diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 05, 2018

A tale of two stations, both called Bishopstone, on the Seaford branch in East Sussex, one stop down from Newhaven.

The original, built for a unique coastal village and abandoned in 1941. And its replacement, inspired by the tube and grade II listed.

At the end of the 18th century, a flour mill opened on a shingle bank to the east of Newhaven. It worked on tidal power in the adjacent creek, and a village called Tide Mills grew up around it. This grew surprisingly large, given the exposed location, with homes for workers alongside the granary, stables and wagon sheds. The mill disappeared in 1900 following an upgrade to Newhaven Harbour, but the village lingered on, and gradually ran down. Seaford council condemned the buildings as unfit for human habitation in 1937, but it was military manoeuvres at the start of WW2 which finally necessitated total demolition. That's the short version of the story, anyway. Longer versions here and here.

What you'll find if you wander along the seafront today is a cluster of ruins and foundations on the shingle. Initially you think nothing could be out here, amid the pebbly vegetation and brackish pools. But then the broken walls and concrete footprints appear, and the stumps of a recuperative hospital, and I've seen nothing else quite like it. Thankfully interpretation boards are everywhere to explain what you're seeing, and any invasive brambles have been trimmed back just far enough, so you can go ahead and explore.

At the northern end of the site is the former Bishopstone station... or what's left of it, which is a single crumbling overgrown platform. You can see it quite clearly from the pedestrian level crossing alongside, but don't linger, because the Seaford train rushes through every half an hour. It always honks loudly, just in case. Should the ghost village be busy that'll be because there's a convenient car park on the other side of the tracks. After the village disappeared its station was briefly renamed Bishopstone Beach Halt, but only for three summers because it no longer served anything tangible, and then it closed for good. No problem, a new Bishopstone station had just opened half a mile down the line.

Opened 80 years ago in September 1938, the new Bishopstone was a minor marvel. Its architect James Robb Scott designed it in Art Deco style, inspired by Charles Holden stations recently opened at the top end of the Piccadilly line. It's startlingly symmetrical, with a central octagonal tower that could almost be a helipad. The main building is low and squat, with a central entrance and glamorously smoothed corners. The two brick cuboids on the roof are actually pillboxes, added during the war, but even these have been arranged elegantly and with balance, and the overall effect remains undeniably impressive. Except...

What a miserable state Bishopstone station is in these days. It's unstaffed, and has been since 1988, so nobody's keeping an eye on the place. The newsagents in the former ticket office, most recently Linda's General Stores, is dark and firmly secured. The lofty octagonal entrance hall is entirely empty, save some blank rectangles which once displayed a local art project. The footbridge has seen better days, its almost-coastal location not conducive to easy maintenance. And one entire platform is blocked off and overgrown... which isn't entirely surprising on a single track line, but adds to the general sense of decay.

The reason for this appealing desolation is a familiar one - plans interrupted by World War Two. Two large housing estates were due to be built nearby, hence a relocated railhead made sense, but priorities changed and construction was delayed. Only the farthest on Rookery Hill was completed, the hike to the station long enough to be inconvenient, so Bishopstone now finds itself on the edge of Seaford's built-up area at the top of a quiet cul-de-sac facing a panorama of rolling downland. Indeed the couple of miles between here and Newhaven is one of the last easily-accessible stretches of the East Sussex coastline never to have transformed into somewhere to live. I wasn't surprised to be the only passenger alighting here on Saturday morning.

I walked a good kilometre across the fields to the original village of Bishopstone, a rambling collection of big old cottages on the lip of the South Downs. I hoped I'd be able to take a look inside the Saxon church, thought to be the oldest in the county, and my luck was in because by coincidence I'd arrived on the opening day of the Flower Festival. Indeed it felt like most of the rest of the village had popped along to St Andrew's to enjoy the colourful displays, each arrangement based on the life of a former resident. I had not been expecting to learn about William Aubrey Darlington, drama critic for the Daily Telegraph from 1920 to 1968, nor pioneer epidemiologist Lady Janet Forber, formerly of this parish, nor to be invited to refreshments in the Parish Hall. What a treat.

And if that felt like a different world, the single country lane leading north out of Bishopstone eventually reached one further hamlet before evaporating into a landscape of grassy clefts. I took the footpath up Devilsrest Bottom, scattering the sheep in all directions as the track grew ever more remote. I emerged into a vast high field where a lumbering farm vehicle was busy ploughing back and forth, destroying all visible trace of the right of way I needed to follow. And on the 100m contour I paused to admire the view back across unblemished fields towards the fort at Newhaven, where a swarm of paragliders floated above the chalk headland. Local station, Bishopstone, for the win.

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