dating from 1943, No. 48624 is the only surviving member of the class to be built by the Southern Railway for hauling heavy freight, munitions and troop trains during the Second World War.
As well as a frequent steam train service between Norden, Corfe Castle, Harman's Cross and Swanage, the gala will also saw steam trains operating on the Swanage Railway's newly restored four-mile section of line between Norden and the River Frome, within sight of Wareham.
Running to a point half a mile south of Worgret Junction – at the River Frome – on the main London to Weymouth line west of Wareham station, the trains had a steam locomotive at each end.
Fowler 7F No. 53809 and Stanier 8F No. 48624 were joined by the Swanage Railway's fleet of steam locomotives – Victorian-designed M7 tank No. 30053 built in 1905, late 1920s Southern Railway U-class No. 31806 and 1940s Southern Railway Battle of Britain class Bulleid Pacific No. 34070 'Manston'.
Swanage Railway General Manager Matt Green said: "With two visiting classic steam locomotives built in the 1920s and the 1940s – and six trains a day running to the River Frome near Wareham, two of them in the evening when it's dark – this year's Autumn Steam Gala was certainly one to remember.
"We had a very successful Autumn steam gala while the two visiting steam locomotives performed well and were well liked by the crews. The Swanage Railway has a well deserved reputation for putting on a good show and the Autumn steam gala was a superb event.
"I would like to thank everyone on the Swanage Railway who worked so hard in planning and delivering such an enjoyable Autumn steam gala – and also the public who supported such a wonderful event as well as the owners who agreed to their precious locomotives visiting the Swanage Railway.
"It was a Stanier 8F locomotive that hauled one of the last passenger trains – an enthusiasts' special from Bath to Bournemouth via Blandford and Broadstone – on the last day of Somerset and Dorset line in March, 1966.
"The Somerset and Dorset 7F locomotives were marvellous locomotives and were the workhorses of the Somerset and Dorset line, from Broadstone to Bath via Blandford, for almost 40 years. No. 53809 was withdrawn in 1964.
"Built in 1943 at Ashford in Kent, 8F No. 48624 was withdrawn by British Railways in 1965 and sent to a scrapyard at Barry in South Wales. It escaped the cutter's torch after being purchased by dedicated enthusiasts in 1981 who took 28 years to restore it to full working order," explained Mr Green.
The award-winning Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum, next to Norden station, was open during all three days of the gala, as was the goods shed museum, exhibition coach and cinema coach at Corfe Castle station.
The refreshment kiosk on the platform at Norden station, as well as the station buffet coach at Swanage, was also open during the three-day steam gala – as was the fund-raising shop at Swanage station.
Swanage Railway Company chairman Trevor Parsons explained: "Equipped with full barriers, warning lights and audible alerts, the Norden Gates level crossing allows passenger trains to run beyond Norden and on to our newly restored and upgraded four-mile line to the River Frome – within sight of Wareham.
"Built of wood – with a slate roof – the signal box at Norden Gates level crossing has been built in the style of the branch line signal box at Lyme Regis station in west Dorset.
"A lot of detailed work has gone into designing, building and installing the signal box and signalling system at Norden Gates – together with its electrical operation and safety systems," added Trevor, a Swanage Railway train guard and signalman.
Approved by the Government's Department for Transport, Norden Gates level crossing's computer-controlled safety systems, crossing barriers and road user warning systems were designed and installed by Schweizer Electronic of Switzerland.
Trevor Parsons added: "Thanks to a grant from the Government's Coastal Communities Fund and Swanage Railway resources, the work between Norden Gates and the River Frome has included raising the line speed to 25mph.
"We have also upgraded and widened a quarter-mile long embankment near Furzebrook and laid half a mile of continuously welded rail on concrete sleepers through the protected Creech Heath to reduce intrusive track maintenance.
"We have also repaired three miles of fencing; carried out tree and vegetation removal and repair works; replaced more than 1,000 sleepers; increased the track ballast to improve rail and train ride quality," he added.
Rebuilt from nothing since 1976, the volunteer-run Swanage Railway carries more than 200,000 passengers a year on the six miles of relaid railway line between Norden, Corfe Castle, Harman's Cross, Herston Halt and Swanage.
The heritage railway contributes more than £14 million to the Purbeck economy every year and profits from the running of train services and special events are ploughed back into the development and extension of the Swanage Railway and its facilities.
The Swanage Railway is run by some 500 regular volunteers – assisted by a team of more than 30 paid staff – and the value of the Swanage Railway volunteers' work is £2 million a year if they were paid.
The Swanage Railway contributes to the public transport system in the Isle of Purbeck thanks to the Purbeck District Council pay and display car park located next to Norden station – located off the main A351 road from Wareham to Corfe Castle – and also the Swanage Railway's discounted fares scheme for Purbeck residents.
British Rail controversially closed its ten mile branch line from Wareham to Swanage in January, 1972, and the six and a half miles of track from Swanage to near Furzebrook was torn up for scrap during the summer of 1972.
It took dedicated Swanage Railway volunteers 30 years to relay the tracks.
The Swanage Railway welcomes new volunteers – for an informal chat, contact Swanage Railway volunteer co-ordinator Mike Whitwam on 01929 475212 or email '[email protected]'.