The Isle of Purbeck is an oddly isolated place. It's not really an island, being a peninsula connected to the mainland of Great Britain, but its location and the range of hills across its centre mean that reaching its principal town, Swanage, feels like entering a fairly remote location. By land, it's a 31km (19 mile) journey from Poole to Swanage, when the towns are only 12km (7 miles) apart.
In the early 1920s, Frank Aman, a businessman from the Isle of Wight, spotted the commercial potential in providing a faster way to Swanage for the increasing number of people driving to the coast to spend their holidays. What he eventually set up continues to provide a valuable local transport link and carries thousands of daytrippers every year. It also, inadvertently, created the earliest forerunner to a motorway anywhere in the UK.
A motor road and a ferry
This was no tin-pot proposal either; Poole Harbour takes cross-channel ferries and other shipping traffic and so the bridge had to be tall enough to clear ocean-going shipping vessels. The design was drawn up by none other than Sir Owen Williams, the concrete architect who went on to create the twin towers at Wembley and the designs for the first section of M1.
His bridge climbed steeply on the south side, arched over the main shipping channel, and then - reaching the built-up north shore while still in mid air - dropped back down to earth on a spiral ramp, turning 360° to meet Banks Road next to the ferry slipway.
Whether the Company ever intended to build this bridge is not at all clear. It came so soon after the ferry started service, and would have been so expensive, that it seems quite improbable. In the 1950s, when building a bridge instead of commissioning a new ferry was a real possibility, the idea was thrown out by local residents as being far too intrusive in a very open and low-lying area. It may, in fact, have only been so that the Company owned sole rights to the building of a bridge at Sandbanks, meaning that nobody else could build a bridge and put them out of business.
84 years in service
Eighty years and four ferries later, the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company is still going strong. A second draft of the bill that set up the company removed the clause that would have seen the motor road transferred to local authority control after 65 years, and as a result the road from Studland to Sandbanks is even now a private road, and a motor road at that. It is, however, free to use up to the toll booths close to the south slipway - and unlike most motorways, it's available for walking, cycling and all-day parking.