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The Bournemouth to Swanage Motor Road (well, sort of...)

publication date: Apr 28, 2016
author/source: Dave Moss


Sandbanks Ferry boards carsHidden away in south east Dorset, the Isle of Purbeck isn't an island at all: its a small but scenic 60 square mile peninsula, known since the 17th century for its high quality stone.


Tourists have long been attracted to Swanage, Purbeck's only seaside town, and its smaller, quieter neighbour, Studland. Both are under 8 miles from the bustling cosmopolitan centres of Poole and Bournemouth as the seagull flies, but the near-100 miles of coastline around Poole Harbour makes for a circuitous 20 mile route by road, which was slow going when the age of the motor car dawned - and isn't a lot better today.


Vast though it is, Poole Harbour has only one sea access - a deep water channel, less than a quarter of a mile wide, almost due north of Studland. Across the water from here is the swish Bournemouth suburb - and today's millionaires' paradise - of Sandbanks. From the mid-19th century, an efficient way of linking Bournemouth and Purbeck across this fast flowing stretch of water occupied several engineering minds. Rowing boats came first, and a motor ferry ran before the Great War - but tidal conditions seriously limited safe operation. Then, early in the 20th century, the 'Branksome Park and Swanage Light Railway' was incorporated, proposing a tramway between Canford, adjoining Sandbanks, and Swanage, crossing Poole harbour entrance by an electrically powered chain and cage arrangement running between towers on each side. The idea never got off the ground... 


In the 1920's, Isle of Wight entrepreneur Frank Aman became involved. His primary interest until then had been promoting an Act of Parliament to build the South Western & Isle of Wight Junction Railway, involving a two-mile tunnel under the Solent, for which Royal Assent was granted on July 26th 1901. Twenty years later work hadn't started, perhaps because Frank was by then promoting another Act of Parliament  - to set up and run a car ferry across Poole harbour entrance...


Even then access was easy on the Sandbanks side - known as North Haven - but there was no link beyond Studland village to the sea on the southern side. Authority was needed to build a road connecting the proposed South Haven ferry terminus with Studland, and so, early in 1923, Parliament found itself passing a bill to create the "Bournemouth to Swanage Ferry and Motor Road." This involved "A motor road 2 miles, 7 furlongs 50 chains or thereabouts in length, wholly in the Parish of Studland in the Rural District of Wareham and Purbeck, terminating by a junction with the public road from Studland to Swanage." Unusually, the Act also provided for the Company to prevent others from building alongside the road, and create by-laws to administer it - including a vehicle toll - applicable to either the ferry or the road. 


The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company built their new road using local Purbeck stone - and the first toll was levied at a small shed (booth is too grand a term) near Studland beach on 15 July 1926. The ferry - technically a chain-driven floating bridge - and a story in itself - was coal fired and steam driven, and commissioned from Isle of Wight shipbuilder J. Samuel White.



Despite its capacity of just 15 cars, later increased to 18, it was immediately successful, transporting some 12,000 vehicles and around 100,000 people in its first year.

Given the ferry's success,  three years later the company took an unusual step, returning to Parliament for powers to build a bridge across the harbour entrance, essentially linking north and south slipways - completely removing the need for a ferry. Architect Owen Williams - later destined for bridge-building fame elsewhere - reputedly drew up plans for a bridge providing vital clearance for tall, ocean going vessels.

Drawings still exist, and the proposal appears to have been deadly serious, involving a steep climb for vehicles to a high level on the south side, with a unique, 110 feet radius spiral ramp at the northern end, allowing descent to road level near the ferry slipway.

Closed by the military during World War 2, the ferry and the road played an active role when Studland Bay became a battle-training ground for troops involved in the D-day landings.

Afterwards substantial repairs were required before crossings resumed in 1946, still using the original Ferry, which continued in service until 1958. Around this time thoughts returned to bridge building possibilities, but in an altogether different age, support was lukewarm and cost potentially huge - so a new ferry was ordered instead.

Connection with the founding Aman family ended in 1961, and in the 1980's the ferry company was sold to current owners the Fairacres group.

This family owned concern  has invested heavily in improved facilities, including a new ferry, which entered service in 1994. The Bramble Bush Bay is fourth in line, and the first to carry a name: its also the biggest vessel so far, with a 48-car capacity. 

  Fascinating Ferry Facts

A crossing of Poole Harbour entrance on what's nowadays known as the Sandbanks Ferry takes around four minutes.


  The ferry can't deviate from its course, as it drives on one of two installed chains - the one furthest from the flow of the tide. This is said to consume less power, and give a smoother landing. Propulsion is by drive wheels pulling along the chains, which hang at a depth of about 14ft (4.26m) at the deepest point, and are fixed at the Sandbanks end.

  The channel is deepest here, so wear on the chains is greatest. At the southern, Shell Bay End (formerly South Haven) the chains emerge from the water and lay along the road, and are linked to steel cables which disappear down pits with counter-weights attached to the ends to maintain necessary chain tension. 

  Wear in the chains themselves, and between chains and slipways, amounts to a lengthening of about a link a week. The wear at the northern (Sandbanks) end is compensated for by removal of chain sections, with shackles replaced at the Shell Bay end since links cannot be made on site. Two links are removed approximately every fortnight, an operation which can be repeated only until the shackles reach the water, since they cannot run over the ferry drive wheels. 

  The chains are made entirely of hardened steel, and when new are about 1,235 feet (376m) long, some 160 feet (48m) longer than the transit distance. Full replacement is usually undertaken about every 18 months.

  Each chain costs around £18,000, and old chains don't go to waste - they are used by boat owners for moorings. Scottish salmon farmers also apparently also use them as net weights.



Almost ninety years on from the first crossing of this notorious stretch of water, the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company continues plying its trade. Since the toll booths were moved to the south slipway, use of the "motor road" is free for pedestrians and vehicles alike, providing uniquely serene and stunning views of Poole harbour, and time to reflect on how dramatically different it all might have been if Owen Williams' bridge had been built as proposed...


Image: Skez at English Wikipedia 






Wikipedia information on the Sandbanks Ferry.


A tourist-oriented site with lots of interesting information about the Purbeck peninsula.


Brief details of Frank Aman's involvement in Isle of Wight Railways and proposed Solent Tunnel.


A selection of pictures of the various ferries that have been used on this route since its inception.


The official ferry company website.


A brief history of how the ferry service came into being, and two drawings of Owen Williams' bridge plan.


This official paper provides detailed background to the history of extraction of Purbeck stone in the Swanage area, its use and application, and size and status of the specialist industry producing it.





Owen Williams: The engineers contribution to contemporary architecture

By David Yeomens, University of Liverpool, and David Cottam, Architect. pp168

ISBN: 9780727730183 Published 1st November 2011, Thomas Telford Ltd. 



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