Light Railway Viewpoints
For this evocative word-portrait of Tenterden Town station and the Kent & East Sussex Railway in the early 1920s, we must thank F.J. Harvey Darton (1878-1936). Although Dorset was Darton's chosen county, he also had a deep knowledge of and affection for the Weald of Kent, having been educated at Sutton Valence School. This is celebrated in his book A parcel of Kent, published by Nesbit & Co. in 1924. The chapters in the book are essays on various aspects of life in and around Tenterden, although Darton is careful not to name the town and indeed gives himself licence to combine features from different places for literary effect. In Tenterden, Darton stayed at the Woolpack Inn, and his description of it forms another memorable chapter.
Darton was one of the first writers on the countryside to regard the railway as a quaint survival rather than a modern intrusion; a reviewer of one of his later books comments that "it is pleasing to find that the railway has now become romantic by age. It is a literary convention to hurl epithets at new machines, but Mr. Darton hurls them at the motor-car." We should note that the station that Darton regarded with the eye of the antiquary had been open for barely twenty years, and that Colonel Stephens was still actively promoting rural light railways when A parcel of Kent was published. Although the K&ESR was clearly still playing an important role in the trade of the town of Tenterden in the early 1920s, Darton perhaps foreshadows the modern era, when it has become a destination for travel rather than a means of travel.
Darton was well served by his illustrators, and Miss Ruth Cobb was responsible for the sketch reproduced here, which served as a chapter heading for The Station. Again, some liberties were taken with reality for artistic effect – particularly with the engine which is no doubt intended to be a "Terrier" - but she conveys a sense of timelessness, interrupted by brief periods of fuss and bustle when one of the infrequent trains arrives.
The Station is the place which links the Old World and the New. It is a scene of daily miracles. Fish appear there wonderfully from some distant sea outside our orbit. Newspapers are found at intervals, purveyed by the ever-widening service of the descendants of Old Morality [W.H. Smith (1825-1891), founder of the chain of newsagents. Tenterden Town had a W.H. Smith station bookstall at the period described]. Famous steamship companies, devotees of the great god Publicity, tell you all about South America and the kingdoms that lie east of the sun and west of the moon, and ask you to go there – as if you could leave a station which is a flower-garden. Dead swine, swathed, protrude trotters like a baby's blood-stained hand as they lie on the platform among the flies. You are adjured to buy "Bakeoma" or some such marvellous device for making that beastly fabric, a batter pudding. An immense number of bees sing in an immense number of hollyhocks and sweet-williams.
As by law commanded, the planter of those and other good plain English flowers has to exhibit his name on a board as "toll-collector". The toll-collector is much more interested in his flowers than in his tickets, which indeed are very difficult to obtain. If you have not got one, the guard climbs along the footboard as the train is moving at the dangerous pace of ten miles an hour, and gives you one. He is like the Guard in Alice. You get a ticket sooner or later, but you never know when nor where: nor even how.
My Station is peculiar, because it has two platforms, and its name in large letters on each. Most of the others are more modest, and have only one platform (with a shed-attachment) and a nameplate concealed as well as possible. You must know the line, to be sure of getting out at the right station, especially after dark (but there is only one train after dark), because the lighting arrangements are simple to the verge of non-existence.
The toll-collector finds bindweed a great nuisance; though its beautiful large bells add lustre to his pretty garden. That indefatigable weed will climb over the derelict train in the siding. We have two sidings, and this old dead train lives in one of them. However, Mr. Q— is angrier about his garden than about this train; for no one will ever use that train again. I suppose the poor forlorn ghost will fall to pieces in due time, and the rails rust away, and the eternal life of green things master it all. It is a grey shadow, once a train, splendid and admirable to all beholders. The roof-line of the carriages already sags: the cushions (not many nor fat: our fathers were of harder stock than George M. Pullman) are full of holes; their entrails protrude. Some day a new Schliemann or Evans will discourse upon the vestiges.
Neither the siding nor the platform adjoining it seems to be used. It is a kindly thought to let the old train sink quietly into its coma of death. The real train, the living one, uses a single line all the way, except when (as so often) it shunts to pick up goods wagons. Half an hour at one station is almost normal, because this is a rich farming district, and if you cannot always get your goods from outside, you want to send your own away.
The Train makes an incredible noise. The engine is small and low, and has a funnel contemporaneous with (and, inverted, not unlike) the square bowler hat of thirty years ago. It also has what so few trains now have – one of those large, highly-polished brass excrescences in its middle, like the dome of St. Paul's: but we do not polish much here; we have no time. The Train clanks and pants and fusses. Its best fuss is its whistle. It whistles for two or three minutes continuously before approaching a level crossing, the gates of which (if there are any, and there are not always) have been carefully shut by hand a long five minutes before its arrival. There is a level crossing about every four hundred yards. I leave it to mathematicians to compute from these data (a) the mean speed of the train; (b) the total duration of noise in a journey of twenty miles.
