Enjoyed by thousands of adults and children alike, the magic of a trip on our Heritage Railways hold a special place in our hearts. Have you ever wondered how one, the Spa Valley railway began and why?
The railways grew up fast across Great Britain during the 19th and early 20th century. The train was a popular mode of transport and allowed many, for the first time, to explore other towns and cities.
Tunbridge Wells had two stations built by rival companies; Tunbridge Wells Central, opened in 1845 by the South Eastern Railway, which is now the sole mainline station, and Tunbridge Wells West, which was opened by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway in 1866. This latter is the headquarters of today’s Spa Valley Railway. Around 1876, these two stations were linked by a tunnel enabling connections between the London to Brighton and the London to Hastings lines. From Tunbridge Wells West there were direct services to the south coast at Brighton and Eastbourne and northbound to London Victoria.
Passing into the ownership of the Southern railway in 1923, the route became a very popular cross-country link with over 100 trains passing a day. Following nationalisation of the railways in 1948, Groombridge station was re-signalled a decade later, and steam finally gave way to diesel multiple units in the mid 1960s. Gradually lines began to close all around – the Eridge to Hailsham branch (the Cuckoo Line) in 1965, East Grinstead to Groombridge in 1967, and then Uckfield to Lewes in 1969.
Unfortunately, as the popularity of the motor car increased, train services were severely cut back due to the lack of patronage and the Tunbridge Wells to Eridge section closed on 6th July 1985. The depot at Tunbridge Wells West did survive for another month, until 10th August, with frequent empty coaching stock moves taking place on the line from Eridge. The connection with the Hastings Line at Grove Junction was removed the day after closure and the spur between Tunbridge Wells West & Grove Junction lifted shortly after.
The link to the mainline at Birchden Junction was finally removed in the early 1990s following the re-signalling of the Uckfield line. This resulted in the closure of numerous signal boxes and saw the line to Uckfield singled in places with passing loops installed at strategic locations. However, this was to benefit the fledging Tunbridge Wells & Eridge Railway Preservation Society later on.
Just one month after closure a private limited company, the Wealden Railway Co. Ltd was formed and still operates the trains to this day. A hastily convened meeting in Groombridge village hall also saw the creation of a charitable society to fight for the reopening of the Tunbridge Wells to Eridge line. The group, blissfully unaware of the fact that anyone would use such an acronym to poke fun at them, named itself the “Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society” (TWERPS).
The next few years were a long, hard struggle against the ravages of vegetation, disinterest and outright hostility from some quarters, but in 1994, with a generous loan from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, the operating company acquired the line. By winter 1996 they were running trains along half a mile of track towards Groombridge, hauled by RSH 0-6-0T “North Downs”. This was helped by a merger between the Society and the North Downs Steam Railway at Dartford, whose own long story is told elsewhere. Whilst the Society had the railway, there was limited experience on the operation of trains, whereas the NDSR had plenty of operating experience but no longer had a railway, so the merger was a match made in heaven and thus the Spa Valley Railway was born! The name Spa Valley Railway came about from a competition that was run during the 1990s and is a combination of the railway operating from the Spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells and running through the Valley of the High Weald all the way to Eridge.
After an amazing effort by members, the line was reopened through to Groombridge in August 1997, which took the total length up to three and a half miles. News spread about the route and passenger numbers rose. The owner of the High Rocks Inn built a station at High Rocks, halfway between Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge which opened in August 1998.
Many improvements have been made since then including the introduction of new steam locomotives and rolling stock. Developments at Groombridge have seen a brand-new station building, a signal box, refreshment kiosk and two canopies recovered from Gravesend West Street station, all being erected to a fine standard by a small group of volunteers since 1997.
2004 saw the railway’s first resident ex-mainline steam engine return to service. Jinty 47493 returned to steam after a 5-year overhaul in the railway’s workshops. Also Oxted unit 1317 returned home to the Spa Valley, where it worked for a large part of its working life until the line closed in 1985.
