SPA VALLEY RAILWAY
& GROOMBRIDGE PLACE
2010 - October - 31

RESURGIT VAPOR PRO DELICIIS OMNIUM



What you will see here

The Spa Valley Railway wends its way through some pleasant countryside of the Weald - rural Kent and East Sussex border country. The railway provides a nice leisured way of visiting some interesting attractions, such as the historic Groombridge estate, the scenic "High Rocks", and of course, the famous Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells.



The Spa Valley Railway extends 4 miles from Tunbridge Wells (West) to Birchden Junction (beyond Groombridge) and is set to open as far as Eridge BR station - a further mile - in 2011.
(Now open! Ed.)

I felt that some of the experiences of my visit to the railway should be held pictorially for a wider audience - so here are some of the pictures I took. Please make allowances for the technical and artistic imperfections! The pictures and text have been arranged under the following headings.


Walk to the Spa Valley Railway

The short 15 minutes walk from Tunbridge Wells (Central) to the Spa Valley Railway at Tunbridge Wells West traverses the High Street and the famous, historic and picturesque Pantiles. The Chalybeate Spring - the "Wells" of Tunbridge - is at the entrance to the Pantiles. Tunbridge Wells is very busy with horseless carriages - Dr Beeching, what did you do?!?



There was an hour or two of rain to begin with, but this actually showed off the Pantiles to very good effect - as you can see from this and the next picture.




The wide sweep of the gracious 18th century colonnades is the famous hallmark of Tunbridge Wells. I missed the shop selling "Tunbridge Wells Ware" - the well known wooden intarsia work - but it must be here somewhere behind these pillars.




The Corn Exchange and the Royal Victoria Hotel - with its splendid royal coat of arms just visible over the doorway - hoved into view before I left the Pantiles to reach Tunbridge Wells West Station a little further on.


Steaming out to Groombridge

Having made the long trek from the wilds of Essex, the timings suited me just fine. There was time to become acquainted with the motive power in the LBSCR Tunbridge Wells West (75F) engine shed, and indeed to admire the work by the Spa Valley volunteers to set up the Southern-styled visitor-welcome facilities. I caught the first steam hauled service of the day. It was to convey me in style through the picturesque Wealden countryside - past High Rocks (station provided by the High Rocks Inn) to Groombridge with its attractive village and Groombridge Place gardens and estate.



One of the friendly ticket office staff gave me a short tour of the LBSCR engine shed where I saw the Jinty being prepared for duty - a nice lot of steam! The dark red bunker on the left belongs to the pannier which was being readied for its return to Quainton Road.




In the engine shed, the saddle tank, "Fonmon", was resting before its planned overhaul. Part of the Oxted Thumper can be seen to the right, and the maroon painted Chrzanow 0-6-0T, just about visible to the left, shares the road with "Fonmon".




Outside, on the platform one can see (right hand background) the tower of the original Tunbridge Wells West Station; the old station is now a large pub and restaurant - the "South Western". In this view of the engine shed, you can see (on the extreme left) the front part of the now unique diesel shunter with "boxpok" wheels, the other half of the two-car Oxted Thumper unit, one of the two Class 33s and the buffet (ex EMU) carriage (at the right hand end of the engine shed). The engine shed itself houses the tank engines - operational and awaiting overhaul. In one corner of the engine shed you can also see what will probably be a long term, but historically very worthwhile, restoration project - an original 4-wheel LCDR coach, vintage 1862 (when Charles Dickens was around).




Class 33, "R. J. Mitchell", returns from Groombridge with the first train of the day. It was actually quite busy, - for the Spa Valley Railway has become a popular attraction for tourists and enthusiasts - but (to try to respect the privacy of individuals) I caught this and some of the other pictures at quiet moments when passengers had either already boarded or left the train.




The Class 33 handed over to the Jinty, which is seen approaching the train from the nicely restored signal box at the throat of the Tunbridge Wells West complex. This was to be the second service of the day to Groombridge, and suited me fine, since I had just made the long trek from the wilds of Essex.




The Mark 1 I travelled in exuded luxurious elegance - wood veneer, window lamps, stylish spacious seating ...




... curtains and even flowers at each window. All this, and the picturesque Wealden landscape rolling past the large windows, made the coffee I had bought from the on-board buffet taste even nicer. You know, these Mk 1 windows are really fantastic - nice and low so that you can see the ground moving below your feet, and none of these annoying window separators blocking your view. Traditional Mk 1 rolling stock is designed so that you can enjoy rail travel - even if it's just commuting. More modern rolling stock seems to neglect this essential aspect of travel - so that even in first class Eurostar you can be stuck next to a total view-blocking window separator! Bring back the comfort of the Mk 1s!




