Tunnel Vision


Tunbridge Wells


Portals at TQ581384 and TQ583383

Grove Tunnel lies under the southern edge of the spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. It is a 183 yard, single bore tunnel, driven through Grove Hill, which is largely made of sandstone and the distinctive local ironstone that carries heavy ferrous deposits.

The town used to be served a pair of stations (see map), opened by two competing companies that fought for passengers and routes during the early days of the industry.

The first of these, initially known as Tunbridge Wells Central before being shortened to plain old Tunbridge Wells, was opened in 1845 with the arrival of the South Eastern Railway (SER). The second was Tunbridge Wells West which opened when the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) arrived at the town in 1866.

1960s One Inch Ordnance Survey Map showing the path of the track
between the two stations and through the tunnel.


This image from the 1980s shows the tunnel with the 'B' signal box, the platform ends and the road bridge with its brick parapets still in place. The bridge, which carries Montacute Road, has now been remodelled with a modern concrete parapet.
Photo by Nick Pullen

Grove tunnel was built by the LB&SCR after pressure from the SER who insisted on a link to their central station, and hence a route from the SER's terminus at Charing Cross to Eastbourne. The LB&SCR were essentially forced to allow this link and build the tunnel as, if they didn't, the SER proposed to construct an entirely new line to achieve the same end.

On 1st February 1876 the tunnel was opened to passenger traffic, allowing through running between the SER's Hastings line and the LB&SCR's Lewes and Eastbourne lines for the first time (Brighton trains came later via the Hamsey avoiding line near Lewes) .

In the same month that the closure notices went up (August 1982), a 'Thumper' emerges from the tunnel drawing the Eridge service and slowly approaches the B box where the driver will give up his single line token.
Photo by Clive Standen

In its heyday, Tunbridge Wells West regularly handled more than 100 trains a day, until the British Railways closures of the mid 1960s started to reduce the routes it served.
First to go were the Eastbourne trains which went when the Eridge-Hailsham section closed in 1965. The route from Groombridge to East Grinstead and Three Bridges followed suit in 1967. The Lewes to Uckfield section closed in 1969, so severing the last link to the coast, a link that had been established 90 years before.

Services were cut back drastically (an hourly Tonbridge-Eridge train and an occasional
Uckfield shuttle) but the station and the tunnel soldiered on with naught but essential maintenance until both were closed, along with the entire Tunbridge Wells to Eridge line on 6 July 1985.

The view towards Grove Junction and Tunbridge Wells a few days before the end, in July 1985. Note the severe speed restrictions - as shown on the blue warning boards - and the poor condition of the trackbed, with very little ballast showing through all the mud. This line has been, quite literally, driven into the ground.

Photo by unknown contributor to the Southern Electric Group

There is an erroneous story that Grove, like many of the tunnels on the Hastings Line was poorly built with too few courses of bricks (four rather than the required six) in its arch structure. This led to the adoption of special, undersized rolling stock on the Hastings Line necessary to fit inside the tunnels that had been subsequently strengthened from the inside, so reducing the clearance for trains. This is not true of Grove which is built to a standard specification.

For such a central site, Grove is surprisingly well preserved today. There is limited graffiti near the western portal but this diminishes as one moves east into the darker bit.

The mid-1970s and a driver's eye view of the signalman at Tunbridge Wells West B box, about to hand over the single line token for the short section to Grove Junction through the tunnel -

Photo by John Wenham

The future decay of Grove is far from certain because there is a group, the Wealden Line Campaign which is campaigning to reopen the entire line from Tunbridge Wells to Lewes for modern commuter trains.

If successful, this scheme would involve bulldozing the Spa Valley Railway, the preservation society that currently runs its steam trains and diesels from the old engine sheds at Tunbridge Wells West all the way down to Groombridge. Understandably, the Spa Valley people are not exactly delighted at this prospect. The preserved Lavender Line section of track at Isfield would also go.

Another organisation with a major headache will be Sainsburys who have built a supermarket right over the old trackbed just to the south west of the tunnel. When this plot of land was acquired, the contract included a clause to say that a path for a single line had to be maintained between the tunnel and the track which now starts on the opposite side of their car park. I can't see where it might go, but I guess that problem can always be decided in court!

Access Today

Access to Grove is easy, beneath the bridge that carries Montacute Road over the old track bed. This bridge now sits at the back of a small coach park for the tourist buses that bring visitors to the town. There is a chain link fence, but this is almost always breached by the local kids.

You can see Nick Catford's pictures of Grove just after it closed in the 1980s here

You can see pictures of the tunnel as it is today here

For a copy of Railtrack's decommissioning survey report on the tunnel from 1986 click here but be warned, it's a very big file (around 5Mb). This report has been kindly provided by Brian Hart at the Wealden Line Campaign and is reproduced here with thanks to Network Rail.

Sub Brit site visit November 2004

Contributors and references:

John Smiles, Martin Malins, Brian Hart, Southern Electric Group, Nick Pullen, Nick Catford, Clive Standen, John Wenham]

A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, HP White edited by David St John Thomas and J Allan Patmore

Nigel Callaghan's Database of Railway Tunnels

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Last updated: 04 01 2011
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