Published: 09:16, 09 April 2021
| Updated: 09:19, 09 April 2021
Where is Little Switzerland? That was the question raised by Robert Casselden after he was sent an old postcard by a friend in Canada.
The postcard was marked "Little Switzerland, Maidstone" and depicted a tramway in a deep ravine, with a couple on the steps of a public footpath leading down to it and the track passing under two bridges.
Mr Casselden's first thought was that it must show Little Switzerland in Tovil.
Little Switzerland was the name given around the turn of the 20th century to an area in the Lower Loose Valley, off Cave Hill, that is now known as Crisbrook Meadow.
The name was a romantic gesture by Jack Barcham Green, the owner of the Barcham Green Paper Company that operated Hayle Mill in Tovil.
The young Barcham Green had spent much time in Switzerland learning about the paper trade there and it was while living there that he met Emily, who was to become his wife.
When the couple returned to England, he set about recreating her beloved homeland round about her.
He re-named their home at number 683 Loose Road as Swiss Cottage, designated part of the Loose Loose Valley as Little Switzerland, and when he founded a Scout Group in 1908, just a year after Baden Powell established the Scouting movement, he christened it the Swiss Scouts.
The problem is that although there was a railway in Tovil that extended from Tovil Station (actually in Barming) to Tovil Goods Station - approximately where the Lidl store now stands, it never went as far south as Little Switzerland.
It also never passed under any bridges, though it did pass over one as it crossed Church Road.
At a loss, Mr Casselden wondered whether in fact there was confusion with some of the other Little Switzerlands in the country - there are 'Little Switzerland' areas in Folkestone, in Church Stretton in Shropshire, Pateley Bridge and Hessle in Yorkshire, Wroxham in Norfolk and Lynton and Lynmouth, both in Devon.
The Lynmouth Little Switzerland according to local legend was so named by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 -1822) who visited the area with fellow poet Robert Southey and declared it so lovely "It's England’s Little Switzerland.”
But Mr Casselden's postcard was labelled as being produced by Y&C.
Y&C refers to Young and Cooper, Publishers, who used to operate from 72 Bank Street in Maidstone and featured postcards of local Kent scenes, generally not more than a few miles from Maidstone.
So the Y&C reference seemed to set the picture as being firmly in the Maidstone area.
A clue came in a report from the South Eastern Gazette of Tuesday, November 10, 1903, which read:
The Rev. O. L. Wilkinson asked if the Council intended doing anything this winter with regard to the footpath between the Railway Bridge and Little Switzerland in the parish of Aylesford. Ever since he had been on the Council he had been agitating in the matter. In the wet weather the path was quite untraversable. Considering the use made of the path he thought that the inhabitants were labouring under a great hardship and grievance, and, considering the rates they paid, he thought they had been very badly treated in the matter. They could not use the path in wet weather, and as a consequence had to go nearly a mile round."
The discovery of another postcard, clearly showing the same tramway, and marked "Little Switzerland, Allington" clinched it.
It transpires that there was a second area known as Little Switzerland in Maidstone - the steep banks surrounding a quarry tramway at Allington, which ran down to the the River Medway.
The original postcard - which judging by the dress of the couple on the steps dates from around 1910 - was probably taken from a footpath crossing over the horse-drawn tramway, looking towards the bridge that carried The London, Chatham and Dover railway, with the second bridge in the distance beyond carrying the North Kent Rail-line.
The tramway was single track, opening out into two tracks nearer the river.
Today, Newbury Avenue runs roughly on the tramway route to the west, while a footpath goes east down to the River Medway and Fords Wharf Boat Yard.
Mr Casselden, who has been assisted in his research by the Maidstone Historical Society, said: "We have managed to locate where the pictures were taken, but can find out very little about when the tramway was first installed, how it was operated, how it changed over the years and how it interfaced with the main line railway.
"What we think we know is that the quarry referred to is Tassel's or Mounts Quarry, this is not the same location as Allington Quarries which were developed later and were located about half a mile north of this quarry.
"Allington Quarries had quite an extensive 2ft tramway system from at least the 1920s until closure in 1954 - after this the ragstone was moved by dumpers.
"At 'our' quarry, KCC has records dating from 1849 and 1860 showing that Iron Age and Roman artifacts were found here, suggesting that there certainly was some activity there 2000 years ago.
"Whether ragstone was moved in those historic times from this particular quarry is not known, but a Roman wall near Tower Hill has ragstone content and a Roman barge was found buried in the mud near Blackfriars in 1962 with a cargo of similar stone.
"The wood in the barge was dated to about AD 150. Clearly a quarry with a relatively short land movement to a loading wharf on the River Medway would have an advantage over other inland quarries which sprung up over the years.
"Coombe and Postley Quarries in Tovil existed for the same reason.
"Tramways have been used to move heavy products such as coal, iron and stone for centuries.
"For 'our' quarry I don't know whether there was a natural valley to the Medway, or whether the quarrymen took out the ragstone to form an easier graded route to the river.
"Certainly, by the middle of the 19th Century, there was quite a ravine, which required bridges to cross from one side to the other."
Mr Casselden said: "A massive stone footway bridge was built to enable local people to access Allington Castle and St Laurence Church from Lower Buckland - this must date from before 1868 as it is shown on an Ordnance Survey map of that date.
"The South Eastern Railway also had to cross the valley when it arrived in 1856, as did the London, Chatham & Dover Railway in 1874.
"There were thus three bridges in a very small area - it would therefore seem likely that the tramway dated from the first half of the 19th Century but we don't have any proof.
"There is a sketch drawn in 1884 of a manned wagon on the tramway being pulled by a horse.
"An OS map from 1908 shows an additional southward link from the tramway to new sidings beside the main line, though they don't appear to connect to it."
"From 1898 the quarry was operated by Allington Quarry Co. Ltd, but W.H. Bensted & Son Ltd took over in the 1930s - the company was registered on 11 March 1933.
"WH Benstead was a descendant of the famous archaeologist who found the Maidstone iguanodon in 1834.
"He also took over Coombe Quarry at the same time.
"Some time in the next 15 years, the sidings were removed.
"A book by Robin Waywell (Industrial Railways and Locomotives of Kent) printed in 2016 has a great deal of information about all the industrial railways in the area, but does not have much on this tramway.
"Intriguingly the only two locomotives listed as ever being at this site were 2ft gauge diesels which didn't arrive until after the Second World War."
Mr Casselden said: "So did the tramway operate only by horse in the 100 years before they arrived and did W. H. Bensted convert the line to 2ft gauge to economise and bring it into line with his 2ft gauge tramway in Coombe Quarry?
"Robin Waywell states that both lines were closed in 1955 - an advert in the "Contract Journal" for 24 February 1955 lists track and wagons for sale at Coombe Quarry.
"The footway bridge was still shown on an 1989 OS map, but looks to have been removed to allow the development of the housing in Beckenham Drive and Lockswood.
"Prior to this, the quarry was filled in to allow the current estate south of Castle Road to be built - a small area was shown as 'quarry - disused' on 1970/80s maps for some years, but this is now the Midley Close Play Area.
"The very last section closest to the river is a footpath to Fords Wharf Boat Yard."
Mr Cassleden lives in Yeovil in Somerset, but said he has an affinity with the area.
He said: "My surname is not very common, but when I checked on the 1841 census, there were 17 Casseldens, almost all living in Teston or Yalding.
"Furthermore, my grandmother's maiden name was Maidstone, so perhaps I owe much more to Kent than I realised!"
Anyone able to offer more detail, can email Mr Casselden on Robert_James_53@hotmail.com