If a single volunteer is worth half a dozen pressed men, Swanage will need an even greater number to replace the tireless community efforts of Frank Roberts should he ever fully retire
Some fifty years ago, Frank Roberts fell in love with Swanage during a family holiday, like many before him. To Leeds-born Frank it looked, sounded and smelled idyllic, but in his wildest dreams he didn’t imagine he would one day become such a well-loved part of its civic life.
He reconnected during school holidays in the 1970s, when he met members of the fledgling Swanage Railway Operations Department working on the Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire and heard all about their ambitions of re-opening the line to Wareham. At 18 he embarked on a career as a communications engineer and joined the Territorial Army, training as a radio technician. Attached to 30th Signal Regiment with the Royal Corps of Signals at Blandford Camp and fed up with drinking too much at weekends, he volunteered his services to Swanage Railway during Easter 1983 and over the course of nine days installed its first telephone exchange in the goods shed – it’s still in use today.
‘Even then, I had no idea the part Swanage would play in my life,’ says Frank. ‘I was twenty-one years old and looking to make a difference. The following Easter, I asked the Army to help gather and install some cable, donated by Mid-Hants Railway, to prepare for the opening of the first mile of track between Swanage and Herston Halt. I was given fifteen blokes for four weeks, establishing a link between the Signals and the railway that continues to this day.’
Having transferred to the regular Army, Frank bought a house in Swanage and between operational tours continued to develop the railway’s communications cable network. On leaving the Army in 2004, he became the volunteer Infrastructure Manager at Swanage Railway before joining Stagecoach Rail in London. He graduated with a BSc in Railway Operations Management in 2009 and was contracted to project-manage Project Wareham, the extension of Swanage Railway to the mainline track in 2014.
‘The infrastructure is in place,’ Frank told me. What we don’t yet have is the rolling stock – that has been waiting to be upgraded at Eastleigh Works now for five years, but it’s getting ever closer and there’s reasonable hope we should have it available for staff training later this year and a regular service on our own trains running next year. Recently it has struck me that Swanage Railway is very focused on restoring history, but what we’re actually doing is making history.’
It’s now ten years since Frank with his volunteer ‘Team Herston’ and soldiers of the Royal Signals 3 (Harrogate) Squadron based at Blandford rebuilt Herston Halt, replacing the rotten wooden platform with a concrete structure. It now runs as a request stop and the summer months can see up to forty people, many from nearby campsites, waiting to use the train.
After Project Wareham, Frank took a year’s break from the railway before returning in March. He is rebuilding Team Herston, but would dearly love to re-invigorate the work being done at the halt by trialling a ‘community railway’ concept. Instead of limiting volunteer work to full members of Swanage Railway, he favours a less formal arrangement whereby volunteers could present for a few hours’ work at a time. The scheme would also be open to armed forces personnel, their families, veterans and carers staying at the Heroes Haven in Washpond Lane, as well as the Veterans’ Forge at Knitson, and other former service personnel.
‘Getting involved in community projects does such a lot to improve well-being and I’d be lost without it. I’m a do-er, I can’t sit still too long,’ explains Frank. Which goes some way to explaining why, under the auspices of Swanage Army Link set up after the Royal Signals were awarded the liberty of Swanage in 2005, Frank can often be found at four or five in the morning (‘Stupid o’clock,’ he laughs) picking litter from the verges of the A351, sweeping the kerbs of debris near Wilkswood after a flood, clearing road signs, trimming hedgerows and cutting back grass. And if he’s not doing that, he’s just as likely to be sweeping the pavements of Swanage. This winter he plans to renew the reflective white bands on black and white verge poles.
But isn’t all that a job for someone else? Franks sighs: ‘It probably is, but there’s no money and the job’s not being done. Dorset Waste Partnership and Dorset Council know what I’m doing and I’ve been warned about roadside safety, but they can neither condone nor condemn what I do.’
Although Frank receives donations from local organisations and individuals towards the cost of batteries, hi-viz safety wear, paint for the signs, rubbish bags and fuel for his van, he’s equally happy when someone offers a simple cup of tea.
‘I’d love to find a sponsor to cover personal liability insurance, because then I could encourage more volunteers to work on the verges, but if everyone in the towns and villages took care of the patch just outside their home, it would save someone else having to do it.’
As Frank ponders future plans that include the digitisation of thousands of photographs documenting the history of the Army’s involvement with Swanage Railway, a history he began in 1983, he is surprised at the suggestion that it might ever be time to stop.
‘I can’t see it,’ he replies. ‘I need to keep busy, otherwise I dwell on things. I don’t do breakdowns and I don’t do crises, but I do review things every couple of years and change the emphasis. I’m single, I’m in pretty good health, I don’t have children, but I do have time to look after things. I’m well respected in Swanage for what I do and that means a lot to me. I was selected to be an Olympic Torchbearer in 2012 – that was a proud moment – and last year I was proud to serve the Royal British Legion and lead eleven Days of Remembrance in Swanage marking the World War 1 centenary. I’ve lived an interesting life and I think I’ve made a difference – I can’t ask for more than that.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine