War and Peace along the Rodwell Trail
Start: Abbotsbury Road (Westham Bridge end)
The Rodwell Trail runs from Westham Halt to Ferrybridge for approximately 2 miles. The walk follows the track bed of the Weymouth & Portland Railway which closed to freight in 1965 (the passenger service having finished in 1952). By 1970 the tracks on the route had been lifted and by the mid-1980s, parts of the old track-bed had become a shortcut for walkers between Abbotsbury and Ferrybridge Roads. A project to open up the whole route as a pathway began in 1997 and the Rodwell Trail officially opened in 2000.
There are many interesting sights on this trail such as the World War II Gun Emplacement Viewing Point, Rodwell Station, Sandsfoot Halt, (slight detour to Sandsfoot Castle and refreshments, but well worth it) and the site of Whiteheads Torpedo Factory. In addition, you will have spectacular views over Portland Harbour with Portland in the distance.
After a complicated construction involving three separate rail companies freight trains commenced 9th October 1865 and passenger service Mon 16th October 1865. The line ran from Weymouth Train Station crossed the River Wey on a viaduct, through Rodwell, across to Portland on another viaduct with its final stop at Easton and Church Ope. There were eleven trains each way on weekdays and four on Sundays. Return fares were 9d first class, 6d second class and 5d third class. Few people came to watch the first journey but enthusiasm did grow and the railway soon had its first royal visitor on 28th November 1865 when Prince Alfred arrived at Portland Harbour and the next morning he travelled on the new line to Weymouth for shopping and visited the Royal Hotel returning by train to Portland.
During its life time the railway witnessed five monarchs and two world wars. The railway reflected these social changes by the cargo it carried –Portland stone, cattle, tourists, soldiers and prisoners of war.
The pillars at Abbotsbury Road mark the start of today’s walk. Once they stood at the entrance to the old naval accommodation on Portland.
On the grass verge near the pillars is a recently erected portrait bench which features three figures in steel who represent the three common features of Weymouth’s coastal heritage – the navy, RNLI and fishing.
The station opened in July 1909 as part of a scheme to encourage train use and counter road competition. It was a small station built on the end of Ilchester Road which is named after the former land owner. At the entrance gate there would have stood a small wooden hut for the ticket collector. On the platform would have been an iron shelter with a flat roof. Today you can still see the platform and station sign. The trains crossed the busy Abbotsbury Road via a level crossing known as Littlefield.
But accidents were known to happen! Station keepers sometimes forgot to open the gates and trains would smash through them. One poor keeper was so worried when he caused yet another accident he locked his station cottage door and ran away!
The station closed with the branch in 1952.
As you carry on along the line it won’t take long before you reach the Newstead Road Bridge. The old stone railway bridge was demolished in 1987and took twenty five years to be replaced officially opening in May 2012. There is three sections of bridge which weigh between 13 and 15 tonnes each and cost £835,000 to build with funding from Dorset County Council and a Big Lottery Fund. It’s been a huge success allowing a continuing walk along the trail unlike before when you had to cross the road.
Look out for the viewing point on the right just past the bridge.
A former Second World War gun emplacement has been restored and now acts as a viewing point across the inland part of Weymouth.
During the Second World War air raids were mounted on a number of key targets in Dorset, chief of which were the naval ports of Weymouth and Portland, along with the Whitehead Torpedo Works (the site of which is covered later in this walk). The German Blitz against Dorset was not on anything like the scale of that on London or some other cities but it did suffer. Weymouth alone had forty-eight air raids in which not only were naval and military personnel killed in action but also civilians.
Built in response to the threat of German bombs anti aircraft gun emplacements were built. This one along the Rodwell Trail would have had good views of the coast and inland Weymouth and would have done its best to destroy enemy aircraft. Often known as “ack-ack,” these emplacements would have taken several men to work. One man stood on the platform, two men turned the handles and several men to load the shells.
