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The Bluebell Railway, a brief history of a very famous steam railway

This article will describe the origin of the Bluebell railway and how it became a preserved railway. We will travel the line; you will be given a brief history of the railway and how it became such an iconic and famous tourist attraction.

In the beginning

The story starts with the rush to build railway lines in the Victorian times. It must be remembered that a railway meant that your town or village was connected to a large, national goods system. The passenger side gained importance, but railways were principally built to transport goods and produce. The first railways had come to Sussex in 1841 with the Brighton line. In the north of the area, East Grinstead, a big market town, was losing out to towns served by railways, so it was connected to the system in 1866, after a few false starts with various proposed routes. The villages between Lewes and East Grinstead also wanted a connection, especially with the nearby Lewes to Uckfield line being opened in 1858. In 1876, the Lewes and East Grinstead line was proposed at a meeting chaired by Lord Sheffield. The work started in`1878 after the Brighton company. (The LBSCR) took over, due to the small company not raising the required amount and the fear of a competitor gaining a foothold in the area! Work was finished on the project in August 1882. The Lewes and East Grinstead line then became part of the railway network for the next 73 years. The stations from south to north were Barcombe, Newick and Chailey, Sheffield Park, Horsted Keynes, West Hoathly, Kingscote and then the terminus, East Grinstead, a total length of just over 17 miles.

The Route Described

Let us visit the route and if you can, grab a map to supplement my description. If you stand on the north end of the present-day Lewes station, you can see the line going away to Eastbourne and Seaford. Just after leaving the platform, we would swing sharply left, through the railway land and across bridges that covered the car park behind Cliffe high street. You would then cross Cliffe high street where Spec savers now stands. A viaduct would carry you through Waitrose (Literally!) and then you would cross the river opposite Tesco’s, all very hard to picture today. You can pick up the course of the line as a walk by the Malling estate for a while. We would then cross the river Ouse a few times, till you came to the Culver farm area, between Lewes and Barcombe. Here the Uckfield line went straight on and in the mid distance can be seen the station of Barcombe Mills, still there today. We would swing to the left and this is the start of the Bluebell line proper, and you can visit this area by footpath. The first station is Barcombe, a modest, single platform station, now a beautifully restored private residence located closer to the village then the Uckfield line.

The line swings gently right to the north and the route is traceable today. Please note much of the land is private and not open to the public. After passing through a short tunnel at Cinder hill, which sheltered a train when being attacked by a German aircraft in ww2, we arrive at Newick and Chailey station, not convenient for either village. The station was a two-storey building, built in a cutting and once boasted a refreshment room and a passenger footbridge. The site is lost under a housing estate and the cutting is filled in. The A272 crosses the site and apparently the road bridge is still there, buried under the road.

The line continues through that cutting and then crossed the A275 road and arrives at Sheffield park, southern terminus of the Bluebell.

Once a sleepy country station, Sheffield park now contains the engine works and loco sheds for the Bluebell and is a very expanded and busy site. It is the start of the Bluebell experience for many visitors. The station building is in the Queen Ann style, a very admired design, used extensively on many of the London, Brighton, and South Coast lines. The line heads north through typical Sussex countryside and after a few more miles, we enter Horsted Keynes station. This a large country junction station, built in the middle of nowhere. The village is accessible after a rather long walk. Horsted Keynes contains the carriage works, where carriages and wagons are restored to pristine condition.

It was the junction to a line to Ardingly, which may reopen one day. Horsted Keynes has appeared in many major films and is a classic station design of its type. Continuing northwards the line enters hillier territory, which culminates in a tunnel at West Hoathly. This is a very long tunnel and it is very wet, due to a water spring coursing through it and sometimes cold winters produce huge icicles inside the tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel is the site of West Hoathly station, sadly demolished when BR tore up the tracks. Continuing through more rugged country, the line crosses a few bridges and swings round to arrive at Kingscote station.

This has been beautifully restored and I remember it is a derelict mess in the early 90s; it is a fantastic example of what enthusiasts can do to restore history. The Line now heads around a curve and through another deep cutting. This area was filled with rubbish, a lot of rubbish in fact and the Bluebell had to remove many tons of domestic waste (75,000 tons in fact) to get the line through, it was a truly amazing piece of planning and project execution. You enter East Grinstead across the magnificent Imberhorne viaduct and you arrive at the final station, East Grinstead, also Bluebell built. This does have a physical connection to the main network line, so trains can come down from anywhere to visit the Bluebell. The main line station is slightly north of the Bluebell one.

The line settled down to a quiet existence, with goods being the major money earner. The route was a useful alternative for engineering works on the other lines. Passenger traffic was fair, but from the late 1920s, buses proved more convenient, the siting of the stations mentioned earlier did not help and then lorries started taking away the goods traffic. To be fair to the original promoters of the line a station site is chosen with the following in mind; Cost of the line, engineering costs of the site and the land purchase costs. Some land owners did not want a railway near them!

The start of the Bluebell

British railways proposed shutting the line in the early 1950s and despite strong protests, the last trains ran in May 1955.Please note, this was long before Beeching! It was then found by a local resident, a Miss Bessemer, that the original act of parliament for the line included the stipulation that another act of parliament was needed to shut the line. For another two years, a sulky service of 4 trains a day was operated by BR, which did not call at Kingscote, or the most profitable station, Barcombe. The line finally shut in 1958, but by then, interest was growing to preserve the line. It had already been dubbed the Bluebell line by the media, and 4 students from Hove in Sussex held a meeting Haywards Heath, with local railway man Bernard Holden chairing the meeting. Benard became the leading light of the society for many years. This resulted in the founding of the Lewes and East Grinstead preservation society, the start of the Bluebell, which became the first standard gauge railway to be preserved in the UK. (The train network you travel on is standard gauge, the rails are 4 foot, 8 and a half inches apart. If you go to Wales, there are many narrow-gauge lines, first restored in the 1950s). It soon became clear that they could not preserve the whole line, so the 5 miles between Sheffield park and Horsted Keynes were chosen for the project. The line opened to the public on the 7th of August 1960, and it was a great success. The rolling stock consisted of 2 locos and 4 coaches and membership of the society was over 1500. The line overcame many obstacles, including buying the railway off BR and by the 1970s, the Bluebell was firmly established as a major tourist attraction in the Sussex countryside. During this time, the railway had to build its own workshops and sheds, as well as maintain all the infrastructure on the railway. It would take too long to record all the subsequent events, but one must be mentioned, the push north. It was felt by the late 1980s that the line was isolated and rather short. The discussion then crystallised to extending to East Grinstead, with a connection to the railway network. We now know that this happened, but it was a huge gamble and very expensive; for example, over 30 land owners had to be negotiated with to recover the route of the railway and the rubbish problem was mentioned earlier. The Bluebell has gone from strength to strength and paved the way for the amazing amount of railway preservation we see in the Uk today. A final set of figures for you, there are now over 30 locos in the site and about 150 carriages and wagons, many pre-WW2. The motto of the line is Floreat Vapor- let steam flourish and it has more than succeeded in that promise.

Posted in History on Jun 01, 2023