Opening Up The Weald
By Rail to Tenterden
Incidents on the First Journey
These were the headings of the Kentish Express & Ashford News of Saturday, 7 April 1900, reporting the opening for passengers of the Rother Valley Light Railway on the previous Monday, 2 April. Goods trains had commenced the Monday before that, on 26 March 1900.
The opening of the R.V.R. warranted one and half columns on page six of the then broadsheet newspaper. The report included sketched scenes along the line and the first public timetable. One the same page, the activities of the local Boards of Guardians and their workhouse were reported; there was news from the front, the Boer War; in local government election results, the apathy of Ashford electors was deplored, and the virtues were extolled of California Syrup of Figs for the treatment of "habitual constipation".
The unnamed reporter opened by saying, "Tenterden had been under the disadvantage of having no railway connection", and that efforts had been made in the past to bring the district "more in touch with the outside world". The new railway "goes a long way towards supplying the one great want of the neighbourhood, and although it is but a light line, it meets the requirements of the locality". The report saw the main benefits to be to the agricultural and commercial interests of the area.
However the reporter did also see advantages for passengers. The businessman leaving by the first train from Tenterden at 7.30am was enabled to catch a fast train at Robertsbridge to arrive at Cannon Street at 10:09am, "or nearly two hours earlier than hitherto". Such was the leisurely life of a century ago. A number of other examples of train timings to various destinations were given. Tenterden was, of course, the present day Rolvenden station, then the terminus of the line. It was to be a further three years before Tenterden Town was reached.
The total length of the line between Robertsbridge and Tenterden was stated to be 12¼ miles. There follows a long paragraph giving facts about the stations which are best summarised in tabular form:
Distance from Robertsbridge
(Note 1s (shilling) = 12d = 5p)
A siding was provided at Salehurst but no platform until later years and the third class return fare for the whole line was two shillings (10p).
The countryside through which the railway passes was described as mostly hop gardens and marsh pastureland. "The flatness of the landscape is relieved on either side by gentle rising hills and undulating woodland scenery, with picturesque farm houses and white cottages nestling among the trees, and at intervals, the little rural villages from which the names of several stations are taken". This description has the ring of present-day hype but was possibly true of this locality a century ago.
The reporter continues, "At present there will be four trains each way and two on Sundays carrying 1st and 3rd class passengers, and when traffic develops, trains will be added to meet the requirements of the service".
"The rolling stock consists of two engines, six carriages and a sufficient number of trucks". As we know, the engines were No 1 "Tenterden" and No 2 "Northiam", both built by Hawthorn Leslie & Co. the previous year to the specifications of Holman Stephens. The carriages were four-wheelers built by Hurst Nelson & Co. and were described as "constructed of light coloured teak, comfortable, with windows extending along the whole length of the carriage enabling one to obtain excellent views". Carriages Nos. 1 to 4 were third class and Nos. 5 and 6 were first class.
"The carriages are all fitted with automatic brakes and at present are lighted from the roof by the usual oil lamps, which, however, will probably shortly be replaced by acetylene lamps." This latter comment suggests the reporter had been given some sort of briefing, probably by Holman Stephens, prior to writing his report.
Operationally, the railway was described as being run "on the flag and ticket system", possibly a misunderstanding of 'staff and ticket' system. Also, the "various stations are connected with each other by telephonic communications".
"The line is well conducted and everything is carried out under the direction of Mr David Barr, the travelling manager, who was eleven years on the County Down Railway and four years on the Furness Railway". This gentleman is not mentioned again in any archive papers, so we must assume this reign as railway supremo was a short one.
"Contrary to the custom on most lines, tickets are not issued at the stations, and passengers have simply to take their seats in the train. Some little time after departure of the train, the guard, or collector, enters the carriages and tickets are issued as the train proceeds on its journey, after the manner adopted on tramways". This practice continued right up to nationalisation in 1948, but many of the early used tickets in the Museum collection are machine date-stamped so must have been issued at booking offices.
