Tomorrow (with a peculiar midweek start date), London's Oyster net spreads one station wider. Last time it was Gatwick Airport, the time before that Hertford East, and this time the lucky beneficiary is Swanley. You know, Swanley, that town in Kent. I must confess I didn't know, so I've been down to see what delights await now that we can all go to Swanley for less.
Swanley is very nearly in London. It lies within the M25, at roughly four o'clock on the dial, a few miles south of Dartford. Sixteen thousand people live there, that's about the same size as Rickmansworth. The A20 bypasses the southern edge of the town, and blocks its spread, while the old London Road forms a spine through the centre. The railway lines to Canterbury and Sevenoaks diverge here, their next stops in open country. And the station is barely 200 metres from the edge of the London borough of Bromley, so it's a wonder the zonal ticketing system hadn't swept the town up before. It'll be in zone 8, since you ask.
The very centre of the town contains nothing historic whatsoever. The heart of the town was developed into a shopping centre in the 1970s, wiping away various Victorian buildings to create a windswept linear precinct. One side of the street is entirely an Asda, one of the largest in the country, a retail force which dominates the town. Everywhere you go shoppers are returning home with white and green carrier bags, and whenever a supermarket trolley lies discarded in a park or cul-de-sac, Asda's name will be on the handle. On the other side of the street is the Swanley Square shopping centre, a lowrise collection of workaday chains, resembling a miniature Basildon or Harlow. Salons, cafes and a couple of betting shops draw the punters, and a market operates on Wednesdays, but at other times the capacious piazza offers little but empty convenience.
In the lower High Street several older buildings survive, although there are none to write home about. The Swanley Tandoori proudly displays its origin as the Swanley Dairy in a row of early 20th century lettering below the roof. On the opposite side of the road is the Swanley Working Men's Club, or rather was, its dwindling membership having voted to sell out to Wetherspoons a couple of years back, although as yet no transformation work has taken place and supplies of cut price beer have not returned. Down Goldsel Road is the Swan Paper Mill, because what else would you call a paper mill in Swanley, established in the town in 1892. Its speciality is party tableware, if you've ever wondered where your Christmas crackers and Birthday Princess paper plates came from, indeed four billion paper napkins are turned out from the factory each year.
The station is not particularly conveniently located, unless you happen to live on precisely the right side of town. Accessed down a quiet dead-end approach road, the station building looks more functional than designed, and would make the ideal backdrop for any drama series set in the 1980s. Inside the gloomy brick ticket hall is a news stand called The News Stand, whose reading matter reveals the town's preference for tabloid over broadsheet, beyond which steps lead down from the footbridge to four substantialplatforms. And outside is the only significant current development I saw in Swanley, a former office block clad in two-tone grey panels to create "56 high quality apartments", with its car park pencilled in to create 40 more.
The vast majority of Swanley is post-war housing, specifically from the Sixties and Seventies, with curling avenues of three bed semis and banks of smaller two bed terraces. Nobody employed the architects for their originality, each house is generally identical to its neighbour, creating sweeping homogeneous zones in several parts of town. But property remains generally affordable, by London standards, in case a two thousand and something family-sized home is of interest now Oyster's come to town. There are also streets where JJB Sportswear is rarely seen, lest you get the wrong idea about the place, indeed the historic hub of Swanley Village retains quite some cachet.
To explore the environs further I wandered up to Hextable, the village immediately nextdoor. It boasts a fantastic name, although sadly this has nothing to do with witches' spells, the number six or a list of ASCII codes, and most likely refers to a hedge boundary. For centuries the only residence was Hextable House, a medieval manor, although this didn't survive a WW2 direct hit and is now the site of the village hall. Only the Elizabethan 'Avenue of Limes' remains, a broad muddy ascent half-lined by ancient towering trees and half by much smaller replacements. The modern settlement grew up as a Blytonesque dormitory suburb around a triangular green, and sustains a Post Office, MOT garage and luxury bathroom showroom. But there are no pubs in the village because the original landowners believed in temperance, so moving here might not be the liveliest decision you'll ever make.
If you've been reading carefully, you'll have spotted that I've provided no good reason whatsoever to take the train to Swanley. But there might be one thing that could lure you out here, and that's in Swanley Park. This rolling recreational landscape lies to the north of the town, and includes a large seasonal boating lake (your choice of rowing, pedal or canoe) and children's paddling pool. More relevant to potential tourists is the Swanley New Barn Railway, a miniature railway with a sizeable steam and diesel fleet, and a genuine need - to transport lazy Kentish families from the car park to the lakeside. The track runs for 900 yards in a balloon shape around the park, at one point with a 1 in 50 gradient, and in high summer runs more than 100 times a day.
Obviously if you turn up at the start of March there's no service. New Barn station's parallel platforms lie empty, their wicket fences fresh with winter paint, the ticket office is firmly locked, and the tracks run off across a slightly squishy park. But up a nearby incline I spotted volunteers from the SNBR with a big pole doing what looked like minor surveying work, but could have been branch clearance. And there on the tracks beside them was one of the mini-locos, a vision in black, yellow and orange, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train. This is proper playing with trains, I thought, this is a bunch of people having enormous fun playing, maintaining and delivering.
Passenger services start up again on Good Friday and run every weekend and school holiday until the end of October. A special 30th birthday gala is planned for the first week of the summer holidays, if you'd prefer to time your visit for that. And if you can't wait to see Swanley for yourself, don't fret, you can get Oyster down here already courtesy of the number 233 bus. To Sidcup and beyond. [13 photos]