Damage from storms Ciara and Dennis caused the closure of the Uckfield railway line last weekend, specifically the need to carry out emergency repairs to an embankment near Edenbridge Town to prevent a major landslip. The closure was quite last minute so mitigation measures were 'unusual', in that no rail replacement buses were scheduled to span the gap between Hurst Green and Ashurst. Instead tickets would be valid on parallel railway lines, connecting bus routes and, unexpectedly, the Spa Valley Railway, creating what was essentially a rover ticket across the surrounding area. And I love a bargain, so I doubled up my trip to Crowborough with a visit to a spa town and a ride on a rail replacement steam train.
The big problem with trying to use the rail replacement steam train was that its 4-times-a-day timetable didn't synchronise with the two-hourly rail shuttle. Any sane traveller would have caught the bus instead, and indeed that's what I did on the way out to avoid a 1hr+ wait at Eridge station. But on the way back the gap was only a half hour, so that was fine, so I enjoyed a dawdling steamy connection.
The last time I rode the Spa Valley Railway it was New Year's Day, icy cold and all the windows were misted up. On Leap Day conditions were much better, just a few flooded fields beside the tracks and a much better view throughout. Only a handful of rail replacement passengers took the plunge, the other half dozen took the bus and got to Tunbridge Wells rather quicker. Being the last train of the day it was already rather full with proper fare-paying passengers, including a whole carriageful of Afternoon Tea slurpers tucking into hamperfuls of sandwiches and cakes. But I got a compartment to myself, just far enough away from the loud excitable child, and all was well.
The train had a steam loco at one end and a diesel in Network South East livery at the other. A kerfuffle of staff despatched us from the platform and off we chuffed, initially in parallel with the mainline and then on an arc of our own. Groombridge station, stop one, had some splendid heritage touches. Along the way I spotted some impressive sandstone piles, including at High Rocks (where I must alight one day and explore properly). Bulls, sheep and horses watched us pass. And eventually we slid into Tunbridge Wells West, the end of the line, where the basket-devourers stayed put and everyone else got out. All in all a delightful deviation... and this one's worth riding even when there are no rails to replace.