A steam trip on the Swanage Belle
I recently booked a trip on the Swanage Belle, a steam hauled special train service from London down to Swanage on the Dorset Coast.
A trip on a steam pulled train from London to the coast.
An early start to catch the train
I got up up with the sparrows at 5am on Saturday 15th October 2011, mainly because Paula had to do her hair properly as we had planned to dress in a 50’s style to look the part on this special trip. Paula had purchased a genuine 50’s dress in Brighton and I had got hold of a Harris Tweed jacket on the internet, which was a very good fit at very reasonable price. I topped this off with a cravat and a tweed hat, but I forgot to take my pipe (I don’t smoke anymore, so I didn’t miss it).
Catching the local train at 6:44, we met our good chums Nigel and Marianne on board, also dressed for the 50’s day out, and made our way up to Victoria where we were meant to board the Swanage Belle but its departure had been moved to Euston. I was quite worried by this as Euston tends to point North whereas Victoria points South which is more in the direction of Swanage. However, a quick peek at Google maps of London shows that you can whip round to the West and South — London is still full of interesting railway routes and connections despite losing miles of trackbed over the years.
At Euston we had a cup of tea — Paula was quite interested in getting something to eat, I had not told her about the details of the day as it was a surprise, but we got a cup of tea and waited for the train indicator to tell us the platform which after a while it did, and we strolled over to platform 16 to find a rake of old maroon coaching stock with a magnificent mainline steam locomotive at the front — Oliver Cromwell.
Up at the end of the platform we had a good look at the locomotive and took a few pictures, as were many people. Looking around there were a few well-dressed people but no one else had done the step back in time look! Then we went and found our coach, B, and seats. The coach was beautifully panelled in wood and the seats finished in a rich red moquette. Our table was already laid out for breakfast and the seats were more like armchairs with four of us around one table, then the passageway and a table for two next to the other window. Each table had its own lamp and the carriage was divided by panelled and windowed screens.
The Swanage Belle sets off from Euston
At 08:32 the engine whistled. With a series of massive chuffs slowly pulled forward and out of the platform to a throng of photographers and people waving. I have been on quite a few steam pulled trains in my time but this was the first time from a London Terminus station on the main line and there really was something quite thrilling about the experience. It was a step back in time to travel before the 1960’s.
Each rotation of the massive wheels brought a couple of gentle pushes to my back to remind me that we were being pulled along by steam power. I am sure the locomotive crew are quite gentle with these old locomotives but it was so very much slower than modern train to accelerate up to a running speed. Sometimes I think we forget how much more reliable and quick are modern(ish) trains are.
Breakfast on the Swanage Belle
But I didn’t have long to bathe in the thoughts of the past as the Pullman trained and badged waiting staff descended on us like a flock of sparrows with copious amounts of breakfast food like the fireman upfront shoveling the coal into the firebox, tea, coffee, porridge, melon with honey and yoghurt, grilled Manx kippers, baked beans, sausage, hash brown, grilled tomatoes, fried bread, mushrooms, fried egg and toast, clackity-clack, down the hatch. (Apologies to Betjeman — only with continuously welded rail we were missing the clackity-clack rhythm of the rail joints but enjoying the tea spillage-less smooth ride all the same!)
Breakfast was cleared, and we relaxed back into the seats as the morning sun streamed in through the window.
Leaving London on the train
Coming out of London Euston does not have the most endearing views of London — whereas Victoria gives stunning views over the Thames next to Battersea power station — which would have been nice. However, once we were past the various scrap yards, new build flats and industrial warehouses we started to be routed through the interesting network of routes around Willesden to join up with the main South West routes.
Stains and Woking
Our first stop at Stains where quite a few passengers got on, then Woking and then we made a stop for about 10 minutes at Winchfield for the locomotive to take on water — we got out to have a look. There was a large truck with two large fire type hoses that were connected onto the tender just below platform level, and we could hear a large pump whirring away from the truck pushing the water in as fast as possible. All the way down the railway line there were people strung along fences like migrating birds, hanging out of windows and standing on balconies waving to us or taking photographs. You can hear a big steam locomotive a couple of miles off especially if it’s blowing its whistle!
Refreshed the train moved ever onwards, and we enjoyed the views of the countryside on a clear blue sky day. We rumbled through Southampton Central a few minutes late and then cracked on to Bournemouth and Poole. the sea estuary views were spectacular. We stopped at Wareham for a crew change and then a mile after the station branched off on the old Swanage branch line. This was closed to passenger traffic in 1972 and has only been used for occasional goods trains to the oil depot a couple of miles down the line.
Two more miles down the line from that the Swanage preservation railway starts and the track between the two has been restored for these charter trains. A temporary road crossing consisting of steel crowd barriers and lots of men with red flags protected road users as the mighty Oliver Cromwell gingerly made its way over the road and onto the Swanage Railway tracks where we were met by big crowds of people all waving and taking photographs.
A light lunch of sandwiches, scones and tea was served which was just right after the hearty breakfast earlier in the morning.
A photo opportunity quickly revealed itself to our right as the magnificent Corfe Castle ruins appeared as we went around a curve — again lots of people about on the castle or in the surrounding fields taking photographs and waving and soon we were pulling to a stop at the terminal station in Swanage. I was intending to take a couple of photos of the engine at Swanage but the crowds of people already on the platform meant I couldn’t get anywhere near!
A walk around Swanage
Gathering our belongings we strolled into Swanage for the two hours allotted before the return journey. The railway station is at the top of the main shopping street and it’s a 5-minute walk down that to the beach.
We had a lovely perambulation along the front and to the end of the pier to walk off breakfast and lunch! Next we visited the local museum, wandered around Swanage which is a lovely little town, and then we went and found Chococo the Chocolate makers Paula buys from on the internet. We then ambled back to the station where a new engine, Tangmere, had been attached to the front of the train for the journey back at 16:20.
And back to London on the Swanage Belle
The journey back up was very similar to the journey down. Tangmere must have been doing over 60mph at times — you couldn’t hear the individual beats of the engine and it was absolutely flying. the Timetable we had stated that we would pass through Southampton at 18:25:30 — yes — 25 past 6 and 30 seconds. And we did! My 21-minute commute in the mornings isn’t that accurate on timing!
But the main difference was the food — a four-course dinner and plenty of wine to accompany. As the sun set, we were treated to Smoked Salmon and prawns on a bed of wild rocket followed by fillet of Scotch beef in a whisky and peppercorn sauce with scrumptious fresh vegetables.
This was then followed by a forest cheesecake with raspberry coulis and double cream and then a selection of cheese, grapes and biscuits. We worked our way through some champagne and a very presentable bottle of shiraz followed up by a passable merlot and tea and mints. The sun went down, the table lamp came into its own and time flew by. We did have time for three games of Bananagram, all of which Paula won — words are her thing (v good at scrabble — tip: never play her for money).
And we found ourselves in the suburbs of London stuck for 20 minutes on a dark line waiting for a signal — someone may have nicked some copper wire! Considering how fast Tangmere had made most of the journey this last stop was uncharacteristic but after a while, we pulled into Kensington Olympia and disembarked.
Whilst we waited for our local train connection to Clapham junction an old diesel pulled the train backwards to its dept — a wisp of steam drifting from the chimney of Tangmere as it wheezed its way backwards off to the shed for a rest.
That has got to have been one of the best days out I have ever done. Wow.
And there is more...
I have been asked several times who we booked the trip through, and I am happy to give them a shout out: The Railway Touring Company. I had some issues with their online booking function so do check that you haven’t booked 4 times, but they are very nice and helpful people on the phone — ring them if you have any questions.