50th Anniversary Gala weekend to celebrate ‘golden’ past, present and future

Famous locomotive guests, the return of steam favourites and a passenger link with the national rail network at Robertsbridge for the first time since the 1960s are amongst the highlights of the Kent & East Sussex Railway (K&ESR)’s 50th Anniversary Gala on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd June 2024.

The much-anticipated ‘golden’ weekend is celebrating the future as well as the past through a collaboration with the Rother Valley Railway (RVR). For the first time a K&ESR Gala will extend to Robertsbridge with RVR opening the Robertsbridge Junction site to the public to see work in progress, which includes the newly re-commissioned Hither Green locomotive turntable, and to ride along a stretch of line not used since 2013.

The Gala line-up includes two major guest locomotives which have never visited the K&ESR before, alongside popular favourites, to deliver a busy timetable across the weekend.

U Class 31806 will be the first of its type to visit the K&ESR since its sister locomotive 1618, which was restored at Tenterden, left for the Bluebell Railway in 1977. More significantly, it is the first appearance of a U Class in the county for passenger services since the end of Southern Region steam in 1967.  31806, which is owned John Bunch, has been kindly made available from its home at the Swanage Railway with the sponsorship of Rapido Trains and will be operating services between Tenterden and Bodiam during the Gala.

GB Railfreight-owned Class 73/1, a historic British electro-diesel locomotive and 1960s rail transport icon, will be joining the Gala in a stunning new livery, developed in collaboration with GB Railfreight (GBRf) and railway heritage experts.

The Class 73/1 is being paired with a third special guest – BR Pacific No. 70000 Britannia – to operate a special shuttle service between Robertsbridge Junction and Northbridge Street – the first time this stretch of line has been in use in 11 years. The famous Pacific locomotive, often seen carrying the ‘Golden Arrow’ headboard on its journeys around the country, is also having its first stay in the area.
It is hoped that both much-loved Hunslet steam locomotive ‘Hastings’ and Terrier locomotive ‘Knowle’, which has been under repair for the last few weeks, will both make their return to the rails at the Gala to join ‘Northiam’ and ‘Swiftsure’.

Passengers embarking at Tenterden can travel to Robertsbridge on one ticket, while passengers starting their journey at Robertsbridge can buy a ticket to travel onto the K&ESR for the first time.

K&ESR stations will open to the public at 09:45 each day, with an array of things to see and do for all ages, including:

At Tenterden: The West Sussex Concert Band and Ashford Town Band will be playing sets from 11:30 till approximately 13:15 on Saturday 10:15 till 13:00 on Sunday respectively. There will be a model railway exhibition and model trader stalls to browse, plus market stalls from local business and charities. The popular ‘driver for a tenner’ experience is also planned for both days from 10am till 4pm, using 1958-built Ruston DE locomotive Rowntree No1, for those over 18.

1974 Opening Ceremony re-enactment

The weekend’s celebrations will start at 09:30 on Saturday 1st June on the platform at Tenterden Town Station, with a re-enactment of the 1974 opening ceremony before the first public train leaves at 10:20. The original ceremony was conducted by the then MP for Ashford William (later Lord) Deedes, who was instrumental in ensuring that the line was reopened.
Passengers travelling from outside the immediate area are being encouraged to use public transport to come to the Gala. Arriva buses to Tenterden run regularly from the closest national rail station at Headcorn, which is served by trains from London Charing Cross, Waterloo East and London Bridge. Alternatively, passengers can start their Gala experience at Robertsbridge where, in addition to normal stopping London-Hastings services, Southeastern has arranged for Saturday semi-fast services to also stop at Robertsbridge.

Visit the K&ESR website for a full Gala timetable and to book and save on Gala tickets* which start at £29.50 for a single adult freedom ticket. Children under 3 and canine family members go free.
Photo credits: Image of U Class 31806 by Owen Hayward