SUSSEX MAIN LINES - A YEAR 2002 SURVEY
10. TUNBRIDGE WELLS TO HASTINGS
The penultimate article in this series visits the only major route not operated
by the LB&SCR but by their deadly rival the South Eastern Railway (SER).
Relationships had been strained from the beginning when the Brighton company
were forced by the government of the day to share the SER's tracks between East
Croydon and Redhill a problem that was not solved until the construction of the
quarry avoiding line at the beginning of the twentieth century. Exacerbating
this situation was the desire of the South Eastern for a share of the lucrative
south coast resort traffic, particularly Brighton, by supporting or promoting
routes to reach these destinations. To counter these proposals the LB&SCR was
forced to build unremunerative and expensive routes such as Brighton to Kemp
The line opened from Tunbridge Wells to Robertsbridge on September 1st 1851 and
to Bopeep junction on the Brighton to Hastings line on January 1st 1852. The 27
miles of line was expensive to build across difficult terrain, with four tunnels
and cost £725,000; an enormous sum for those days. The stations were designed by
"the architect Wm. Tress of Finsbury Square" 1 and all remain in use.
The platforms were staggered in the style adopted by the SER which allowed
passengers to cross from one platform to the other behind the train. Soon after
opening the tunnels began to show problems. Following a collapse of the
brickwork lining in one of them (due to poor quality bricks) inspection of the
others showed jerry building by the contractor where only one lining of bricks
instead the four specified, was found. To correct the problem three courses were
inserted which reduced the bore of the tunnel and when bogie carriages were
introduced in the twentieth century these were built to a restricted width. The
line was not electrified until 1986 being worked by diesels from 1957.
Resignalling allowed the tunnels to have a single track but swept away most of
the line's signal boxes. Refurbishment of the listed stations also took place
and arguably they are one of the finest sets of station buildings in the
country. Regrettably, the opposite platforms were stripped of any historic
structures. It does not seem almost 20 years ago on 27th April 1986 to mark
electrification, that one could ride the line for 50p.
Tunbridge Wells Station, although not in the county is
well worth a visit. Originally the (temporary) terminus of a branch from
Tonbridge on the SER's main line to Ashford, via Redhill, the station opened in
November 1846. The up side building is original. Designed by Tress in the
Italianate style, popular at the time, it is a two-storey brick structure with
stone facings around the windows and stone quoins. The roof has wide eaves and
the chimney stacks are pierced with two semi circular headed openings separated
by a column, this was a signature feature of these stations but unfortunately
most have now gone. The other recurring feature worth noting is the valencing of
the later entrance and platform canopies; the pierced tulip pattern, as here,
being most common. The down side was rebuilt in 1911 in an Edwardian baroque
style with an imposing clock tower. Leaving the station one passes through the
short Grove Hill Tunnel and immediately after, to the west, can still be
discerned the former junction to Tunbridge Wells (West) the eastern terminus of
the LB&SCR system.
Frant Station is situated at Bells Yew Green, the village of Frant being nearly
two miles away; built of ragstone in a Gothic lodge style it has a two storey
station house and a single storey office. Note the elaborate tracery in the
brackets supporting the platform canopy which was added in 1905. The next
station Wadhurst, is again nearly two miles from the village centre, built in
the same style as at Tunbridge Wells but with a gabled central bay and round
rather than square headed windows. The station building is much smaller than one
would visualise from photographs and has never been disfigured by a canopy.
Originally a fine drive led up to the station with a coal merchant's yard at a
lower level; this area is now the ubiquitous car park but still on two levels.
The 1893 signal box closed in 1986 and was subsequently dismantled and
re-erected at Northiam on the Kent & East Sussex Railway (K&ESR).
Stonegate is another Italianate style station with originally a central gabled
bay and single storey wings, the southern one now has an additional storey.
Opened with the line as Witherden, the station was quickly renamed Ticehurst
Road from December 1851. ln June 1947 it was again named Stonegate and is a mile
from the tiny village it is now named after. In contrast Etchingham Station is
sited next to the village church and is of ragstone in a Tudor style with
Perpendicular doorways, fanciful chimney stacks and a dainty projecting porch
with delicate ornamental buttresses. Note the extreme depth of the platform
canopy added in 1914. Robertsbridge the next station is similar to Stonegate but
has a substantial extension to the south. The signal box was converted to panel
operation and was the only intermediate one to survive electrification in 1986.
Strangely the small goods shed (in non railway use) is also the only one to
survive. The overgrown bay on the down side was the terminus for the Rother
Valley Railway which opened in 1900 to Rolvenden (then named Tenterden).
Passenger trains ceased in January 1954 but goods and hop pickers specials
survived until 1961. The northern section from Bodiam to Tenterden is now the
preserved K&ESR and there are hopes that the southern link to Robertsbridge can
be reinstated and to this end the track bed to the north of the station has been
Nothing remains of the once sizeable Mountfield Halt at TQ 745197 which was in
use from 1923 to 1969 and had a superb crossing keeper's house on the opposite
side of the road. Battle Station is, without doubt, the architectural gem of the
line built of stone in a Gothic style it has ecclesiastical Decorated windows to
the booking hall. Little altered, apart from the chimney stacks, but with
platform side features hidden by a later huge canopy, it is worth seeking out.
Well hidden, as it had been built at the eastern end of the town and approached
by a tree lined drive, its design was influenced by the ruins of Battle Abbey;
which was rebuilt four years after the arrival of the railway as a residence.
Look out for the baronial hall booking office with an open beamed roof,
magnificent chimney piece and twin pointed arches leading on to the platform.
Looking up one can discover a belfry, ornate ridge tiles, and a trefoil window
in a gable end. Much industry nearby including gunpowder mills, a tannery and a
timber yard, now largely gone.
In 1902 a branch to a new station on the west side of Bexhill, was built by the
South East & Chatham Railway (in 1899 the SER had merged with its even more
impecunious neighbour the London Chatham & Dover Railway) which at last gained a
piece of the south coast traffic. The branch was never financially viable and
closed in 1964.2 To form a junction to the branch a station was
erected at Crowhurst, just over a mile from Battle. Its facilities were far in
excess of those required for the small rural community it served with four
tracks separating the extensive platforms, those in the centre being for
expresses. Even today, with no platform buildings, it is still an awe inspiring
sight reminiscent of the West Coast Main Line from London to Scotland. Both up
and down platforms had a bay for the branch train; passengers from Bexhill were
dropped on the up side, the train reversed across the main lines and picked up
passengers from the down side. In November 1985 all the buildings were swept
away leaving a former lamp room to serve as the booking office. Fortunately the
splendid footbridge survived the carnage. In 1887 a new station was opened at
West St. Leonards to serve the developing area. This is an interesting station
building constructed of timber with a slate roof, cheap to construct in the
1880s but now of a type fast disappearing. This one, in fine condition and with
a rare covered contemporary footbridge is a hidden gem. Just beyond the station
a similarly dated South Eastern signal box controls the junction with the former
LB&SCR line from Brighton; now Coastway East. The Brighton company had running
powers over SER metals to Hastings3.
1 These words or very similar are invariably quoted in all
published texts. There appears to be little known about Tress:
2 Sussex Branch Lines 4. S/AS Newsletter no.109, January 2001
3 Sussex Main Lines 6 SIAS Newsletter no.119, July 2002