Miniature Kent

Romney Hythe & District Railway

Romney Hythe & District Railway - Credit: Archant

Kent is a big county, full of vast expanses of countryside, big towns and big personalities. But sometimes small can be beautiful too. And alongside all the ‘big’, Kent has its fair share of ‘small’, some of it smaller than anywhere else in the country

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR)

Smallest public railway in Kent (and one-time smallest in the world)

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway was the realisation of the dreams of two men, Captain J. E. P. Howey (a racing driver, millionaire land owner and miniature railway enthusiast) and Count Louis Zborowski (a racing driver and multi-millionaire), who both wanted to create a fully working miniature railway.

After much searching Romney was chosen for the location of their dream, largely because of its flatness, the absence of any existing line and the desire by locals to have access to a railway.

At enormous cost, the line (which at that time ran from Hythe to New Romney) opened in 1927. Sadly, it was an event that Zborowski never got to witness, as he had died a few years earlier racing at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix.

“Over the years that followed, the railway, which was hugely popular, was extended to Dungeness, creating a fantastic main line ride of 13.5 miles” says Danny Martin, director and general manager.

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The line’s good times were in the immediate post-war years when tourism to the Kent coast boomed. But this wasn’t to last. “In the early sixties Captain Howey passed away then over the decades that followed, tourism to this part of Kent started to drop off.

“These twin factors led to a decline in investment, which meant that the line began to slowly deteriorate,” says Danny.

But such was its uniqueness and appeal in the early 1970s (at a time when the railway was on its last legs) a new consortium, headed by Sir William MacAlpine, intervened and since then significant investment has taken place.

“We now have a wonderfully organised railway, where enthusiasts have got involved and bought shares in the line, the dividends of which are all ploughed back into it,” he adds.

This investment, along with the work of the volunteers who donate so much of their valuable free time has, according to Danny, created a railway that is in quite fantastic condition.

“The line is as good as it ever was. And one of the most pleasing aspects of this is the fact that the mini-locomotives that pull the trains are those originally commissioned by the two founders, something attributable to our ability to provide them with the necessary investment and constant loving care.”

Some 160,000 people visited this railway last year, making it one of the county’s most popular attractions. Proof, if proof be needed, that sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

St Edmund’s Chapel, Dover

Smallest church in regular use in England

St Edmund’s Chapel dates from around 1253 when it was built as a wayside chapel or chapel of rest for the cemetery for the poor beside the Maison Dieu, just outside the enclosed part of the medieval town, a short distance above Biggin Gate, and for pilgrims setting off for Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

“It’s amazing that the little place still exists,” says Paul Smye-Rumsby, Chairman of the St Edmund of Abingdon Memorial Trust. Few buildings anywhere in the country have survived from as far back as the 13th century. Fewer still that have faced the array of threats thrown at St Edmund’s.

“The turning point for the chapel was unquestionably the break with Rome under Henry VIII in the 1530s,” adds Paul.

“Via the Reformation and the Dissolution of the monasteries, St Edmund’s was desecrated and turned into the office for a private estate.”

Its sanctity gone, for the next 400 years the chapel was thought lost. During this time it found use as both a smithy and store room, gradually in the process being subsumed by the buildings surrounding it.

“The area was then bombed heavily during the Second World War, with many of the surrounding buildings being destroyed,” adds Paul.

By rights, the tiny chapel should have gone the same way. But with an innate survival instinct, it kept going.

“In fact the bombing was the best thing that could have happened to the chapel,” says Paul. “It was revealed for the first time in generations, reminding people that this beautiful place still existed.”

After staving off one more threat in the 1960s (Dover Council’s plan to demolish it), the process of restoration began. “This was hugely dependent upon the determination of Rev Father Terence E Tanner, the Parish Priest of St Paul’s RC church in the town at the time, and other people’s financial help.

“In recognition of Father Tanner’s efforts, a memorial plaque is mounted in the chapel. His ashes are also interred close to the altar,” says Paul.

Since the completion of the restoration and its re-consecration in 1968, the chapel has been disconnected from other abutting buildings and now the full beauty of this tiny gem is truly evident.

“Although its use has declined in recent years, we always endeavour to have a service whenever possible.

“It’s a wonderful little place, with an amazing history. Let’s hope we can keep it in use for another 800 years.”

The Butchers Arms, Herne

The world’s first micro-pub and the smallest freehouse in England

There was a trend not long ago for pubs to be big. Certain chains would take over old department stores, banks and shops and create enormous pubs, usually offering cheap beer, cheap meals and the kind of atmosphere typically found on the moon.

The Butchers Arms is the very antithesis of that trend. Back in 2003, changes to the licensing laws made it much easier for individuals to set up their own pub.

One of the first people to appreciate the implications of the changes was Martyn Hillier.

“It was evident that anyone could start a pub and they could do so in pretty much whatever they wanted, like an old shop, a post office, a garage or even in their front room,” he says.

From this realisation emerged the Butchers Arms, a tiny pub housed within an old butchers in Herne.

From the beginning, Martyn wanted to create the kind of pub that was worlds apart from those being created by the big chains and pub companies.

“I wanted a pub where people could come and chat, put the world to rights. Basically, the way pubs used to be.

“We don’t have juke boxes or food, or any of the kind of stuff you find in modern pubs. This is a simple pub that sells real ale and lets people come in for a chat. In many ways it’s like a coffee shop for men.”

Since it opened, Martyn’s 14x12ft pub has been an enormous success. Not only is it regularly bursting at the seams, it has also inspired an entire movement, with other micro-pubs opening up all over the UK.

“I think we are an antidote to corporate pubs. There are a lot of people out there who hate what’s happened to their local pub. And for many of them we’re the answer to the problem.”


The smallest town in Britain (by population)

If you ever wanted proof that small is beautiful then come to Fordwich. This tiny town (arguably not much bigger than most villages) oozes charm.

Located on the Great Stour, just a few miles downriver from Canterbury, Fordwich was once its larger neighbour’s port, from which fact it derives the right to call itself a town. “Back in 1184, Henry II granted the town a Merchant Gild Charter, reflecting its importance as the de facto port for Canterbury. From that point on it had the right to call itself a town,” says Patrick Heren, Mayor of Fordwich.

This was a change for Fordwich, as prior to the granting of the Charter it had been classified in the Doomsday Book merely as a small burgh.

As the port for Canterbury, the new town became the conduit for the stone used in the construction of the cathedral.

“All the Caen stone used by the Normans to rebuild Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th and 13th centuries was landed here at Fordwich. Because of its importance it later became a limb of the Cinque Ports,” he adds.

Although Fordwich lost its status as a town in the 1880s (when it no longer had a Mayor and Corporation), it was able to regain it following a local government reorganisation in 1972, enabling this lovely part of Kent to once again boast being England’s smallest town.

“It might be small, but it’s a wonderful place to live” says Patrick. “Not only is Fordwich extremely pretty, the town is imbued with a rich sense of history, surrounded by fantastic countryside and a very peaceful part of the county.

“And one that’s well worth a visit if you’re around here anytime soon.” n