The Station – Tenterden Town in the 1920s
For this evocative word-portrait of Tenterden Town station and the Kent & East Sussex Railway in the early 1920s, we must thank F.J. Harvey Darton (1878-1936). Although Dorset was Darton's chosen county, he also had a deep knowledge of and affection for the Weald of Kent, having been educated at Sutton Valence School. This is celebrated in his book A parcel of Kent, published by Nesbit & Co. in 1924. The chapters in the book are essays on various aspects of life in and around Tenterden, although Darton is careful not to name the town and indeed gives himself licence to combine features from different places for literary effect. In Tenterden, Darton stayed at the Woolpack Inn, and his description of it forms another memorable chapter.
Darton was one of the first writers on the countryside to regard the railway as a quaint survival rather than a modern intrusion; a reviewer of one of his later books comments that "it is pleasing to find that the railway has now become romantic by age. It is a literary convention to hurl epithets at new machines, but Mr. Darton hurls them at the motor-car." We should note that the station that Darton regarded with the eye of the antiquary had been open for barely twenty years, and that Colonel Stephens was still actively promoting rural light railways when A parcel of Kent was published. Although the K&ESR was clearly still playing an important role in the trade of the town of Tenterden in the early 1920s, Darton perhaps foreshadows the modern era, when it has become a destination for travel rather than a means of travel.
Darton was well served by his illustrators, and Miss Ruth Cobb was responsible for the sketch reproduced here, which served as a chapter heading for The Station. Again, some liberties were taken with reality for artistic effect – particularly with the engine which is no doubt intended to be a "Terrier" - but she conveys a sense of timelessness, interrupted by brief periods of fuss and bustle when one of the infrequent trains arrives.
The Station is the place which links the Old World and the New. It is a scene of daily miracles. Fish appear there wonderfully from some distant sea outside our orbit. Newspapers are found at intervals, purveyed by the ever-widening service of the descendants of Old Morality [W.H. Smith (1825-1891), founder of the chain of newsagents. Tenterden Town had a W.H. Smith station bookstall at the period described]. Famous steamship companies, devotees of the great god Publicity, tell you all about South America and the kingdoms that lie east of the sun and west of the moon, and ask you to go there – as if you could leave a station which is a flower-garden. Dead swine, swathed, protrude trotters like a baby's blood-stained hand as they lie on the platform among the flies. You are adjured to buy "Bakeoma" or some such marvellous device for making that beastly fabric, a batter pudding. An immense number of bees sing in an immense number of hollyhocks and sweet-williams.
As by law commanded, the planter of those and other good plain English flowers has to exhibit his name on a board as "toll-collector". The toll-collector is much more interested in his flowers than in his tickets, which indeed are very difficult to obtain. If you have not got one, the guard climbs along the footboard as the train is moving at the dangerous pace of ten miles an hour, and gives you one. He is like the Guard in Alice. You get a ticket sooner or later, but you never know when nor where: nor even how.
My Station is peculiar, because it has two platforms, and its name in large letters on each. Most of the others are more modest, and have only one platform (with a shed-attachment) and a nameplate concealed as well as possible. You must know the line, to be sure of getting out at the right station, especially after dark (but there is only one train after dark), because the lighting arrangements are simple to the verge of non-existence.
The toll-collector finds bindweed a great nuisance; though its beautiful large bells add lustre to his pretty garden. That indefatigable weed will climb over the derelict train in the siding. We have two sidings, and this old dead train lives in one of them. However, Mr. Q— is angrier about his garden than about this train; for no one will ever use that train again. I suppose the poor forlorn ghost will fall to pieces in due time, and the rails rust away, and the eternal life of green things master it all. It is a grey shadow, once a train, splendid and admirable to all beholders. The roof-line of the carriages already sags: the cushions (not many nor fat: our fathers were of harder stock than George M. Pullman) are full of holes; their entrails protrude. Some day a new Schliemann or Evans will discourse upon the vestiges.
Neither the siding nor the platform adjoining it seems to be used. It is a kindly thought to let the old train sink quietly into its coma of death. The real train, the living one, uses a single line all the way, except when (as so often) it shunts to pick up goods wagons. Half an hour at one station is almost normal, because this is a rich farming district, and if you cannot always get your goods from outside, you want to send your own away.
The Train makes an incredible noise. The engine is small and low, and has a funnel contemporaneous with (and, inverted, not unlike) the square bowler hat of thirty years ago. It also has what so few trains now have – one of those large, highly-polished brass excrescences in its middle, like the dome of St. Paul's: but we do not polish much here; we have no time. The Train clanks and pants and fusses. Its best fuss is its whistle. It whistles for two or three minutes continuously before approaching a level crossing, the gates of which (if there are any, and there are not always) have been carefully shut by hand a long five minutes before its arrival. There is a level crossing about every four hundred yards. I leave it to mathematicians to compute from these data (a) the mean speed of the train; (b) the total duration of noise in a journey of twenty miles.
At every station the Staff – THE Staff, all of it – pulls a gaily-painted red or blue lever. He has usually to cross the perilous track to do it, but he dares and does it; and a signal five yards away falls dutifully. The crossing gates are laboriously closed, and the motorists (thank God!) held up. About a quarter of an hour later the prodigious screech of the engine is heard, some distance off; and, at last, emerges from its lovely narrow avenue of trees – the Train. A mysterious loop of metal has to be given to the Staff, who in return goes into a privy den and finds an enormous mace, which must have cost pounds and pounds of gold when there was gold (our railway is as old as that. It is a sort of blacksmith's hammer, with a noble head, on which are cut in brass the words, "GO ON TO BOTHENDEN". At that the enchanter who had cast a spell upon the train to make it stop at my Station is dismayed, and vanishes in a cloud of smoke. So does the train, after shunting as much as possible. Of course the engine-driver has to have a long conversation with the stationmaster and the Staff; but then we all do that ourselves. And limp fish have to be flumped on to the platform, and the intolerable music of milk-cans ventilated.
We have also a water cistern – a large pot-bellied thing on a tall post, with a trunk like an elephant's. I have not seen it in use: our engines (who all have local place-names) seem to have gone dry. But its inert, heavy shape hints at a dreadful activity if water is really wanted. It might come hopping or striding after you with its twenty-foot trunk stretching out slimily....
It is a singular thing, this toy railway, with its forgotten and dying devices. There is no station on it but has a lost thought in it: a shed, a truck, a lump of metal that once meant something and now means nothing. It may continue: it has escaped amalgamation and control, and I hope prospers. You cannot book through to it from London. But as I go from the station into my rustling green avenue, and see nothing but greenness, and smell sweet scents of hops or hay, or wet earth, and (if I am in the Ford train) look ahead on the track covered with grass and flowers, I wonder. Which will win?
Yet we are all driven to this station, sooner or later. Perpetual motion urges us, Heaven knows why, in this self-sufficing parcel of Kent, this island within an island. And so driven, we are bidden to "book through, so as to save time". We are told, in largest letters, who are "the greatest grocers in the world". We see that "Pure India Tea – Broken Pekoe" can be procured of a certain agent. And here on the platform, waiting for an owner, is a wireless outfit. My little station broadcasts the world.