The little train line with a big heart
Added: Friday, September 26th 2014
When the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway re-opened after World War Two a ceremonial ribbon was cut by Laurel and Hardy but it’s not recorded whether the Holywood stars then went for a trip on the train. Stan Laurel, minus bowler hat, could have made the journey but it’s unlikely Oliver Hardy would have squeezed his bulky frame into one of the diminutive carriages.
For the RH&D is the smallest public service railway in the world, the carriages hauled by steam locomotives one-third normal size. The track is 15-inch gauge and runs from Hythe for 13½ miles to Dungeness, passing through a rapidly changing landscape of the flat fields of the Romney Marsh to the biggest shingle beach in the world at Dungeness.
And there’s no shortage of good pubs along the line, many of them ancient and steeped in the long and turbulent history of a region often threatened with invasion by both foreign navies and the ever-encroaching sea.
Before embarking on the train, let’s start with a freshner in the New Inn in New Romney (37 High Street). “New” in a pub’s name often means that, on the contrary, it’s very old and that’s the case with the New Romney pub, while the New in the town’s name distinguishes it from Old Romney. Confused already – and that’s before we’ve had a drink!
The New Inn dates from the 13th century, claims to be haunted and serves cask beer from a new brewery, Hop Fuzz, which opened in 2011 in nearby West Hythe. The pub serves its Old American Pale, Martello and Northern Star along with its seasonal beers. Accommodation is available.
New Romney is a good start for a train trip as the original line from Hythe ended here. The RH&D was the brainchild of two train lovers who had the funds to turn their dream into reality. Captain J E P Howey was a former army officer, racing car enthusiast and rich land owner. Count Louis Zbrowski was another racing driver, owner of the Mercedes called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that inspired the Ian Fleming novel and subsequent musical. Zbrowski, through family links to the American Astors, was even richer than Howey and the pair teamed up with model engineer Henry Greenly who designed and built two miniature locos, Green Goddess and Northern Chief, for them. When Zbrowski was killed during a Grand Prix at Monza in Italy in 1924, Howey and Greenly joined forces to build the RH&D line that opened in 1927. It was twin track and the line was extended the following year with a single track ending at Dungeness.
The service was requisitioned by the Ministry of War during WWII. One train was armoured and the line was used to build PLUTO – Pipe Line under the Ocean – that supplied fuel for the Allied invasion of France. The service was restored and revived after the war but visitor numbers declined when overseas packaged holidays became popular. The RH&D had to be rescued in the 1970s by the builder Sir William McAlpine and other wealthy backers. Today the service is thriving again and runs all year round.
New Romney is the ideal starting point as it’s the original headquarters of the railway. It’s a fully covered station with bridges, a ticket office and cafe. Visitors can view the workshops and engine sheds and tour round a model railway exhibition before catching a train.
From New Romney towards Hythe the train runs between flat fields criss-crossed by the dykes that are a feature of the area and prevent flooding. A late summer haze hung over the fields where sheep were cropping the grass, oblivious to the noise of the train. The sheep are a large breed and look at first sight like cattle.
The train passes through a halt, St Mary’s Bay, then trundles on to the historic small town of Dymchurch. It’s famous for its Martello Tower, one of many built in the early 19th century as fortresses to help thwart an invasion from revolutionary France. The Dymchurch tower was big enough to house two officers and 15 to 20 men, with artillery based on the flat roof. The tower is now administered by National Heritage: for information about tours phone 01304 211067.
Dymchurch is also home to the fictional character Dr Syn, a clergyman by day and a smuggler by night, who roamed the marshes in scarecrow disguise, fighting the excise officers while his gang brought in brandy and cigars from France. A series of Dr Syn novels by Russell Thorndike were turned into a television series starring Patrick McGoohan, which spawned a Disney film. There’s a Dr Syn guest house in Dymchurch while accommodation with less lascivious connations is offered at the Ship Inn, 118 High Street, which serves Harvey’s Sussex Best and Adnams’ Ghost Ship. Close by, at St Mary in the Marsh, the Good Beer Guide-listed Star Inn offers Young’s Bitter and guest beers.
Back on the train, there are bungalows on the right, interspersing fields of sheep and maize. To the left, hills appear, dotted with trees and white buildings. The track runs alongside a river as the train enters Hythe. The station is a fine example of a railway terminus in miniature, with a roof, wide stairs, toilets and a large cafe called Greenly to commemorate one of the key people who founded the railway.
Hythe, one of the Cinque Ports on this stretch of coast, lost its harbour when it silted up. It retains some fine medieval and Georgian houses plus the Royal Military Canal that runs to Winchelsea and was built as part of the defences against Napoleon’s France. It has three Martello Towers, one of which has been turned into private housing.
And, as every beer lover knows, Hythe was home to the famous Mackeson Brewery, producer of milk stout. Mackeson was bought by the London brewer Whitbread and at one time the stout was the biggest-selling beer in its portfolio. Along with Double Diamond, it was one of the first beers to be advertised on commercial television in the 1950s, with the celebrated voice-over of actor Sir Bernard Miles informing viewers that “Mackeson looks good, tastes good and – by golly – it does you good”. Such a promotion would not be allowed today. The stout is still brewed but nobody seems to know where. It was produced by Young’s in London until the brewery closed and its new home is a mystery -- even to its current owners, AB InBev.
Hythe has no shortage of pubs. The Good Beer Guide-listed Three Mariners, 37 Windmill Street (above), is close to the Military Canal. It has two bars and as well as Young’s Bitter has a rolling programme of guest beers that focuses on Kent micro breweries.
Back on the train, we return to New Romney and then continue on the single line extension to Dungeness. The area is now more built up, with housing on the left but farmland and rough pasture remains a feature to the right. As we arrive at Romney Sands, the mist begins to lift and there is the first glimpse of the sea.
And then the view is suddenly all about the sea as we trundle towards Dungeness. The vast pebble beach is dotted with cottages, some homes to fishermen, others turned into country retreats for town dwellers. The most celebrated beach cottage belonged to film director Derek Jarman, a gay rights campaigner who died in 1994. His Prospect Cottage is painted black and has a poem by John Donne, “The Sunne Rising”, written on one wall. Jarman decorated his garden with pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and plants hardy enough to survive sun, sea and wind.
Dungeness Station has a small shop and behind it a large and attractive cafe offering a panoramic view of the sea. A few minutes’ walk takes you to the Britannia Inn on Dungeness Road, a Shepherd Neame pub offering the full range of the Faversham brewery’s beers, plus a restaurant specialising in fish dishes.
As the train turns through a loop for the return to New Romney there’s a good view of the town’s two lighthouses and the intimidating bulk of the power station: it may play an important role in providing power to the region but does it have to be such a blot on the landscape? It fades from view as we re-enter the more pleasing vista of the fields and dykes of the Romney Marsh courtesy of this unique and delightful train service.
*Getting there: by car, M25 and M20. Main line trains run from London to Folkestone and Rye. There’s a good bus service linking Folkestone and Hythe.