I recall a newspaper photo of long ago. A boy of about my age at the time and his father were standing beside a small steam locomotive. Photo was captioned, ``I won’t have to wait so long to drive this one.’’
Photo was taken at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) in Kent on England’s south east coast. Having seen it, I was determined to find out more about it and visit the railway myself. This I did, albeit many years later in October, 1995.
The railway is 15-inch (381 mm) gauge. It is billed as the ``world’s smallest public railway.’’ It is a public railway owing to having a contract to take students to school.
Locomotives are about one-third size of prototypes. They carry improbable names; Samson, Hercules, Hurricane and Typhoon. Most were built during the late 1920s.
John Snell had been managing director for about 27 years. He was born in Fiji in 1932 and grew up in New Zealand. He went to school in New Zealand. He acquired his railway interest in my country.
He called on me when I was working on the Press in Christchurch. He struck me as the archetypal English gentleman.
I told him I wanted to interview him for a story; ``but not here. I will visit you in England.’’
That happened about one year later;
Meeting John Snell in New Romney was a delight. Like a Gulliver amongst the small locomotives, he was wearing a permanent smile. He strode through his railway kingdom knowing he could offer the train ride of a lifetime. I was invited to join him in his bar car on the rear of a train. Loco No.1, Green Goddess, was ready to take us on the 20 km tour of RH&DR.
John Snell and Green Goddess
The RH&DR is a splendid reminder of the more eccentric side of the British character. Our 14-total train was loaded with 240 passengers. Our carriage was compact but big enough to sit inside. Drinks from the central bar were passed from one passenger to another.
Although small, this was no toy. RH&DR recreates all the joy and atmosphere of a full-sized steam-powered railway. The Latin motto on the side of carriages ``Multum in Parvo'' translates ``Much in little.''
``Like me, John told me, ``this railway had its origins in the Antipodes. It was built in the 1920s by a very rich man, Captain J.E.P. Howey. During the 19th century an ancestor of Howey curiously purchased some waste land beside the Yarra River in Australia.
``Later, the same land became the centre of Melbourne and worth a lot of money. Melbourne still has a `Howey Place.
``So the story goes, Captain Howey was a speed fanatic. During the early 1920s he drove a racing car, a 7-litre Leyland Eight. He gave up racing when his elderly mother disapproved. All his energies then went into building this railway.''
Howey converted a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to run on the RH&DR where he attained speeds up to 60mph (about 100km/hr). On one occasion he recklessly set a station on fire when it was no longer needed.
``Eccentric'' is rather a strong word to describe Captain Howey, said John Snell. ``He was certainly not quite like most people.
``Howey owned several million pounds. Each of the RH&DR steam locomotives cost him about the same as a Rolls Royce motor car.
``He was one of the old school of Englishman. A rather special kind. You had to get onto his wavelength to realise he was quite a reasonable bloke.
``Owning quite a slice of
meant he got used to being in the Melbourne Antipodes.
That made quite a difference to him, as it did to me.''
We arrived at Dungeness, close to the Strait of Dover. A cheerless place overlooked by a nuclear power station. Houses sat on the shingle beach. Many started off as old railway carriages from the former Southern Railway. Inhabitants were mostly fishermen.
John Snell says Dungeness means basically ``old nest''. He laughed and told me to work the ``Dung'' part out for myself.
From Dungeness the railway followed a balloon loop and returned to New Romney. John Snell talked about being able to build carriages large enough to sit in.
``You can build, as you do in
much wider than the track gauge. On the RH&DR we go up to three times the
gauge.'' New Zealand
John Snell spent about four years with British Rail until he realised what Dr Beeching was really up to. Then he was offered the RH&DR job over lunch in a London hotel. ``That's always the best way to be offered a job.
``The RH&DR had just changed hands for a second time, having almost faced closure. Captain Howey died in 1963. With no-one in the family with any interest, the railway passed to two businessmen who thought they could make money.
``It was rescued by a group led by Sir William McAlpine who also owned Flying Scotsman. By that stage the railway was somewhat run down. We have built it up considerably over the years.''
Beyond New Romney the railway is double track. Here we enjoyed the thrill of two trains passing with a combined speed of more than 70km/hr. At Dymchurch we walked across the tracks to join a train returning to New Romney. It was hauled by Typhoon.
Typhoon at New Romney
``We are financially successful but we would like to do better,'' John Snell said.
``Working for the RH&DR, you can achieve something. It's not like struggling away in the morass of what used to be British Rail. Nothing you did there would ever make a difference.
``Life is reassuring on the RH&DR. The pompous little engines are a reminder that, in an ever changing world, a sense of humour is an essential part of the survival kit,'' he said.
I kept in touch with John Snell from time to time. He died in 2014, aged 82.
Having enjoyed John Snell’s railway another highlight awaited –the National Railway Museum at York.
Record Breakers. Rocker and Mallard National Railway Museum
Replica 4-wheel passenger carriage. National Railway Museum