At every station the Staff – THE Staff, all of it – pulls a gaily-painted red or blue lever. He has usually to cross the perilous track to do it, but he dares and does it; and a signal five yards away falls dutifully. The crossing gates are laboriously closed, and the motorists (thank God!) held up. About a quarter of an hour later the prodigious screech of the engine is heard, some distance off; and, at last, emerges from its lovely narrow avenue of trees – the Train. A mysterious loop of metal has to be given to the Staff, who in return goes into a privy den and finds an enormous mace, which must have cost pounds and pounds of gold when there was gold (our railway is as old as that. It is a sort of blacksmith's hammer, with a noble head, on which are cut in brass the words, "GO ON TO BOTHENDEN". At that the enchanter who had cast a spell upon the train to make it stop at my Station is dismayed, and vanishes in a cloud of smoke. So does the train, after shunting as much as possible. Of course the engine-driver has to have a long conversation with the stationmaster and the Staff; but then we all do that ourselves. And limp fish have to be flumped on to the platform, and the intolerable music of milk-cans ventilated.
We have also a water cistern – a large pot-bellied thing on a tall post, with a trunk like an elephant's. I have not seen it in use: our engines (who all have local place-names) seem to have gone dry. But its inert, heavy shape hints at a dreadful activity if water is really wanted. It might come hopping or striding after you with its twenty-foot trunk stretching out slimily....
It is a singular thing, this toy railway, with its forgotten and dying devices. There is no station on it but has a lost thought in it: a shed, a truck, a lump of metal that once meant something and now means nothing. It may continue: it has escaped amalgamation and control, and I hope prospers. You cannot book through to it from London. But as I go from the station into my rustling green avenue, and see nothing but greenness, and smell sweet scents of hops or hay, or wet earth, and (if I am in the Ford train) look ahead on the track covered with grass and flowers, I wonder. Which will win?
Yet we are all driven to this station, sooner or later. Perpetual motion urges us, Heaven knows why, in this self-sufficing parcel of Kent, this island within an island. And so driven, we are bidden to "book through, so as to save time". We are told, in largest letters, who are "the greatest grocers in the world". We see that "Pure India Tea – Broken Pekoe" can be procured of a certain agent. And here on the platform, waiting for an owner, is a wireless outfit. My little station broadcasts the world.
(An essay published in the Railway Correspondence & Travel Society's Locomotive Stock Book 1939)
Enjoyment of travel on a minor railway is quite a modern phase of railwayism. Taxis had to come before we realised how jolly an occasion was a ride in a hansom cab. So with the Steel Byway. It had been half-killed by the lorry and the country 'bus before many of us came to know it for the pleasing thing it is.
The old attitude towards the minor railway was one of condescension, and this took two forms. Those who wrote about it did their best to point out how very like a main line railway it was, when you looked closely. It was well rubbed in that the Rother Valley locomotives were painted like those of the Great Eastern, and the tramcar-like vehicles of the Garstang and Knott End were bravely described as "handsome new corridor carriages." If it were beyond human power to go on in this strain, regarding a certain railway, they went to the other extreme and called it a "toy railway." To this day, in Portmadoc, you can buy picture post-cards of what the publisher labels the "Festiniog Toy Railway," and even the Company's posters descend to similar baseness. Take one ride up to Festiniog and back, travel through the tunnel in one of those open-sided observation car things with the engine working hard, and see if you don't want to bash someone's face in! Toy railway my hat!
Yet the toy railway ramp was an important one. It was responsible, in 1915, for the revival of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway by its conversion into a 15in. gauge miniature line. It was really much more interesting in its original form, but the transformation did the trick. Yet what railway lover, to-day, would like to see the Tal-y-llyn Railway treated likewise? It would be like pulling down a beautiful old pub and building a fun-fair on the remains. The Tal-y-llyn Railway hasn't changed at all since the middle of the 'sixties, and to-day people flock to ride on it during the holidays. Not only people who like railways, but all sorts of people. I was on it last summer, and our antediluvian coach was boarded by an open-air, hatless, blonde lady in blue trousers, with quite half-a-dozen children, who had arrived in Towyn with a travel-stained Morris and a trailer caravan. And as we went bumping up the valley, at the regulation eight-miles-an-hour, she suddenly said to her five-year-old girl: "Why, Caroline, you've never been in a train before, have you?"
To which Caroline gravely answered: "No."
Verily, more than once I have seen a motoring party, who wouldn't give a glance to the Royal Scot or the Cheltenham Flyer, draw up and wait at Northiam crossing to watch the Kent and East Sussex evening train pass on its clanking way down to Robertsbridge.
