With its trains trundling back and forth at a stately pace between Ashford and Hastings, the Marshlink line can often feel like an overlooked piece of Kent’s railway network.
But it passes through lovely countryside and a number of towns and villages which reward the curious traveller who stops off en route, as our man Rhys Griffiths discovered…
Hastings on a slightly overcast September morning has the feel of a seaside resort that knows winter is coming. We may be experiencing something of an Indian summer, but the school holidays are over, the arcades on the seafront have emptied, and the changing of the seasons is upon us.
I start my exploration of the towns and villages of the Marshlink line with coffee in the Old Town, sitting outside a cafe on George Street, a thoroughfare which exudes a similar vibe to the Old High Street in Folkestone. Vintage shops, galleries and plenty of places to stop for refreshment. It may be just before 11am on a weekday, but the people-watching opportunities are ample.
The plan for the day ahead is a relatively simple one. Trains on this line run hourly, so I’ll hop off at Three Oaks, Rye and Appledore, have a nose about, maybe stop for a swift half at an agreeable pub or three, and gradually work my way back to Ashford.
Opened in 1851, this route has survived brushes with closure – most notably during the infamous Beeching cuts – to make it into the 21st century. Significant stretches now run along a single track, but campaigners still hold out hope that one day it will be doubled once more, electrified and connected to the HS1 network via the junction at Ashford International.
The line has faced a battle for survival down the years because, if we’re brutally honest, much of the route serves small communities, and often runs a decent walk from the settlement from which stations take their name – as I was to discover later in the day. I had hoped to alight at Doleham, which with fewer than 1,000 passengers annually is the least-used station in Sussex, but it is only served by a handful of trains each day, none of which I would be on.
Instead, to get a sense of some of the smaller places this line passes through, I made Three Oaks my first stop after leaving Hastings. The station itself is a perfect encapsulation of the Marshlink line, a single platform just long enough to allow passengers to hop on and off a single carriage. Make sure you’re travelling in the correct part of the train when exploring this stretch of the railway.
There is little by the way of anything resembling a village centre when I emerge onto the main road which passes over the line just north of the station. But there is a pub, and after a wander up and down Butcher’s Lane I present myself at the door of the Three Oaks just in time for the doors to open at midday.
And what a perfect village pub it turns out to be. The bar staff offer a warm welcome, and I furnish myself with a half of Harvey’s Sussex Best, the only choice for me when on this side of the border.
The place is snug inside, festooned with knick-knacks on every available surface, and the mood is extremely convivial as locals begin to arrive for a lunchtime drink. Pubs like this – lovingly tended and right in the heart of the community – should be treasured, and I would have gladly lingered longer were it not for the fact I had a train to catch.
Next stop is Rye, which is the most significant destination on the line between Hastings and Ashford. Whereas I was the only person to alight at Three Oaks, here the station is much busier, with tourists disembarking to explore this wonderful, ancient Cinque Port town.
In the spirit of keeping moving up the line, I allow myself just an hour for a whistle-stop tour of the sights of Rye – although of course you could spend much, much longer exploring its picturesque streets, historic architecture and many fine pubs. I climb the much-photographed Mermaid Street – surely one of the prettiest in the land – before passing through the churchyard of St Mary’s to Rye Castle’s Ypres Tower and its wonderful views out over the River Rother.
A few steps away from the tower is the Ypres Castle Inn, which I have visited previously, but unfortunately on the day of my latest visit it is closed, so I wander back into the town centre. Just before the station I wander past – and then through – the door of the Cinque Ports.
“Do you have cash,” the barmaid asks in response to my request for a half of the Late Red. I respond in the negative, and she points to a sign informing customers of the £4 minimum card spend. A pint it is then.
Perched on a stool in one corner of the room, I luxuriate in the early afternoon buzz of the bar. Although this journey was not originally conceived as a pub crawl, it is starting to become clear that the hourly train service makes it absolutely ideal for stopping off, ducking into the nearest welcoming hostelry, and then heading back on your way after a swift pint. I make a mental note-to-self to return and make a more, ahem, comprehensive survey of the local pub scene.
But if I thought this was all going to be as simple as wandering a few steps from the station and into the warm embrace of the nearest boozer, then Appledore was going to mix things up slightly. I’d done no serious online reconnaissance of the route, but I was shortly to discover that Appledore station is a not-insignificant walk away from Appledore village itself.
Thankfully the weather is set fair, and the walk from the station to the village is a pleasant one, even if occasionally I have to almost fling myself into the hedgerow to accommodate a passing tractor or two. The final stretch along and then over the Royal Military Canal brings me to the centre of this pretty village, and the threshold of the Black Lion, which appears to be doing a very steady trade on this sunny September afternoon.
As we’re back on Kentish soil, I opt for the local Romney bitter to accompany a classic pub grub dish of sausage and mash. And what a dish it is. I couldn’t think of a more perfect reward for the hike from the station, and it’s clear to see why the place is busy on a weekday afternoon if this is the quality of down-to-earth cooking the kitchen is producing. The pint’s not bad either.
The Black Lion has its claws into me at this point, and it would have taken very little convincing for me to have lingered a while longer, but with a train to catch I was out the door – leaving just a little longer for the return walk to the station, on account of the rather soporific effects of the bangers and mash.
As my last Marshlink train of the day meanders back towards Ashford, I reflect on how lucky we are that somewhat out-of-the-way lines like this have survived and can hopefully thrive for years to come.
Passenger numbers may be comparatively low, but these sleepier lines put some lovely towns and villages on the map. And with its winning combination of glorious countryside and excellent pubs along the way, I’ll gladly raise a glass to the Marshlink. Cheers!