“The story is really crazy. We’re all here because of two eccentric gentlemen.” So says Danny Martin, general manager of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway – undoubtedly one of the most eccentric railways ever built in Britain.
Built on the whim of two wealthy amateur racing drivers – Captain J. E. P. Howey and Count Louis Zbrowski, this 15in gauge railway is every bit a main line in miniature; operated by a fleet of exquisitely engineered third-scale express locomotives, running at speeds of up to 25mph on rails only fifteen inches apart.
The RHDR is certainly a paradox. On the one hand, unlike other minimum gauge lines, it wasn’t built for the private pleasure of a well-heeled owner – yet it exists thanks to the vision (and money) of a pair of rich enthusiasts.
They conceived a fully functional public railway, albeit on a smaller scale – but today its bread and butter is those coming to marvel at this miniature masterpiece.
90 years after the rails were first laid across Romney Marsh, this nonagenarian shows no signs of slowing down. Today it operates as it did in 1927, with its eleven-strong fleet of 4-6-2s and 4-8-2s hauling 180,000 passengers a year over the 13 miles between the picturesque Cinque Port of Hythe and the desolate expanse of Dungeness.
Pioneered by Sir Arthur Heywood, ‘minimum gauge’ railways were fashionable among the well-heeled elite in the first two decades of the 20th century, with manufacturer Bassett-Lowke catering for demand with its Henry Greenly-designed 15in gauge steam locomotives.
The most significant 15in gauge railway was the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, a former 3ft gauge mineral line taken over and re-gauged by Bassett-Lowke to demonstrate its locomotives to wealthy clients. Until 1923, the RER was operated by cast-offs from other minimum gauge lines, including a ‘Pacific’ built by Bassett-Lowke for Captain Howey’s Staughton Manor Railway – only the second 4-6-2 built in Britain after the GWR’s No. 111 The Great Bear.
Howey and his fellow racing driver and railway enthusiast Count Louis Zbrowski had greater ambitions, and desired to explore the true potential of 15in gauge railways, carrying on from where Heywood left off.
The pair collaborated with Greenly to develop the ultimate 15in gauge locomotive for a proposed public line that would carry passengers (and goods) at speed. Until then, minimum gauge engines had been limited to estate railways or short tourist lines. Certainly, none had been designed to run at the speeds, nor carry the loads, envisaged by Howey and Zbrowski.
With the opening of the Beckfoot granite quarries on the RER in 1923, Greenly designed River Esk, a powerful one third-scale 2-8-2 inspired by the LNER ‘P1’ class, capable of hauling 25 tonnes of stone up a 1-in-34 gradient and coping with heavy summer tourist traffic.
Using River Esk as a template, Greenly set to work designing what would become his magnum opus, and in the same way that the 2-8-2 drew upon the Gresley ‘P1s’, Greenly modelled the new 4-6-2s on the ultimate express locomotives of the day – the LNER ‘A1s’.
Although closely resembling the Gresley ‘Pacifics’, the Greenly engines were built to a larger scale than the gauge dictated to accommodate an adequate boiler, with thick frames, large cylinders and ample bearings all contributing to the locomotives’ high standard of engineering.
Unlike their standard gauge counterparts, the first three 4-6-2s (including No. 3 Southern Maid) and the two ‘Mountains’ (Nos. 5 Hercules and 6 Samson), were strictly two-cylinder machines, although two subsequent ‘Pacifics’ – Nos. 7 Typhoon and 8 Hurricane – were initially outshopped as three-cylinder engines.
Satisfied with the plans, Zbrowski placed an order for two of these locomotives (Nos. 1 Green Goddess and 2 Northern Chief) from Davey Paxman & Co. – the same company that had built River Esk – in 1924, for £1,250 per engine.
Sadly, Zbrowski was killed in a racing accident in Monza in October that year and never saw his pet project come to fruition, leaving Howey to carry on alone.