A seaside town that has a very long light railway to play on, a world famous ossuary in a church crypt to visit, and a few other things as well that easily fills a day out.
Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
What looks like one of the heritage railways that dot the countryside reusing bits of closed British Rail tracks — is in fact nothing of the sort. The RHDR is a purpose built railway that opened in 1927 as a public transport service for the local area, and is still a privately owned railway, although these days, the bulk of its passengers are tourists.
The carriages are dinky, some are open-sided and others with proper windows. A carriage is adapted for buggies and wheelchairs, and there’s even Royal carriages for those who want to travel in style. The locos are a mix of steam engines and diesel.
A whistle blows, and you’re off, on a rumbling rolling railway that runs through fields and behind houses.
Some of the back gardens are blocked off with solid walls and some have cut windows into solid walls, but many have left their gardens open so they can watch the trains, and we can peer back in. Two have model railways in their back gardens, which are delightfully meta.
Easy to miss, but this is the coast, so look for the concrete pill boxes that would once have protected Britain if D-Day had gone the other way.
If you’re in the diesel train, no one looks at you, but ride in a steam train and people who must be used to these trains running past their back gardens by now still stop to wave and smile and people chugging past their BBQs and flower beds. People out walking dogs and picnickers along the route all wave. With so much waving you start to realise how the Queen feels when in her carriage.
Depending on which carriages you’re in, the windows may be sealed shut, or could open, or you might not have any windows at all. I swiftly learned from the people behind that the doors are not locked, and you can slip them open a bit to slide a phone out for photos.
Pulling into stations, people get off, on, open doors to take photos and children spy easter eggs they are collecting on a puzzle sheet. Slowly though, the grasses and lawns make way for shingle and paving as we approach the windswept lands of Dungeness. In the distance, a large grey mass can be seen in the haze, the nuclear power plant that dominates the landscape, as we ride past wooden houses that seem incapable of surviving winter storms coming off the sea, but clearly do survive.
An hour after leaving Hythe, you pull into Dungeness station and can either go straight back or get out and go for a wander. And why would you spend an hour in a small train if not to visit the area?
Dungeness Old Lighthouse
This is a tall century old lighthouse that’s now a tourist attraction, but on the day of my visit had unexpectedly closed due to covid. But apparently, the view from the top is impressive.
Arguably the most famous tourist attraction in Dungeness is the former home of the filmmaker, Derek Jarman.
It’s famous for the garden that he created in this garden-less landscape, and it’s hard to explain but there is something about it, here in a landscape that is dotted with huts and bits of old boats. It’s reflective of the area, with lots of shingle that crunches deeply as you walk around, but undeniably, this is a garden. Artworks are dotted around, but unless you visit, it’s remarkably difficult to explain the curious appeal of this stony garden in a stony landscape.
It just, well, it’s somehow correct.
Dungeness nuclear power station
Undeniably the dominant feature on the landscape is the one you can get quite close to, but is surrounded by forbidding defensive walls — the nuclear power station.
In fact, it’s really just a big cluster of very large buildings, quite shabby in places in fact, and all surrounded by high walls and lots of warning signs that this is a protected site under various security laws.
A recording of a gull in distress is played over the loudspeakers at times, to deter other gulls from using the power plant as a home, but adding to the strange atmosphere around here. Despite the warnings and self-created eerie atmosphere, the power plants are both in fact switched off, and being decommissioned.
Climbing up onto the tall shingle shield wall that separates the plant from the sea, the windswept air, the locked bird hide and the cries of the gulls gives the area a very unearthly feel.
It’s a strange area, mainly a nature reserve, but dotted with the remains of former fishing fleets, and in places old light railways that run from the shoreline and one of them is clearly linked to a submarine telecoms connection. Despite being at the end of nowhere, a local sign says that some 100,000 people visit each year. Which explains how it manages to have enough customers to support two pubs, a chippie and a cafe.
Even with the lighthouse closed on my visit, I still managed to fill 90 minutes with ease, which surprised me as I thought with the lighthouse closed, I might be sitting around for ages in the pub. I didn’t even have time to visit the pub, and had the lighthouse been open, would probably not have had enough time to walk to Prospect Cottage. In hindsight, I’d recommend a two-hour visit at least.
It’s not long before it’s time to catch the railway back to Hythe, where you may want to visit…
St Leonard’s church ossuary
After the railway, this is probably the other significant reason to visit Hythe, the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human skulls and bones in Britain.
