Poole Harbour is a constant in this ride. As harbours go, it’s a tiddler, measuring only a few miles across, but thanks to countless inlets and hidden promontories, it claims to have the second longest coastline of any natural harbour in the world, after Sydney, Australia. Information that may or may not come in handy one day – we try to please.
The most convenient place begin is at Poole railway station – two hours from London and with direct trains from Southampton, Reading and most points northwards. A mile or so of fairly hectic town centre riding takes us to the entrance to Poole Park and a quick circuit on the Poole Park Miniature Railway.This 101/4″ line runs for half a mile around a lagoon fashioned from one of the Harbour inlets and has been a fixture since 1948.
The railway once carried 150,000 children and adults a year, but that figure had fallen to 60,000 by 1997. However, business is looking up, and plans are afoot to create a new station for 2004, allowing two trains to run simultaneously at peak times.The railway is well worth a visit, and Poole Park offers ample secure cycle parking, a cafe and toilets.
From the east end of the Park, cyclists can swing right, off the road and onto a waterside cycle path before joining the B3369 for the three mile ride to Sandbanks.This is a busy stretch, but reasonably wide, and who cares? The views across Poole Harbour to Brownsea Island are quite stunning if you’re not used to this sort of thing, and anyway, cars will soon be at a serious disadvantage.
Poole Harbour has only one outlet. So short of going all the way round, everyone is obliged to take the chain ferry to cross the short, but treacherous stretch of water from Sandbanks to Shell Bay in the Isle of Purbeck. Just for the record, Purbeck is not actually an island, but it’s bordered by Poole Harbour and the river Frome to the north, and the English Channel to the south, so it’s nearly there.With a bit more erosion it may eventually follow its easterly neighbour the Isle of Wight and become the real thing.
The Bramble Bush Bay chain ferry is operated by the quaintly-named
Bournemouth- Swanage Motor Road & Ferry Company, and shuttles back and forth daily between 7am and 11pm, except for Christmas Day, when there’s a reduced service, and other occasions when the chains are disconnected and the ferry gets dragged off for overhaul.
With such long hours, the crew work to a shift system, and one of the select band of ferry captains is Steven Bissex, who just happens to subscribe to A to B. Parking is a major headache at Sandbanks (there isn’t any), so Steven often rides the 14 miles from his West Moors home on a custom-built electric bike. If you see an unusual and seemingly ownerless bike locked aboard the ferry, you can be fairly confident Steven is on duty up above. Do give him a wave.
For the residents of Purbeck, the ferry is a life-line, eliminating a lengthy detour via Wareham to reach the fleshpots of Poole and Bournemouth, but it also carries hoards of tourists – mainly from Bournemouth, and usually heading for the sandy beaches of Shell Bay and Studland.
Therein lies the problem, for this being Britain in 2003, almost everyone drives across, queuing for up to two hours, paying £2.20 each way for the crossing, parking up to a mile from the beach and trudging back down the road…Yet the sands begin right by the ferry slipway. Odd, but there you are.
On busy days, cyclists arrive in modest numbers, paying 80p each way, while the handful of pedestrians pay 90p outward from Poole and (as no-one lives the other side) nothing coming back.Travelling clockwise, as we are, you simply pay the bike fee. But if travelling back the same way, simply fold and cover your bike and go home for free.The really mean can do the entire circuit in reverse, and pay nothing at all.
Beyond Shell Bay, the road is owned by the ferry company for several straight- as-a-die miles and was once said to be beyond the jurisdiction of road traffic regulations.This has apparently been amended, so don’t even think of heading west with your electric scooter, petrol-fueled skateboard, can steam on up the 100 rocket-assist recumbent or other A to B oddity.
Pedestrians and leisure cyclists soon melt metre Ballard Down…” away, and with cars passing only in ferry-sized batches, there are lengthy quiet periods for the cyclist to enjoy the seclusion of Studland Heath, home to a number of rare scuttling things, including the sand lizard, one of our most endangered species, and much too shy to show itself by the roadside.
At Studland village, enthusiastic types can steam right on up the 100 metre (330 foot) Ballard Down, but it’s a busy road and a stiff climb, so the A to B recommendation is for an ice cream at Studland Beach (nudist or clothed, according to taste), followed by an open- top bus ride over the strenuous bit.
Do our cousins overseas go in for this sort of thing, or are these strange vehicles a peculiarly English form of masochism? Either way, rain or shine, the Wilts & Dorset service 150 runs to an hourly schedule linking Bournemouth and Swanage, so you can eliminate the folding bike altogether if you wish. As this includes a ride on the ferry, the company makes the unusual claim that, ‘… you will also have the excitement of going to sea on the open-top bus’. A rare treat. For the uninitiated, the upper deck is a bit like sitting on an armchair suspended three metres above a motorcycle.
Excitement over, the bus wobbles into what would now be the Swanage bus station and town centre car park, were it not for the efforts of a band of dedicated volunteers, who have restored a working railway.
When Doctor Beeching turned his attention to the Swanage branch line in the early 1960s, he found one of the busiest seaside branches in the south of England.With the special circumstances of the ferry and the narrow Purbeck roads, Beeching recommended that the line should be retained, but relentless political pressure finally brought closure in early 1972, forcing rail traffic onto the roads. And I can vouch for that, having travelled on the last train.
Over the next thirty years volunteers fought to reopen the line in stages and a connection was finally made to the national network earlier this year. But thanks to politics, inertia, vested interests, and all the other negative forces that seem to dominate the British transport scene, you can’t catch a train from here to a National Rail station. Actually, the isolated ‘preserved’ railway is not quite as useless as it might appear, because a busy park-&-ride terminal has been built at the western end, and many motorists leave their cars here, taking the train onward to Corfe Castle and Swanage.
Just for the record, in the 1960s, trains took about 50 minutes to potter from Swanage to Poole, against 70 minutes or more for the replacement buses. A modern train service would take about 35 minutes.With the stroke of a politician’s pen, trains could be running tomorrow, but don’t hold your breath…
Like most volunteer-run lines, the Swanage Railway includes a guard’s van in every train and carries bicycles, tandems and even tricycles for free, but space can be limited, so a folding bike is still useful.At Norden, it’s time to unfold the bike again, although the A351 from here to Wareham is strictly off-limits to all but the most foolhardy of cyclists. Soon after the railway closed, oil was discovered in Purbeck, in what was eventually to become Britain’s largest onshore oil field. In a grubby deal, not untypical of the times, the oil companies funded the ‘upgrading’ of the main road from Norden to Wareham, turning a dangerous stretch into a lethal racetrack. Still, that’s progress.
Fortunately, there is another quieter route via Middlebere, Slepe and Ridge, and very pleasant it is too, offering brief tantalising views across the Harbour to Poole. From Stoborough, a final mile and a half of busy B-class road takes us through Wareham to the station, where trains run every 30 minutes back to Poole.
For more information: Friends of Poole Park Rly, 2 Western Avenue, Branksome Park, POOLE BH13 7AL
Wilts & Dorset buses tel 01202 673555 www.wdbus.co.uk
Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road & Ferry Co tel 01929 450203
Swanage Railway Co tel 01929 425800