From this viewing point you overlook the marsh which is now used as athletics for the local community. This area was very swampy as was once an inlet of the harbour. Work was carried out night and day to complete this railway and here landslides were frequent. It is the highest point of the line which allows you a good view of Weymouth.
As you walk on the line soon crosses Chickerell Road which passes under the embankment in a stone arch. On the Weymouth side of the arch the Fleur de Lys of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) is carved in the keystone as it was his wedding day the stone was laid. You will have to make a detour via the path to your right if you would like to see this.
Rodwell Tunnel and Station
Past the path is the 58 yard Rodwell tunnel with the busy Wyke Road above. On emerging from this dark damp tunnel you reach Rodwell Station nestled in the deep cutting which was driven through the Lansdowne Estate. Today it is still beautifully secluded and is hard to imagine that in fact you are surrounded by the suburbs of Weymouth.
Rodwell Station was the first passenger station to open on1st June 1870. It was a wet day but 14 passengers took the 7. 35am to Portland. Unfortunately on the return journey the train overshot the platform and had to shunt back. Today you can only still see the two platforms but in its heyday it had a stone booking office, pagoda style waiting room and other facilities. This double track station was thought to of been one of the prettiest in the country with the sides of the cuttings covered in trees and flower beds. It was a frequent winner of the Best Kept Station completion.
The main building made out of stone was on the “down “platform and on the “up “platform was a pagoda style waiting room and signal boxes.
Most stations with two side platforms have an ‘Up’ platform which is used by trains heading towards the primary destination of the line, with the other platform being the ‘Down’ platform which takes trains heading the opposite way. Normally, the main facilities of the station are located on the ‘Up’ platform with the other platform accessed from a footbridge, subway or a track crossing. However, in many cases the station’s main buildings are located on whichever side faces the town or village the station serves.
Dig for Victory
The Dig for Victory Campaign during the Second World War encouraged people to transform gardens, parks and sports pitches into allotments to grow vegetables and keep animals such as chickens. Rodwell Train station did its best towards the war effort and converted its prize winning flower beds into vegetable patches and kept 100 rabbits in hutches.
Unfortunately this picturesque station was bombed on the 15th April 1941 by the German luf and the main station building was destroyed and sadly the ticket officer was killed.
Buxton Road Bridge
Pass under the handsome three arch bridge designed by Brunel.
Brunel was one of the most versatile and daring engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. The work for which Brunel is probably best remembered is his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway. Impressive achievements during its construction included the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and Bristol Temple Meads Station. As well as these remarkable designs he worked on smaller projects subjects such as the old Weymouth Train Station which stood near the outskirts of town. Unfortunately all trace of the station has now vanished under the Jubilee Retail Park and would once have been somewhere near what are now McDonalds.
You are now walking towards Sandsfoot Halt. When the rail line first opened the trains ran without stopping right to the northern tip of Portland but as industry grew more passenger stops were added. This was the last station to be added in 1932. The wooden platform can still be seen.
It is worth taking a detour here. Take the next left towards the road and turn left again. On the other side of the road you will see Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens.
Sandsfoot Castle was completed in about 1539, on the order of King Henry VIII, to provide in conjunction with Portland Castle a defence for shipping in the safe anchorage of ‘Portland Roads’ (Portland Harbour).
It had two storeys and a basement, providing an emplacement for heavy cannon, powder magazines and quarters for about fifty men. It was protected by a ditch and earth rampart, remains of which account for some landscape features of these gardens.
2009 and 2010 the ‘Friends of Rodwell Trail and Sandsfoot Castle’ in partnership with Weymouth and Portland Borough Council received a grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to renovate the castle and add an internal walkway with floodlighting in order to give free public access and conserve the castle for future generations.
After Sandsfoot Halt the railway line starts to run close to the edge of the cliff and you will have your first far reaching view of Portland Harbour.
