1. History of the Lewes to Uckfield Line (as seen on Wikipedia)



Authorisation for the construction of a line from Brighton to Hastings via Lewes was first obtained by the Brighton, Uckfield & Tunbridge Wells Railway in 1844, sponsored by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR), with the passing of the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Act (7 & 8 Vict. c. xci.). However, no works were commenced and another independent company, the Lewes and Uckfield Railway Company, was incorporated and secured on 27 July 1856 the passing of an Act to construct a line covering the 7½ miles between the two towns from a point 1½ miles north of Lewes to be known as Uckfield Junction, on the LBSCR's East Coastway Line.[3]

Attracted by the prospect of extra patronage of the existing East Coastway Line which with Lewes had been linked in 1846, the LBSCR supported the company's proposals and a connection linking Lewes to Uckfield was opened on 11 October 1858 to goods traffic, with passenger traffic following one week later. The initial service consisted of five trains each way on weekdays and three on Sundays. A four-horse coach service ran between Tunbridge Wells and Uckfield.[4]


The LBSCR purchased the Lewes and Uckfield Railway Company in 1864 and in the same year obtained authorisation to build a new line, 3 miles long, running almost parallel with the East Coastway Line which enabled the line from Uckfield to obtain independent access to Lewes and without having to pass through the Lewes Tunnel. This new section struck out at a right angle from the Uckfield line about a quarter of a mile east of the village of Hamsey, and approached Lewes from a northerly direction. It was a more heavily engineered section requiring a number of embankments and bridges before joining the East Coastway Line at a point east of Lewes Station. It enabled steam trains to be positioned in the correct direction for Brighton, and obviated the need for them to be turned. This new section opened on 1 October 1868, part of the original connection to Uckfield Junction closing as a consequence.[5]

Extension to Tunbridge Wells West

The Lewes-Uckfield line was extended north to Eridge and Tunbridge Wells in 1868, ostensibly to counter a threat by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway which had proposed the construction of a line from Beckenham to Brighton. The rights to construct this line had been granted to the Brighton, Uckfield & Tunbridge Wells Railway in 1861, but these were subsequently purchased by the LBSCR before completion.[6] Construction had already commenced in 1863 on a single track from Tunbridge Wells West to the new Groombridge Junction and this was opened on 1 October 1866. The completion of the line south to Uckfield had, however, to wait until 3 August 1868 due to the major structural work involved. Most notably, the LBSCR had to oversee the construction of Rotherfield (later Crowborough) Tunnel (1022 yards) beneath the ridge of the Wealden Heights, as well as the Sleeches and Greenhurst viaducts between Crowborough and Buxted.[7]

 The Sussex Advertiser reported on 5 August 1868 that the first train departed the LBSCR's station at Tunbridge Wells at 6.04am for Uckfield, Lewes and Brighton with approximately 40 persons having booked tickets.[8]

Doubling and non-electrification

The single line link to Tunbridge Wells Central was opened to passengers in 1876. The line from Uckfield was finally double-tracked in 1894. The Withyham Spur between Ashurst and Birchden Junction was opened in 7 June 1914. The Wealden Line then completed what was called the Outer Circle line which provided an alternative route between Brighton and London via Oxted. The line was also the only subsidiary cross-country double line in East Sussex and, as it did not figure in Southern Railway's electrification programme in the 1930s, it remained the last steam-operated line in the area.[9]

 2. Route of the line

The Wealden Line left Lewes from a point immediately to the east of the station, the line curving sharply north for approximately 200 yards on a short 1:60 gradient, crossing a girder bridge over goods lines and then a second bridge over Cliffe High Street. Continuing on an embankment, Lewes Viaduct carried the line over the River Ouse. The river and its tributaries were to be crossed a further seven times before the line reached Uckfield. The line then turned north-west at a point east of Hamsey village and followed a course up the valley of the river, passing the signalbox at Culver Junction (3¼ miles) where the line to Horsted Keynes and East Grinstead (now the Bluebell Railway) branched off, and rose gently to Barcombe Mills (3¾ miles), which had originally been known as Barcombe. This station was once popular with anglers who descended in large numbers on the nearby River Ouse during bank holidays.[10]

The line then continued to Isfield (5¾ miles) before reaching Uckfield (8½ miles). The LBSCR had once planned to construct a further line passing through Uckfield, the Ouse Valley Railway, which would have connected Balcombe with Hailsham. The plan was abandoned in 1868 due to a lack of funds.[11]