Halfway through the report, the scene on opening day is described. "Flags were displayed at the various stations and at the houses in the vicinity of the terminus at Tenterden, while the engine was decorated with primroses (!). At an early hour several hundred residents assembled in the roadway at Ashbourne Mill, close to the terminus, to witness the departure of the first train. A large number also lined the platform and at 7.30am the first train steamed out of the station laden with some sixty passengers".
"The journey was a pleasant one in every way and the travelling was smooth and comfortable. The train stopped at each intermediate station for the taking up of passengers and arrived at Robertsbridge Junction at 8:30am. Flags were flying at prominent positions, and the arrival of thperience in a railway carriage, remarked to a lady sitting opposite that that was the first time she had been in a train, we train created interest amongst the passengers on the main line".
The reporter then describes the reactions of his fellow passengers. "One lady, whose flushed, excited face reflected the pleasure and novelty afforded by her first exhile her friend had on one occasion been in a train before". This rather twee account continues, "One little girl, with unconscious humour, expressed the hope that the train would not go fast". Speed on opening day was restricted to 15 mph.
"Considerable interest was evinced as the train passed objects with which passengers were familiar, and remarks such as "Look, there's our old mill", and "How do you like it", and "I should like to go back again", were freely given expression to as the train returned to the terminus".
"One man, eagerly looking our of one of the carriage windows as the train rounded a slight bend, expressed the opinion that the line had not taken quite the course he thought best, but that "they could have saved a mile if they had gone yon". Then, as now, there were always armchair experts.
While some accounts state that Sir Myles Fenton, Chairman of the R.V.R., did not visit the line until 4 April, this eyewitness account gives the afternoon of the opening day as the time of the visit. Sir Myles, who was also a director of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, accompanied by Sir Godfrey Goldsworthy, arrived at Robertsbridge a few minutes before 2 pm, presumably by main line train. There they were greeted by Mr Lord, the stationmaster, and by "Mr R.F.Stevens, the engineer of the line under whose personal supervision it has been constructed". One can imagine Stephens' irritation when he undoubtedly read this report with this mistake in his name. Stephens had been appointed General Manager the year previously and in 1900 was also made Managing Director.
The party left Robertsbridge by the 2:08pm train and Stephens gave his guests a conducted tour of the whole line with brief inspections of each station. Crowds continued to assemble at each station throughout the day to witness the arrival and departure of trains.
The reporter then gave some more useful information. "Omnibuses meet all trains at the terminus at Tenterden". These were small horse-drawn buses operated by R.&J. Bennett & Co., which ran between the terminus and Tenterden High Street. Apart from Tenterden, it was also proposed to run buses and vans (for parcels and goods deliveries), to Rolvenden, Wittersham, Peasmarsh, Beckley, Northiam and Sandhurst, connecting with the various stations.
The reporter had also been well briefed on the possible extensions to the railway and the following paragraph is of some interest: "At present Rolvenden does not possess a station", because "it will be on the extension, which it is proposed to commence almost immediately". "In addition to this, an extension of the line is sanctioned to Tenterden Town, also to Benenden, Sissinghurst Road and Cranbrook Town and station, where it would join the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway. The work is to be proceeded with at an early date. Powers are also to be asked for during the current session of Parliament to construct a branch to Northiam Town, Beckley, Peasmarsh and Rye".
Such was the optimism that attended the opening of the new railway.
Finally, the report summed up the first week of operation. "During the week the line has been well patronised by passengers, many travelling out of curiosity. The advantages of the line to the town of Tenterden are every day growing more apparent, especially to the business part of the community".
