An enforced sojourn in my home town results in a few reflections on its past and present, and I am struck by the unique attraction of an actual railway line running down the middle of the road.
Like many others over the holiday season I was taking the opportunity to see family and friends. I was intending to spend a couple of days between Christmas and the New Year with family in the town I grew up. My plans changed, though, when I fell ill. Nothing serious but enough to keep me in bed for a day.
On the afternoon of the last day of the year, a bright and sunny day, I finally felt well enough to get out into the fresh air. As usual I carried my camera with me. I very rarely go anywhere without it. I am always looking and trying to make patterns, compositions out of what I see. Perhaps it is my way of trying to make sense of the world.
On this occasion I was drawn to the old railway line that runs along the harbour side, almost uniquely, down the middle of the road. This is not a tramline or a light railway; this is an actual full sized railway track on which actual full sized trains used to run.
A very brief history of my home town
Weymouth is a small seaside resort on the south coast of England. It had first been granted a charter in 1252 and had become a flourishing wool port in an age when wool was a major part of the English economy (wool was to medieval England what oil is to the middle east today). However it was always vulnerable to outside forces; the rats that brought the Black Death to Britain are said to have landed here in 1349; a few years later it was twice raided by French pirates. Its vulnerability to raiders meant that trade eventually moved along the coast to nearby Poole. It bounced back though, becoming one of only three ports licenced for the conveyance of pilgrims to the Holy Land and other sites of religious devotion in mainland Europe. In the 17th century it also became the jumping off point for many heading to the New World, some of them founding the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Towards the end of the 18th century the town reinvented itself as the first seaside resort when George III visited it no less than fourteen times between 1789 and 1805. Around the same time the first ferry service between Weymouth and the Channel Islands began when the port was designated for the packet station for the Channel Islands mail by the Post Office.
The coming of the trains
In 1865 a railway was laid from the town’s station to the harbour side to serve the packet ships. The wagons were at first pulled by horses but these were soon replaced by locomotives. Goods such as broccoli, flowers and potatoes were landed here to be carried off across the rest of Britain. Weymouth’s port side became a bustling and noisy place with the creaking and bumping of wagons and the shouts of men hauling loads to and from the ships that berthed alongside.
Later the railway began to carry passengers. It was possible to catch a train from London to Weymouth station and then on, at a walking pace, through the town, past the houses (you were so close and so high up you could almost look in their bedroom windows) to the port and your boat to France. As a child I remember standing on the roadside watching the huge locomotive and carriages rumble past me. In time, though the railway began to decline. The last freight train ran in 1972 and the last passenger service in 1987. No train has run on these rails since 1999.
And their disappearance
As I walked through the town on New Year’s Eve, my eye was caught by the low winter sunlight glinting on the disused rails that ran along the road, sometimes disappearing under the tarmac, but still visible, a ghostly presence of an earlier age.
As I followed the track, past the bus station, around the marina, under the Town Bridge, and along the harbour side to the currently disused port buildings it became impossible not to see the decline of the railway and the port as a metaphor for the turbulent times Britain is living through at the moment. Once Weymouth was a confident port looking and trading with the rest of Europe. Now the port has all but gone and the town has turned in on itself. In the European Union referendum of 2016, some 60% of those who voted in the town, voted to leave the union, in common with many other seaside resorts.
I also noticed that I was almost the only person paying attention to the tracks that run under wheel and foot. Apart from an occasional flurry of interest following a road traffic incident, or when someone would love to see trains run there once again it is ignored. So I set out that afternoon to record this piece of industrial archaeology and a reminder of the town’s prosperous past that is driven and walked over everyday but barely noticed, a railway line fading underfoot.
This article originally appeared in August 2017