Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

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.

New Romney signal box

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!

Winston Churchill

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.

Hythe turntable

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?

Winston Churchill, Hythe

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”.

J B Snell, New Romney

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a non-fiction book

More details of the railway are at https://www.rhdr.org.uk

16 thoughts on “Mainline in miniature

    1. Thanks, Paula! Dungeness itself is an eerie place — apparently its shingle expanse justifies it being categorised as a desert — with a mix of vernacular low-rise buildings, abandoned boats, Derek Jarman garden and two lighthouses with, looming over all, the nuclear power station. It was like no place I’ve yet visited.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. You can only see the garden from the road — Dungeness is a private estate — so takes binoculars when you go if you want to catch a glimpse.

          His house is easy to spot, it has smart yellow windows, a wooden boat in the curtilage (but that’s not unusual here) and a quotation from John Donne burnt into the side of the building.

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Thrilling. I would love to undertake the trip. Steam has a special magic for me, because for a good part of my childhood it was a two-day steam journey that took me on holiday once or twice a year from the hated Johannesburg area to my ‘home’ territory at Knysna Heads.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe on your next visit to the UK? 🙂

      I’m of an age to remember the sensual aspect of being on a steam train—the sounds, the smells, the visuals, even the smuts that peppered my face when I stuck my head out the window and the soot on my coat if I advertantly leaned on the connecting passage between carriages. Luckily on the RH&DR everything is, as is apt for a railway, clean as a whistle… 😁

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I had noticed, thanks, and you’re right, there aren’t many 1:3 engines and 15″ gauge lines much in evidence, in my admittedly very limited experience. But the scenery in places is quite singular.

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  2. earthbalm

    Very interesting. My son’s video of the railway can be found here: https://youtu.be/3UxMK1PAWCw
    My Mac has decided to connect to the inter web thingy again – without the ethernet cable so I’m catching up with all my favourite bloggers blogs. Have to get the Rosemary Sutcliff book to you soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a delightful video, and so lovely to spot a couple of the familiar locos—nothing much if anything has changed in the intervening years! Splendid that he let the machines speak for themselves.

      Yay for reconnectivity, isn’t technology wonderful . . . when it works! Absolutely no rush with the book, I feel guilty enough putting you out to deliver it (even though you say you are often in the area). When it comes, it comes. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    That’s interesting! And I can’t help but notice a Polish accent in Count Zborowski, very interesting guy by the look of it (really can’t, that’s a traditional Polish attitude ridiculed by Conrad over a hundred years ago and still prevalent 😉 ).

    During my recent mountain vacation I’ve seen one of the examples of narrow-gauge train still running in Poland, in the beautiful Bieszczady ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bieszczady_Forest_Railway ), did not take any pictures sadly. Used mainly to transport wood, now it’s reduced to a tourist attraction for people too lazy to go hiking 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zborowski was the son of an exiled Polish count and one of the fabulously wealthy and titled Astor family, and thus ‘interesting’ though I can never get too excited by rich titled playboys, however much they accomplish. (Having said which, I was impressed by what Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson, achieved with the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle, which she may not necessarily have achieved if she hadn’t been born into aristocracy. But that’s another story!)

      I’ve looked at some of the images for the Bieszczady railway and its route looks spectacular. The gauge is twice as wide as the RH&DR, 750mm as opposed to around 380mm, but I see the locomotives still appear sufficiently miniature compared to full size! How lovely to travel on it though. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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