A few days ago I decided to treat myself to a day out at Dungeness. 'Fiona,' I said, 'Set course for the wildest and bleakest part of Kent!' And so I was wafted eastwards, stopping only to buy a sandwich and a smoothie at Waitrose in Hailsham, and devouring the same at Jury's Gap. I reached New Romney in good time for the 1.35pm train to Dungeness.
But it wasn't an ordinary train, for this was the HQ of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, a famous narrow-gauge steam line that runs from Hythe down to Dungeness. There are of course several narrow-gauge lines dotted around the country, notably in Wales, but the thing with this one is that it's all miniaturised to scale, especially the locomotives, which are, as far as is practically possible, exact little replicas of steam (and diesel) engines many times their size in real life. This makes everything look a bit odd. The driver and passengers are overgrown giants compared to the engine and rolling stock. And although the signal box is a proper size, the semaphore signals themselves are twee little things. But this railway is nevertheless fully signalled, with all the proper gear for safely working the sections of single line: staffs for each block to hand over to (and collect from) from the signalman, for instance. The timetable is a bit basic in the winter, but in the summer it's perfectly useful and adequate for ordinary public use, provided you are doing no more than shuttling along the coastal towns of this part of Kent, and don't want to commute to London. So there's the odd shopper, and plenty of schoolkids, as well as the tourists.
Here's a few pictures I took at New Romney. This is my train arriving, then being fed and watered:
The engine is No.10, Dr Syn, a Derby-built machine of 1931 vintage, and immaculately clean. There is still that peculiar smell of steam, though! Dr Syn was of course the resourceful hero of the series of books written by Russell Thorndike in the first half of the 20th century. He was scholar turned pirate turned Vicar of Dymchurch, a vicar with a history he strove to conceal, and an alter ego as The Scarecrow, the commanding leader of the local smugglers. Great stuff.
The train halted for half an hour, no doubt to encourage passengers to visit the cafe and shop, or the toilets. I did all three. The cafe was nice, and I enjoyed a cup of tea and a rather good sausage roll that I couldn't resist having. Then, selecting an open carriage (for the best chance of photos), the train puffed out of the station. The first thing that happens is that you pass under a main road, and this seems like a proper dark tunnel. Exciting! Then you pick up speed as you whizz past residents' back gardens.
Am I enjoying myself, or what? After a quick stop at Romney Sands (for Greatstone-on-Sea) the driver lets Dr Syn have his head, and we tear down the track towards Dungeness. 'Tear' meaning 12 or 15 miles per hour probably, but it does seem a lot more! Lots of level crossings. We whistle at every one. The houses end, and the shacks and shanties characteristic of Dungeness come into view. We are on a vast shingle spit that juts out into the English Channel. It's a weird landscape, but strangely alluring, and interesting to see it from the train for once:
Here'a a photo of the fisherman's huts I took some years ago, showing the old rails that they would, at one time, trundle their catch up to the road on:
Now we approach the tip of Dungeness, the ness itself, with its two lighthouses, the Old and the New, and the menacing presence of the Nuclear Power Station.
Another half-hour stop. We all clamber out of our carriages. There's just enough time to do one thing only. Some head for the cafe. Some head for the shingle. I head for the Old Lighthouse.
The living quarters of the Old Lighthouse were elsewhere, in the buildings fifty yards away, so inside there is mostly empty space, and the stairs spiral upwards in a very scary fashion. You musn't look down! Halfway up, there is a floor containing an array of giant red and green glass prisms. I'm guessing that you saw an upper white light and a lower red light from one direction, and an upper white and lower green from another, and in that way mariners could tell not only where the Lighthouse was, but the different colours confirmed whether they were east or west of the dangerous spit. I think the prisms are beautiful.
On and up to the main light at the top. Then through a small hatch, and out onto the windy walkway. What a view! But it's awfully high up, and you can see from my face that I'm not really liking it. I take my shots, then with relief get inside again. As I go backwards down the steep ladder, two women come up. They're nervous of heights too, but game to see the view. I really wonder how anyone can enjoy parachuting or skydiving - or abseiling, come to that. However if you don't mind lots of stairs and being scared, then you can get married in the Old Lighthouse. It's licensed for weddings. And there's a choice of floors for the ceremony. And afterwards everyone can go up to the top, if they so wish. Hmmm, different!
I get back to the train with three minutes to spare. The green flag is flourished, the driver gets the right away, and off we steam. The line at Dungeness is a vast loop, and we go clockwise back to where we came in. What a landscape: ridges of shingle, strange vegetation, and the brooding Nuclear Power Station. What if there's a sudden meltdown before we can get clear, as in these shots I took in 2003 and 2009?
Of course, knowing me, I'd somehow carry on shooting:
We made it back to New Romney. I had another look around. It really was a classic toy train set for grownups. It was interesting to see that not only men but women were snapping the trains. I spoke to one or two of the women. We agreed that for us it was mostly about feeling young and carefree again. About nostalgia for sunny bucket-and-spade holidays, accomplished by train. But there were serious train men aplenty, examining the brasswork and the coal and the pressure gauges, and putting questions to the drivers. I really thought James May might look in. He of Flying Scotsman versus The Germans fame (i.e. the Barnstaple-to-Bideford toy train challenge on his Toy Stories series in 2011).
One last shot of New Romney. It really is the Clapham Junction of the RH&DR: