Few heritage lines offer so much to see in such a short stretch as Dorset's Swanage Railway...
Words: Alice Barnes-Brown Photos: Andrew P M Wright
Unlike the trains themselves, the allure of heritage railways is ageless. Steaming through the glorious British countryside is always fun, and Dorset’s Swanage Railway is the perfect place to experience it – the tracks race through rolling hills for nearly ten miles, from rural Norden to seaside Swanage. From the comfort of your Pullman car (or retro 1960s carriage), you’ll see an iconic ruined castle, quaint villages, and glimpse the sparkling blue sea. It’s good old-fashioned entertainment, which can only be improved with a dose of Dorset hospitality – and, for me at least, an ice cream.
If like Michael Portillo you consider yourself to be a real rail buff, get the mainline train to Wareham to begin your journey. The ancient market town should be connected to the Swanage Railway soon, but in the meantime, there’s plenty to explore. A few steps from the station is St. Martin’s, an interesting Anglo-Saxon church featuring an effigy of local resident Lawrence of Arabia, lying in full desert dress. A little further into town, you can wander the cobbled streets, keeping your eyes out for a bargain on antiques. You’ll walk up an appetite, so I’d recommend grabbing a meal at a gastropub on the banks of the River Frome – even better if you happen to be there for a Sunday Roast.
The Purbeck Line officially begins at Norden, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Wareham. Active (and hyperactive) types will love it here – there are plenty of campsites to stay in, and if you’ve ever seen Total Wipeout and wanted a go, the Dorset Adventure Park offers you the chance. Beware – the water is far colder than it looks on TV. A more tranquil lakeside experience is to be found at the Blue Pool, a famous pond that rivals the azure sky in colour.
The next stop, Corfe, is only half a mile away, so you barely have time to settle into the train’s comfy seats before you have to get up again. When the spectacular 11th century castle (destroyed in 1645 by Oliver Cromwell) comes into view, it’s breathtaking. Glance upward in wonderment as you chug slowly around its base. The ruins are indeed a fascinating look into life at the time of William the Conqueror, but more than that, they tell a story – the story of Britain over 1000 years, from conquest to civil war, and into the present day.
As a native of Dorset, I always take visitors to Corfe. Not only is the castle a lively piece of history – the village is an attraction by itself. The steep hills, stone cottages and climbing flowers make the place very picturesque, perfect for those all-important social media photos. The cute model village is a highlight, where you can see how the castle looked before it was attacked. Even if the sun isn’t shining, there’s always the delightful National Trust tea rooms (complete with garden and open fire), or a piping hot pizza waiting for you at the Greyhound Inn.
Hopefully you’ll be able to roll yourself back to the station and board the train again, because Harman’s Cross is just ten minutes away. Train geeks will love this one. The moment you arrive at the platform, you’ll notice this station is different from the rest – the beautifully restored buildings, signalbox and gardens look pristine, reminiscent of their glory days in the late 19th century.
You’ll reach your final destination, Swanage, momentarily. If it’s hot outside, there might be a bit of a rush to get off, because everyone dashes to the beach; the sheltered Swanage Bay is ideal for sunbathing and swimming. Regular Punch and Judy shows make it very kid-friendly, too, but watch out for the antisocial seagulls that loiter for a chance at some fish. You’re spoilt for chippie choice, but my go-to is the Fish Place – its specials are always caught in Dorset.
If the weather’s not beach-ready, the town is still well worth a look. The old buildings and low-beamed pubs are ideal for escaping seaside storms, and there’s an array of quirky shops in the narrow streets – anything from teddy bears to fancy dress. Stop for a cup of tea and my favourite slice of local stodge, the Dorset Apple Cake, in Hayman’s Bakery – it’ll warm you up nicely.
Now, I might be biased, but it’s easy to see why the Swanage Railway makes for a great outing. Few other heritage railway lines offer so much to see and do in such a short stretch, and I’m willing to bet you won’t find quite so many great cream teas and chip shops, either. Whether you want to take the family for a fun-filled day, or get a group of train-loving enthusiasts together, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.