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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
- 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