IT WAS once the busiest single-track section of railway line in the country but, almost three decades after its closure, the short route which once linked Tunbridge Wells's two stations is a ghostly presence: one minute you see it, the next it's gone and you wonder if it was just a figment of your imagination.
At its peak, the spur built to provide a gateway into Sussex and the south coast handled 30 trains a day, carrying passengers smoothly across town from the main station in Mount Pleasant to West Station just beyond The Pantiles. From there, travellers could pick up the main Brighton line to go on down to the coast or up to Victoria.
British Railways finally called time on West Station in 1985, however, after years of declining services, the cross-town track has sunk into the doldrums. It's been ripped up and trampled on, planted over and swamped by season after season of leaves and mud, obscured by fallen trees and used as a general dumping ground.
Now, however, after 30 years, the five-acre stretch of former British Railways land is in the news again. With confirmation from Railway Paths, the charity which bought it for £1 in 2001, that it is on the market, campaigners pressing for the re-opening of the Brighton line are alarmed at the threat to the vital link between the two stations. If the service is ever to be resumed, they say, this stretch of line cannot disappear.
The spur runs from Grove Junction, the point just south of Tunbridge Wells station where it branches away from the main Hastings line to curve down past the big old houses in Madeira Park and Upper Cumberland Walk before winding under Warwick Park and through Grove Tunnel, the 183-yard route carved out beneath Grove Hill, to emerge directly to the east of the station.
Overgrown trees make it difficult to spot the junction itself but, from the site of the bridge, now disappeared, which once carried it over Great Cumberland Walk, the imprint of the old track beyond the gardens of Madeira Park is still clear.
Swings and rusting wheelbarrows show how local householders have made use of space at the bottom of their gardens over the years, but a newly-erected fence cutting right across the track to enclose a wide parcel of land signals that change is under way – even though the sale of the land has not yet been confirmed.
In the other direction, in a kind of garden-grabbing in reverse, encroaching gardens have gobbled up the old track completely.
Swinging west beneath a bridge spanning Warwick Park, the track disappears into Grove Tunnel before finally stopping, rather ignominiously, at the tunnel opening beside a coach park next to Sainsbury's supermarket.