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Corkscrew Railway

The coming of the railway to Dorset was far from a straightforward operation. Indeed, it was anything but straight and became known as Castleman's Corkscrew

No-one knows for sure who built the world's first tracked roadway or where, but it could well have been in England. The track itself was probably nothing more complex than strips of wood laid down over the ground while the 'wagons' were, most likely, just tree trunks acting as rollers. The whole set-up would have been constructed for transporting heavy stones and, even though it might have been somewhat primitive, it was still an embryonic railway. Indeed, something of this nature was probably used in the building of Stonehenge.

   So perhaps the world's first railway wasn't all that far from Dorset. Early records of a modern type iron-road railway in our area date back to around 1805, when a section of track was laid in the Arne peninsula to transport clay to the southern shore of Poole Harbour. On the other side of the water, tracks ran along the quay at Poole, but this was so short it could hardly be classed as a railway, and neither was it regarded as such. However, the same couldn't be said for a larger enterprise which opened on the Isle of Portland some twenty years later. Known as the Merchants Railway it was used for hauling stone away from the quarries.

   All this was, of course, before Stevenson had built his Rocket. The prime motive force or power source along all these tracks was still the horse, although stationary steam engines were in use elsewhere for hauling wagons on a sort of tracked conveyor belt system. Richard Trevithick by this time had constructed the very first steam locomotive which was operating in Cornwall.  
                   Type of train typically seen in BR days

   Even so, what we accept as the Railway Age really began with the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830. With a length of less than 20 miles it wasn't long, but it was still more than anywhere else in the world. Another couple of decades and we had nearly 7,000 miles of track spread throughout Britain, which was probably still more than the rest of the world put together. However, it was a rather patchwork arrangement with no co-ordinated network being made up of a myriad of relatively small companies, and not all even using the same track gauge. But by the mid-1840's the big players were beginning to emerge and absorbing many of the smaller and dept ridden railways.

   In those early days neither the government, nor the military, could see any great strategic value in this new transport system (until the American Civil War proved otherwise), so it was mostly private financiers who put up the cash. Of course, they expected to see some return for the risk, so generally railways were only constructed where profits were likely to be made.

   Consequently the Hampshire and Dorset region was a somewhat late developer in the railway stakes. Although Poole was a thriving port, the area was otherwise a bit of an industrial backwater devoid of large population centres and certainly not enough to warrant the building of a railway. Nevertheless, the network was expanding at a pace and, in 1847, the first railway in the area opened running from Southampton to Dorchester.

                          Castleman's Corkscrew route

   Known as the Southampton & Dorchester Railway (although commonly referred too as 'Castleman's Corkscrew' or 'the Water Snake') it was conceived by a Wimborne solicitor with the name of Castleman. It was planned to be part of major link from London to the South West but it was in a sense out-of-date before it began; another company, the London & South Western Railway (LSWR), had already established a line westwards from Salisbury to Exeter.

   This left the Southampton & Dorchester Railway more or less out on a limb with nowhere of major importance to go but, having already obtained parliamentary authority for the line, it was decided to go ahead all the same. However, money was tight. In order to keep construction costs to a minimum by using fewer bridges and cuttings whilst still linking the major population centres, the tracks were laid in a broad sweep well to the north of Christchurch and Bournemouth, but taking in Ringwood and Wimborne, before heading south to Wareham and on to Dorchester. It was because of this somewhat convoluted route that the line became known as 'Castleman's Corkscrew'.

   Bournemouth itself with a fledgeling population of less than 700 souls wasn't too high in Castleman's calculations, although a branch line led off to Hamworthy. Later a spur was laid to Poole.

   However, as with so many of these early ventures, the railway as a whole wasn't a success and just twelve months after opening the line was taken over by the rapidly growing LSWR. Meanwhile, another company, the Wiltshire, Somerset and Weymouth Railway, were planning another line running through Yeovil and on to the coast at Weymouth, via the county town of Dorchester.

         The old station at Holmsley now serves as tea rooms

   This was opened in 1857 with help (both technically and financially) from the Great Western Railway (GWR). However, the latter's tracks and rolling stock were all built to Brunel's broad 7ft gauge and this created something of a problem at Dorchester where the line met up with the (what was fast becoming the standard) 4ft 8in gauge of the Southampton & Dorchester, or rather the LSWR line. Consequently the stretch from Dorchester to Weymouth was laid with three rails so that both GWR and LSWR trains could be accomodated.

   Meanwhile, Bournemouth was well on its way to becoming not only a popular resort, but also a major population centre. For example, the 1851 census showed a population of 695 (even in 1861 it was still only 1,707) but, just 20 years later, after the arrival of the railway, it had grown to 16,860.

   Just as it was with the trams some twenty or so years later, the burghers of Bournemouth or, at least the more influential ones, didn't like the idea of having a railway anywhere near the resort. Officially this was due to the noise, smell and destruction of the environment, but really it was one of elitism. They didn't fancy the idea of their exclusive resort being invaded by rowdies from the north - and that meant anywhere north of Ringwood!

   But, in the end, they couldn't prevent it and, in 1870, the town's East Station was opened on a branch line from Christchurch; itself on a branch from Ringwood. Bournemouth West station and the link to Poole was opened in 1874, but it wasn't until 1888 that a line was established between the two stations (East and West). In the same year the line between Christchurch and Brockenhurst was opened, giving a direct link between Bournemouth, Southampton and London.

   It wasn't just Bournemouth, however, that prospered from the railway boom. Swanage grew both in size and stature when the trains arrived in 1881 while, further inland, places like Blandford, Gillingham and Wimborne found new markets for their agricultural products. In addition, of course, the railways themselves provided work, especially during the construction periods, even though many of the locals didn't actually care much for the gangs of navvies that came and went.

   Most of the individual smaller lines left were swallowed up in the 1923 Groupings when Southern Railway became the major operator in the region and this was, of course, followed by nationalisation after the Second World War, then Beeching's cuts of the Sixties and privatisation a few years ago. Disregarding the large number of closures resulting from Beeching, the major event during the nationalised BR era was electrification of the London to Bournemouth line which took place officially on the 10th July 1967.

   However, finances didn't allow the third rail system to extend any further and a push-pull diesel locomotive was used to haul coaches of the Bournemouth train on to Poole, Wareham and Weymouth. It wasn't until 1988, some 21 years later, when the power rail eventually reached Weymouth. This facility was intended to improve access to the Channel Island ferry service from Weymouth but soon after electrification the ferry service (operated by British Rail's marine branch) was abandoned.