Departing Uckfield, the line continues to Buxted (10¾ miles) and then passes over Greenhurst Viaduct (10 brick arches, 185 yards) (11¾ miles), followed by Sleeches Viaduct (11 brick arches, 183 yards) one mile further on. The line then rises sharply on a 1:75 gradient and enters Crowborough Tunnel (which took its present name on 1 May 1897. Reaching Crowborough (previously known as Rotherfield until 1880, then Crowborough until 1897 and then Crowborough & Jarvis Brook) (15¼ miles), the line reaches its highest point, more than 300ft above sea level. Descending on a 1:75 gradient, the line reaches Redgate Mill Junction (17¾ miles) and then Eridge (19¼ miles). At Birchden Junction (20 miles), the line heads east passing Groombridge Junction (20¾ miles) and Groombridge (21¼ miles), rising gradually to Tunbridge Wells West (25¼ miles).[12]

3. The line's heyday

The line probably enjoyed its best and most popular period in the 1930s when regular services enabled passengers to travel from Brighton to Tonbridge , changing at Eridge for services from Eastbourne, with direct trains to London Bridge and London Victoria via East Croydon. There was also a daily through service linking with Brighton, Maidstone and Chatham in the east and Redhill and Reading in the west.[13]

Reduction of services was necessarily during World War II, but nevertheless many extras were run, including special non-stop "workmen's trains" which operated between London, Crowborough and Jarvis Brook and Mayfield.[14]

After the war, passenger numbers were still rising, tempted by the frequent services and competitive prices. Even in 1969, travelling by rail was cheaper than going by bus: a return rail ticket from Barcombe Mills to Brighton costing 2 shillings, whilst the equivalent bus fare was 11 pence more expensive[15].

4. Decline

In 1956, some years after the nationalisation of Southern Railway, the new operator, British Railways, Southern Region, having inherited a complicated and inconsistent timetabling system, moved to introduce a regular hourly service, with additional trains at peak hours. Diesel-electric units appeared on the line in 1962, running to the steam timetable.

The 1960s brought with them the spectre of change in the form of a policy favouring the construction of motorways to replace rail travel which was seen as outdated and inefficient. In 1964, new timetables were issued for the line which made travelling difficult by imposing long waits for onward connections, this policy of closure by stealth was a ploy to reduce passengers. as British Railways was by now keen to close the section from Hurst Green to Lewes.[16]

In its last years of operation, the line saw an hourly off-peak service on weekdays and a two-hourly one on Sundays from Oxted to Lewes. During rush hours, the service was supplemented, additional trains being laid on from Victoria to Brighton via Hurst Green.

On Sunday, 23 February 1969, the last day of operation, the last trains left Lewes and Uckfield at 20.46 and 20.42 respectively. There was little public interest and no organised demonstrations took place to mark the occasion.

5. Closure

Uckfield - Lewes

Lewes Relief Road

The seeds of the Lewes-Uckfield closure were sown in 1964 when Stage One of the "Lewes Relief Road", a project to ease congestion in Lewes, was approved by the Conservative Minister of Transport Ernest Marples with a 75% grant towards the £350,000 costs[17]. The works involved the construction of the Phoenix Causeway bridge to Cliffe High Street, the proposed path of which was blocked by an embankment carrying the Lewes to Uckfield line. Were the railway to remain open, another road bridge or level crossing would be required at a cost of £135,000; East Sussex County Council was also against bridging the line on the grounds of "design and amenity".

To facilitate the road scheme, the British Railways Board (BRB) applied to Parliament for authorisation to re-route the line to Lewes via the alignment which had been abandoned in 1868, the so-called "Hamsey Loop". Approval was granted by section 4 of the British Railways Act 1966 which permitted:

A railway (1,586 yards in length) wholly in the parish of Hamsey in the rural district of Chailey commencing by a junction with the railway between Lewes and Cooksbridge at a point 365 yards south of Hamsey level crossing and terminating by a junction with the railway between Lewes and Eridge at a point 425 yards north-east of the bridge carrying last-mentioned railway over the river Ouse.[18]

The new route would cost £95,000 to construct, and a request for funding was submitted to Parliament in 1966. This was turned down and the strategic function of the Uckfield line as a link to the south coast was effectively lost. BRB saw little further use for the line and applied for its abandonment.[19]

Closure announcement

In February 1966, BRB gave notice to Barbara Castle, the new Labour Minister of Transport, under Section 54 of the Transport Act 1962 of its intention to close the line from Hurst Green junction to Lewes. Detailed memoranda were presented relating to the availability of alternative public transport, as well as statistics as to the usage of the line. The section proposed for closure had already figured in the first Beeching Report as an 'unremunerative line', i.e. one earning less than £5,000 per annum in revenue.

