diamond geezer

 Friday, September 07, 2018

Normally when I take the Seaford train it's to do my very favourite walk over the Seven Sisters. That seemed to be what everybody else on the train was preparing for. But I only do that walk in odd-numbered years, so this time I wandered the coast between Newhaven and the Cuckmere instead. So here's a post about Grayson Perry's favourite museum, the best view in southeast England and the country's premier ghost station.

Seaford Museum

Every time I've walked past this museum before, it's either been too early in the day on a walk to Eastbourne, or too late in the day on a walk from Eastbourne. This time I timed it just right, which is to turn up between two and three in the afternoon so you've at least an hour to look around.

The first brilliant thing about Seaford Museum is that it's inside a Martello Tower. These are coastal forts built during the Napoleonic wars, with space for a single gun emplacement on the roof and a small garrison down below. 103 Martello Towers were built around the coast from Suffolk to Sussex, with Seaford the westernmost in the chain. Circumstances weren't ideal for step-free access, but that's no longer a problem because a lift's just been installed, and a bridge was added across the landward moat a few days ago.

£2.50 allows you through the gate and down the stairs, to what initially looks like a small collection based around local history. It's all going to be naval defences and seamen, you think. But step through any of the doorways and this soon proves very much not the case, as you discover shelf upon shelf and case upon case of 'stuff'. A collection of hoovers, a display of electronic calculators, a row of washing powder boxes, an evolution of typewriters, an array of electric bar fires, a parade of well-stocked shops, umpteen lace bobbins and an entire room full of old radios and recording equipment. I have never been to any other museum which boasted a 'Toaster Timeline'.

It seems impossible that quite so much could have been crammed inside the tower you saw outside, but the basement level is much larger, and is used to great effect. Not for nothing has Seaford Museum has been described as a 'Tardis of discovery'. The volunteers are very devoted to their job too, and revel in pointing out the artefact they last sourced from some acquaintance or local house clearance - in Saturday's case, a vintage bike. Nostalgic oneupmanship is also practised here, and I particularly enjoyed the conversation which went "Of course, my mother's phone number was Icklesham 6", to which the response was "Yes, ours was Newhaven 3".

It's hard to completely look at everything, which is the joy of the museum, but when you're done you can climb the steps to the roof and take a quick look out. You have to climb up to a separate podium to see over the top of the wall, which might not be so great if you're below average height. But look, there's the town promenade off to the west, and (more impressively) the pure white bump of Seaford Head rising to the east behind the beach huts. Where else could you see all this for the price of a 99 cornet? I really hope the front door's open the next time I walk by.

Seaford Head

The most annoying thing about walking the glorious rollercoaster of the Seven Sisters is that you can't properly see the chalk cliffs themselves. For that you need to be on the other side of the River Cuckmere which, unless the tide is low and you're willing to get your legs wet, is an hour's diversion up the estuary and back. So I took advantage of being on the western side and walked out to Seaford Head, where the crackingest views are to be had. I had previously wondered why it's often so busy up here, and now I know the answer - a conveniently-located Visitor Centre and car park on the prow of South Hill. From here a gentle descent leads down to the famous Coastguard Cottages, and the money shot which has graced many a book cover, TV documentary or calendar. I grabbed it front-lit, azure-backed and somehow without any intrusive humans in the foreground.

But this view won't be here forever, indeed it may not be here for long, as the risk of erosion threatens the cliff top's existence. What you can't see from up here are the concrete defences built by the cottagers in 1947 to keep the sea back, which merely slowed rather than halted the rate of retreat. The winter storms of 2013/14 did particular damage, and nobody quite knows when the next maritime assault will come. A quarter of a million pound campaign has been set up by the current owners to effect repairs and further engineering works, which is fair enough as it's in all our interests that they can continue to live here.

Walking these clifftops, as I've written before, is a surreal experience. It looks like you're ambling across a verdant meadow, alive with flowers and butterflies, except there's a vast expanse of sea a few steps to your left and a rocky foreshore seventy metres down. A short walk in the wrong direction and you could be dead in ten seconds flat. Safety advice recommends always staying at least five metres from the edge, however tempting it is to peer closer, not that this is always generally observed. The cliff edge almost certainly won't collapse while you're on it, but it absolutely will collapse one day, and there's one chained-off freshly-cracked outcrop a mile away which looks ready to go.

Newhaven Harbour/Newhaven Marine

Newhaven's three railway stations are an unlikely trio, originating in the port's heyday and somehow lingering on. Newhaven Town is the main stop, on the wrong side of the river for most of the town's population but close enough to the only bridge to be genuinely useful. Newhaven Harbour seems far less necessary, barely 400m down the line, serving a tiny catchment area of three residential streets and a clump of warehouse-like sheds. It used to be the preferred access point for foot passengers changing to the Dieppe ferry, but they're now told to disembark from Newhaven Town instead, and for good reason. Newhaven Harbour no longer has any access to the port, its roof is heavy with barbed wire to prevent illegal egress, and the former pathway up from the main road was recently barriered off in favour of a dusty semi-industrial backstreet. All trains stop, but technically there's no real need for them to do so.

But if Newhaven Harbour is surplus to requirements but somehow still open, Newhaven Marine is notoriously so. For decades it was the prime cross-Channel disembarkation point, immediately alongside the ferry, until stricter border restrictions relocated the diminishing throngs elsewhere. By 2006 the station was so run down that National Rail closed it to the public, citing safety concerns, but couldn't close it officially so scheduled a Parliamentary train service instead. Once a day a 'ghost' train is scheduled to chuck out its passengers at Newhaven Harbour, travel the 300m or so into the siding at Newhaven Marine, wait a bit, then emerge (not in passenger service) and return to Lewes. And it does this even though last year, the remains of the station building itself were demolished.

The best view is from the footbridge at Newhaven Harbour, of a tiny spur line branching off beyond the level crossing towards no longer anything in particular. Or perhaps the best view is through the security gate on the East Quay, watched over by a glowering guard who'd let you through to the Port Office or the Commercial Depot, but likely not for a snoop around a dead station. There is still a Newhaven Marine station sign on the signal box, in Network South East colours, but otherwise this could be any portside backlot towered over by a giant vehicle ferry. As I understand it, the old tracks into Newhaven Marine were lifted a couple of weeks ago and a brand new freight siding laid, which is due to come into operation next March. There are certainly line-blocks in place at present which would prevent the daily parliamentary train from running. But don't necessarily expect the 'station' to close, because that's really hard to do, and Newhaven's always been a lot more stubborn than that.

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