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 this is the steepest gradient on the line and also 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 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 now 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.