There is then a postscript from "a Northiam Correspondent" written in that curious language of the time: "Excitement, long deferred, was fully up to its highest pitch on Monday morning on the opening of the Rother Valley Light Railway. The 7.30am from Tenterden, on arrival at Northiam station, was quickly filled by an eager throng, all agog for their first ride on the new rail, some wending their way to Hastings, others to Robertsbridge Market. Many were not content with a short jaunt, but in jocular manner said they might as well inspect the whole line, consequently they rode to Tenterden, and thence to Northiam, arriving by the 2.58pm train in merry mood, their verdict on the inspection being that it was a little bit of all right, and riding to 'Hampsted in a Wan' was a fool to it. First impressions are sometimes the best, and the opening day on Monday certainly ought to augur well for the future".
Modest prosperity did ensue but the only extension was in the unexpected direction of Headcorn. With the coming of motor transport decline and decay set in. Independence was lost with incorporation into the state railway in 1948, passenger, and all services to Headcorn ceased in 1954 with goods services to Bodiam and Tenterden following in 1961. Following an epic struggle enthusiasts succeeded in reopening from Tenterden starting services in 1974 and finally reaching Bodiam..
One Hundred Years Later
Line reopens on 100th Anniversary
This was one of the Kentish Express headings on Thursday 30 March 2000, over an item giving news of the re-opening of Bodiam Station. Over the next two days, there was some nervousness as the weather deteriorated, resulting in drizzle on Saturday evening. However, on Sunday 2 April, it was dry, if overcast, with even some glimpses of the sun.
The first arrivals at Bodiam at about 8.00am were the catering team preparing coffee in the marquee, which had been erected on Vinall & White's car park the previous Friday. The duty station staff unlocked and made ready the station building, checked the toilets and arranged the planted containers around the podium from where the speeches would be made, and hoisted the flags. The public address system arrived and was tested and John Liddell's photo record of the Bodiam extension was ready in the goods office. By 9.00am we were ready to go.
Meanwhile at Tenterden Town, the 'bondholders' train drawn by USA No 65 was ready to depart at 9.00am with just under 200 purchasers of £1000 and £5000 bearer bonds and their guests.
The second train of the day, pulled by Terrier No 2678 and Austerity K&ESR No 25 'Northiam', was ready to leave at 9.30am conveying 100 especially invited guests to the Bodiam ceremony. Before departure, the Railway's President, Lord Deedes, (Bill Deedes, the journalist), made a brief speech from the platform. He regretted his timetable did not allow him to join the party to Bodiam. In passing, he admitted that he had been a member of the cabinet (when he was the Member of Parliament for Ashford), which approved Dr Beeching's closure plans for branch lines. He intended to go to Church following his visit and pray for forgiveness for both himself and Dr Beeching. He then waved his goodbyes as the train departed for Bodiam.
Back at Bodiam, the excellent 29 strong Battle Town Band had installed themselves in the second marquee, which had been erected facing the platform, alongside Vinall & White's drive. The band struck up as we saw the exhaust of the 'bondholders' train approaching down the valley, about a mile away. The train was played into the platform and the bondholders were advised to proceed via the level crossing for coffee in the marquee.
Once No 65 had run-round, this first train departed for Wittersham Road, and half-hour or so later, we could see the V.I.P. train approaching. This train was played in with much gusto from the band and the guests, who been served a light breakfast on their journey, assembled on the platform.
The locomotives, Nos 25 and 2678, then ran-round and backed the train to the Robertsbridge end of the platform, opening up the view of the Castle and the crowd, which had assembled opposite the platform to view what was to follow.
Robin Dyce, Chairman, started the proceedings, referring to the opening of the railway 100 years ago to this day, and to the various vicissitudes which had befallen it over the years. Then, quite unannounced, there followed a dramatic fly past from east to west, low overhead, of three light aircraft, led by Mrs Sue Saggers of Rolvenden. Her son Miles, is a member of the permanent way team.
This was followed by another unplanned event, when Peter Davis, a Director, presented the 1966 draft contract for the sale of the K&ESR to the archivist, John Miller, for safe-keeping in the company archives. Robin Dyce continued by saying that 50,000 hours had been worked by 200 volunteers on the various aspects of the extension, and that the project had been entirely managed by the railway's own staff. The "icing on the cake is that it was achieved within time and cost limits," he said.
