The Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway came to the end of its first season back on the full track this weekend, after being closed for four years. Volunteer press officer, Paul Best, invited me along to tell me more about it.
I arrived early and already a large queue was patiently waiting: families and couples, old and young individuals – everyone clearly excited to see the steam locos back where they should be, on track.
As each train departed, so another queue formed – Paul and I only just squeezed into the third one for our journey to Kemsley. An enthusiast for 25 years and in his second stint as press officer, Paul told me: “We always plan a busy timetable, but we can be flexible and run more passenger trains and less freight if need be.” He then went on to give an impromptu commentary for those lucky enough to be in our compartment; this man knows his stuff!
Alighting at Kemsley you can take a break in very reasonably priced and friendly Footplates Cafe, enjoy a stroll around the Wildlife area, let the children play in the garden or find out more about these iconic locos and their working home in the museum. The Saxon Shore Footpath runs right alongside, offering gorgeous views across Milton Creek – it’s no wonder there were many cameras to hand, especially on such a beautiful day.
While closed, the line had been subject to vandalism and theft. Consequently nothing is left on site; even the ticket office is a temporary structure, set up each morning. They opened fully again at the end of May this year, after running a limited service from Milton last year.
Paul said: “We’re preserving the history of paper making in Sittingbourne through the operation of the original locos on the original track – probably put in by Bowaters Paper Mills.” (A detailed history can be found here).
“It’s one of only three 2ft 6 gauge railways in the country (the others are in Whipsnade Safari Park and Welshpools, Llanfair.) Swale council donated some money to buy the saddle tanks needed for the Leader and Premier locos, but apart from that, it’s self funded by paying customers and run completely by volunteers. Just maintaining the viaduct has cost £100,000 in the last ten years. Unfortunately, we don’t actually own the land so we don’t qualify for Heritage Lottery Funding.
“We’ve a separate 100 year lease with Kemsley Mill on one mile of track but new developers Central Land own the line. While the legal wrangling over the land being sold was ongoing we weren’t able to run but they’ve been brilliant; they said “why would we want to do away with a tourist attraction in the middle of our development?” They’re going to pay for new steps and a ticket office as part of the ongoing development of the old paper mill land. There’ll be a supermarket, car park, housing, park, shops and restaurants – effectively another town centre and we’ll be right in the middle of it.”
There are twelve locos now owned by the railway. Among them, Superb, a Bagnall 0-6-2T steam locomotive, made her debut again this weekend, the first time she’s run this decade. Alpha, another of the same, will be the project for young volunteers to practice on and restore fully to operations. Currently interchangeable with Superb, only one of them runs at a time. Paul also mentions a link with Medway. “The four passenger coaches came from Chattenden and Upnor Admiralties Railway, with location names still relevant today: Upnor; Chattenden; Lodge Hill and Four Elms. They didn’t have doors originally but we lent them to another railway for a while and they put them on for us.”
The summer season now over, the hard work of restoring and rebuilding begins, stopping only to open up again in December for the Santa Specials. Next season should see them operating from Easter through to the end of September (watch out for special events involving Jack Station Cat and Ivor the Engine).
The enthusiasm of the volunteers adds to the whole experience, they clearly love being involved and sharing their passion and knowledge with a receptive audience fascinated by these venerable locomotives.
Paul had one last piece of news to share: “Milton Regis viaduct was built in 1915 so we’re soon to be celebrating its centenary: I’m planning on lighting it up!”
Now wouldn’t that be a sight to see?