Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.
Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.
The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway was the brainchild of a triumvirate of men born in the second half of Victoria’s reign — the engineer Henley Greenly and the amateur racing drivers Captain J E P Howey and Count Louis Zborowski — all three linked by their obsession with transport for 15″ gauge lines. This obsession was to be made very visible by an ambitious plan to build a public railway along part of the south Kent coast, one which was eventually to stretch for thirteen and a half miles southwest from Hythe, across the Romney Marshes and parallel with the coast.
Though Zborowski died racing in 1924 most of the current line was, under the supervision of Greenly and Howey, rapidly laid between 1925 and 1927, when services began, linking the southern termini of Southern Railway branch lines at Hythe and New Romney; a short time later the line was extended to Dungeness. Extraordinary to relate, ninety-plus years later the RH&DR is still privately owned and still using many of the original steam engines commissioned at the very start of the railway!
This gorgeously illustrated Guidebook describes in lyrical language a typical journey from Hythe to Dungeness, noting geographic features and including historic details and celebrated individuals (such as the future King George VI, the film stsrs Laurel and Hardy, and film director and stage designer Derek Jarman). Informative asides tell us about armoured trains, lighthouses, wartime sound mirrors and nuclear reactors.
There’s also detailed mention of the museum at New Romney Station, filled with its scale models, archive material, artefacts, railway memorabilia and an eye-popper of a model train layout complete with trains of different eras, countries, functions — a delight, as they say, for children of all ages.
You don’t particularly have to be a fan of steam trains (the odd diesel gets a mention, I should add) to be carried along by the bubbly enthusiasm of the text and impressed by the archive pictures and full-colour photos. As a souvenir it does its job well, but of course nothing beats the actual travelling by train, the smell of the smoke, the hiss of steam, the rattle of the carriages, and the clatter over the tracks; and let me not forget the view of back gardens, fields and shingle desert, inhabited by sheep, cattle, gulls and corvids, even a herd of alpacas! And who can resist waving at smiling bystanders, young and old alike, and have them happily wave back at you as you jolt along on your journey?
This edition of the guidebook includes an Eagle Video Productions DVD which I’ve yet to see, but it does promise to present the mainline in miniature to us “in all its glory”.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a non-fiction book
More details of the railway are at https://www.rhdr.org.uk