Construction of modern harbour began in 1849 when the Royal Navy created a breakwater to the south of the anchorage from blocks carved from local quarries on Isle of Portland. It was completed 1872 and is one of the world’s largest man made harbour.
The Wreck of HMS Hood
On 4 November 1914 Hood was deliberately sunk in Portland harbour to block the Southern Ship Channel, a potential access route for U-boats or for torpedoes fired from outside of the harbour. Her wreck became known as “Old Hole in the Wall” and is a popular diving spot today.
Wyke Regis Station
Carry on walking until you reach the shallow cutting of Wyke Regis Station. This station opened in 1909 to service Whiteheads Factory which was situated very near here and was a large employer of local labour. There was a private siding and footbridge to serve the factory. Today the stone platform can still be seen and is in surprisingly good shape considering no trains have stopped here in more than fifty years.
Whitehead Torpedo Works
Robert Whitehead, a Lancastrian born in 1823, trained as an engineer and as a young man went to work abroad. He became interested in the problems trying to remotely control and detonates underwater explosive charges and by 1868 had successfully demonstrated a practical torpedo design for the Austrians. The British Navy became interested and, after purchasing some of the torpedoes, encouraged Whitehead to set up a manufacturing facility in England.
He purchased an 8 acre site at Ferrybridge, Wyke Regis, overlooking the ancient ferry route to the Isle of Portland and, in April 1891, the foundation stone of Whiteheads Factory was laid down.
Over the years the site grew. The building of a pier allowed the launch of torpedoes into Portland harbour even at low spring tide and its base timbers can still be seen at very low tide.
A railway took torpedoes and men to the end o the pier where torpedoes were placed in boats and taken out to the firing platform in the harbour. As well as the growth of the factory Whitehead also developed the area for the workers with houses, shops, schools, churches and a firing range being built for the workers. Even Royalty came to take a look when King Edward VII visited in 1902.
The factory experienced some difficult times in the early years but survived by exporting its torpedoes all over the world. Robert Whitehead died in 1905, aged 82, and shortly after most of the holdings in his company was acquired by Armstrong-Whitworth and Vickers.
During World War I torpedo production increased but after the war demand for torpedoes fell and the factory shut down to be quickly reopened by Vickers in 1923 and by the start of the Second World War in 1939 some 1500 men were employed. Some men were drafted into the armed services and to replace them many more women were recruited into the workforce.
The importance of the torpedo meant that the factory was liable to enemy air attack and on the 1st May 1941 the factory received its first direct attack and the bomb and machine gun fire from the enemy plane caused considerable damage and two lost their life’s and many more wounded.
Production was quickly resumed and 20 torpedoes a week were manufactured for the war effort.
When the war ended in 1945 there was less demand for torpedoes and the factory branched out into extra different engineering products.
In 1966 the last test firing of a Whitehead 21″ torpedo produced at Ferrybridge took place. At the same time Vickers withdrew from the town.
The factory was purchased by Wellworthy, a company specialising in machinery for the motor industry. In 1997, after 106 years, the old factory was demolished to make way for a housing development that you see today. The original foundation stone laid in 1891 was found and can be seen but unfortunately the original “time capsule” which was laid with it has still to be found. If you are lucky enough to discover it you will find three small coins, a Jubilee shilling and half crown and copies of newspapers.
Today a modest Portland Stone plinth is all that left to commemorate the once world famous Whitehead Torpedo Factory.
As you walk past the housing development you reach Ferrybridge with a tiny beach and here is the end of the Rodwell Trail.
If you wish you can carry on along a pavement across the bridge which then joins the old railway line alongside Portland Harbour towards Portland.
Buses (No. 1 and 1A) travel frequently between Ferrybridge and Weymouth Town if you do not want to retrace your steps back.
Look out for my Portland Railway Walk – coming soon.
Isle of Portland Railways – Vol 2 B L Jackson
Weymouth An Illustrated History – M Attwool & J West