In 2005, the railway celebrated the 20 years since the closure of the line by British Railways. Oxted Unit 1317, which played a significant part in the closure, had a starring role in the celebrations. Surely a great example of the wheel coming full circle.
Also, in 2005, the railway opened an extension just short of the former Birchden Junction, a further mile from Groombridge, on our boundary with the main line. This was only operated on special event days as it necessitated the use of an engine on each end of the train. But the railway’s main intention had always been to extend back to Eridge, a further mile down the line.
In mid 2007, after a lot of discussions with Network Rail and other parties, physical work began on the Eridge extension, with the construction starting on a signal box at Groombridge. This would control the passing of trains at the station and enable the railway to operate a two-train service. Contractors were hired to restore the section of running line parallel to the mainline between Birchden Junction and Eridge, and after seemingly interminable delays and complications, the extension finally opened to the public in March 2011.
Whilst extending to Tunbridge Wells Central and seeing Steam in the centre of Tunbridge Wells would be incredible, the costs and benefits would likely far outweigh the income we’d receive. However, the track bed is protected from any development and the toilet block that appears to be in the path of the old line is designed to be removed if necessary. Grove Tunnel is still present and can be seen behind Sainsbury’s although itself is inaccessible. The bridge over Warwick Park Road reveals nothing more than trees either side, even in the Winter months so one portal of Grove Tunnel can’t be seen. Further around the spur towards Grove Junction you can still find Upper Cumberland Walk and the remains of the old bridge over the footpath, any remains of the old spur itself are not explorable.
Since the extension to Eridge opened, the Spa Valley Railway has seen a number of major changes. We have launched our now very popular High Weald Belle dining trains, commissioned signalling at Groombridge which allows us to pass trains under the control of our newly built signal box, revamped some of our major events and invested heavily in our infrastructure.
Infrastructure investment has seen point work replaced at Tunbridge Wells & Groombridge, track laid to increase siding space at Tunbridge Wells along with secure fencing between 2018 and 2019. Final work is underway to install and commission a ground frame to control the point work. Signalling at Groombridge will be enhanced to include further signals and introduce greater operational flexibility.
In 2020 High Rocks Cattle Creep will have some repair work undertaken to ensure its continued availability for use, Broom Lane Bridge will be repaired to enable 25mph running to resume over the structure and further work to establish a ‘plan of attack’ on the Landslip at Tunbridge Wells West.
Locomotive and rolling stock investment have seen the railway purchase LMS Jinty No. 47493 and MK1 First Open No. 3131 “Audrey”. Both the Jinty and the FO form a big part of our future with increased dining services throughout the year.
The Spa Valley Railway now sees upwards of 40,000 visitors per year visiting for galas, dining experiences or for just a day out in the High Weald. A great benefit of where the line is located is the other local attractions such as High Rocks, Groombridge Place and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is the High Weald itself. Having a mainline station at either end of the line (albeit a slight walk to the one at Tunbridge Wells!) is another unique feature that enables people to visit the Spa Valley with ease, as demonstrated during our annual Beer & Cider Festival (16th to 18th October 2020) where over 2,500 people descend on the Spa Valley Railway to enjoy 200+ ales and 40+ ciders!
Something the railway is always on the lookout for is new members and volunteers, we are a 100% volunteer operated heritage railway and on a normal steam and diesel operating day we require at least 20 to 25 people to fill all the roles on the railway successfully. Even if someone can give one or two days a year it would be better than nothing, some of our now volunteers used to visit for galas, they now work in the bar car or sell tickets during these events as an example! Any prospective volunteers will be made more than welcome with site inductions provided quite quickly so do get in touch with us via email@example.com, you will soon be able to join our Society online too!
Whilst the Spa Valley Railway is not the longest or biggest heritage railway, it offers a great day out for everyone with so much to see and do all year round. Full details of all the services offered, including the wide range of dining products, dates for diesel, steam or beer galas and the vast array of family events can be seen on the railway’s website.