diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Even though I went to Tenterden for 10/10/10, I spent most of my time not being there. That's because Tenterden is at one end of the Kent & East Sussex Railway, and the place I really wanted to reach was at the other. At least it made getting there fun.

Tenterden TownSee, there is a station at Tenterden, it just doesn't join up with the rest of the network. 100 years ago you could have chuffed through to the outside world, but no more. Today this rural line is a plaything for rail enthusiasts, and a damned impressive one to boot. Heritage services run up and down the line during the summer and on most winter weekends. Everybody plays their part, from the guard pacing the platform in his peaked cap to the small boy trying to sell souvenir guidebooks on the train. And it all runs like clockwork, just as any railway should. I turned up on the day of the Austin Counties Car Rally, which meant the station forecourt was rammed with veteran vehicles and their (often veteran) owners. I recognised one car as the Standard 10 which had held up my taxi on the long drive from Ashford, now being fussed over by an appreciative crowd. The exhibition space was extensive, and provided a clever way to bring lots more people within walking distance of the refreshment room.

The platform grew slowly busier, especially down at the signal box end where the ticket office is [photo]. But there were a few disappointed faces when travellers realised they'd be riding the diesel railcar [photo], not a proper puffer, not unless they waited an extra hour and a half. A series of loudspeaker announcements interrupted the bustle, not quite "please stand back behind the yellow line the next train on this platform is for... Bodiam", but getting that way. A swish of the level crossing gates [photo], a sharp blow on a well-polished whistle, and our diesel pulled slowly away from the temporary car showroom.

The Kent & East Sussex Railway was built late, after the great speculative era of track-laying, and wound its way across a relatively uninhabited swathe of the Rother Levels. Most of its stations are named after villages one, two, even three miles up the nearest road, and this inaccessibility soon contributed to passenger numbers dwindling away. Bad for economics, but perfect for a picturesque rail trip. The Rother Levels have a strange beauty - once a saltwater inlet of the Channel, now one broad expanse of drained meadowland. I saw more pheasants out of the train window than I've ever seen before, flapping around in the undergrowth and wallowing in the abandoned crayfish pools. And occasionally a windmill spinning beyond the trees, or a distant ill-served community where today the car is king.

At Wittersham Road the K&ESR steam engine rumbled by on a passing loop. Certain passengers were very excited by this, although all the serious train nuts were already aboard the 'proper' service not the railcar. Toddlers, for whom Thomas the Tank Engine is their religion of choice. Older passengers, who remember all this steam stuff from first time around. And big kids with a pathological love of all things railway, plus their long suffering Mums who ride the train there and back all day to keep their obsessed offspring happy. There was further 'excitement' at Northiam station where we passed the Pullman service, laid out inside with best china and folded napkins. The diners gathering on the platform were wearing their best dresses if female, or some highly unfashionable suits from the Beige Era if male. Tasteless maybe, but I bet they enjoyed better food than my packed lunch.

Bodiam CastleAt the end of the line, forget the steam trains, there's a bloody marvellous medieval masterpiece. Bodiam Castle stands on a terrace above the River Rother, and on a glorious sunny day it's a sight to behold [photo]. It looks precisely like you'd imagine the perfect castle to look - a square fortress with crenellated towers and a whopping big moat all the way around [photo]. Plus a cafe and a gift shop, both at a suitable distance down the slope, in case your idea of perfection includes retail opportunities. The castle never saw major action, so the exterior's pretty much intact [photo], although Cromwell's men ripped out the innards after the Civil War. There's just the one way in, across a narrow bridge, where today's defences are nothing scarier than a lady who checks your tickets.

Bodiam Castle is a great place for families, especially kids who fancy scrambling around a historical climbing frame. As well as low-level doorways to clamber through and mysterious chambers to investigate, there are precipitous (but entirely safe) steps where a young child can prove his climbing prowess to an admiring dad. But the best bits, for visitors of all ages, are the spiral staircases. They're some of the steepest I've ever ascended, with a one-way system above the gatehouse to make sure you don't meet a party of French tourists trying to pass the other way. The view from the top is superb, a mixture of turrets [photo] and courtyards [photo] and orchardy hillsides [photo]. Time your visit right and you might even catch sight of a steam train puffing its way across the valley towards the nearby station. If you've not come by car, it's your only way out.

Kent & East Sussex Railway

I had worried I was going on a pointless sightseeing trip for 10/10/10, but ended up enjoying a Tudor cottage, a medieval castle and a Victorian steam railway. I don't know what you did instead, but my day out round Tenterden deserved ten out of ten.

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