At Groombridge, the Jinty runs around its train, which is hiding in the background behind the steam.




Another steamy affair! The Jinty awaits departure to Tunbridge Wells West. Note the platform. It had to be built anew because incursions by developers on the track bed meant that the remaining platform of Groombridge Station no longer had the correct alignment. However, when you see the new platform with its traditional style buildings, you will surely appreciate the dedicated effort put in by the Spar Valley volunteers.




As I waited to get another picture, a young Groombridgian had come to see the train off and had brought with her her pet albino ferret. She assured me that he did not bite! He looked harmless and friendly enough!




One advantage of the skewed track alignment at Groombridge Station is that it facilitates photography from the old station platform. Here the train is returning to Tunbridge Wells, leaving me to explore Groombridge - the pretty village and the interesting Groombridge Estate.


Groombridge Place - a lovely visit!

A very short walk (wear walking boots if muddy), through pleasant countryside, brings you to Groombridge Place, which is a 17th century classical mansion in the style of Sir Christopher Wren. It is surrounded by a moat and built on the site of a medieval castle. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a frequent visitor to Groombridge Place, which became the inspiration for "Birlstone Manor" in his story the "The Valley of Fear". The 17th century Formal Gardens are well worth a visit, and the Enchanted Forest has distinct echoes of JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling. I'm not sure if the vineyard is still productive. Although it hadn't been raining for a few hours, the wild bird centre was closed because "the birds don't like the rain"!



The front of the house is graced - nay, dwarfed - by four Giant Redwoods (Sequoias).




Topiary and ornamental vases are the ingredients of graceful gardens.




The Knott Garden nestles to one side of Groombridge Place and the attached Priest's House.




The medieval moat - just about visible and a challenge to photograph - provided security for Groombridge Place.




Anyone for Chess? You can exercise your little grey cells under the public gaze.




The Enchanted Forest - as you would expect - has a number of surprises. Here a real live flute player plays a mystical tune on the steps of one of the caravans in the Romany encampment deep in the forest.




At the edge of the Enchanted Forest, a stone stag looks out over the gentle Wealden landcape and the vineyard.




And here are some more views of the pretty formal gardens. Topiary, statue, vase, ...




... manor house, statue, lawn, ...




... and here a combination of these essential ingredients of noble horticulture.




Halloween had entered Sherlock Holmes's room recreated by the entrance to the gardens.


Homewards

The return journey, with its gentle flavour of Old England, was very relaxing - so much so that I concentrated on the pleasant countryside whilst I sipped another cup of coffee in the splendid surrroundings of the Mark 1 open, giving my camera a well-earnt respite.



The Victorian Groombridge Station building is now used by a business enterprise, but the Spa Valley Railway can be accessed through a gate on the left of the building. In the forecourt, horseless carriages have replaced the Landaus, Broughams and pony traps of old.




Before the next train arrived to take me back to Tunbridge Wells, I was able to admire the excellent and dedicated work that the Spa Valley volunteers have put into the reborn Groombridge Station. One of the rail maps in the station building reminded the visitor of the erstwhile dense network of rail lines that used to criss-cross the Weald. The reborn Spa Walley Railway can be clearly identified in the centre of the map.




The train has arrived according to schedule, and the Jinty has been uncoupled to prepare for the return journey.




At the Groombridge passing loop, the Jinty runs round the 4 car train. Of course, I had to be careful when taking this picture.




Having soaked up the pleasant Wealden countryside slipping past the panoramic windows of the elegant Mark 1 open, as I sipped another cup of coffee, it was all too soon time to say goodbye. Now we have just got back to Tunbridge Wells West ...




... where the Jinty runs around its train in preparation for the last there-and-back journey of the day to Groombridge.




On the short return walk through the Pantiles to Tunbridge Wells Central, I stopped to admire the old (LBSCR) Tunbridge Wells Station building - it is an even grander version of Groombridge Station and proudly displays its "Cordoba" window arches. The LBSCR seemed to like window arches - Tunbridge WW Station, Groombridge Station and the engine shed, all have them.




The lights are now coming on in the Pantiles as I wend my way back to Tunbridge Wells Central and homewards to Essex.


Postscript

The Spa Valley Railway is well worth a visit - both to the Railway itself and to the scenic and historical places it serves. It is reasonably new as heritage railways go, but has already justifiably attracted the support of quite a number of local businesses and organisations. Through ticketing from Network Rail will be possible via Eridge - anticipated in 2011 - once the regulatory processes for the extension from Groombridge to Eridge have run their procedural course. A visit to the Spa Valley Railway provides the ideal antidote to those seeking an escape from today's hectic world to the more leisured era of traditional rail travel.


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