Rother Valley Railway - Kent & East Sussex Railway

The Rother Valley Railway was a standard gauge line from a junction at Robertsbridge in East Sussex, on the SE&CR’s Tonbridge-Hastings line, to Tenterden, 12 miles away in Kent. It opened in 1900 and was extended to TenterdenTown station in 1903 (the original terminus was renamed Rolvenden), and through to a junction at Headcorn on the SE&CR’s Redhill-Ashford route in 1905, whereupon it was renamed the Kent & East Sussex Railway. Stephens was engineer, locomotive superintendent and managing director of the railway, which was closed by British Railways in 1961. Re-opening as a preserved railway began in 1974, and a 10-mile stretch of the original RVR now sees regular steam trains run by the Tenterden Railway Company as the Kent & East Sussex Railway.

Rolvenden station circa 1931 

Opening and Growth

The Kent & East Sussex Railway was one of the light railways operated by Colonel H.F. Stephens, the railway engineer. It was originally opened, in 1900, as the Rother Valley Railway, with its first stretch of line running from Robertsbridge to Tenterden (the station later being renamed Rolvenden). The line extended into nearer to the centre of Tenterden to the Town station in 1903, and the railway's name was changed to the Kent and East Sussex Railway in 1904 in anticipation of extensions to Rye, Cranbrook and Maidstone via Headcorn. The line extended to Headcorn in 1905, but no further extensions were ever built.

The railway was built under the 1896 Light Railways Act, which allowed for cheaper construction methods in return for a speed restriction. The area was fairly sparsely populated with stations serving villages often several miles away. There was some farm traffic inwards and outwards with hops, artichokes, cured herring, crayfish, grain and livestock being transported. Goods sidings served Robertsbridge Mills and the Guinnessoast house at Junction Road Halt. Two Hawthorne Leslie 2-4-0 tank locomotives were bought new for the service, No.1 'Tenterden' and No.2 'Northiam' (which achieved fame 40 years later as the locomotive 'Gladstone' in the film Oh, Mr Porter!). A 'Terrier' A1 class 0-6-0 tank engine was later purchased second hand and named No 3 'Bodiam'. This engine is still working on the line at the age of 135! Some new carriages were bought at the line's opening. In later years services were maintained using elderly coach stock, including an 1842 Royal coach; an unreliable steam railmotor, noisy but economical Ford and Shefflex petrol railmotors (basically two buses with railway wheels coupled back to back) and locomotives nearing the end of their service lives. One oddity purchased by Colonel Stephens was a powerful 0-8-0T locomotive,'Hecate' (possibly intended for use on the proposed Headcorn & Maidstone Junction Light Railway). It was too heavy for the much of the line and was little used, being swapped years later for something more useful.

At its fullest extent, it ran nearly 22 miles, connecting Robertsbridge (on the Tonbridge to Hastings line) to Headcorn (on the Tonbridge to Ashford line). Between 1905 and closure, the stations on the line, running south to north, were: Robertsbridge Salehurst Halt, Junction Road Halt, Bodiam for Staplecross, Northiam, Wittersham Road, Rolvenden, Tenterden Town, Tenterden St. Michael's, High Halden Road, Biddenden, Frittenden Road and Headcorn.

Grouping and Decline

The company stayed independent after the 1923 Railway Groupings, run from an office by Stephens and after his death by his assistant, William Austin, at Salford Terrace, Tonbridge, Kent. Many other light railways in the UK were also run from there. The desk and other items from this office are preserved at the Colonel Stephens museum at Tenterden station.

Due to road competition, the line was unprofitable after the mid-1920s and went into receivership in 1932, and after nationalisation of the railways in 1948, the closure of the line became more likely. It was closed to passenger traffic and completely from Tenterden Town to Headcorn on 2 January1954, and finally on 12 July1961, the entire line was closed to all traffic.