Shepton Mallet to Horsington (19.5 miles)
BBC Radio Somerset is playing in the breakfast room at the Dusthole. They are having an in-depth discussion all about fertilizer. It is actually quite a refreshing break from all the COVID-related news recently, but I am actually keen to catch the local weather forecast. Today is the day that everyone predicts the story will change from extreme heat to torrential rain.
I bid farewell to Tony and then set out. I pass Kilver Court, a large building which used to be the headquarters of Showerings, on my way out of Shepton. With all that money they made from Babycham, the company landscaped their back yard and opened it to the public. The long Charlton Viaduct which once carried the S&DJR through the town was left in situ and now provides a stunning backdrop to the gardens.
A bit hot for that!
I walk past the industrial estate where Shepton Mallet Charlton Road (0.5 miles) used to be. Nothing remains of the station now at all. I venture down Frog Lane, past a farm and then walk up a hill until I can see the whole town behind me.
I spend a couple of hours on footpaths which, despite the shocks I get from a couple of unexpected electric sheep fences, are very pleasant. I come back to the old line near Priestleigh and then make my way towards the site of Evercreech New (5.2 miles). There is a large refrigerated haulage business with a lot of trucks being loaded with farm produce, but there is no sign that the railway ever stopped here.
I wander into pretty little Evercreech and get the ingredients of a picnic along with a couple of litres of water from the Co-op. It is 11am and it is already getting back up to 30 degrees with no sign of rain at all. As I leave the village, a woman waves at me from the garden of her cottage. Then, looking at my rucksack, she shouts – “It is a bit hot for that!”
Cider with Rosie
I walk across some more fields to arrive at Evercreech Junction (7.2 miles). The Pines Express would have stopped here to dispense with the pilot locomotive that had assisted it over the Mendips from Bath. The junction was once the thriving centre of the S&DJR with the line to Burnham branching off from here.
There are a few more signs of the old railway here in amongst yet another industrial estate. The old station hotel, now the Natterjack, is also still standing; I pop in for a cider.
People are just arriving for their “50% off” lunches but with my Co-op picnic already in my bag, I just settle for a drink. I sit in the shade out in the lovely garden; a wasp climbs into the cider; I christen it “Rosie”; I try to coax it out of the glass but unfortunately it drowns.
Going to the races
I head across fields to Lamyatt, climb again and then head towards Bruton. In the distance I can see the main GWR Paddington to Taunton line. I descend towards the railway and eventually cross it near the point where the S&DJR would have intersected it. I have my picnic lunch in a field opposite the old station (now a private dwelling) at Cole for Bruton (11.75 miles).
The heat is intensifying and I blame it for my getting lost again in the afternoon. I exit a field by going through an open gate instead of using a stile that was probably buried in bushes. It leads me to the wrong field. I continue on and before I realise what I have done I am way off course. Eventually I find my way by passing through fields where I have no right to be, and using the vast Wincanton Racecourse visible on the horizon as a navigating aid.
I pause briefly at the entrance to “Pines Close” (part of a new housing estate) where the station used to be at Wincanton (16 miles) and then continue on through the town without stopping. I head under the busy A303 road and into the fields beyond.
Getting the harvest In
The final few miles of the day mostly involve following the “Monarch’s Way” footpath. I guess it will be easier to navigate now on a “proper” path and it certainly starts out okay. Soon, though, I am in a field full of cows looking for another stile exit that doesn’t seem to exist. I go wrong again but by happy accident I end up on the S&DJR formation. It is a private farm track at this point but I just follow it south to get myself out of trouble.
On my final half mile I head into a field where they are gathering in the harvest. Although it is still pretty hot, it is a lovely summer’s evening and the scene just seems timeless and idyllic. I stop for a while and watch as the combine harvester cuts across the field. There can’t be many countries where you can walk into a farmer’s field without asking, sit there watching him work and then get a friendly wave in return.
The Half Moon
The Ordnance Survey map seems to have the pub logo in the wrong place at Horsington. I walk in a circle around the lanes of the pretty little village before ending up almost back where I started. An old gent in a car stops and kindly offers to help; first, he gives me long-winded directions that seem to point back the way I have just come and seem to almost get me back to exactly where I am standing. Then he thinks again and says, “well, if you just go down that small footpath there, the pub is just on the left”.
I do and it is. Andrew, the landlord, checks me in and by the time I have had a shower and returned to the bar, the old gent has arrived and is already on his second pint.
The Half Moon at Horsington is yet another wonderful pub experience. There are pints of cider and a delicious meal of homemade steak pie and chips that, courtesy of the UK Government, is half price. There is also a lot of great chat with Andrew, the old gent and a fellow resident, Mike, who is on a business trip inspecting prisons in the area.
We end the evening with predictions on the weather; we conclude that with localised flooding already affecting large parts of Britain, it is bound to rain overnight and probably all day tomorrow!
Horsington to Blandford Forum (21.25 miles)
It actually stays dry overnight and the rain is still holding off whilst I am eating breakfast. It is definitely cooler though and now nobody seems to be in any doubt that it will turn very wet at some point today.
As I am settling the bill at the bar, the local hunt, a colourful parade of horseback riders and dogs, goes past. They seem to fill up the whole road and Andrew assures me I should count myself lucky that I am heading in the opposite direction.
I head out and cut a diagonal line across fields towards Templecombe (1 mile), going past the station (a stop on the Waterloo to Exeter line), through the little village and out into the countryside beyond. I meet a woman walking her dog and, not wanting to go wrong yet again, I receive detailed directions for the exits from the next few fields.
A short while later, I come to the Gartell Railway: a narrow gauge line that has been built on the old track bed for a mile or so. It aims to recreate the S&DJR in miniature but it is not, strictly speaking, a heritage or tourist railway. Rather it is a private line that is open to the public on a limited number of occasions a year. It is deserted at this time in the morning, but it still looks fascinating none the less.
I head off towards the site of the next station and after a foray that takes me across more fields and through, quite legally, someone’s back garden, I arrive at a signboard opposite an old house. Although nothing remains of the station at Henstridge (3.5 miles) itself, the signboard explains that the building is the stationmaster’s old cottage and it relates a story about a terrible accident that happened when a truck and a train collided nearby during the Second World War.
White Hart Link
The sign has actually been put there by a group of walkers who have created their own path around Dorset’s northern towns. They have named the trail the “White Hart Link”. I am surprised to see that the route on from here to Stalbridge and Sturminster follows exactly the “original” trail I have created myself from maps.
I set off again and now the little White Hart Link signs help me with the navigation. Although I soon conclude that there can’t be too many people using the trail because before long I am in thick gorse bushes trying to hack a path through.
I make it eventually via a busy farm yard to Landshire Lane right on the Somerset-Dorset border. In the pub the previous evening I had asked if there was any historical rivalry between the two neighbouring counties and I had been told that there was actually very little. Although, I was informed, rivalry between the different towns of Somerset was a totally different matter.
Now in Dorset, I continue south until I am standing opposite the Sidings Industrial Park that now occupies the old station site at Stalbridge (6.25 miles). This is the upper Stour Valley; it is quite flat here and, with the undulating Mendips behind it now, the Pines Express would have rattled past at quite a pace.
The Stour Valley
I continue for a short while along the old track bed again but soon I am off across fields, through another large dairy farm and over a little footbridge across the River Stour. I get confused by a field full of corn planted where the footpath should be, but eventually make it through to the point where I plan to intersect with the Stour Valley Way.
I pick up the river itself again just after Cutt Mill and follow it for the next few miles. Close up the Stour looks just beautiful. I really love its olive colour which seems to blend well with all the other shades of green surrounding it. There are swans and white flowers to provide a bit of contrast too. There is no one around and I have the path all to myself as I walk down to Sturminster Newton.
The weather has felt threatening all morning but now as I approach Sturminster the rumble of thunder finally begins. I pass a flock of sheep huddled under a tree and begin thinking about donning my waterproofs.
I enter Sturminster still on the river bank and walk under the partly-ruined viaduct that used to bring the S&DJR into the town from the north. The thunder is getting even more frequent and just as I arrive at the central square it starts to rain. I pop inside the local Co-op in search of shelter and lunch!
Miraculously, when I come out of the store the rain has already stopped.
It seems that Sturminster (12.2 miles) remembers the “Somerset & Dorset” well; the old station site has been turned into “Railway Gardens”; it is full of information boards telling the story of the line and there is even a little section of track.
I sit in the park eating my picnic and I glance over to the starting point of the next part of my journey. No more footpaths for a while; for the rest of the day and for part of tomorrow, l will be following the “North Dorset Trailway” which starts here and is built directly on the old track bed.
A new trailway
As I set out on the new path it is still dry but the sky ahead is getting quite dark. Surprisingly, despite the weather, there are quite a few people out strolling. The trail makes for easier walking and before long I am across yet another bridge over the Stour and approaching the next station. As I am almost at the platform, there is a flash of lightning, more thunder and then the heavens open.
I rush onto the platform of the preserved station at Shillingstone (15.5 miles) and then, under the cover of the canopy, I put on my waterproofs. The station is owned by the North Dorset Railway Trust and is very impressive. Not only have they restored the buildings to how they were in their glory days, but there is track down and an old carriage is standing at the platform.
