The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (fondly known as the Crab and Winkle) was the first passenger railway in the South of the UK and featured the oldest railway tunnel and railway bridge in the world. Despite being forgotten in the majority of history books, the railway was an amazing technological feat and included involvement from great pioneering engineers George and Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Telford.
Originally, run on a pulley system, with one of the earliest steam locomotives ever made, “Invicta”, running on the flatter parts of the track, the first trains began running from Whitstable to Canterbury in May 1830. There was a lot of excitement around the opening of the railway, with people travelling from all over Kent to witness what was a completely new spectacle.
The novelty value of the railway created a huge draw for people to visit Whitstable, however the town wasn’t as it is now. It was an industrial town, smoky and a bit of a backwater. There was no station, with travellers meeting in the Steam Packet pub. However, things were changing. The railway invested money to build a harbour, to transport coal from the Northern coalfields into Kent and the surrounding areas. With the creation of the Harbour, the town grew up around it, as did the number of employment opportunities.
By 1914, the railway was running regular services for day-trippers and Tankerton was becoming a thriving tourist destination, with tea shacks and beach huts springing up along the coast. 1914 also saw the outbreak of WW1 and the Crab and Winkle Railway was passed into the hands of the Government for the next 5 years. Passenger services were halted and the railway and harbour were used to transport much needed resources to the Western Front. These included livestock, horses, ammunition and trench building equipment.
By the end of the war the need for a local railway had diminished. Locals and day-trippers had found an alternative means of transport, the bus, and the numbers of passengers began to dramatically reduce. By the 1940s the railway was only transporting freight and the number of trains running had seriously diminished.
The decision in 1952 to finally close the line came as no surprise to many, however crowds of onlookers turned out to celebrate the 120 years that the railway had been supplying the town.
In more recent years many of the reminders of the railway’s existence have been removed. The old bridge in Church Road was demolished in the 1960s and the tunnel was filled in in the 1970s, following a massive building subsidence at the University of Kent. However, the route of the railway has become a cycle route taking you as close to the original railway route as possible. In the centre of Clowes Wood, next to the cycle path, you can still see the ponds created to feed the original steam engines water.
The creation of a cycle route continues to remind us of the importance that the railway had in developing Whitstable and Tankerton to become the places that we enjoy today. The Crab and Winkle was not only a design innovation to be proud of, it also enabled the building of the Harbour, the development of the town and the South Eastern Railway contributed to the construction of some of the town’s flood defences. Most importantly it put Whitstable on the map!