Heritage Railways in South East England

by Jonathan Fenner

22nd December 2020

South East England offers rich pickings for heritage railway enthusiasts. Among them is the Bluebell Railway, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.   The Bluebell was Britain’s first preserved standard gauge railway and is among our best known tourist attractions. It runs through 11 miles of lush Sussex countryside linking Sheffield Park to the national rail network at East Grinstead.  Originally this line had linked East Grinstead with Lewes. Following its closure in 1958, the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society acquired part of the line and by 1962 they were operating steam trains over approximately 5 miles of track between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes.  The re-opening of the line to East Grinstead was a major engineering undertaking completed in 2013. The story of the Bluebell Line is one of remarkable achievement and it remains among the best loved of Britain’s heritage railways.

K&ESR-Bodiam Station

The Kent and East Sussex Railway is another of the region’s standard gauge heritage lines operating over 11.5 miles of restored track between Tenterden in Kent and Bodiam in Sussex.  This largely rural line was built by Colonel Holman F Stephens in the 1890’s. It was Britain’s first light railway constructed under eased regulations enabled by the Light Railway Act of 1896 which originally linked Tenterden with Headcorn and Robertsbridge. Following closure in 1961, the railway as it now exists, was restored and reopened in stages between 1974 and 2000 by The Kent and East Sussex Railway Trust.  There are ongoing efforts to extend the line beyond Bodiam to once again link it to the national rail network at nearby Robertsbridge.  The Rother Valley Railway, a separate charity, is currently working with the Kent & East Sussex Railway to acquire the land and necessary permissions.

Colonel Stephens went on to build other light railways including an extensive rail network built in East Kent between 1911 and 1917 to serve the former East Kent collieries.  The East Kent Railway based at Shepherdswell near Dover preserves a remnant of this network operating over approximately 2 miles of track to Eythorne.  Despite a major arson attack in 2019, which caused extensive damage at Shepherdswell Station, the East Kent Railway Trust has successfully continued to develop.  It is now home to the EPB Preservation Group (dedicated to preservation of third rail electric multiple units), the Southern Electric Group and the Trolley Bus Group.   

Volks Electric Railway – Brighton

Other heritage railways in the region include The Spa Valley Railway which, since 1996, has operated steam trains over 5.5 miles of track between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge in Kent. In Sussex there is also the one mile long Lavender Line based at Isfield Station near Uckfield.

Among the curiosities are the Volks Electric Railway on Brighton seafront. Built in 1883 it claims to be the oldest continuously running electric railway in the world.  In Kent the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a diminutive 15 inch gauge line which runs for approximately 14 miles across Romney Marsh from Hythe to Dungeness and provides a seasonal rail service between the intervening coastal towns.  It was built in 1927 by Captain John Howey who also built the popular Hastings Miniature Railway which runs along the seafront of the Old Town through the summer season.

Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway – Dungeness

For those interested in industrial railway heritage, Chatham Historic Dockyard organises occasional demonstration displays on the remaining remnant of the former Dockyard Railway. Industrial narrow gauge locomotives can be seen at Amberley Museum near Arundel and the on the 2 mile long Sittingbourne and Kemsley Railway in Kent, built in 1908 to serve a paper mill.

The story of Britain’s heritage railways is one of huge enthusiasm, enterprise and achievement; largely undertaken and supported by volunteers. This year the enormous financial challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic has required particular dedication and initiative as they, along with other visitor attractions, have had to adapt in order to survive.  However, despite these new challenges, the pioneering Bluebell Railway and our other heritage lines continue to be a major part of South East England’s rich cultural heritage.

Jonathan is a SE England Blue Badge Guide based in West Kent