One of Tunbridge Wells’ most popular heritage attractions is about to celebrate a quarter of a century of operations in the town.

The Spa Valley Railway, based at the old Tunbridge Wells West station in Linden Park is planning a 25th anniversary four-day gala at the end of this month.

Over four days from Friday, August 26, heritage trains, pulled by some of the railway’s classic engines – and some visiting from fellow heritage railways – will be plying the five-mile line, along with other festivities.

At Tunbridge Wells West station, the engine shed will be open, for engineering enthusiasts to watch the overhauls of three engines which are currently underway.

Evening dining and tasting services will run on two days (August 26-27), with the Real Ale Train featuring a special 25th Anniversary beer collaboration with Flimwell-based Cellar Head Brewery.

On the Saturday night (August 27), the dining service includes large helpings of drama from the cast of ‘A Taste of: Faulty Towers The Dining Experience’. In a coincidence worthy of the classic BBC farce, the production is also 25 years old in 2022.

Further down the line, Groombridge Station will be abuzz all weekend, with a jazz band booked for the four-day gala, along with a BBQ and the Station Kiosk. Brake-van rides may run from this station if enough volunteers are available.

There is also expected to be a classic car gathering outside the station building, and the miniature cinema van is booked for showing of short local-interest films on August 26 and 27.

The volunteers that keep the railway on track

Despite charging for train tickets, the Spa Valley Railway remains 100 per cent volunteer-run and led, from station staff to conductors and engineers.

The driving force of the railway is 30-year-old Jonnie Pay, who has been involved with the railway since he was a child, covering all volunteer roles, from front-of-house ticket-selling to driving and technical work.

Now working for Network Rail in signalling and training, Jonnie said, “I learned a lot here that helped me get into my profession. We have about 250 volunteers in total here, from age 16 to – well, there is no upper limit,” he told the Times. “You can pick up a lot of life skills here.”

Another volunteer who has worked his way up is stationmaster Rev. Richard Arding, who joined the Spa Valley Railway after retiring from the Church in 2018.

He moved to Tunbridge Wells that year and came to the railway for the annual diesel gala in August when he signed up to volunteer.

“By Christmas, I was fully involved, and have been ever since,” he said.

Man and dog next to train

He worked in the ticket office, as well as other roles, but had to earn the rank of station master by passing a competency test.

Although the anniversary gala is the railway’s next big calendar event, things happen throughout the year.

“Autumn and winter – when you can’t go to the coast – are traditionally the time for model railways,” added Rev. Arding. “I am the exhibition manager for the Model Railway Weekend [on September 24-25].”

Meanwhile, Chris Smith brought his skills to the railway, as a mainline engine driver for GB Railfreight.

The Times met him just as he came into Tunbridge Wells West on a ‘Thumper’ diesel-electric multiple unit after accompanying some tourists who had booked a ‘driving experience’ from Groombridge.

He has been volunteering with the Spa Valley Railway for 20 years.

“This all started as a hobby for me in the early 90s. I joined the preservation group South East Locomotive Group which is celebrating 30 years this year,” he said. “It’s a volunteer thing for us – 100 per cent.”

Trains and railway station