At the start of the latest in BBC Four’s excellent series of Railway Walks, I thought that presenter Julia Bradbury was taking us to another area that I know, although not as well as some of the earlier walks in the series. When the programme opened in Weymouth, I thought we were in for a walk along the route of the harbour line that used to run down from Weymouth station to the former station at the ferry terminal for the Channel Islands. I once travelled in a train on this line on my way to my one and only visit to Jersey and that must be more than thirty years ago. I also have pictures of the line in both steam and diesel days and I remember walking along it some months after the last train had run when it would certainly have still been possible to use it. As this programme turned out to be a completely different route, I wonder whether that harbour line is still there.
So, despite my initial expectations, the spectacular aerial shots at the start of the programme took us away from Weymouth station and away from the harbour line along an embankment between housing estates and out of the town towards Chesil Beach and onto the Island of Portland.
The route was a little different to the others in this series which have had a definite rural flavour. there was a distinctly suburban feel to the first part of the walk, which included a descent to a busy road at one point where a bridge had been taken out. However, the town soon fell behind and as Julia’s series of interviews with local historians unfolded, so did a story that changed my perception of what I had considered to be a sleepy tourist area.
The former station platforms are still there with green Southern Region totems in evidence, although a picture of a steam train headed by a very Western pannier tank shown later in the programme suggests that this line’s chequered history continued into British Railways’ days.
Portland Harbour has a long heritage as a naval port with huge importance during the preparations for D-Day. It is also the last resting place of HMS Hood, which was sunk across one of the harbour entrances to protect ships inside the harbour from another local invention, the torpedo. The site of the former torpedo factory is now a housing estate, but the foundation stone of the factory itself is preserved on a roundabout.
There is still quite a lot of evidence of the military past of the area with plenty of gun emplacements and a Victorian citadel that is now a prison. Much of the former Navy base is now luxury flats and the former railway is now on private property and unavailable to Julia for her walk.
However, the former railway that Julia Bradbury was walking was originally built to remove the area’s best known export, Portland Stone. This limestone has been used for a huge number of buildings from St Paul’s cathedral, whose stone was chosen by Christopher Wren himself during a visit to the island, to the Houses of Parliament. Here in Nottingham, the university buildings that were endowed by Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists fame are built of this same stone. It must have arrived in Nottingham on the railway and started its journey along the same route that this programme followed.
With the “main line” in private ownership, it was fortunate, then, that the island is riddled with old tramways that were used to carry the stone from the quarries high on the hills that the programme makers were able to use to bypass this area. Julia seemed to relish some of the steep climbs up tramway inclines that would have been worked by gravity when they were still operating. I could almost imagine the loaded wagons coming down the steep hill with wire rope and chain pulling the empties back to the top for another load of stone.
I had no idea that Chesil Beach, that classic example beloved of geography teachers everywhere had ever had a railway along part of its length, but the aerial pictures clearly showed its route. Although this line was described as yet another victim of the Beeching axe, later in the commentary, it was said that the line had closed much earlier in the 1960s than those lines closed in 1968 as a result of the good doctor’s rationalisation plan.
The walk ended at Portland’s only beach, a pebbled cove. This completed a walk that started in the modern tourist town of Weymouth, passed through a century or more of military and industrial history and ended with images of tourists on Portland the 1920s with the quarrying going on a few hundred yards away. The final shots were of Julia Bradbury on the deserted beach.