180 years ago today, on Monday 3rd May 1830, the world's first regular steam passenger railway opened for business. Along its brief length were the world's first railway bridge and the world's first passenger railway tunnel. Yes, of course, this pioneering railway was in England. But not in the industrial north, nor in the Midlands, nor even in London. Try Kent.
The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway was built to connect our premier cathedral city to the sea. Its creators took the direct route from harbour to market, which meant a fairly steep climb over the intervening hill. The steepest parts were neutralised by the Tyler Hill Tunnel, but elsewhere a winch was required to haul the trains up slope. Initially steam was used only at the Whitstable end, using a Rocket-like engine called 'Invicta' (which can still be seen in the Museum of Canterbury). Coastbound tourists were carried regularly during the summer months, necessitating the issue of the world's first season ticket in 1834. And so the railway struggled on for more than a century, never especially successful, until its final services on 1st December 1952.
Much of the trackbed of the old railway remains. A charitable trust has been busy for several years attempting to turn it into a cycle track and footpath called the Crab and Winkle Way. There's much still to be done, but a traffic-free route now exists even if it doesn't perfectly follow the railway throughout. A free C&W leaflet can be picked up from a special display in the ticket hall at Canterbury station. The leaflet has quite the best combination of map and information I've seen in ages, and is fairly weatherproof too, so you won't get lost if you try walking all seven miles to Whitstable. I took BestMate with me, and we didn't.
The first mile was a fairly incongruous yomp through the northern suburbs of Canterbury, enlivened only by a brief diversion to see the house where BestMate once lived. The official path took a while to meet up with the railway embankment, then studiously ignored it because the overgrown route wasn't "cycle friendly". Clambering up a slope between two houses we went for a walk along it anyway, because trainers can follow old tracks far better than wheels. Alas there was no access to the southern end of Tylers Hill tunnel because that's now sealed off within a school playing field. So, up and over instead.
After the railway was shut, the University of Kent built its campus all across the top of Tylers Hill. They may have misjudged the strength of the tunnel, which promptly subsided and had to be filled in, but thousands of students now study and play on top in blissful ignorance. The cycle path wends through the centre of the University, so we got to pretend we were students again as we wandered by. BestMate had indeed been a student here, so I was treated to another diversion to see his poky digs, his ultra-cheap drinking hole and a library where he may or may not have studied.
I wanted to try to find the northern end of the tunnel, so we abandoned the official path and set off through the woods opposite the School of Engineering and Digital Arts. One seriously muddy blip duly negotiated, we made our way across a field and back up onto the railway embankment. Here at last was the world's oldestrailway tunnel, bricked-up and barred to prevent access by beery undergraduates. Three years spent up above and BestMate hadn't even realised it was here. We then got to follow the railway north along a permissive path for half a mile, not yet adapted for cyclists so delightfully green and remote all the way.
Cutting back across rolling fields we returned to the official path at Blean church. This ancient place of worship is officially called St Cosmus and St Damian in the Blean, and is located at some distance from the village it notionally serves. Onward through a Kentish orchard (far less idyllic than it sounds), and up to the summit at Clowes Wood. Here the cable winches were based, although all we saw was a very artistic picnic table beside the artificial 'Winding Pond' which powered the steam engines. At long last the path was following the old railway again, and will do for longer in future once some tricky public rights issues have been sorted.
Across the next fields the New Thanet Way carved its own four-lane artery. It was hard to picture how a pioneering railway could ever have crossed this gentle valley, even with the original route marked clearly on the map. The less-than-thrilling suburbs of Whitstable approached, with the old tracks now part of an extended alley linking disparate communities together. Again ignoring the cyclist's route we continued onto an overgrown embankment, increasingly convinced that it would be an elevated dead end. Instead we found ourselves at the very spot where the world's oldest railway bridge launched itself across the road. It no longer does, alas, having been demolished because it was far too narrow for modern traffic. The Crab & Winkle Trust hope to replace it with a new span, if planning permission is successful.
The last stretch of the old railway now runs inaccessibly beyond terraced gardens direct to the harbour (where the ex-terminus has vanished beneath a new Health Centre). We had to divert, yet again, through alleys and sidestreets (including one of those rather embarrassing episodes where a lollipop lady insists on helping two grown men across a road even though there's no traffic coming). There was just time for BestMate to point out yet another house the family had lived in (and sold, alas, before the price skyrocketed) before we reached the heart of Whitstable proper. There were crabs and winkles on offer on the seafront, but a bag of chips and some moist cod felt much more appealing. And then we took an extortionately priced bus back to Canterbury. Pity there were no trains, but we'd never have enjoyed our anniversary walk if there had been.