Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Railways of Sheppey

Whilst re-reading The Sheppey Light Railway by Peter A Harding last night I was astounded to note something that I had obviously missed before, that the first railway came onto Sheppey in 1860! In that year the Sittingbourne & Sheerness Railway Company laid a single track line to what was one of the most important sites on Sheppey, then and for many years to come, Sheerness Dockyard in Bluetown. Another short branch line, to Flushing Pier, Queenborough, was added in 1875 in order to serve the daily cross-channel sailings to Flushing in Holland. Lastly, in 1883, another short piece of line was laid just outside the Bluetown station, to create what still is, Sheerness-on-Sea station.
Although it was un-used and overgrown by then, I can still recall the old Bluetown Station from my childhood before it was demolished and taken up as part of the Steel Mill complex. The overgrown site and station buildings were a haven for wildlife.
The Flushing Pier station had fell out of use well before then but was finally demolished in 1956.

We then come to the Sheppey Light Railway and this single track railway was finally opened to huge fanfares in 1901. Indeed that inaugral first journey from Queenborough to Leysdown and back saw the train carry 160 invited guests, which must of been one of the few times that the train was ever full. The tragedy of this line was that it eventually closed in 1950 due to lack of use, not long after Leysdown took off in a big way as a holiday village and would of been a potential huge attraction for holidaymakers travelling down from London with their luggage.

The route itself couldn't of given a more attractive viewing of the best of Sheppey's countryside, especially as the train only trundled along at around 25 mph. The line began behind the current off-Sheppey platform at Queenborough and curved out of the station and through the open fields of Sheerness marshes to arrive at Sheerness East station halfway between Sheerness and Halfway village and here people could easily walk the mile from Sheerness to catch the train. This was the largest of the several stations and also had several sidings, both for spare carriages and the receiving and unloading of goods. Here and despite only being three years of age, I can just remember the white crossing gates across the Halfway Road as the train crossed the road. These gates were a similar feature at all of the staions.

From here the line continued through hedge-rowed farmland and past the local golf club before arriving at East Minster Station on the Minster Road. Old photos show the crossing gates and the train passing, alongside a shop which still remains open today and on the other side of the road, the Harps Inn public house.
Once again the train trundled off through open farmland to arrive at Minster Sation, about a mile below the village. Quite a bit of farm goods and livestock were loaded or unloaded at this station although, like the remaining stations to come, the platform was small and the waiting room was little more than a wooden hut.

The countryside that the train was travelling through, even by its closure, was beautiful and unspoilt traditional Sheppey farmland and must of been a real treat to travel in the summer months. You also have to remember that the train and its carriages were smaller than a traditional steam train of the time and so even in that it had its quaintness.

From Minster the train eventually crossed Elm Lane, passed across the bottom of the still beautiful Tadwell Farm to arrive at Brambledown Station, around 100 yds short of where the Farm Shop now is. From here it headed past orchards to Eastchurch Station, a mile or so south of Eastchurch village. At first this station was quite small with a few sidings to enable the collection/unloading of all the farm produce from around that busy area. However, once the Royal Naval Air Station, later RAF airfield, came into being a few yards further south during WW1, the railway station expanded somewhat and included a spur that went right into the heart of the airfield.

That left just two more stations, reached through rolling cornfields. Harty Halt was a tiny station around 100 yds before the current Harty Road turn off, and it served those people walking out from the isolated Harty farms. From there the train travelled on to arrive at Leysdown, just a 100 yds or so from the beach, the site of which is now a public car park behind a large amusement arcade.

So, how lovely it would be to still travel on that train today, despite huge developments on Sheppey, its old route is still amazingly across pretty much open farmland and would yield much wildlife to be observed. Even better, and the local council must regret this very much, how wonderful it would be if the old route had been turned into a public footpath and cycle route. To be able to walk the length of Sheppey through it's middle would be truly amazing. This cannot happen now unfortunately as some lengths of it have been bought and built on.
What a great shame.


  1. Derek,
    Absolutely fascinating ! My Brother-in-Law has just acquired the book and has promised to pass it on. I only travelled on the old SLR a couple of times but often walked along the track at night when returning from Minster to Sheerness East and hence to Sheerness and dear old Bluetown.
    Bluetown Station was just a goods station when I was a lad and the sidings were in full use for shunting and the ground alongside the track used as allotments by one or two of the railwaymen.
    PS I put a late comment on 'Lots of Wind' and would love to receive a reply to my query.

    Thanks again !!

  2. Ken,

    It is only a small book, which I had to order from the author direct, but its a fascinating read for us Sheepey-ites. Although I lived in Sheerness, the stretch of the old line between Sheerness East and Minster was a regular haunt for me as a child. The field alongside it, between it and the golf club, is now owned by the golf club and is overgrown with hawthorn bushes and is a good spot for Whitethroats, etc.
    Have replied direct to your other query.