Railway project is right on track
BLUE plaques could, in theory, abound at Shillingstone Station.
Closed by Beeching 45 years ago, Shillingstone was the departure point for the war poet Rupert Brooke in 1915 and was also used frequently by Edward VII.
Local lore claims he would visit his mistress Lillie Langtry at Iwerne Minster but chances are he was more likely satisfying his other great passion, shooting, on the estate of his friend Lord Wolverton.
The pretty canopy which still exists at the station - unique amongst minor stations on the Dorset Central Railway, is thought to have been installed for these visits.
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Shillingstone Station was built by the Dorset Central Railway and opened on Monday 31st August 1863. Closed on Sunday 6th March 1966, it is now the last surviving station built by that railway company and it is therefore of great importance, both historically and architecturally, that these remarkable buildings are preserved.
It is a small station, built to the north east of the mile long village of Shillingstone, formerly known as Shilling Okeford.
The station was maintained with great pride by the S&D staff who tended a beautiful garden with greenhouse.With Hambledon Hill, looking down upon the scene and the tranquil meandering in the foreground, Shillingstone was arguably the most picturesque station on the entire S&D route.
Shillingstone Railway Project is a vibrant and growing organisation with more than 350 members.
New chairman Toby Watkins is confident that this number will rise to around the 500 mark by the end of 2012.
Toby joined the trust in 2008 and took over the role of chairman at this year's annual meeting.
The 37-year-old RAF Squadron Leader is based with HMS Sultan at Gosport and calls Lincolnshire his home. His only connection with Dorset, he confesses, is the station at Shillingstone.
"I used the station project as the subject of a dissertation for my MSc in Heritage Conservation. I've been involved ever since." he explains.
Those qualifications are proving very valuable when it comes to accessing funding for the project, and he has a very clear three year plan for the transformation of the site from a station restoration project to a fully functioning railway museum.
The ultimate aim is to restore and conserve the station and its environment to show how it looked in the 1950s and 60s. Secondly, they want to create an enhanced experience for visitors by establishing a railway and lifestyle museum with working steam locomotives and rolling stock. This will include a thousand metres of track with points, an operational signal box and a restoration shed for locos and carriages.
2013 will see the 150th anniversary of the Somerset and Dorset line and Shillingstone station and it is hoped that a significant length of track will have been reinstated by then.
The new replacement signal box will be officially opened next weekend. Thanks largely to the efforts of Ken Merriman, one of the projects dozen or so dedicated volunteers that keeps the project on track, the new box has risen at remarkable speed.
This project was only started last December but by the end of January, the box was structurally complete and it is hard to believe that it hasn't always been there.
The weathered roof slates add to this impression and most of the materials have been reclaimed, bringing the restoration in thousands of pounds under budget.
As well as fundraising, Toby is keen to improve the profile of the project in the community.
"It's a fact that for every £1 spent at a heritage site, another £4-£5 is spent in the local area. We have a lot to offer North Dorset," said Toby.
As well as the museum, the site includes a cafe and shop, making it an ideal starting finishing point after a yomp along the trailway.
The grand opening of the signal box is on 15th and 16th October.
The actual ceremony will be at 2.30pm on the Saturday performed by Mr Bob Downes, the last employee of the station in the 1960s. The opening coincides with the Three Okefords End of Season Steam Up, meaning there will be traction engines on site, a licensed bar on the Saturday and live music in the evening.
A range of O Gauge, Gauge 1, and 5-inch Gauge locomotives will be running.
The café and shop will be open from 10am and 4pm on both days.
Report and pictures Fiona Dart