Sunday, 27 February 2011

Rye and Camber Tramway Trail

Golf Club Halt
A little known lost railway in Sussex is the former Rye and Camber Tramway, which operated for 44 years as a passenger service from 1895 until the outbreak of World War II.  At that point the railway passed into military hands for use with the PLUTO project designed to supply the front line troops for the D Day landings.  Sadly the state it was returned to the owners in meant that it was no longer in a fit state to carry passengers and it was therefore closed for good as the cost of renewing the track was prohibitive.  Yet, at its height this remarkable railway carried as many as 18000 passengers during a six month period.  Designed and built by the famous light railway builder Colonel Holman Stephens, the railway ran for about three miles from the eastern edge of Rye to a rather inconvenient location at the western edge of Camber.  It was intended to carry passengers to the seaside, but also to a nearby golf club for which an intermediate station was built.
End of the Track

As with many Colonel Stephens’ railways, the line was built on a shoestring and this rather contributed to its untimely end.  It also meant that once gone, few reminders of its existence still remain.  Yet, remarkably despite all this most of the trackbed is still available for walking and I had decided quite awhile ago that it would make for an interesting return journey from my final leg along the Sussex Coast.  I did the journey in reverse of most travellers, who usually originated from Rye.  Apparently most travellers actually got off to play a round of golf so it was only the hardiest of passengers that continued on to Camber for the delights of the seaside.  I hope that the terrain was rather different then, for the sand dunes now hide the original site of the station at Camber and no trace remains of the old terminus.  The path itself is not so easy to find from this end of the track but eventually I found it nestled among the sand dunes near to the coastguard cottages at the western end of town.
Site of Former Terminus

The first few hundred metres of the path crosses the furthest extent of the golf course that the tramway served, although I believe this part is a later addition and wasn’t part of the course then.  Some of the holes looked quite interesting, being squeezed in between the sand dunes and in one case being protected by its very own pillbox!  At first I thought it very surprising that there were so few golfers around, given that it was a lovely day.  However, as I approached the shelter that is the nearest structure to the old station I could see that I was very much mistaken!  The golfers were aplenty further on, just on different holes…
Trackbed Through The Golf Course

From the no doubt welcome shelter (it’s very exposed here!) the former trackbed suddenly becomes apparent, although it is actually only a matter of a couple of metres above the surrounding ground and barely worthy of the title ‘embankment’.  Nonetheless it felt good to head along a rather different old railway line than I’m used to.  This is an airy path with plenty of fantastic views all around – no tree lined tunnel here!  In my immediate surroundings of course were the army of golfers, the likes of whom used to be such important clientele for this line.  Now, I’ll wager few of them even know that a railway line used to pass here.  Away in the distance, my final destination of Rye loomed on the horizon, while closer in the rather secretive Martello tower at Rye Harbour was also visible for a short time. 
Rail Formation

I soon reunited with my earlier path at the River Rother and proceeded the final few yards into Golf Club Halt, the only intermediate stop on the route and surprisingly still intact.  Very few of Colonel Stephens’ station buildings survive now, principally because they were built on the cheap and used quite temporary building materials such as wood and corrugated metal, as in this case.  The halt is virtually complete, although I’m not quite sure of its use these days, for the windows were covered inside.  I believe it is a storehouse for the golf club.  Amusingly, Colonel Stephens provided a urinal for male passengers needing the toilet, but no ladies facilities were available.  As a lifelong batchelor, perhaps he never thought that ladies would either visit the golf course at all, or wasn’t sure what needed to be provided?
Embedded Tracks

The former trackbed at the station has been covered in concrete, laid by the military in World War II to improve access to the eastern side of Rye Harbour for various activities to do with D Day preparations and transport shingle around.  This road laying had two effects; the first was to make it extremely costly to replace the rails at the end of the war leading to the eventual closure of the line, and the second was to preserve these rails as relics of a bygone era.  In the station area, the old passing loop and even a siding are perfectly preserved in the rather cracked concrete that appears not to have been relaid since.  Nowadays dog walkers and boating cars use the yard as an unofficial car park and it proved impossible to get a picture of the old place without at least one vehicle in place!
Approaching Halfway House