Pursuant to Section 56 of the 1962 Act, the Minister agreed to publication of the Notice for Closure which was duly published in September 1966, followed in December by a notice inviting objections. East Sussex County Council duly responded in February 1967 with a memorandum pointing out that closure would affect an area in which the population was likely to almost double by 1981.

Public enquiry

The number of objections received to the proposed closure was almost 3,000 and triggered the requirement under the Transport Act 1962 to hold a public enquiry at which the merits of the proposal would be examined by the South Eastern Transport Users' Consultative Committee (TUCC). This was held in April 1967.

At the enquiry objectors against closure successfully employed, for the first time, the Ministry of Transport's own cost-benefit analysis, by which the viability of new motorways was measured by calculating the "income" of the road (i.e. its benefit to users and the rest of the network in terms of saved time, fuel etc) less the costs of its construction and maintenance, to show that the closure of the line would result in 712,000 wasted travelling hours at a cost of around £570,000 per annum.[20] This figure was in stark contrast to the loss of £276,000 that British Railways was claiming the railway line was losing.

The TUCC presented their report to Barbara Castle in June 1967 and recommended against closure of the line, pointing out the "very severe hardship" which would be suffered by those who used it to travel up to London. According to the report, "these hardships could not be alleviated other than by retaining the lines proposed to be closed...This arises not from lack of alternative bus services, existing or proposed, but from the inherent advantages of the railway to those who use it."

Reconsideration by the Minister

The TUCC report prompted the Minister to revisit her decision and she met with the BRB to determine whether alternatives existed to the closure of the entire section from Hurst Green junction to Lewes. They examined whether the necessary savings could be made by operating on a single track, rationalising the service or keeping the line open with the exception of the Lewes to Uckfield connection. The conclusion was reached that although a complete closure would involve "substantial inconvenience" rather than "outright hardship", this was outweighed by the high cost of retaining the service, including the reconstruction of the Hamsey Loop.

However, following Castle's departure from office on 6 April 1968, her successor, Richard Marsh, took the occasion to re-examine the proposed closure in the light of the Government's new policy for the organisation and financing of public transport in the London area. This was set out in the July 1968 White Paper on Transport for London (Cmd. 3686) which proposed that London commuter area services would be jointly-managed as a network by the BRB and the Greater London Council. Under the proposals, no subsidy would be paid by the Minister to BRB where a rail closure was refused: the loss would be taken into consideration when fixing financial objectives and levels of service.

In consultation with the BRB, Richard Marsh decided that the section from Hurst Green junction to Uckfield, as well as Eridge to Tunbridge Wells, was within the London commuter area and could be kept open. However, the line north of Uckfield would close provided that five additional bus services from Lewes and two from Uckfield were provided, together with an extra school bus from Lewes in the afternoon.[21] As Marsh explained in a letter to BRB dated 16 August 1968, the "hardship" caused by the closure of the line north could be alleviated by the provision of buses. He invited the BRB to apply for an "unremunerative railway grant" for the rest of the line, a new subsidy which would be shortly introduced by Section 39 of the Transport Act 1968.[22]

An unremunerative railway grant was subsequently awarded and the Minister formally refused consent to close the section from Hurst Green junction on 1 January 1969, whilst authorising closure of the 10 miles between Uckfield and Lewes as well as the section between Ashurst Junction and Groombridge Junction.

Extra bus services

Southdown Motors operated three bus services at the time: no. 19 between Newick and Lewes via Barcombe Cross, and nos. 119 and 122 between Lewes and Uckfield via the A26 with a stop at Barcombe Lane. As a condition of the Minister's consent to closure, additional bus services were laid on from August 1968. No. 122 additionally called at Isfield Station and provided an hourly service to and from Uckfield, but no. 119 departed Uckfield two minutes before the incoming rail service arrived. Barcombe Mills and Isfield stations remained open to sell tickets. However, as the buses were unable to negotiate the narrow winding road to Barcombe Mills, they stopped one mile short of the station; the BRB had laid on taxis to ferry passengers to the bus stop, but passengers first had to walk to the station to buy their tickets.[23]

The bus company applied for licences to operate the extra services beyond the closure of the line, and their applications were referred to the South East Area Traffic Commissioners whose approval for new bus services was required under the Road Traffic Act 1930.

