This formed part of what was once an interesting arrangement of inter-connecting railway lines on the western periphery of Canterbury, where two main routes between London and the Kent Coast crossed. In a time now long gone, passengers from Folkestone could reach Canterbury without having to go via Ashford or Dover. Additionally, wartime measures and, later, the East Coast Floods of 1953, allowed trains operating via Faversham and Selling to divert through Canterbury West station, avoiding a circuitous route via Kearsney, Deal, and Minster. The main lines remain in heavy use today, but these interesting links are seemingly gone forever, nature once again reigning supreme where railway tracks were once laid.
On 4th July 1887, the first 9⅓-miles of the double-track “Elham Valley Railway” (EVR) opened to passenger traffic between Cheriton Junction (Folkestone) and Barham, the latter being situated about six miles south of Canterbury as the crow flies. Monday to Saturday inclusive, six trains in each direction ran between Barham and Shorncliffe Camp (the site of today’s Folkestone West); on Sunday, this was reduced to three trains in either direction, and First, Second, and Third Class accommodation was available on all services. The contractor for the line was Mr Walker, whose workforce was also responsible for completing the remaining stretch northwards from Barham to Canterbury. This part of the line did not open for another two years, and local newspapers reported the works nearing completion in spring 1889:
Great progress has recently been made on the portion of the line between Bridge and Canterbury, and unless any unforeseen delay occurs there is every probability of the line being ready for through working by the 1st of July. In the course of next week the cutting will have been completed at Bishopbourne, thus opening up communication — temporary or otherwise — throughout the length of the line. At the Canterbury end a junction [Harbledown] has been effected with the South Eastern Railway and everything completed with the exception of the permanent way. Only five or six miles of double road remains to be laid, which length is at present occupied by the temporary metals used for the purposes of the contractor's operations. The average rate of progress is three quarters of a mile per week. The walls have also been set out for a station at the back of the St. Laurence cricket ground, communicating with the top of Ethelbert-road. This station must necessailry prove a great convenience to the cricket loving public, and also to the residents in the Barton Fields and Nackington district. [The Folkestone Chronicle Advertiser, Saturday 20th April 1889]
The point where the EVR joined the South Eastern Railway’s (SER) Ashford to Thanet line in Canterbury was known as “Harbledown Junction”, named after a nearby village. The double-track branch line was linked with “up” and “down” SER running lines, and the junction was controlled by a signal box built to that company’s in-house design, situated on the south side of the tracks. The signal box was all-timber in construction, with sash-style windows and a hipped slated roof, and the same style still exists today at Chartham. The EVR was formally vested into the SER on 25th June 1891.
The EVR was never a heavily-used route; in fact, traffic levels were low enough for the Southern Railway to implement single-track working on the line north of Lyminge from 25th October 1931. The second set of rails were lifted, but a double-track connection was maintained with the main line at Harbledown Junction. From 1st December 1940, the Lyminge to Harbledown Junction section of the line ceased to carry passenger traffic.
From Lyminge northwards, the line was in possession of the military, which deployed rail-mounted guns along the route and used the stations for storage. As invasion from the Continent became more likely, passenger services to Lyminge were wholly withdrawn on 3rd May 1943. The army relinquished the line in February 1945, and passenger services recommenced on 7th October 1946, but only along the short section of route south of Lyminge (inclusive) – all stations north of here had seen their last passenger trains in 1940. However, in the following year, withdrawal of the truncated passenger service was also advertised:
All stations in the Folkestone and Dover area now carry prominent posters announcing that, unless public patronage materially improves, the recently-restored service to Cheriton Halt and Lyminge will be withdrawn.
On the occasion of a visit on 13/2/47 passenger traffic was indeed negligible. The 3-30 from Folkestone Junction conveyed two passengers only, and these were offered surprisingly ample accommodation, for the train consisted of five coaches, hauled by Ll 4-4-0 1754, running tender first! On the return trip at 4-5 only one person was carried from Lyminge; this train runs through to Minster Junction, which probably explains the generous stock provision. The booked stop at Cheriton Halt was not made in either direction, although speed was reduced in passing. From Cheriton Junction to Lyminge the branch is double track, laid on steel sleepers. The through Elham Valley freight train from Canterbury was worked on this day by O1 0-6-0 1381, on Folkestone duty 423. [RCTS' The Railway Observer, March 1947]
The closure posters declared:
SOUTHERN RAILWAY: CLOSING of the ELHAM VALLEY LINE
On and from 16th JUNE, 1947, the Train Service over the ELHAM VALLEY LINE WILL BE WITHDRAWN, and the following Stations will be closed to traffic:
- CANTERBURY SOUTH
In addition, CHERITON HALT will be closed as from the same date.
Goods traffic in less than truck loads and Parcels traffic hitherto sent to or from stations Canterbury South to Elham inclusive will be dealt with at Canterbury West and traffic previously sent to and from Lyminge will be dealt with at Shorneliffe.
E. J. MISSENDEN.
Freight traffic upon the entire line lingered on for a number of months longer, and total closure of the route was effective from 1st October 1947. However, the signal box at Harbledown Junction was not formally decommissioned until 27th April 1950. Thereafter, the gradual removal of infrastructure occurred:
ELHAM VALLEY LINE.
Within the last month all signals protecting Harbledown Junction from both directions have been removed, and much of the signal box apparatus is disconnected. There has been no attempt yet to remove the junction points, though these are now believed to be permanently locked. The short piece of the Elham Valley line that was left in position is now very much overgrown with weeds, and has never been used for a storage siding, as had been anticipated. Barriers of barbed wire have been put across the track at each end of the bridge over the River Stour. [RCTS Railway Observer, July 1950]
Lifting of the track and line-side structures occurred piecemeal over a five-year period:
Demolition of the Elham Valley line is now complete, except for a few lengths of rail still in position in a former level-crossing near the site of Harbledown Junction. The level-crossing gates have been replaced by wire-netting.
Harbledown Junction Signal Box was not demolished by the contractors. After the instruments had been removed it was purchased, for the sake of the timber, by a railway employee, for the sum of £2 10s. Od. [£67 at 2020 prices], and was pulled down during the summer. [RCTS’ The Railway Observer, November 1955].
What of the site of Harbledown Junction today? The former track bed of the EVR is still clearly marked by a line of trees, which diverges and curves south from the Canterbury West route. This aside, all other traces of the junction disappeared during the aforementioned 1955 removals and, to the unsuspecting train traveller of today, there is virtually nothing which indicates that another double-track route once joined here.
The Elham Valley line is marked at the foot of the diagram, making a connection with the Ashford to Canterbury West and Ramsgate line at Harbledown Junction. The single-track to the north, joining at Canterbury "A" Junction, is the wartime spur which allowed trains from the Faversham direction to run through Canterbury West, and vice versa.
Drawn by David Glasspool
18th August 1960
"U1" Class No. 31900 is seen heading from the Canterbury West direction, Ashford-bound, passing the former site of Harbledown Junction. The double-track of the Elham Valley line formerly diverged right, in-between the cameraman and the timber hut built from old sleepers. Forming the backdrop is the bridge and embankment which carries the double-track Faversham to Canterbury East and Dover line. As of 1st May 1959, No. 31900 was listed as being allocated to Bricklayers Arms (73B).
© David Glasspool Collection