Heading on from Golf Club Halt the road/ railway line coincide for about quarter of a mile until eventually the road headed off sharp right and the former line carried on, past what used to be known as ‘Halfway House’, a very substantial looking house with a large garden now covering the trackbed.  Old pictures of the line suggest that the line actually passed right by the house – I guess the owners were fairly happy not to have that continue following the War.  Beyond the house, the line is obliterated for a very different reason – what was once solid land is now an enormous lake filling in a disused gravel working.  I had to detour along the nearby road, which wasn’t as unpleasant as I expected, courtesy of a nice cycle path that has been built alongside the road.  I also encountered some very courteous golfers who were quite happy to wait for me to pass before getting on with their game.
No Way Forward

I was reunited with the trackbed on the far side of the lake, although in truth this last little section heading into Rye needed a bit of imagination.  Although the path clearly follows the former route, there are no features giving any clue of its former use.  The only possible hint of a railway was the vegetation that grows up through the tarmac of the path, that somewhat resembles the width of the track.  To be honest though, that might be more to do with me wanting that to be the case!
On Guard

The old station at Rye is no more – it used to be sited between a school and a pumping station.  There was no connection to the Marsh Line that connects Rye to Hastings and Ashford and in fact passengers would have faced almost a mile walk across town to get to this station.  It is surprising then that the line lasted as long as it did and probably says a lot about the quality of early bus services here.
Approaching Rye

For me, now that I had explored everything about the line, it was left only to explore more of Rye in the last half hour or so of my parking ticket.  By now the earlier clouds had gone and the late afternoon winter sun showed the old place off at its very best.  Although the crowds can spoil Rye during the summer months, on winter days like this it truly is a delightful place.  The old tramway walk is equally enjoyable and gives a really good reminder of how tourism used to look!
Former Terminus at Rye

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sussex Coast Walk Day 14 Rye - Camber

I only had time for a short outing today as the weather dictated that I would need to go on a Saturday rather than the Sunday I normally venture out.  However, I made the most of a sunny day and headed over to finally finish the last little section of the Sussex coast leftover from last month.  Having only a short time available didn’t mean that my walk was any less interesting, in fact quite the opposite as I had two walks for the price of one!  With such a short stretch of coast remaining I had decided to explore a long forgotten railway on the return leg and this will be described as a separate walk later.

I parked up in Rye near to the windmill and availed myself of the excellent Kettle o’Fish fish and chip shop for a spot of lunch before setting out (this has long been a favourite of mine).  As soon as I had got my walking boots on and set off I heard the unmistakable sound of a steam engine whistle.  I turned to see a Black Five about to cross the railway bridge over the River Tillingham and cursed my luck as I fumbled for my camera.  I just about managed to get a picture but was far from perfect!
River Rother

Before setting off for Camber I wanted to take the opportunity for a good look around Rye, since I have failed to really do the place justice on my previous visits as it has generally been at the end of the day when all I have wanted to do is head home.  Rye on a sunny winter’s day is an enjoyable place to explore – less so in summer when it is choked with crowds.
Heading Towards the Coast

I headed up the cobbled Mermaid Street, which hosts one of Sussex’s most celebrated watering holes, The Mermaid.  This old place was once the haunt of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers, who weren’t necessarily the romantic notion of smugglers you might expect, but a gang of thugs who weren’t shy about using violence when it suited them (see for their story).  Even over 250 years later, the air of smuggling days pervades the whole town giving it quite an atmosphere that even 21st century gentrification hasn’t entirely been able to quell.
Looking Back at Rye

At the top of Mermaid Street I turned left and headed down to the main shopping street which even on a quiet Saturday seemed to have plenty of activity.  There are so many great shops in Rye, of the kind that you don’t see elsewhere very much including loose sweet shops, a vinyl record shop, proper butchers and all manner of other independently owned places that could only really be sustained in a tourist trap like this.  I wandered along the street, resisting the temptation to dive into any of the shops and headed down towards Landgate, the fortified entrance to the town centre and a relic of the time when the town was encircled by a wall.
Old Hulk

Before I continued on my way I also took the opportunity to look out from the viewpoint just above the Landgate.  The view across Romney Marsh is a very surreal landscape compared with the rest of Sussex and has now changed considerably with the fairly recent addition of the windfarm near Camber.  I could see my route almost mapped out in front of me as my eye followed the route of the River Rother below me.
Rother Reflections

I negotiated the A259 and headed across the River Rother, passing a very busy stall by the water’s edge selling Rye Bay Scallops.  These were obviously in season as the town had advertised a special week devoted to this delicacy.  The stall was doing a fairly brisk trade, although couldn’t count on me being a customer – never understood the appeal of shellfish personally. 
Harbour Mouth