There’s been a church at the site of St Leonard’s for at least 900 years, and it commands a dominant position above the shoreline, with quite a steep walk up to visit it. The church is open, and grand doors, with more stairs to climb take you into a surprisingly large church for a small town.
What most people are looking for though is the Ossuary, which can be found underneath the altar, so head out of the church and turn left, walk to the end of the church and turn left again. Through a narrow arch, and here you can wait to be let inside.
For in here is something remarkable.
For various reasons, some churches would disinter bodies from a grave and pile up the bones in a storage location waiting for the resurrection, to form an ossuary. And here in Hythe is a big one that is also open to visitors.
Dominating the vaulted space is a long row stacked up high with human legs and arms, with the occasional decorative skull peering out from the mass of dead limbs. Around the room, some of the skulls have been piled up on shelves, reaching to the ceiling. It’s how our brains seek to attribute emotions to faces, so it’s no surprise that some of the skulls look to be grinning in their boney enclaves.
Most of the dead resting here are over 700 years old, as it’s thought that they were moved when the church was enlarged in the 13th-century and needed space in the old graveyard so the bones were moved to a charnel house for storage and later moved to this location underneath the church altar.
It was a common belief that the bones needed to be preserved to ensure the resurrection, but oddly (even for a religion), only the major bones needed to be kept, so away with ribs and spines, and keep just the arms, legs and head. Maybe they were worried that a God with a reputation for stealing Adam’s rib bone didn’t fancy risking it again.
The skulls show some times of the trauma of their lives, with one by the door often pointed out as having survived a serious blow to the head, or possibly early medical treatment. Others show signs of diseases, likely iron deficiency or even malaria — for the land around was originally marshy and a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Apart from the visual spectacle, there’s also a series of display cases that show some of the more notable bones and how they tell us about the lives of our deep ancestors.
Although it’s a tourist attraction, there are rules about how human remains can be displayed, and there’s a very strict no-touching rule when you’re inside the vault.
The ossuary is open from Easter to the end of September each year – details here.
(there’s also a charnel house in London, underneath Spitalfields that’s open occasionally, but you can walk down and peer through the glass to see inside anytime)
Halfway between Sandling station and Hythe is the village of Saltwood, famous for the castle owned by a man who didn’t buy his own furniture. Sadly, Saltwood Castle isn’t open to the public normally, although it does have a couple of open weekends each year if you want to time a visit for those.
What is worth stopping off to see when passing through is the small village green in the centre with its war memorial and recently restored drinking fountain, and old-fashioned street signs, but also a rather fine church which is just a few minutes diversion.
St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Saltwood
This is a short walk from Saltwood village centre and is what I would describe as a solidly plain and simple local parish church, with no real pretensions to architectural beauty or grandeur. But that’s inside. Outside is a different matter, with a lawn and churchyard maintained with such care that it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if the grass has been cut with hand scissors than a lawnmower.
Heading through the Lychgate, and push open the door to the church, and inside, it’s a decently plain church that’s clearly still very much used with lots of local community displays and collections at the rear. There’s a 16th- century font and a Coat of Arms of William IV on the wall that’s been dated 1834.
On my visit, a Ukraine flag was draped over the altar, and the early morning sun was shining delightfully through the stained glass windows.
This is the main station for Hythe, and looks fairly modest, with two platforms, a small ticket office and a footbridge. It used to be a lot larger though.
There’s a disused branch line railway that closed in 1951 and used to link Sandling to the coast, with stations at Hythe and nearby Sandgate. Sadly, Sandgate is much better served by the mainline railway at Folkestone West, so the local station there closed, and in doing so closed Hythe station as well.
But back at Sandling station, you can still see the remains of the branch line railway. Just outside the ticket office is a triangular tarmac, and it’s easy to realise that you’re standing on one of the disused platforms, The fourth platform has been removed as it’s now part of the car park (which on my visit had a couple of Bagpipe players practising). In fact, to get to the station, you walk along part of the old railway track, where a pedestrian ramp has been added.
Getting to Hythe
Hythe is about a 30-minute walk from Sandling station on the Southeastern service.
There is a bus service that links the station to Hythe town centre, but the buses are very infrequent, so I’d be inclined to say this is one to walk instead, especially as you can stop off at Saltwood on the way.
Day trip costs
You can either buy single/returns, but most people buy an all-day rover ticket that offers unlimited trips and stops along the line.
All-day rover tickets – Adults: £24 | Children: £22 | Concessions: £22 | Family £65
Adults: £5 | Children: £3 | Concessions: £4 | Family: £15
Adults: £2 | Children: 50p | Family: £5
(all as at April 2022)