At first, I sit here alone watching the rain bucketing down. Then one of the volunteers, who seems to appear from nowhere, comes and sits next to me and we chat for a while about the restoration project and the weather. The rain isn’t showing any signs of stopping so I decide to bid my new friend farewell and venture back on to the track.
It is raining hard now but I press on. Unbelievably, there are now more walkers than before and they all seem to be clad in anoraks or be carrying umbrellas. I head south until eventually the trail ends temporarily and I am diverted through the charming village of Stourpaine (18 miles). There was once a halt here but the remains of it are hidden on the short section of track bed that I am bypassing here. I contemplate a visit to the local pub, but the weather still worries me so I push on.
On the way to the forum
The trail changes character a bit after Stourpaine; it is much more open and there are views off both sides as I head south towards Blandford Forum.
As I enter the town the rain is finally just about stopping. The trail gives way where the old station at Blandford Forum (20.95 miles) used to be. There is an information board and a bit of track by way of a memorial here but there is now a new housing estate where the platforms once were.
The Pines Express used to stop here. In the 50s it would have been the first stop after Evercreech Junction. The station would have been popular with servicemen based at or visiting the nearby army camp.
Neither bland nor ford
I find my Bed & Breakfast easily and after a shower I head out again. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get a pub to stay at in Blandford so it means going out to eat. On the plus side, it is an excuse for a walk around this impressively preserved Georgian market town.
COVID means that finding a place to eat is not quite as easy as I think though. In the end, I get the last table in the garden of the Crown Hotel and try to dodge another rain shower whilst eating a chicken salad under a marquee.
The beer here is excellent; it is brewed just across the river by the owners of the hotel: Hall & Woodhouse. The waiter tells me they have been forced to reduce the number of types they are making at the moment in case lockdown returns and they have to pour it all away again.
On the way back to my lodging I see an inscription in the pavement that suggests the town might be oddly named – “Here the Stour with its meandering ways, is hardly bland and barely fordable”.
Blandford Forum to Bournemouth Pier (24.1 miles)
A quick start
I have finished my breakfast by 7:45am and five minutes later I am out on the road. I have a long way to go today; it should be easy to navigate and it should stay dry but I am not taking chances.
I negotiate my way out of Blandford, over the river and back onto the trailway again. There are a few early joggers but it is still nice and quiet as, after 30 minutes, I pass through the old halt at Charlton Marshall (1.5 miles).
It is noticeably cooler already and I feel I am walking a bit faster as a result. After sections that are usually wooded and sometimes in cuttings, the trailway finally ends at Spetisbury (3.5 miles). Here there has been another splendid effort to make the old station attractive with lots of flowers, boards, information signs and displays.
The Stour again
For the next few miles the track bed is obscured or out of use, so I am back to following the River Stour. I cross Carlton Bridge and then pick up the Stour Valley Path alongside the river and follow it to Shapwick.
I keep by the river as it meanders all the way around to Mill Bridge near Sturminster Marshall and the old station at Bailey Gate (7.8 miles). It is a longish walk but I have the path all to myself again as I continue to admire the beautiful Stour and the swans gliding along it.
The mill at Mill Bridge is run by the National Trust but it is closed at the moment due to COVID. The bridge itself dates back to the 12th century. It is the oldest bridge to cross the Stour and the oldest bridge in Dorset. It has a lovely sign in the middle that promises transportation to Australia for anyone who wilfully damages it.
Old gates & alpacas
I push on. After a bit of a struggle on a very overgrown section of footpath, I go along the Wareham Forest Way for a while. I am feeling happy and I am making good progress. Then I come to what is probably the worst part of the whole trip; I am forced to walk alongside the busy A31; with the traffic approaching me at over 60 mph and with no pavement at all it feels very dangerous.
Eventually, thanks to a permissive footpath, I am able to walk back on the S&DJR formation for another mile or so. It is a nice little section; it includes, believe it or not, a little place where you can stop to observe alpacas in a field and the restored crossing gate next to the old keeper’s cottage on Knoll Lane.
I stand for a while at the crossing and I conclude that the keeper here would have had quite a varied job. For much of the time the railway would have been relatively quiet; apart from the daily Pines Express, there would have been just a few local trains passing; maybe one train every few hours.
On summer Saturdays, though, it would have been absolutely manic with as many as 30 extra services heading to and from Bournemouth; the keeper would probably have never stopped opening and closing these gates.
A cutting and some heather
The path on the formation ends almost at the spot where the line used to split. One branch went off to Wimborne, but the Pines Express would have curved southwards on a cut off towards Poole. I head on, roughly in the same direction, and pass a building site, a camping ground and a new housing estate before I am reunited with the old line near the site of Corfe Mullen Halt (12.08 miles). A little further on I get to walk through Ashington Cutting which has now found new use as a local nature reserve.
