The Hawkhurst Branch Line was a short railway line in Kent that connected Hawkhurst, Cranbrook, Goudhurst and Horsmonden with the town of Paddock Wood and the South Eastern and Medway Valley lines, a distance of 11½ miles (18½ km).
The opening of the main line of the South Eastern Railway (SER) from Redhill to Folkestone via Ashford in 1843 followed by the construction of a line to Tunbridge Wells and Hastings via Robertsbridge, and a branch from Robertsbridge to Ashford in 1851 formed a triangle enclosing a large tract of the Weald well-known for its hops and fruit. Despite this, the SER were not particularly interested in linking the area with its expanding railway network, preferring instead to wait for local individuals to take the initiative and construct a line, and then step in when the operation ran into financial difficulties.
Nevertheless, the SER did take an interest once their rivals the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) seemed likely to encroach into traditionally SER territory. Various schemes were put forward by the SER from 1844, none of which came to fruition. The Weald of Kent Company Act was obtained in 1864 and authorised the construction of a line from Paddock Wood to Cranbook and Hythe, but no works were carried out - the bankruptcy of the LCDR in 1866 saw the project shelved.
In 1877 the independent Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway Company secured the passing of the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway Act which authorised the construction of a single track line from Paddock Wood to Cranbrook. The Company reached agreement with the SER that construction works would commence once £25,000 had been raised from local residents, with the SER contributing a further £50,000 if this target was met. By April 1878, only £11,000 had been found. This had not improved by February 1879, but it was nevertheless decided to commence provisional works, which quickly ground to a halt once funds were still not forthcoming. Notwithstanding this impasse, the Railway Company obtained a further Act of Parliament on 12 July 1882 which authorised an extension from the village of Hartley near Cranbrook to Hawkhurst. Although it had been originally intended for the line to cover the two miles from Hartley to Cranbrook, the sums demanded by local landowners made this plan unrealisable without SER support. It was therefore decided to site Cranbrook Station at Hartley.
The various changes to the route proposed by SER required two further Acts of Parliament: the South Eastern Railway Acts 1887 and 1892. The latter Act ensured that the section between Goudhurst and Paddock Wood would be built on a "cost-saving" basis. Construction works eventually commenced in Spring 1890. Edward Seaton was appointed as engineer to oversee the works, whilst the 22 year old Holman Fred Stephens was resident engineer, having just completed his education and training with the Metropolitan Railway. The contract to build the line was awarded to J. T. Firbank who was at that time the Metropolitan Railway's contractor for their line between Aylesbury and Quainton Road. Due to the difficult terrain and to save costs, it was decided in 1892 that the terminus of the line would be at Gills Green, a mile or so to the north of Hawkhurst. It was also proposed that the line continued from Gills Green to the Lydd Railway Company's Appledore station on the Marshlink Line, but no progress was made.
The line was officially opened on 1 October 1892 from Paddock Wood to Goudhurst, then named "Hope Mill Station (for Goudhurst and Lamberhurst)". However, the Kent Messenger reported on 17 September that the line had already opened to passenger and goods traffic on Monday 12 September, with the first train, a Cudworth E1 class 2-4-0 No. 112 draped with a Union Jack, leaving Hope Mill at 8.25am. All passengers were allowed to travel free to and from Paddock Wood. On 4 September 1893 the section from Goudhurst to Hawkhurst was opened.
Now the railway was operational, the residents of Cranbrook came to regret that they were not directly connected with the line and, in September 1893, offered to guarantee the SER the cost of constructing a "light line" from Hartley, including the costs of acquiring the necessary land. The estimated costs were put at £10,000 but the line was never built.
The Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway Company was absorbed into the SER on 29 January 1900.
Holman Fred Williams was the chief engineer in the construction of the Kent and East Sussex Railway (KESR) which opened in 1900 from Robertsbridge as far as Rolvenden, then named "Tenterden". The KESR had incorporated the "Cranbrook & Tenterden Railway Company" to investigate the possibility of a link between these two towns and a light railway order was obtained which authorised its construction. The extension never came about, although it figured in KESR's company reports until 1937.
