‘The smallest public railway in the world.’ So proclaims a faded poster at New Romney Station, the midpoint of the 15in gauge Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway which runs almost 14 miles along the south-western Kent coast from Hythe to Dungeness.
Well, almost. The railway was indeed the world’s smallest public railway by gauge from 1927 until 1978, the year it lost the honour to the 12¼in gauge Réseau Guerlédan in France. The RM&DR regained the accolade the following year when the French line closed, only to lose it again in 1982 with the opening of the 10¼in gauge Wells and Walsingham Light Railway in Norfolk.
Although the RM&DR steam railway has the appearance of an overgrown toy, and is beloved today by children and adult train enthusiasts, it was designed (by two racing car and miniature train obsessives) as an everyday means of transportation for bungalow and chalet residents, linking the respective termini branches of Southern Railway at New Romney and Hythe. The scientist Ben Goldacre has described how he used the service from Dungeness to Hythe during his commute to London, getting on the ‘big train’ at Folkestone.
There was certainly nothing childlike about the line during the second world war, when one locomotive, Hercules, was employed for freight work, given body armour and equipped with Lewis guns and Boys anti-tank rifles in order to patrol the coast on the look-out for Germans. The train, manned by the Somerset Light Infantry, even shot down an Me109.
Today it’s served by nine one-third scale steam locomotives, and it still combines the cute and antique with the functional. It takes you right back to the days of steam, but with everything reduced in size: it even has a diesel-mechanical shunter.
On departure from the three-platformed terminal at Hythe — a kind of miniature Paddington — the dispatcher gives a blast on his whistle, then raises a green flag. The driver answers with a whistle and starts up the train. Yet as you very slowly accelerate up to 20 mph, the modern world brings you back to reality. You are passing by the backs of gardens, past washing lines, breeze blocks covered in graffiti and discarded washing machines.
Finally the houses give way and on the seaward side is a former gravel pit, used now for anglers and sailors, and then 13 level crossings. The stationary car drivers wave to you. You wave back. The first stop is Dymchurch, from where you can spot a Martello tower, erected during the Napoleonic wars. The main stop on the line is New Romney, where you change for your journey on to Dungeness. New Romney has a café and bar, souvenir shop and small, charming toy train museum.
The last leg takes you on a shingle peninsula — technically a desert — dotted with houses made from old railway carriages and shipping containers, before delivering you to the foot of a nuclear power station.
At Dungeness the line forms a loop, allowing trains to perform an about-turn, where you begin your return 80-minute journey back to Hythe — and back to that little piece of history.