Posted by: travelrat | April 29, 2021

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway.

In the years following the First World War, two rich racing drivers had a dream. Count Louis Zborowski, owner and driver of the famed Mercedes ‘Chitty Bang Bang’, was keen to build a railway to the gauge of only 15”. To this end, he engaged the help of Captain J.E.P. (‘Jack’) Howey, who already had owned several large locomotives of that gauge.

Some years earlier, Professor A.P. (later, Sir Arthur) Heywood had decided that 15” was the minimum gauge which would comfortably carry two passengers seated side by side. As it happens, events proved Heywood wrong … but several of his ‘estate railways’ were built to that gauge.

At first, Howey and Zborowski launched an unsuccessful bid to buy the 15” Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, (popularly known as the Ratty) in Cumberland; a railway upon which ran some locomotives of Heywood’s design. When they came away empty-handed, the Count nevertheless ordered two locomotives, Green Goddess and Northern Chief, which still operate today, from the factory of Davey Paxman, in Colchester.

When these were delivered, the resourceful pair still had no line to run them on, but were able to conduct trials on the Ravenglass line.

Then, disaster struck. Count Louis Zborowski was killed while racing in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. This left Howey with two engines, and nowhere to run them. But, he consulted model engineer Henry Greenly, who had been responsible for the design of his two locos, and Greenly suggested Romney Marsh.

As it happened, at St. Mary’s Bay, a station on the proposed line, stood the cottage in which Edith Nesbit, the celebrated author, had recently died … and Mrs. Nesbit was probably most famed for her book The Railway Children!

A real advantage to the Romney Marsh site was that ballast could easily be obtained, and that which wasn’t required for the construction of the track could be trained out and sold on. To that end, two more locomotives were ordered from Davey Paxman, Samson and Hercules, to serve as ballast locos.

Although the ballast trade never really caught on, the line’s latest acquisitions became firm favourites, and it was Hercules who took the inaugural passenger-carrying train of specially-designed coaches out of Hythe for New Romney on 16th July, 1927.

At this stage, only 8½ miles of track were opened, but Howey already had his eye on a five-mile extension to Dungeness, which was opened the following year. But, people were still flocking to what was claimed (erroneously: the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway operated the same gauge over  7½ miles) to be ‘The Smallest Public Railway in the World’… necessitating the purchase of still more locomotives.                                                        

The Second World War saw the line taken over by the Army, and used for coastal defence, as well as for transporting men and materials to Dungeness. This became an important terminal for PLUTO (Pipe-line Under The Ocean) which supplied the invasion forces with fuel.

The railway resumed services between Hythe and New Romney in 1946. The service to Dymchurch was resumed the following year, with due ceremony; the ribbon was cut by British comedian Stan Laurel and his American partner, Oliver Hardy.

While visitors formed the bulk of the railway’s trade, trains are, nevertheless, run to transport children who live near the line to school, or for their parents to go shopping. Usually, these are drawn by diesel locomotives, which are more reliable, and less labour-intensive.

Captain Howey once told Greenly that he ‘would like the railway to last his lifetime’, and on his death in 1963, it seemed that the railway would indeed go under. It wasn’t until 1973 that a consortium, headed by civil engineer Sir Alfred McAlpine saved the line from ruin … for which a large part of the credit must also go to the unpaid volunteers of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Society.

While it’s been shown that the RH&DR’s claim to be ‘The Smallest Public Railway in the World’ has always fallen somewhat short of the truth, there’s one thing which can’t be taken away from the railway.

During Army control during WWII, an armoured train was constructed, comprising the locomotive Hercules and two specially adapted carriages … the only narrow gauge railway in the world to be so treated. This assemblage mounted a variety of guns over the years … and, one night, claimed a ‘probable’ on a German bomber!

I wonder how many railways could make that claim?


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