10 Tunbridge Wells to Hastings

 

 

SUSSEX MAIN LINES - A YEAR 2002 SURVEY 
John Blackwell 

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 Town.

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 cleared.

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

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