On the other side of the river I took the riverbank path rather than the more direct one across the fields.  What followed was a muddy riverbank walk for a mile or so, with little immediate interest.  The view of Rye receded into the distance, replaced by rather more gritty scenes of rotting boats on the river and a waste oil refinery on the opposite shore.  To my left was a reminder of the need to protect this coast in World War II, with a very prominent pillbox keeping guard over the marshy surroundings.  Eventually after a slippery mile or so I was pleased to reach Halfway House, a large house that would once have been a landmark for visitors on the adjacent railway line that once passed by.  I turned away from the riverbank here and followed the road to the Harbour Master’s building on Rye Harbour, which strangely seems to be on the opposite side of the river to the settlement of RyeHarbour that surely would have provided better access?
Camber Sands

As I reached the road I noticed that embedded in the concrete were rails from the erstwhile tramway – more about that in the next article.  I walked along the levee above the road to avoid the cars running backwards and forwards to the launching ramp.  When I got to the launching area, I got a strong suspicion that many of the cars parked up were actually dog walker’s cars rather than boating folk, as there was very little maritime activity.  I passed by the old station and left the old railway line, preferring instead to head straight for the coast down the long straight cut that now forms the mouth of the River Rother.  My side of the river was very quiet (in fact I was the only walker), while the other side was thronged with activity probably as a result of the easier access.  It was not just people either, I could hear the thunder of some very large vehicles.  As I looked over in the distance the reason for the rumble became clear when I saw a convoy of some pretty huge looking trucks lumbering across the shingle.  I guessed that they were probably engaged in the huge task of moving the beach around to make sure that it isn’t too badly scoured by the winter storms.
Ripple Effect

A little way ahead of me the beach began and I was finally at the coast proper after walking nearly two miles from Rye.  For a change the beach wasn’t shingle, like so much of the Sussex Coast, but a huge expanse of sand, with dunes rolled up at the back of the beach.  Of all the beaches in Sussex, probably only the beach at West Wittering even comes close to this one.  The downside if you are a bather is that at low tide, it is a very long way from facilities to sea!  As the tide was out when I arrived I got to see this first hand with the sea somewhere out in the distance.  The shore end of the beach consisted of some very loose sand, so I decided to head towards the water’s edge so that I could have some more solid ground under my feet, courtesy of wet sand.

While the beach couldn’t be said to be busy compared to a summer’s day, there was plenty of activity mostly in the shape of dog walkers, but far off in the distance I could also see a couple of horse riders taking advantage of the all weather surface for exercising their steeds.  As I reached the water’s edge, I suddenly became aware that the tide was coming in.  On such a flat beach, it was quite interesting to see how quickly the water came in and I soon got an appreciation of why people get into difficulties at other seaside locations.  Where longshore drift had created slight slopes in the beach, it was quite interesting to see how the sea created little peninsulas that then eventually got swamped.  At one point when I investigated some flotsam that was being washed in, I was soon paddling through the water as it engulfed the spit of sand I was standing on.
Closed Up Facilities

After half a mile or so of this type of walking I decided to head towards the settlement of Camber.  It’s not much of a place really, mostly given over to holiday activities and accommodation at the cheaper end of the market, such as caravan parks.  Mindful that it would be dark fairly soon, I had a quick look around at this last outpost of Sussex before the border with Kent and concluded that it was probably far more interesting to visit in the summer.  For now, the cafĂ© that I went for a cup of tea at looked like it was running only a skeleton service (and didn’t look all that good either) so I opted to give it a miss.  The official end of the Sussex coast at the eastern end is by the coastguard cottages at the edge of town, beyond the holiday camps and caravan parks.  I concluded that I had seen enough at this point and decided instead to head back to Rye along the old tramway path.  This enabled me to complete a circular route, although it would also be perfectly possible to return to Rye via the 100 bus that runs frequently from Camber.
End of the Route

Although only a short trip along the coast to the end for completeness, this was nevertheless a very enjoyable walk, perhaps more so on a mild winter day when there were few people about.  The highlight of the walk is undoubtedly Rye, although Camber Sands were a superb finishing point (as long as you forget about the settlement of Camber!).  Almost two years after I started my journey along this coast, it felt good to be done!  Now for different challenges….