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Kent and East Sussex Railway


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Some background and history

This is a lovely ride through the unspoilt countryside of Kent and East Sussex and is a wonderful example of a rural light railway. It is typical of the many railways developed at the start of the C20th to serve sparsely populated areas. The stations may be named after the nearest village but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are close to it. It is a leisurely ten and a half mile trip across the Rother Levels between Tenterden Town and Bodiam.


The line has a very interesting history as it was the first railway line to be constructed under the Light Railway Act of 1896. This enabled railways to be built more cheaply in areas standard gauge railways would be uneconomic. There was a speed limit of 25mph and weight restrictions on the locos.

Tenterden was a major town in the middle of a triangle of railways and there had been plans for a railway since the 1850s. Under the Light Railway Act, a line was planned from Robertsbriddge on the Tonbridge - Hastings line to Tenterden. Holman Fred Stephens, who later became Col Stephens, was appointed as engineer to build the line and later became manager. He went on the build and manage many more light railways.

The original terminus was built at Rolvenden and the loco works and engine sheds were here. Three years later the line was extended up the hill to Tenterden Town. At 1:50, not only is this is the steepest gradient on the line, it is also the steepest in the south of England. The line was later extended to Headcorn on the Tonbridge - Ashford Line.

Initially the railway enjoyed moderate success, but its fortune began to decline after the First World War, when it remained independent and did not join the Southern Region. Many local hauliers bought cheap ex army vehicles and began competing for traffic and profits were hit. Col Stephens tried to increase business by introducing back to back Ford buses fitted with metal wheels. These were cheap to run but unpopular with passengers.

When Col Stephens died in 1928, the railway was operating at a loss and was put into receivership. William Henry Austen who had been Co Stephen’s assistant for many years, was appointed Official Receiver. Creditors decided they stood more chance of getting their money back if the line stayed open. A lot of rolling stock was sold or swapped and the railway struggled on.

The line came under government control during the Second World War and was an important alternative supply route to the south coast. The railway was nationalised in 1947 and British Railways continued to run it as a light railway. Passenger numbers and revenue continued to decline and the line was closed to passengers in 1954. The Tenterden to Headcorn section was closed completely and ripped up. Goods trains continued to run on the rest of the line and also hop pickers trains in the summer. The line was completely closed in 1961 as part of the Beecham cuts.

Railway enthusiasts always had a soft spot for the line and its history, and a Preservation Society was formed with plans to run a tourist railway between Tenterden and Bodiam. This later became the Kent and East Sussex Co Ltd and, after years of neglect, the railway was reopened in stages from Tenterden in 1974. It eventually reached Bodiam in 2000. There are now plans to reopen the final three and a half miles to Robertsbridge.

The railway runs services through most of the year using a mix of steam locos and vintage diesel rail cars. Bodium, one of the original locos bought by Col Stephens, is still working on the line. There is a Sunday Lunch and Saturday evening vintage Pullman dining service. Meals are prepared on board in traditional Pullman fashion with silver service.

The railway is unusual in that passenger trains run at a loss as the railway has a policy of setting affordable fares. Most of their income comes from the gift shop, catering (especially the Pullman service) and special events.




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The Route

Most people begin their journey at Tenterden where there is a cafe and gift shop. It is a leisurely 45 minute run through the Rother Valley. Trains cross at Wittersham Road. There are level crossings, signal boxes where the token is exchanged as well as a stop at Rolvenden to take on water. A trolly service provides drink and light refreshments on the train.

I began my journey at Bodiam, which is the least altered of the stations, still with its original station buildings. The toilet block is new, but designed to fit in with the rest of the buildings.



There is a display of rolling stock in the yard.



This including the Cavell Van which was built in 1919 and was a prototype of the vans used for mail. This van was used to carry the bodies of Nurse Edith Cavell, Capt Charles Fryatt ( a British mariner executed by the Germans for attempting to ram a U Boat in 1915) and the Unknown Warrior from Dover to London after the First World War. There is a small exhibition inside, which has been laid out as it was for the final journey of the Unknown Warrior including a replica sword on top like the one donated by King George V to be buried alongside the soldier.