The route leaves Paddock Wood on a single track, the line passed under a signal box constructed high up on girders before running parallel with the main road for nearly three-quarters of a mile. The line then passed through Willow Lane level crossing, climbing on a 1:78 gradient to reach Churn Lane Siding where there was another level crossing and a siding which did not see any public traffic after 1940. The line then passed an accommodation crossing and under a road bridge carrying Yew Tree Green Road, climbing to 1:66 before running on a level for half a mile through Swigs Hole valley on a 42ft high embankment. There then followed a deep wooded cutting and the short 86 yard Horsmonden tunnel which took the line under the B2162 Maidstone Road, before crossing a bridge over Back Lane and reaching Horsmonden Station (4½ miles).
Beyond Horsmonden, the branch crossed Goudhurst Road by a plate girder bridge, running along the Teise Valley towards the Wealden hills. It passed over a level crossing at Small Brook Road and then travelled south, following the course of the River Teise on gradients of 1:117, 1:110 and 1:213 in an area populated by hop gardens. Reaching Goudhurst Station (6 miles) situated by the A262, the line followed a tributary of the River Teise in a south-easterly direction and crossed road bridges over a farm track, Ranters Lane and the B2079 Bedgebury Road. After approximately a mile the line reached Pattenden Siding, climbing again on 1:60, 1:85 and 1:260 gradients up a narrow wooded valley over Bishops Lane bridge to reach Cranbrook Station (10 miles) near Hartley.
Leaving Cranbrook, the line climbed a 1:80 gradient for half a mile, before entering Badgers Oak Tunnel (178 yards long) and then descending to reach Hawkhurst Station (11½ miles) on a level and near Gills Green.
The line initially saw frequent passenger traffic, the railway bringing poor working class families from East London during the hop-picking season. During the early 1950s, over 4,000 hoppers and nearly 23,000 visitors travelled in "Hop-pickers" specials - extra services laid on during the hop season.
In 1912 there had been 26 specials each carrying as many as 350 people. A "Hop Control Centre" was set up at Paddock Wood to organise these services, ensuring that hoppers could alight at London Bridge and be taken directly to the nearest hop farm.
The boarding schools of Benenden and Cranbrook also used the line. Special trains to Benenden were laid on from Charing Cross, quite often with six corridor coaches hauled by an E1 or D1 class 4-4-0 locomotive. The last special train ran on 2 May 1961 from Charing Cross at 2.46pm.
On 6 July 1950, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) travelled the line as far as Cranbrook when she visited the National Sanatorium at Benenden. The Royal Train was pulled by a Maunsell E1 class 4-4-0 No. 31067, Her Majesty using a special Pullman carriage named "Malaga".
The line's Sunday service ceased on 1 January 1917 and was never to resume. The inconvenient siting of the stations and the decline in hop-picking in the area contributed to diminishing returns on the line, a situation which was not helped by the local education authority hiring the services of the Maidstone & District Motor Company to transport children to local schools. The line also suffered from poor connections to London and Tunbridge Wells and locals preferred to use the direct services offered by Maidstone & District's no. 97 bus, rather than change twice on the railway. A bus service also covered the route from Goudhurst to Maidstone which removed the traffic in that direction.
Freight traffic also declined with hops being taken by road to Paddock Wood and then on to market in London. However, coal traffic and the transport of pot plants from local nurseries to Woolworths still brought in steady receipts of £1,000 per week. The plants were loaded at Hawkhurst on the last train to Tonbridge, with further collections possibly being made at Horsmonden. The busiest time was on Mothering Sundays when a special train was laid on.
The last official day of operations for the line was Saturday 10 June 1961 and a pair of C class 0-6-0's replaced the usual Wainwright H class 0-4-4Ts. A BBC cameraman was on hand at Paddock Wood to record the 9.07am leaving the station. The crew had chalked on the cabside of the engine: "Shed no tears for the single track, for perhaps we may come back. And if we do, you can be sure, we'll see you all again once more."
On the following day a special train organised by the Locomotive Club of Great Britain called "The South Eastern Limited" travelled the line as part of its "Farewell to Steam" tour. Later that day it also navigated the remaining section of the KESR from Robertsbridge to Tenterden - the part from Headcorn to Tenterden having closed in 1954.
The track was lifted in 1964 and the station sites offered for sale in 1967.
Sources of Information
-  Wikipedia