diamond geezer

 Monday, March 26, 2012

East Grinstead is a railway town. It wasn't always so, indeed it should no longer be, but the railways have left an indelible mark. The first came from the west, then the east, then the south, then the north, like iron crosshairs centred on the town, creating a railway hub at the heart of the High Weald. And then suddenly three of the lines faded away, sort of, so the only way in is now from London to the north. I won't drone on in detail about the history of these various lines. If you're interested you'll find copious detail here, here and here. But here's a bit about the four lines today, plus a lot more about the famous resident who killed them.

To the west: East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Three Bridges)
Summary: The line that first connected East Grinstead to the rest of the rail network.
Opened: Monday 9 July 1855 (so pleased were the townspeople that they awarded themselves a public holiday)
Closed: Monday 2 January 1967 (making East Grinstead High Level station redundant, since demolished)
Today: The Worth Way, a 7-mile footpath/cycle track linking Crawley to East Grinstead (leaflet)

To the east: Groombridge and Tunbridge Wells Railway (East Grinstead → Tunbridge Wells)
Summary: An extension of the previous line.
Opened: Monday 1 October 1866 (but wasn't as popular as the company had hoped)
Closed: Monday 2 January 1967 (yes, it was all his fault)
Today: The Forest Way, a 10-mile footpath/cycle track linking East Grinstead to Groombridge (leaflet)

This eastern railway's particularly fascinating because of its links to Dr Beeching. His was the infamous report in 1963 which earmarked the line for closure. But this was also the railway he lived alongside, on the outskirts of East Grinstead, so he must have known precisely what he was doing when he culled it. Of the four lines into town, only one survived his axe, and that was the line to the north towards Croydon and London Victoria. Coincidentally, or not, this was also the line on which he was a first class season ticket holder, travelling up to the city each day in his role as the chairman of the British Railways Board. His decision left East Grinstead as the insignificant terminus of a single branch line. And it also left the tracks at the bottom of his garden strangely silent.

You can't see Richard Beeching's house from the Lewes Road, because the treeline is too thick. But Brockhurst is a magnificent nine-bedroomed dwelling, set in six landscaped acres with its very own lake. It was last up for sale in March last year, for a mere £3½m, should you fancy a covetous flick through the estate agent's brochure. It's precisely the sort of luxurious hideaway you'd expect to be owned by a man who also became deputy chairman of ICI, a director of Lloyds Bank and ended up as Baron Beeching of East Grinstead in the Lords. He lived at the bottom of his own private drive, the top of which is currently a blaze of blooming blossoming pink [photo]. The nearest former station was well over a mile away, so it's not like he had ever great cause to use this doomed branch line. But it must have nagged away at him, watching steam billowing from trains in the cutting at the bottom of the hill, carrying empty seats at great expense to nowhere special.

The line today has been given over to less expensive forms of transport such as cycling and walking. The Forest Way is a delightful path, and well frequented by those seeking recreation in the countryside of the High Weald. I passed joggers and ramblers and dog-walkers, and that was just in the first section as far as a stone bridge carrying a minor lane across the no-longer railway [different photo]. It could never have supported economic levels of traffic in the modern age, so perhaps it's for the best that the line at the bottom of Dr Beeching's garden has fallen silent.

But where this line passes through the centre of East Grinstead, it's anything but silent. This wasn't the centre of town when a cutting was driven through in the 1860s, but suburbia now spreads out relentlessly on either side. This half mile's no cycle path, it's been completely transformed by the council into a major road which allows traffic to cross East Grinstead without ever bothering the historic High Street. The council named it Beeching Way, in honour of the resident who delivered them the perfect by-pass (and apparently nearly called it Beeching Cut). Look down from one of the bridges and you'll see the cutting transformed by tarmac, and overwhelmed by the modern age's dominant form of four-wheeled transport [photo]. This is one railway line they'll never reopen, because the town's economy could never survive the hit.

To the south: Lewes and East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Lewes)
Summary: An economically flawed attempt to create a new link to the south coast
Opened: Tuesday 1 August 1882 (rather later than the east-west railway)
Closed: Monday 17 March 1958 (this one disappeared early)
Today: The Bluebell Railway (part-reopened 1960)

It's now one of the finest preserved steam railways in the country, but I never made it as far as the Bluebell Railway on my visit because the line still stops at Kingscote, two miles from the edge of town. It's been like this for twenty years, but plans are well underway to restore the final miles of track to East Grinstead. This might have been straightforward had not the Imberhorne cutting been completely filled by a rubbish tip in the intervening years since closure, and it's costing them millions to remove it. You can read more here, watch a video here and donate some cash here. If all goes to plan the extension will open next March, and the Bluebell will finally be linked to the main rail network. That should do wonders for tourist numbers, and I suspect I'll be back then.

To the north: Croydon, Oxted & East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Croydon)
Opened: Tuesday 10 March 1884 (the last to open, and the only line still operational)
Today: half-hourly trains to London Victoria

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