Unfortunately, Sir Alastair Morton was indisposed and his place as principal guest, was taken at short notice by Christopher Fildes, journalist and a member of the National Railway Heritage Committee. Mr Fildes reminded those present that Bill Deedes had helped the K&ESR when, as the M.P for Ashford, he had spoken in the House of Commons against the demolition of the railway. "The Ministry of Transport had the idea," he said, "that the K&ESR was infested with level crossings!".
After conveying Sir Alastair's best wishes, Mr Fildes said, "You cannot stop here - on the day when the K&ESR engineers its way onto the main line and the Wealden Belle runs to, and through, the Channel Tunnel, Sir Alastair will be there himself!".
Dr Heather Couper, representing the Millennium Commission, admitted that from the outset she was a railway enthusiast. About 20 years ago, she had seen a K&ESR steam train at a distance long after the steam trains had supposedly gone and she thought, "But that looks so right in the landscape". At the Millennium commission it had given her great pleasure to support the application by the K&ESR for funds to open the line.
The Railway's Patron, Admiral Sir Lindsay Bryson, then thanked everyone for attending and congratulated the railway, and its staff, on its achievements in opening the line to Bodiam.
Following the speeches, there was one final surprise for eight K&ESR members when they were called to the podium for a presentation by Sir Lindsay. All eight were involved with, and representative of, the tremendous effort to get the extension completed. They were presented with plaques, painstakingly made by John Liddell, who much to his surprise was amongst the recipients. The others were Project Manager, Peter Barber; Permanent Way Manager, Brian Muston; Chairman of Bodiam 2000 Ltd, Norman Brice; Richard Halliwell; Duncan Buchanan; Peter Hemsley and Peter Watson. A plaque intended for Sir Alastair was received on his behalf by Christopher Fildes, who undertook to arrange delivery.
It was intended that the principal guests would view the photo display and inspect the waiting room and booking office, but as there was a considerable crush of people around the building, movement was difficult. Unfortunately, there was no means for the station staff to identify the V.I.P.s or photographers, or to distinguish them from general onlookers. Eventually, a tour of sorts took place and many of the guests bought a platform ticket as a souvenir.
Meanwhile, a white ribbon had been tied between the platform canopy support and the 'stop' board on the far side of the run-round loop. Sir Lindsay then vigorously waved a green flag and the train, which had been patiently waiting at the far end of the platform, edged forward. With whistles sounding, Nos. 2678 and 25 breasted the tape - it parted to the sound of whirling cameras and a lusty rendition from the band. To the general relief the canopy remained standing.
The train proceeded over the level crossing and came to a halt on the Northiam side. Final thanks were given while the road traffic cleared, then the V.I.P train returned to the platform for the special guests to embark. The V.I.P train then left for Tenterden Town at about 11:15 am, once again breaking a white ribbon for the benefit of the photographers. The 'bondholders' empty train was passed at Northiam on its way back to Bodiam to pick up those who had so handsomely supported the financing of the extension. This train left for Tenterden Town a little before midday, while the band played its final selection. The Bodiam booking office did a roaring trade in 50p platform tickets - nearly 400 were sold and at Tenterden Town, a further 107 were purchased.
At lunch time, the Norwegian locomotive No. 376 arrived at Bodiam with the vintage train of five carriages, this was followed by a further seven public trains, most of the seats being pre-booked. Additionally, the Wealden Belle ran in the early afternoon, serving bucks-fizz and canapés. In total, eleven trains marked the first day of Bodiam operations, carrying about 1500 passengers.
This article is an edited combination of two articles by John Miller in the Tenterden Terrier, The House Magazine of The Tenterden Railway Company Limited. If you would like to join in and help restore the Railway more details can be found on http://kesr.org.uk