Vintage railways seem to hold an enduring appeal
PUBLISHED: 01:16 19 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:42 20 February 2013
Vintage railways seem to hold an enduring appeal for many of us. They're evocative of an earlier age, one in which train travel was something to be enjoyed rather than endured
The appeal of vintage railways isnt confined to steam enthusiasts or those nostalgic for the railways of their youth. Even people who have never travelled by steam railway before are drawn to them today.
Fortunately, the county is blessed with four such lines, each providing users with a window to an earlier and in some ways more idyllic age of railway.
Kent and East
The Rother Valley Railway, as this line was initially known, originally ran
from Robertsbridge in East Sussex to Headcorn in Kent. It was the first line to be created under new legislation passed towards the end of the 19th century that encouraged the building of cheaply constructed lines in remote rural areas.
Never particularly successful (it
had fallen into bankruptcy in 1931) pressure from road travel meant that in 1954 the line was closed to passengers and then in 1961 closed to goods too.
The railway had always attracted
a degree of fondness among rail enthusiasts, largely because it had struggled to survive and also because it had remained independent during the inter-war years when so many other lines had been amalgamated under
the control of the Big Four railway companies (via the Governments
1921 Grouping Act), says general manager Graham Baldwin.
Because of this sentiment, following the railways closure a society was formed with the object of preserving the line.
Protracted legal battles with the then Minister of Transport saved the railway from demolition, but the line was only saved when the society agreed to drop the Bodiam-Robertsbridge section from its initial restoration plans.
The first two miles at Tenterden were opened in February 1974. Following that, the major renewal of
a river bridge enabled an extension by 1977 to Wittersham Road. The next station to be reached was Northiam in 1990 and then most recently, Bodiam in the year 2000, 100 years after the line first opened, adds Graham.
Today the railway carries around 100,000 passengers per year and is open for 180 days.
It's a really popular railway with people of all ages. The line cuts through some spectacular countryside which can really only be appreciated from the train. But ultimately its the quality of the line that draws people in.
And this wouldnt be the case were it not for the 400 or so volunteers who give their valuable time to ensure that this little piece of local heritage continues to be enjoyed by so many people. >
Spa Valley Railway
There was a time when Tunbridge Wells had two mainline stations,
each built by rival companies. The first, Tunbridge Wells Central, was
opened in 1845 by the South Eastern Railway and Tunbridge Wells West was opened by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway in 1866.
During the 1960s the lines radiating westwards from Tunbridge Wells began to fall under Dr Beechings infamous axe, although the Eridge to Tunbridge Wells section (the last part remaining) hung on as a living anachronism
until it too was closed in 1985.
Following the closure, a charitable society was quickly established to fight for the reopening of the line, explains Paul McKinnell, director.
The next few years were a long, hard struggle against the ravages of vegetation, disinterest and outright hostility from some quarters, but in 1994, with a generous loan from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, the society acquired the line and by winter 1996 they were running trains on half-a-mile of track towards Groombridge.
Many improvements have been
made since then, including the introduction of new steam locomotives, rolling stock, upgrading of stations and the building of a signal box.
All the hard work by the societys volunteers has ensured the restoration of a beautiful line and one that
people really seem to enjoy. Our
latest achievement has been the
recent reopening of the Groombridge to Eridge section, says Paul.
For the first time since 1966
you can again travel from Eridge to Tunbridge Wells by steam train, in fact, since 1985 by any train at all!
Its been a long and difficult process, but its been worth it.
The line is finally restored to the length that it was when it was closed 26 years ago and that is something we are immensely proud of.
The Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway
This line represents a preserved proportion of the former Bowaters Railway, which was had been originally built to move raw materials for paper making and also the finished products between Ridham Dock (a deepwater facility on the Swale) and the paper mills at Sittingbourne and Kemsley.
In its heyday there were 14 locomotives working on around 10 miles of track. Eventually the railway became a 24-hour a day, seven day a week operation which maintained a passenger service for mill employees, says Bob Newcombe, director
In 1965, a study of internal transport undertaken by then owners the Bowater Corporation concluded that everything would be better done by road transport. So in 1969 the railway, which had the honour of being the last steam-operated industrial narrow gauge line in Britain, was closed down and handed over to the Locomotive Club of Great Britains Light Railway Section, which became the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway (SKLR).
We took over and for the following 38 years ran two miles of the railway, giving people the opportunity to enjoy this valuable piece of local heritage. It was an operation that was hugely dependent on the army of volunteers who strived so hard to keep the line in good working order.
Despite their endeavors in 2008-09, the line faced the threat of closure due to the owners of Sittingbourne Mill (and much of the land on which the line runs), wishing to sell up.
At the time that was a terrible blow, admits Bob. Locomotives stopped running and we thought that the line might close for good. Thankfully, a strong campaign organised by the SKLR with help of Swale Borough Council managed to avert this. Right now the railway features prominently in plans to redevelop the site by the current owners, Essential Land. And Im happy to say that we have started running our heritage services again.
The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway
The lines creation was the realisation of the dreams of two men: Captain
J. E. P. Howey (a racing driver, millionaire land owner and miniature railway enthusiast) and Count Louis Zborowski (racing driver and multi-millionaire) who both wanted to create a fully working miniature railway, says Danny Martin, director.
After much searching, Romney was chosen for the location of their dream, because of its flatness, the absence of any existing line and the desire by locals to have access to a railway. At enormous cost the line, which at that time ran from Hythe to New Romney, opened in 1927. Sadly it was an event that Zborowski never got to witness, as he had died a few years earlier racing at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix.
Over the years that followed the railway, which was hugely popular, was extended to Dungeness, creating a fantastic mainline ride of 13.5 miles. Sadly, although it prospered during the immediate post-war years, following the death of Capt. Howey in the early sixties a gradual lack of investment meant that the line began to slowly deteriorate, says Danny.
But such was its uniqueness and appeal, in the early 1970s a new consortium, headed by Sir William McAlpine, intervened and since then significant investment has taken place.
We now have a wonderfully organised railway, where enthusiasts have got involved and bought shares in the line, the dividends of which are all ploughed back into it, adds Danny.
Along with the volunteers who donate so much valuable time, this has contributed to the railway being in a fantastic condition. One of the most pleasing aspects is the fact that the locomotives that pull the trains are those originally commissioned by the two founders, which is certainly something attributable to their quality.
This miniature gem now carries 100,000 passengers each year. Not
only do users get a chance to appreciate such an unusual railway but also the beauty of the Romney Marshes.