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Tenterden is one of the most picturesque towns in Kent. Its broad tree-lined high street offers a selection of shopping facilities and is dominated by the pinnacle tower of St Mildred's Church. Tenterden first rose to affluence as a ship building port when the surrounding marshes were under the sea and ships docked at Smallhythe. Our attractive journey by train takes us across these marshes, making it one of the lowest sections of railway in the country indeed, part of the route is below sea level.
Tenterden Town Station is the headquarters of the railway and contains some of its principal buildings including carriage and wagon workshop. There is a variety of facilities for visitors including a shop, Refreshment Rooms, a small children's playground and the Museum. To the north of the site there is a large car and coach park with hard standing and there is a small parking area for disabled persons on the station site itself.
As the train leaves Tenterden, the line falls steeply away towards the marshes at an average gradient of 1-in-50 for over a mile. (The train will work very hard on its return.) The Wealden scenery across the valley is partucularly fine as we cross the Cranbrook Road about halfway down. The descent continues and the line curves sharply to the left at Orpin's Farm where the track levels out and crosses the main road before running into Rolvenden Station, 1½ miles from Tenterden Town.
Rolvenden was the original Tenterden Station and was always the headquarters of the locomotive works, which remain on the site. However, the original buildings have long gone for they were under the present wood yard. The village of Rolvenden is 1½ miles from this station, and containing some attractive cottages and a church that is pleasantly situated. Lovers of historic vehicles will find the C M Booth collection in the centre of the village of great interest and a short distance outside the town is the oldest post mill in Kent.
We continue onwards towards the next station, Wittersham Road, through marshlands collectively known as the Rother Levels. To the right a series of channels dug at right angles to the railway were used to farm crayfish - the terrain generally is very wet and until comparatively recently was subject to frequent flooding. The most characteristic trees along the lineside are willows. The trains now cross over the New Mill Channel, a tributary of the River Rother, which now runs alongside us for several hundred yards. There are always many swans here, particularly in the winter months.
The line curves gently into Wittersham Road, a station apparently in the middle of nowhere, which actually handled quite heavy agricultural traffic. However, Wittersham itself is nearly 3 miles away and Rolvenden Layne is actually the nearest village, being a long mile the other way. The station had an exciting time during the Second World War when it was the depot site for a large rail mounted gun that fired at France. The ammunition store for this is still to be seen on the corner of the picnic site. The sidings here are now used by the Permanent Way department.
Starting from Wittersham Road the train is faced with a steep but short climb as, following the light railway tenets by which the railway was built, the line follows the contours of the land rather than cutting through it. Over the summit the line now falls towards the Hexden Channel and the River Rother whose valley is very wide and open at this point. Romney sheep dot the landscape and you will often see turf-cutting as you cross this area. To our left the Hexden Channel and the Rother join and sweep out past the Isle of Oxney on which Wittersham stands towards Romney Marsh and the sea at Rye. As we turn slowly up the valley, Northiam Station is reached after crossing the main A28 road. We are now 7 miles from Tenterden and heading up the Rother Valley to our right.
Northiam Station was for 10 years the terminus of the line and has extensive parking facilities and a tea room. Parking is encouraged here for a trip to Bodiam for there are no parking facilities at that station. The village that you can see on the other side of the valley is actually Newenden and Northiam is one mile up the hill in the other direction. It contains a very interesting church, and on the outskirts of the village is Great Dixter, a marvellous medieval house restored by Sir Edward Lutyens and surrounded by magnificent gardens.
The next 3 miles sees the railway sweep up the valley betwixt the flood plain and the rich farmland on the hillsides, demonstrating the skills of the engineer of the railway, Colonel Stephens. As you look ahead to your right, you will see nestled under the hill the magnificent medieval castle at Bodiam that was built to defend the highest navigable point of the Rother. We pass through fields which were once covered with the typical hop gardens that brought so much traffic to this railway, and we finally terminate in the immaculately restored Bodiam Station, so characteristic of the Victorian light railway.
Today the station building houses a booking office and adjoining waiting room. One side of this is a seasonal gift shop and refreshment outlet, the other, a staff kitchen. Across the yard is a modern visitor toilet building constructed in the style of a period coal merchant office. Next to this, constructed in 2015 by volunteers, is another waiting room. This houses memorabilia from the hop picking era with which Bodiam Station was so closely associated. At the rear of the station, reconstructed hoppers' huts are complemented by a small hop garden. The Cavell Van is berthed in a siding at the station and is well worth a visit.
Bodiam Castle is a 5-minute walk away across the valley.
The earliest plans for a railway for Tenterden were made in the 1850s. The South Eastern Railway proposed that their Ashford to Hastings line should pass through Tenterden but a more southerly route through Appledore and Rye was chosen in 1851, largely through military influence. In 1855, 1864, 1872, 1876, 1882 and 1895 plans to build a line to Tenterden from either Headcorn or Paddock Wood were proposed but all failed to materialise.
In 1896, new proposals were put forward to construct a railway from Robertsbridge on the Tonbridge-Hastings line to Tenterden. These were authorised and Holman Fred Stephens was appointed to engineer the line as a light railway. The Rother Valley Railway, as it was initially known, was the first line to be built under new legislation that encouraged the building of such cheaply constructed lines in remote rural areas. The constructional standards adopted were those recommended by theorists of the construction of light railways. Such cheap construction was known to have a limited life but reconstruction from profits was thought possible. The first section of the Rother Valley was opened on 2 April 1900 to a station at Tenterden, in fact that station now known as Rolvenden. Initial success caused the directors to obtain powers for, and plan extensions to, Cranbrook, Appledore, Pevensey and Rye. None of these was built but an extension up the hill to the present Tenterden Town Station was opened in 1903 and an extension to Headcorn was opened in 1905. A further extension to Maidstone was authorised but funds were not forthcoming to complete this.
The now renamed Kent & East Sussex Railway enjoyed a modest prosperity, albeit with a subsidy for its northern extension from its neighbouring South Eastern & Chatham Railway, but sank into increased losses and bankruptcy in 1931. Unlike most railways it had not lost its independence in the four great companies created by the government in 1923 and Colonel Stephens, as he now was, had to use great ingenuity to maintain some sort of financial balance during the 1920s. He introduced a new form of train in 1923 with two Ford road buses linked back-to-back and fitted with metal rail wheels. This was financially successful but not particularly popular with passengers who were, by this time, deserting for the more convenient road buses. Nevertheless the railway continued to provide an essential service for the rural community, particularly for farmers, that it was designed to serve. Good management after Colonel Stephens death in 1931 by his successor, W H Austen, ensured survival through the 1930s and the Second World War until the railway finally lost its independence when all the railways were nationalised in 1948.
Nationalisation brought many material benefits to the railway as improvements were made, but traffic was ebbing away to the roads. During a typical week in 1953 only 118 passengers travelled on 90 trains, many of which ran empty. The inevitable result was that the line was closed to passengers on 2 January 1954 and the Tenterden to Headcorn section lost all traffic and was pulled up. Goods continued to be hauled on the original section and the occasional passenger train, particularly for hop-pickers and ramblers, appeared in the summer. By 1961, however, nearly all traffic had gone and the railway was closed.
During the period of the railway's independence and insolvency in the 1920s and 1930s, railway enthusiasts and others had become attracted to the railway's eccentricities and uniqueness. In 1948 the magazine Punch was sufficiently moved by the loss of independence to commission a poem illustrated by the eminent cartoonist, Roland Emmett, called The Farmers' Train. Such sentiment showed how the railway had become a local, indeed a national, institution and soon after closure a society was formed with the object of preserving the line. The founders had a 13 years struggle ahead of them before the first trains were run. Protracted legal battles with the then Minister of Transport saved the line from demolition but the line was only saved when the society agreed to drop the Bodiam-Robertsbridge section with 3 road crossings from its restoration plans. Negotiations then proceeded quickly and the present registered charity took over the line in 1973. Years of neglect and the original lightly engineered nature of the railway meant that the task had to be tackled in stages. The first 2 miles at Tenterden were opened on 3 February 1974. A major renewal of a river bridge enabled an extension by 1977 to Wittersham Road. Further consolidation was then necessary but Northiam was finally reached in 1990 and Bodiam in the year 2000, one hundred years after it first opened.