At the eastern end of the station is a level crossing, seen here with Norwegian arriving with her train.



Norwegian is a Swedish loco built in 1919 and arrived at the Railway in 1971


Bodiam Station is surrounded by the fertile East Sussex countryside, half a mile south of Bodiam Castle. The hop fields and hop pickers trains are long gone and the oast drying houses seen between the trees are now upmarket houses.





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1000+ Posts
The Route continued....

The first part of the run from Bodiam follows the River Rother closely. Small settlements can be seen on the drier land on the edge of the valley. This is fertile sheep country with small fields and a lot of woodland with bluebells.


Northiam Station is a small country station a mile from the village, still with its original buildings.


The railway crosses border from East Sussex into Kent. Land is low lying and wet in places.


Tokens are swapped at Wittersham Road signal box.


We passed the diesel rail car service at Wittersham Road Station, the most isolated station on the railway and three miles from the village which is built on higher and drier land. The station buildings here came from Borth, near Aberystwyth and the signal box from Deal Junction.


Beyond Wittersham Road, the railway runs over the Rother Levels, an area of damp land at the back of Romney Marsh and crossed by drainage channels, with cricket bat willows growing along them This is good barn owl countryside with nesting boxes set up on poles.



Beyond Wittersham Road there are rows of what look line parallel channels running at right angles to the railway line. These are almost impossible to photograph and were used to farm freshwater crayfish for the London restaurant trade. They were kept topped up by a small reservoir.

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1000+ Posts
The Route continued

The Loco works and engine sheds are at Rolvenden and locos stop here to take on water.



The station buildings were demolished and were rebuilt when the railway line reopened.



Beyond Rolvenden the line runs through very attractive wooded countryside before the final 1:50 climb into Tenterden Station.





This is the main terminus of the line and the station building and booking office are original. The shop is in what was the goods and parcel office. The carriage and wagon workshop is here and sidings are used to store coaches. The timber frame station refreshment room was Maidstone bus station until 1976. The Col. Stephen’s Museum is across the line.



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1000+ Posts
Col. Stephen’s Museum, Tenterden Station

Col. Stephens was a pioneer of light railways are was responsible for building and then managing the Kent and East Sussex line. He was also involved in many other light railways in England and Wales. The Museum is housed in one of the large curved roof buildings next to Tenterden Station which were used to store wartime supplies during the Second World War.

The museum looks at the life and work of Col Stephens, including his study, some of the railways he was associated with and general railway artefacts.


Gazelle is possibly the smallest standard gauge loco to be built and is displayed in the museum. It was built in 1893 and bought by Col Stephens in 1910 to run on the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway. It was used for pulling passengers, at first without a coach until passengers complained and the Board of Trade intervened. Next to her is an example of the kind of coach she may have pulled. She is on loan here from the National Railway Museum.



There is part of a booking office.



There are workmen’s tools and surveying equipment along with station name boards, other signs and timetable boards.









1000+ Posts
Col. Stephen’s Museum, Tenterden Station continued

Outside the museum are examples of wheels, coach chassis from a Rye and Camber coach and a



There are examples of rail handcars.



The crane on its circular brick base was recovered from Hawkhurst station.



The museum is open from 12.30-4.30 on days the Kent and East Sussex Railway is running.


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1000+ Posts
I enjoyed your blog Patrick and this is a line I've not been on.

There are so many great preserved railways and hopefully many of them will survive the lack of finances from the Coronavirus lockdown. It's a very good reason to revisit and support them as they gradually reopen.

The North York Moors Railway isn't far from where I live and is a wonderful run. There is also the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway made famous in the film of the 'Railway Children'. It is popular with the grandchildren but I've never had the camera with me when I've visited with them.

It must be 50 years since I went on the Bluebell Railway. I had plans to visit this summer as part of a nostalgic return to the area, but that didn't happen. Near by is the wonderful Sheffield Park and Gardens. Together they make a very good day out...


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