Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Robertsbridge - a reopening railway and a closed pub

I promised in the last post to provide an update on the Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for their heritage railway, and also on the situation regarding the Seven Stars; the Harvey’s pub in Robertsbridge High Street, which has now been closed for over a year.

First the railway. Rother District District Council have approved Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for a new station building, platform, water tower, carriage shed and locomotive shed, adjacent to the mainline station and virtually opposite the Ostrich Hotel.

They have also given the go-ahead for the restoration of the Northbridge Street to Junction Road section of the Robertsbridge to Bodiam Reconnection Project. If and when this stretch of line is re-laid, and the restoration project completed, it will be possible to travel by a heritage train from Robertsbridge via Bodiam to the eastern end of the line at Tenterden.

The current end of the line
On our recent visit to the village we saw clear signs of the work being carried out in order to get the new station into place. We also saw the track which has been laid to allow locomotives and rolling stock to transfer onto the heritage railway from the main London - Hastings line. As we walked out  towards Salehurst, we noticed where the newly laid track currently terminates at Northbridge Street.

So far, so good, but there are still a number of obstacles in the way,  not least of which are the reports in the local press, back in April, which show that two local landowners (both farmers), are holding out against selling their section of lands to the railway. The K&ESR may be able to compulsory purchase the necessary sections of land, but they are on record as saying they would much rather reach an amicable agreement with the farmers concerned.

In addition, parliamentary approval has to be obtained before track laying can commence, and in the current uncertain political climate, there is no indication as to when, or indeed if, there will be time to pass the necessary legislation.

Tenterden station
There is also the small matter of three level crossings which need to be put in place. For both safety and operational reasons, modern railway operation does not favour level crossings; preferring instead to separate rail and road traffic completely, by means of bridges, or tunnels. Given the topography and nature of the line, such solutions are both expensive and impractical, but a safe, practical and economic way of taking the preserved railway across the busy A21 trunk road has to be found.

Local MP Greg Clarke, has expressed concerns over this particular crossing, but he is only looking at the situation from the road traffic point of view, and is ignoring the obvious economic benefit which a restored, heritage railway would bring to the area. So whilst the longer term outlook for restoring this section of line is looking good, there are still a number of significant hurdles to overcome before trains can run all the way up to Tenterden again.
Now for the Seven Stars. As mentioned earlier, this fine old 14th Century inn remains firmly closed. The pub is owned by Harvey’s, who are reported as having difficulty in finding suitable tenants for the pub. Some have argued that this may be due to the high rent which the brewery are asking; reported to be £50,000 pa, and with business rates of £15,000 on top, it is perhaps not surprising that no tenants have come forward.

This is not the first pub Harvey’s have had difficulties with in recent years; as the Two Brewers  at Hadlow, in our own branch area, has seen a succession of tenants come and go. It may just be hearsay, but it appears Harvey’s may have joined the Pub Co’s in charging “market-led” rents; rather than something more realistic, which would work for both the brewery and any prospective tenants.

It may be that there is insufficient trade in a village the size of Robertsbridge,  to support three pubs; but on the other hand are the brewery just being greedy? I am surprised that Harvey’s have not installed an interim manager at the Seven Stars, as that way they could continue to draw revenue from the place, whilst re-building the trade. This would obviously be to the advantage of any incoming tenants, and ultimately to the brewery as well, so this type of arrangement would surely benefit both parties.

Perhaps this is a little too obvious, or perhaps the brewery wish to demonstrate that the pub is no longer viable. If so, this is a sorry state of affairs, and one which is not befitting of a fine old independent family brewery like Harvey’s.

So these are the updates of what is happening in Robertsbridge at present. Will the heritage rail link be restored, and will it be possible to travel up top Tenterden in a vintage carriage, hauled by a steam locomotive? Equally, will I get the chance to enjoy a few pints at the Seven Stars? I’ve never set foot inside, and it would be nice to do so, but are economics no longer in the pub’s favour?

Despite all these “ifs and buts”, Robertsbridge is still a place well worth visiting and, if time allows, so is the surrounding countryside.

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