Thursday, 4 June 2009

Devils Dyke - A Victorian Theme Park

Interpretive Board

Faced with a short amount of time I finally got around to doing something that I had first thought about during my completion of the South Downs Way last year – visit what remains of the railway that used to ferry the visiting Brighton and Hove public up to this well known Sussex beauty spot.

I don’t suppose many people outside of Sussex realise that a full scale standard gauge railway line ever ran to the top of Devils Dyke. The present day visitor would be forgiven for even disputing this piece of railway history, for it is such an unlikely place to want to connect to the rail network. Yet, the railway ran for approximately fifty years and finally succumbed to the inevitable competition of buses in 1938. For any of the line to be traceable after seventy years is remarkable enough, but the whole route outside the urban area of Hove remains and can be seen clearly on satellite images on the Google mapping system. In fact although the route has mostly been obliterated (apart from some short sections) through Hangleton and Hove, the line of the old route can still be traced by the shapes of the roads which curved around it.

Leaving The Urban Area
From the top of Poplar Avenue in Hangleton, a family friendly tarmacked section of the line remains now connected to the national cycle network rather than the rail network. On a beautiful June evening I set out to have a look at what is left, not only of this remarkable line, but a couple of other even more ambitious projects at the Dyke itself. I did not concern myself this time with the urban section, starting at the car park along the Dyke Road nearest to Brighton and Hove Golf Club (parking is available in Hangleton but starting at the north end is less complicated).
A Newer Transport Link

There is a short walk from the car park along the golf club access road to a point on the line just about where the intermediate station that served the golf club once stood. Apparently a remnant of the platform does still exist but is on private land and in any case during June would be completely engulfed by vegetation. The route north to the terminus station just below the Dyke is clearly traceable by following the hedge line, but alas is not open for ramblers/ cyclists.

Heading For The Summit
The thing that immediately strikes you as you head south is how tortuous the route was. The line follows the contours remarkably well to minimise the grade, but a trip up here by train must have been very slow. For the train crew it must have been pretty lonely on rotten days!

Old Funicular Remains
The view outwards across Benfield Valley and to Hove/ Portslade beyond was superb tonight. I could not begin to imagine what the view must have looked like when the train actually ran, since much of the housing I was looking at wasn’t built until the 1930s and post-war. Some landmarks, such as the Shoreham Power Station and Foredown Tower were there but looked completely different. Perhaps the addition to the landscape that has had the biggest impact though is the A27 bypass and soon enough the roar of the traffic is pretty evident. I crossed the bridge and wandered down through the cutting that represents the best preserved piece of the line through the urban area of Hangleton. Sadly though it is obviously a haven for dog walkers as the whole cutting smelled like a dog toilet. The smell wasn’t surprising though when I realised that there wasn’t a dog bin to be seen.
View to Newtimber Hill

At Poplar Avenue the trail abruptly ends and only the most sharp eyed person could even begin to guess where it once headed (an aerial view makes it easier). For me, the irony of a bus passing as I reached this spot wasn’t lost on me and I retraced my steps back to the car a couple of miles away.

Above the Old Line
Before leaving for home I took a trip to the top of the Dyke to have a look at a couple of other relics of a time when the Dyke was a major tourist attraction. In order to drum up business, a steep graded funicular railway once ran down the side of the scarp slope to encourage visitors to head to Poynings for afternoon tea. As you might imagine, the venture was a flop and the funicular closed only about ten years after it opened. The same was also true of a cable car that ran across the width of the steep sided valley that gives the place its name. I didn’t really know where to look but soon came across the remains of both ventures. The steep sided railway can still be traced just to the east of the present day hotel and the top station foundations remain. In the grass looked like the remains of the winding gear, now heavily rusted. The bottom of the slope is now covered in trees, in contrast to how it was when the funicular was operating. Across the hill the remains of the cable car is also restricted to a couple of concrete blocks that once housed the cable towers. It is hard to believe that the Dyke once boasted a camera obscura, fairground rides, an observatory and two bandstands, but these attractions are what persuaded people to come to this beauty spot. Now the pleasures are rather different, with walkers, cyclists, horseriders, paragliders and folk just content with the view making up the bulk of the visitors. Some good pictures of the rail line can be found at , and

Former Station Area

Before leaving I had a little look at what remains of the terminus of the railway. No buildings remain and the station site is now occupied by Dyke Farm (no right of way exists through the farm so you have to make do with overlooking the site from several hundred metres away). From my vantage point I could see the entire line all the way almost down to the Brighton by-pass - a truly astonishing railway for an almost forgotten tourist mecca.