Eventually a golf course gets in the way of the old line, so I am forced to divert off onto a bridleway to get around it. The scenery heading over to Rushcombe Bottom is different from anything I have seen so far; suddenly I am surrounded by heather that is just starting to bloom. After a brief sojourn down Upper Blandford Road and a little short cut near the golf course, I end up at what was the official end of the S&DJR: Broadstone Junction (14.3 miles).
The impressive four-platform station that used to mark the point where the S&DJR line from Bath met the LSWR line from Wimborne is no more. Now there is a large leisure centre and swimming pool on the spot and today it seems to be quite busy. The Broadstone Railway Hotel is still here though and these days it is a pub/restaurant known as the Good’s Yard. It is a lovely Victorian building and inside there are a lot of old photographs of the railway on the walls.
It is also the perfect place for lunch. I get some delicious vegetable croquettes and enjoy them with a pint as I check how far I have come and how far I still have to go. The rural part of my trip is pretty much over. I have about 10 miles remaining and most of those will be within the town limits of Poole.
The sea at last
I leave Broadstone and head out initially on the Castleman Trail which uses the old elevated section of the track bed. A little later I switch to Broadstone Way and I go past where Creekmoor Halt (16 miles) would once have been. The modern road I am walking down is built on the exact route of the Pines Express, but it gives no clue of a railway ever being here at all.
For a while now, I have been thinking what it must have been like for the passengers on the Pines Express to have finally seen the sea after their long journey from Manchester. It is on my mind again as I round the last bend and I prepare to get my own first view of West Holes Bay and Poole Harbour.
I make it to the path along the water’s edge and then soon afterwards I go over the main railway line coming across the bay from Weymouth. This is very close to the point where the line from Bath would have finally joined it.
I continue along this path for another mile or so, now enjoying views vastly different from those of the previous few days. After about 30 minutes I arrive at what would have been the penultimate stop of the Pines Express: the railway station at Poole (18.1 miles).
The centre of Poole is bustling with holidaymakers and its streets are the busiest I have seen all week. I cut through the town and then head out through Baiter Park and back along the water’s edge before I eventually climb up towards Whitecliff Road.
At the top of Whitecliff Road I glance down and get a great view of the whole bay. Then I am off through the streets of eastern Poole. I pass through several roads of Edwardian houses before reaching the station at Parkstone (20.2 miles) and then several more roads before Branksome (21.7 miles). It could be the cooler weather or perhaps it is because it is the last day, but I don’t seem to feel quite as tired on this stretch.
Finally I am on the last downward bit and I walk along Poole Road into Bournemouth. I pass through the attractive little suburb of Westbourne before I turn into Queens Road and arrive at the site of Bournemouth West (23.1 miles): the final terminus of the Pines Express.
There is nothing here now except a coach park and a flyover, although the old station hotel still stands across the road.
I stand here for a while and I try to imagine all the passengers getting off the Pines Express, handing in their tickets at the barrier and coming out of the station.
Soon I am off again. One last stint takes me down through a series of pretty gardens, past the centre of the shopping district until I am here, at last, facing the pier.
I have made it!
I walk over to the little pine trees on display in pots just in front of the pier entrance and I spot my wife waiting for me. It is just about 4:50pm; pretty much the time the old Pines Express arrived in the town back in the 1930s.
When I have the energy to move again, we have a walk on the pier together to celebrate the end of my journey. Then we finally go off in search of our hotel.
A wet weekend
On the way to the hotel it starts to rain and it pretty much doesn’t really stop raining for the whole weekend. I don’t really mind but my wife is less than impressed.
We make the best of it though and certainly the food is nothing to complain about. It is my first time in Bournemouth since 1975 and I think the place has improved a lot. It seems to have modernised but still retained a lot of its old charm. An interesting bonus is looking at the large collection of giant cruise ships which (due to COVID) are idle and moored out in the bay.
The very last one
When it is finally time to go home on Sunday, we make our way to the impressive old Central station. Just before our service to London is due in, I spot a Cross Country train heading to Manchester at the platform. It is one of a regular pattern of services that now link the cities in around five hours via Reading.
As I watch it depart, I feel a slight tinge of sadness that they haven’t given it the old name and that it is not following the original route.
Nevertheless, I feel happy that although I never got to ride on the actual train itself or see the Somerset and Dorset line in all its glory, I have managed to do the next best thing….
Intense heat, torrential rain, hidden stiles, electric fences and dense gorse bushes have not stopped me….
I have managed to follow the trail of the Pines Express!