Seaside postcard 1: The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway It was 80 years ago this summer, in July 1927, that "The World's Smallest Public Railway" opened for business along the south Kent coast. The RH&DR was the brainchild of an Edwardian millionaire - Captain Jack Howey - who owned a couple of miniature steam locomotives but had nowhere to drive them. He ended up building his narrow gauge railway between the two Cinque Ports of Hythe and New Romney, later extended to a full 13½ miles in length, and it soon became popular with local people and visitors alike. The railway had to be rebuilt after WW2, and rescued following lack of investment in the 1960s, but it's chugged along happily ever since.
This is a railway unlike any other. The locomotives are little (but not stupidly tiny like those sit-on efforts you find in parks) [photo]. There are a couple of diesels, but most of the fleet are proper steam engines lovingly buffed up with Brasso. The carriages are also little (don't stand up, you'll do yourself an injury) [photo]. You get a choice of enclosed or open-sided, with the latter much the better option on a sunny weekend like this. There's even a special licensed "bar car" (called Gladys) in which you can sip wine and beer as the countryside sweeps by, but it only seats about 20 merry punters so get in fast [photo]. The rest of the train tends to be full of families - mostly young parents taking their awestruck 4 year-old son out for a special choo choo treat. The railway's clearly a much-loved part of the local community - everyone stops and waves when a train goes by, and it's hard to resist waving back. The whole enterprise is extremely professionally run, but with an endearingly amateur air.
It takes just over an hour to rock and rattle across Romney Marsh from one end to the line to the other, which is extremely good value for money compared to some other steam railways I could mention. And there are six stations along the way - some of which are actually worth getting out at...
Hythe: Hythe is a little coastal town, once very important in these parts, now overshadowed by Folkestone nextdoor. It's most famous for the collection of 2000 skulls stacked up neatly in the crypt beneath St Leonard's Church, but unfortunately I didn't have time to visit. Hythe station lies to the west of the town, alongside the peaceful waters of the RoyalMilitaryCanal - a defensive channel stretching 28 miles across the top of Romney Marsh, built to keep Napoleon at bay. Board your mini train from one of the station's three platforms and prepare to steam off.
Dymchurch: It's a good 20 minutes to the next station as the train clatters across flat marshy cornfields and pasture, scattering fresh-shorn sheep in clouds of smoke. A high defensive sea wall is visible in the distance, but not Dymchurch's famous MartelloTowers. At the station there are hoardings promoting a more slightly more modern attraction - "Hop off now for MW's Fun Park". I wasn't tempted, but a sizeable contingent of toddlers and weary parents disembarked here for a nice day on the beach.
St Mary's Bay: This insignificant halt was originally built to serve the local holiday camps but those are long gone, replaced by estates of 1970s bungalows. From the train you get to peer into a succession of back gardens, lovingly adorned with rotary driers, stone ornaments and showy conservatories. Prolific children's author Edith Nesbit used to live close to the station - one suspects her garden was rather more pristine - but died a few years before the railway opened.
New Romney: This is the railway's central base, complete with major 4-platform station and several engine sheds [photo]. The place is crawling with people "playing at railways" - be it checking tickets, waving flags or just riding a steam loco up and down for the fun of it. The souvenir shop sells Thomas the Tank Engine flags for 75p, should one of your party require one, plus all sorts of narrow gauge memorabilia. Nextdoor is a rather gloomy cafe and, up the stairs, a compact model railway exhibition whose finest feature is an extensive child-entrancing OO gauge layout. As for New Romney itself, the town used to be one of the Cinque Ports until a particularly nasty storm in the 13th century diverted the local river and silted up the harbour. Now the old town lies a full mile from the sea, but you can still see boat hooks and tidemarks on the wall of the Normanchurch.
Romney Sands: If you're lucky enough to visit when the tide's out, there are some really extensive sandy beaches here. Unfortunately you won't see them from the train. The railway is shielded from the sea by a long thin ribbon of none-too-gorgeous retirement homes, stretching south across increasingly shingly ground. A "holiday village" of identikit caravans shields the view inland, which is even more a shame because the gravel pit beyond hides a special secret. This is the location of the Denge acoustic mirrors, giant concrete listening posts built before the invention of radar, now visible only on special guided tours [34 photos]. Alas the next visit isn't until 22 July, so otherwise stay on the train - nothing to see here.
[There's one last station to go, and it's the most special of the lot - more tomorrow]