In the meantime, the BRB announced that the last day of services between Uckfield and Lewes would be 6 January 1969 and issued a revised timetable showing the service to Lewes as withdrawn subject to the approval for the bus services. On 11 November 1968, it informed the Ministry that the new timetable would be introduced regardless of the Commissioners' decision.

A public enquiry was held on 27-28 November 1968 and 21 January 1969 at Lewes Town Hall and was chaired by Major General A.J.F. Emslie. The Commissioners were presented with evidence that those currently using the line would, instead of using the new bus services, instead switch to cars and motorcycles, thereby adding to the congestion problems at Uckfield.[24] It was also suggested that British Rail had drawn up a timetable which was deliberately aimed at showing a loss on the line[25]. Among the objectors to the scheme was East Sussex County Council whose Major J.H. Pickering of the Council's Roads and Bridges Committee, speaking on his own account, made the point that "the Minister had ignored the undisputed and rapid growth of population in the area affected by the proposed bus service", the population having increased by 5,000 in three years and was expected to reach 10,000 in the following five years. Crowborough was also expanding at a similar rate.

The grant of new licences was rejected by the Commissioners on the basis of: (i) the lack of services to Barcombe Mills station - passengers were obliged to walk one mile to the bus stop, (ii) the poor off-peak train/bus connections at Uckfield and (iii) traffic congestion at peak times in Tonbridge and Lewes which had a serious effect on bus timings at Uckfield[26].

The refusal prompted the BRB to review their closure plans. Its timetabling announcements had been criticised by the Commissioners as giving the impression that a decision on the line's future had been taken before their enquiry was over. The Commissioners' concerns were nevertheless met, and authorisation for the bus services was given on 31 March 1969. The last day of operations for the Uckfield - Lewes section would be 6 May 1969.[27]

Lewes Viaduct

Another element in the closure decision was the condition of Lewes Viaduct. The Ministry of Transport had been advised in 1964 by their Divisional Road Engineer that the condition of Lewes Viaduct would entail high maintenance costs in the near future. In June 1965, the Engineer reported again that the bridges and viaduct on the line between Barcombe Mills and Lewes were in need of expensive repairs. A speed limit of 10mph was introduced on the viaduct in September 1967. In March 1968, BRB informed the Ministry that unless the section of line between Lewes and the start of the Hamsey Loop could be eliminated by the end of the year, either by rebuilding the Hamsey Loop or by closing the line, emergency remedial work would be required.[28]

On 13 December 1968, BRB's engineers held a meeting at the viaduct. On 16 December BRB announced that, for safety reasons and as a short-term measure, only the down line could be used by a shuttle service and a revised timetable was introduced to reflect this. On 23 February 1969, this service ceased and was replaced by an emergency bus service.[29]


Once the line closed, the embankment carrying the line was then demolished and construction of the Phoenix Causeway completed in Summer 1969. The remaining bridges from Lewes station to Cliffe High Street and the Viaduct over the River Ouse were also demolished. Stages two and three of the Lewes Relief Road project were later scrapped, the Council preferring instead to link up with the town's new bypass via Cuilfail Tunnel. In 1974, after the powers granted by the British Railways Act 1966 to construct a line along the alternative alignment had expired, East Sussex County Council agreed to safeguard the trackbed against development.[17] A recent report by the Environment Agency noted the detrimental effect the Phoenix Causeway had on the town as it blocked the floodplain, thereby contributing greatly to the floods of October 2000[30].

The merits of the Uckfield-Lewes closure were debated on several occasions in Parliament following closure. In particular, it was argued that the line would have provided a valuable alternative route to the Brighton Main Line when that line was out of action, as was the case on 16 December 1972 when a collision between two passenger trains at Copyhold Junction closed the line for over a month. Lord Teviot referred to this incident when calling for the reinstatement of the line in the House of Lords on 20 May 1974. It was estimated that costs of reinstatement would be in the region of £2 million, together with an additional revenue subsidy of £170,000 per year.[31]

John Peyton, the Conservative Minister for Transport Industries, confirmed on 5 February 1973 that the powers granted by the British Railways Act 1966 in respect of the Hamsey Loop had expired on 31 December 1972.[32]