I have a particular affection for the Kent and East Sussex, for I am one of its regular passengers. Unfailingly I use it, six times a year. It's a wonderful line. When you have changed into its train at Robertsbridge, and the lordly Southern express has passed disdainfully away in the Hastings direction, you feel that you have really escaped from the world of escalators, scarlet 'buses, tube cars and neon signs, from the monstrous conglomerate of semi-detached love-nests, super-movie-houses and Southern Electrics.
How jocund is the mellow whistle of your ancient engine as she goes butting along beneath a nave of trees! How engaging are the coloured views of the Cornish Coast on the partition, so disarmingly labelled "Places of Interest on this Railway"! Even better was the old royal saloon belonging to the 'forties, which I can truthfully say was one of the most agreeable carriages I have ever ridden in. From an antiquarian point of view, the K.E.S. has improved with the years. It started in 1900 with two engines and some carriages and wagons, all new. Now, its best locomotives belong to the 'seventies, and the carriages average about ten years younger.
Then, what can be more pleasing than the Isle of Man Railway? On this the traditions of a former age have survived without it getting shabby or poverty-stricken in the meantime. Indeed, the I.M.R. really is something like a main line system in miniature. It has all the dignity of a main line, you find, when you first pass under the elegant Victorian red brick façade of the terminus at Douglas, and its locomotives, from the Sutherland of 1873 to the Mannin of 1926 are things of beauty. There is a picture to be painted, a picture of one of those gleaming little Manx trains coming into Union Mills, which is without doubt one of the world's finest garden stations.
The minor railway has fallen on sad days during the past twenty years. The Lynton and Barnstaple has gone, and the price of coal in Lynton went shooting up as soon as the trains had ceased running. I enjoyed hearing that. A friend told me I ought to write a fable about it - The Town that wouldn't support its Railway. The Welsh Highland has gone. The Manifold Valley has gone. The Campbelltown and Machrihanish has gone. Even the Lauder Light, on which I remember the train waiting while the enginemen breakfasted with the Oxton stationmaster, has ceased, like many others, to have passenger trains. But let us hope that one or two beautiful anachronisms will survive the slaughter, and that in years to come pilgrims will flock to see a lovingly cared-for Festiniog, and a changeless Isle of Man Railway, as to-day they flock to see Chester, or Lavenham, or Polperro.
Have suffered so greatly
From agricultural depression
Shake off gloom and sorrow
A brighter tomorrow
Will dawn in the course of the session.
By no relaxation
Of rates or taxation
By a certain sure-never-to-fail way
Through government's pleasure
To bring in a measure
For giving some districts a railway:
A tight little, light little, railway,
A nice little, light little, railway.
O think of the joy
Of that exquisite toy
A tight little, light little, railway.
Your wheat may grow cheaper,
The pay of your reaper
May rise to a figure outrageous;
The weather may lay all
Your crops, and your hay all
Be ruined by tempests rampageous;
Your stock mayn't grow fatter,
But that does not matter,
Except in a bargain and sale way:
What are these to the blessing
Of really possessing
A tight little, light little, railway.
You may not have a fraction
Of produce for traction,
Not a stone's weight to put in a wagon,
Not a horse in your stable,
No bread on your table,
Not a shoe to your foot, not a rag on:
All this would be frightful
Were it not so delightful
To see in a slow as a snail way
The trucks all go gliding
From track into siding,
From siding to track on your railway.
Then, oh fortunati
Agricola, wait, aye
Wait, for the clouds to roll by you:
Your troubles are over;
Your'll laugh at the ills that now try you.
'Ex machina Deus
Is coming to free us,
Not in the old-fashioned or stale way.'
Let this be your chorus
'A future's before us;
Three cheers for the light little railway!'
Listening, and looking up from what I'm trying to write,
I hear a local train along the Valley. And "There
Goes the one-fifty," think I to myself; aware
That somehow its habitual travelling comforts me,
Making my world seem safer, homelier, sure to be
The same to-morrow; and the same, one hopes, next year.
"There's peacetime in that train." One hears it disappear
With needless warning whistle and rail-resounding wheels.
"That train's quite like an old familiar friend,"one feels.
What is a Light Railway? Today we think of it as the Docklands Light Railway, a sort of super passenger tram. In the 19th. century however our ancestors thought of it as a method of bringing cheap transport to rural areas. This is the problem Colonel Stephens and others sought to solve with their engineering and management skills.
