The railways grew up fast across Great Britain during the 19th and early 20th century. The train was a popular mode of transport and allowed many, for the first time, to explore other towns and cities.
Tunbridge Wells had two stations built by rival companies; Tunbridge Wells Central, opened in 1845 by the South Eastern Railway, which is now the sole mainline station, and Tunbridge Wells West, which was opened by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway in 1866. This latter is the headquarters of today’s Spa Valley Railway. Around 1876, these two stations were linked by a tunnel enabling connections between the London to Brighton and the London to Hastings lines. From Tunbridge Wells West there were direct services to the south coast at Brighton and Eastbourne and northbound to London Victoria.
Passing into the ownership of the Southern railway in 1923, the route became a very popular cross country link with over 100 trains passing a day. Following nationalisation of the railways in 1948, Groombridge station was re-signalled a decade later, and steam finally gave way to diesel multiple units in the mid 1960s. Gradually lines began to close all around – the Eridge to Hailsham branch (the Cuckoo Line) in 1965, East Grinstead to Groombridge in 1967, and then Uckfield to Lewes in 1969.
Unfortunately as the popularity of the motor car increased, train services were severely cut back due to the lack of patronage and the Tunbridge Wells to Eridge section closed on 6th July 1985. The depot at Tunbridge Wells West did survive for another month with frequent empty coaching stock moves taking place on the line from Eridge.
The link to the mainline at Birchden Junction was finally removed in the early 1990s following the re-signalling of the Uckfield line. This resulted in the closure of numerous signal boxes and saw the line to Uckfield singled in places with passing loops installed at strategic locations. However this was to benefit the fledging Tunbridge Wells & Eridge Railway Preservation Society later on...
Following closure and a hastily-convened meeting in Groombridge village hall, a charitable society was quickly established to fight for the reopening of the Tunbridge Wells to Eridge line. The group, blissfully unaware of the fact that anyone would use such an acronym to poke fun at them, named itself the “Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society” (TWERPS).
The next few years were a long, hard struggle against the ravages of vegetation, disinterest and outright hostility from some quarters, but in 1994, with a generous loan from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, the society acquired the line. By winter 1996 they were running trains along half a mile of track towards Groombridge, hauled by RSH 0-6-0T “North Downs”. This was helped by a merger between TWERPS and the North Downs Steam Railway at Dartford, whose own long story is told elsewhere. Suffice to say the TWERPS had both the railway and the people who didn’t have the first idea about how to run it, and the NDSR had the trains and people who pretended to know how they worked. It was a marriage made in heaven, and the Spa Valley Railway was born.
After an amazing effort by members, the line was reopened through to Groombridge in August 1997, which took the total length up to three and a half miles. News spread about the route and passenger numbers rose. The owner of the High Rocks Inn built a station at High Rocks, half way between Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge which opened in August 1998.
Many improvements have been made since then including the introduction of new steam locomotives and rolling stock. Developments at Groombridge have seen a brand new station building, a signal box, refreshment kiosk and two canopies recovered from Gravesend West Street station, all being erected to a fine standard by a small group of volunteers since 1997.
2004 saw the railway’s first resident ex-mainline steam engine return to service. Jinty 47493 returned to steam after a 5 year overhaul in the railway’s workshops. Also Oxted unit 1317 returned home to the Spa Valley, where it worked for a large part of its working life until the line closed in 1985.
In 2005, the railway celebrated the 20 years since the closure of the line by British Railways. Oxted Unit 1317, which played a significant part in the closure, had a starring role in the celebrations. Surely a great example of the wheel coming full circle.
Also in 2005, the railway opened an extension just short of the former Birchden Junction, a further mile from Groombridge, on our boundary with the main line. This was only operated on special event days as it necessitated the use of an engine on each end of the train. But the railway’s main intention had always been to extend back to Eridge, a further mile down the line.
In mid 2007, after a lot of discussions with Network Rail and other parties, physical work began on the Eridge extension, with the construction starting on a signal box at Groombridge. This would control the passing of trains at the station and enable the railway to operate a two train service. Contractors were hired to restore the section of running line parallel to the mainline between Birchden Junction and Eridge, and after seemingly interminable delays and complications, the extension finally opened to the public in March 2011.
Since the extension opened the Spa Valley Railway has seen a number of major changes. We have launched our now very popular High Weald Belle dining trains, commissioned signalling at Groombridge which allows us to pass trains under the control of our newly built signal box, revamped some of our major events and invested heavily in our infrastructure. The latest examples of infrastructure investment are three new sets of points at Groombridge and further investment into our track at Tunbridge Wells West in preparation for a relaying project in late 2017.