Friday, 14 October 2011

The Rodwell Trail










When I completed my last outing on the Dorset stretch of the South West Coast Path I walked along a short stretch of The Rodwell Trail, a fairly short but extremely well used former railway line that once connected Weymouth with the Isle of Portland. It is a railway trail made famous by Julia Bradbury in her series on Railway Walks shown on BBC TV a few years ago. Given that the next stage of the coast path around the Isle of Portland is fairly short I took the opportunity of being in the area to take a look at The Rodwell Trail at the same time.

The official trail runs from Ferrybridge to the town centre in Weymouth, following the former railway for most of its length, a remarkable achievement given that it passes through an almost entirely urban area. Further sections of the trail can be walked unofficially along the causeway that linked the Isle of Portland and a short stretch on the island itself. I restricted myself to the official route, principally because I wanted to do this trail by bike and the unofficial sections are not bike friendly.

The railway from Weymouth to Portland (Easton) opened in 1865 after a fairly complicated and convoluted construction involving three separate companies and some significant engineering work. Its passenger services were withdrawn as early as 1952, principally because of competition with buses. Its freight purpose to carry away quarried stone gave the line a slightly longer life span but it was completely closed in 1965. The line at the northern end of the Isle of Portland was subsumed within the naval base that once existed there (and which closed in 1996) and a few of the bridges were removed, but otherwise the course of the line is remarkably intact.

As it was early in the morning I managed to find myself a parking space at the southern end of the trail at Ferrybridge (I wouldn’t mind betting that I would have struggled at any time other than 8am on a Sunday morning!). From the missing bridge across The Fleet the line is surfaced with tarmac and takes a fairly steady uphill gradient. With the salty air and frequent wet weather this must have been quite a struggle for some of the trains heading into Weymouth. For me on my bike it was not too bad as the surface was nice and smooth and apart from a few dog walkers there weren’t many people about to get in the way of my progress.

Shortly after starting I passed the former Whitehead Torpedo Factory. The last torpedoes were built here in 1966 but the factory continued to produce a variety of engineering products until its final closure in 1994. The factory buildings were demolished in 1997 to make way for the housing development that now abuts the Trail.

Shortly after I reached the overgrown platform of Wyke Regis halt. This was the first of several halts opened in 1909 to try and increase patronage of the line. It, like all the other halts opened at the same time, was short-lived remaining open only until 1952. Yet, most of the single line platform remains in place, complete with sign advising of its existence. I think this was added as a result of a Heritage Lottery grant which enabled the trail to be put on an official footing. As I looked at the platform with its bramble bush covering I couldn’t help think how inconvenient its location was, buried at the bottom of a deep cutting away from the built up area for which the station was supposed to serve. I wonder how successful it was as a station?

Beyond Wyke Regis and the line emerged from the cutting to show some remarkable views across to Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth Harbour and the Purbeck Coast beyond. This reprised the section of route that I walked as part of the South West Coast Path earlier in the year, but it was interesting to see how different it all looked with foliage on all the trees and bushes. It was a very pleasant cycle ride along this section, although if I’m honest the views kept me from cycling more than a walking pace! For an October day the weather was unusually clear bright and hot – in fact it felt more like an August day.Already at this early hour I was starting to feel the heat of the day.

At Sandsfoot Castle the South West Coast Path left the trail and I continued along the section of trail that I had not previously explored. Almost immediately I came to a fragment of another former halt, which had been provided to serve the nearby castle ruin. This had an even shorter life span than Wyke Regis, lasting only from opening in 1932 for the remaining 20 years of the life of the line. All that remains is part of the old wooden platform that was provided for the expected tourist traffic, although I am guessing that this did not materialise.

The climbing continued on to Buxton Road bridge, a handsome three arch bridge over the railway that appears to have lost nothing of its dignity since the closure of the railway. This marked a turning point in the character of the railway as it continued onward through a deep tree covered cutting that was nevertheless not hemmed in feeling. I am guessing that The Friends of Rodwell Trail, a group of volunteers that look after the line see to it that it does not become overgrown. At the far end of this attractive cutting was the station of Rodwell.

Rodwell Station was a ‘proper’ station, having been opened with the rest of the branch in 1870. Even in closure and with most of the infrastructure long since removed it still has the feel of a more important station. For a start there are two platforms of pretty decent length and at the Weymouth end is the short (58 yard) Wyke Tunnel. The passing loop at Rodwell was added in 1909 as part of the drive to attract more passengers. The station was also bombed during the war but repaired and re-opened for its few remaining years of service.

It was slightly disappointing to see that Wyke Road tunnel was being repaired and the passage through was via a boarded off section of path through the middle. Hopefully the work will prove to help the old structure last a bit longer. At the other side of the tunnel it was quite clear that I had now reached the highest point on the line, for the path started dropping away surprisingly steeply. This must have been quite a challenge for the small engines plying this route for most of its existence. For me it was a breeze now and the views soon opened up across to Weymouth Harbour. The Trail was now truly a green lung through the urban development that was probably built around the same time as the line judging by the appearance of the houses.

On the side of the trail some way down the hill is another reminder that Weymouth was very much in the front line during World War II. A former gun emplacement has been restored and now acts as a viewing point across the inland part of Weymouth (ie away from the harbour). Just after this and the tarmac suddenly runs out as the former Newstead Bridge, a rather large structure that caused traffic congestion underneath it (on account of it being so narrow), has now been removed, forcing the walker/ cyclist to descend down a pretty steep path down the side of the embankment to road level. The road was not too busy of course on account of it being early Sunday morning, but it was a pain nonetheless, especially having to climb the other side, which was just as steep! Apparently, if new stories are to be believed, a new span is to be provided here so that walkers and cyclists no longer have to undertake this rather awkward manoeuvre.

The remaining part of the trail was very short, with Westham halt soon creeping up on me. This small station still has a platform remaining but did not last very long as it was one of the 1909 additions. From here the line would once have crossed the busy road at what is now the end of the trail via a level crossing and then crossed Radipole Lake to reach the end of the line at Melcombe Regis. No trace of the line exists from here. Melcombe Regis station also officially succumbed to closure along with the rest of the line in 1952, although unofficially it was used as a summer relief station until 1959. All trace of the station has now vanished under the inevitable retail park and would once have been somewhere near what is now MacDonalds.

I turned tail at Westham Halt to return back to Ferrybridge. As with so many of these closed lines I tried to picture in my minds eye what this one must have been like to travel on. I am guessing that if it could have clung on another 20 years or so it would have made for a spectacular preserved railway. Nonetheless it is amazing that so much of the trackbed has survived being redeveloped and as a railway trail it really has everything, possibly one of the finest I have followed even for such a short distance. It is highly recommended and although I didn’t do so this time, I could see the appeal in continuing onward to Portland. As it happens I did walk stretches of the onward trail, albeit by doing the South West Coast Path. More about that in the next report.


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