In the 1870s and 1880s, there was a period of deep agricultural depression. In those horse-and-cart days the only way for farmers to get their produce on to the national market was by railway. These were, however, very expensive creations. The national tide of railway building had long passed its high-water mark and was ebbing away from rural areas. These remained desperately in need of cheaper transport if their economy was to survive. Their salvation in this respect was of course to be found in the internal combustion engine and improved road surfaces, but this was a distant 40-50 years away. The ever-enterprising Victorians therefore came up with a concept fitted to their steam age. Cut the frills, stay away from the hills, have sharp curves and steep gradients, lighten the rails and the locomotives and use that wonderful new corrugated iron for buildings.
Advocates of this approach had been around since the earliest days of railways in the 1840s. The Festiniog Railway in North Wales had caused a sensation in the 1860s with its ability to carry loads cheaply through difficult country and pay dividends of up to 30% a year. This example caused an explosion of development in the colonies and elsewhere in the late 19th century but at home little headway was made. Short narrow-gauge railways caused delays, damage and extra cost when goods were trans-shipped to the main line.
The engineers and politicians had not yet come up with new methods of reducing the cost of standard-gauge rural railways. They tried of course. Two railway Acts of the 1860s mention light railways and in 1870 the Tramways Act was passed. The tramway concept of railways built along the dusty public highways of the time was in vogue for a while. They only really took root however in specialised form, for passenger travel in urban areas. During these years, practical engineering expertise evolved and the concept of the light railway hardened. It became a railway "built to be suited to the traffic it could expect initially and for the first few years" . If successful the railway would be upgraded, if unsuccessful risk capital would be minimised.
Rural pressure on the government to "do something" and positively encourage light railways by sweeping away Board of Trade (predecessor of the Department of Transport) restrictions and supplement local finance with central government funds led to the Light Railways Act of 1896. Holman Fred Stephens, with his newly established consultancy, was well placed to take advantage of this demand and used the Act in many projects in the following optimistic years.
In true Victorian fashion, optimism spilled over into verse and in the newly arrived popular press a poem, "That Tight Little, Light Little Railway" appeared in a London evening newspaper. The rural railway became deeply rooted in English culture. Railways represented stability. In the modern terms, they became " part of the infrastructure" . Their presence represented wellbeing and comfort. Siegfried Sassoon, at the height of the First World War, expressed this profound feeling in his poem "A Local Train of Thought".
The enthusiasm did not last. Light railways had arrived too late. Costs could not be kept low enough to service cheap transport rates. Local funds were not available, grants were not enough, the mainline railways turned their backs - they had enough traffic anyway. Even worse, lightly built equipment often did not stand up to the rough and tumble of service and no funds were available to reinvest in better. All that could be hoped for was modest profitability with more robust second-hand equipment. Stephens adapted, the railways he managed to build survived, but many projects died stillborn. Applications for light railways fell from 88 in 1898 to 2 in 1914. During the Edwardian years the 1896 Act was held to have failed. It was however serviceable enough to survive for 100 years, finally to be most useful in keeping down the costs of the railway preservation movement.
The rise of the motor lorry in the 1920s brought nemesis. Goods traffic departed wholesale. Passenger traffic had never been great, for country people did not travel much and when they did it was by the cheaper motor bus. The railways run by the mainline railways survived by drawing on their funds and engineering assistance. Despite innovative use of limited capital for projects like the famous Stephens' rail buses, independent railways fell into decline and bankruptcy.
They still helped many farmers though. Coal, lime and manure of all types - horse from the city streets to exotic shoddy - came in and away went wheat, hay, potatoes, hops and sugar beet. The government to keep it open under the duress of war in 1941 requisitioned the Wissington Railway in deepest East Anglia. A beaming Minister of Agriculture, in his braces, drove the inaugural train with the headboard "The Bread-and-Butter Express" . There was still some fun to be had even in the dark days of war. The farmers shipped off their beet and potatoes from this productive, but largely roadless, tract of country at subsidised rates. However, the war ended and they soon deserted as they built their subsidised farm roads.
Lovers of the picturesque now discovered these decayed railways. At first by lone railway enthusiasts but later the wider public. They however became something of a local, if not national, joke with old locomotives and carriages compared to kettles and hencoops. Punch magazine enjoyed itself commissioning some fine cartoons from Rowland Emmett on his mythical " Far Twittering and Oyster Creek Railway" theme. The Kent and East Sussex line even managed its own illustrated poem "Farmers' Train".
From this mood of gentle nostalgia there arose a great voluntary movement, the railway preservationists. People laughed at the "Titfield Thunderbolt" but as that film said clearly what was fading must not be lost; it must be saved if humanly possible. And so it was. Much was saved from the fire and furnace. Around the country much has survived to be enjoyed today. At our museum and railway, we can view the achievements of a man and a movement. They are not forgotten.
Light Railways in England and Wales. P Boseley. Manchester University Press. 1990
Light Railways. W J K Davies. Ian Allan. 1964
The Country Railway. David St John Thomas. David and Charles. 1976