The Cuckmere Valley Railway had a curious history - born from the aspirations of Victorian entrepreneurs in the trying circumstances of the 1860's and the battles between two companies, and ended, like so many rural routes, by the ex-Technical Director of ICI.
The story begins some 20 years earlier. The Brighton Lewes and Hastings Railway built a line from Brighton to Lewes which opened in June 1846. Three years later, this was extended to serve Eastbourne, with the line opening on the 14th May 1849 (1), now operated by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LBSCR), which itself had been formed from the Brighton Lewes and Hastings Railway, amongst others, some weeks after the initial line had been opened.
For some years, the residents and businessmen of what would become the Cuckmere Valley line would have to travel some way afield in order to reach the routes of the Iron Horse - during 1858, the LBSCR opened a branch from Lewes to Uckfield, with intermediate stations at Barcombe Mills and, most importantly for the line, Isfield, whilst thirteen years previously the LBSCR had also provided a station - often erroneously thought to be for the benefit of a certain Horatio Bottomley (2) - at Berwick, whilst in the other direction the LBSCR had extended their Newhaven branch to Seaford in 1864.
That may well have been that - but for inter-railway rivalry. Dating back many years, the LBSCR - and her original constituent railways - had a difficult relationship with the South Eastern Railway. An agreement back in 1848 had strove to normalise relations and begin sensible, harmonious co-existence, but when the SER Chairman and Secretary reported to shareholders in 1863, they included a list of the difficulties between the two companies with reasons that they considered the original agreement breached (3).
With local businesses in the area thriving - prime agricultural land throughout with plentiful produce, a brewery, as well as brickworks at Laughton and the growing needs of the railways for ballast, several entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity. They had a trump card too - one which would eventually prove vital. During late 1862 and early 1863, the businessmen and landowners petitioned, on more than one occasion, the Chairman of the LBSCR, Leo Schuster for a railway. Schuster's uncharacteristic initial hesitancy caused the main backers to switch tactics - as they began to speak to the SER, who were very keen to reach the East Sussex coast, with the potential for access to the rapidly expanding seaside resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne, themselves. This threat to the dominance of the 'Brighton' on the Sussex Coast forced Schuster's hand, with Chief Engineer of the LBSCR, Frederick Banister, quickly taking charge of planning the route. Banister had men in place by August of 1863, with the first train departing Isfield along the new route eighteen months later. The timing, for the original promoters, could not have been more - or less, if you were a shareholder of the LBSC - fortuitous. In May 1866 London bankers Overend, Gurney & Company collapsed, plunging the UK into a financial crisis (4), causing the abandonment of several, and the postponement of other (5) lines, with Schuster departing as a result.
The line itself, operated by the LBSCR, began at Isfield, with trains using Platform 3 of Isfield station on the 'Wealden Line' - a simple walk across either the platform or level crossing to the west of the station (6) to connect with services to Lewes in one direction or Tunbridge Wells in the other. From Isfield, the single track skirted the Ancient Plashett Park Wood, before pausing first at Laughton, home of two of the promoters of the line, both engaged in the brick industry, with Laughton an important producer (7). From Laughton, the line ran to the tiny Hamlet of Ripe, deep in the agricultural heartland of Sussex and very much a farming community ( 8 , before heading towards Berwick. Berwick, as mentioned earlier, had been connected to the rail network as long ago as 1846, with a station on the Brighton-Eastbourne line of the LBSCR. This station however was in a place more convenient to the railway than the local population, being around two miles from the centre of the Village (9). Another Brickworks, with another of the main backers of the line behind it is found here - the Cuckmere Valley line bridging the Brighton-Eastbourne line with a station in the centre of the village perhaps of more use to the locals than the original. After Berwick, the line turned to run alongside the recently-straightened River Cuckmere that would give the line its name, stopping next at Alfriston, the largest of the villages served. This had previously been smuggling country, with the notorious Collins Gang effectively running the town until the transportation of their leader in 1830, with the backers keen to turn the fortunes of the village around (10). Leaving Alfriston and continuing towards the mouth of the river, the railway terminated - for passengers, at least - at Litlington, the location of a Horse cut into the chalk hillside to mark the coronation of Queen Victoria (11). Freight, however, continued southwards, right to the mouth of the river where shingle was extracted from the estuary for use in construction, and indeed ballast on the railway itself (12), by the East Sussex Transport and Trading Company, the owner of which was another of the original backers of the line.
Looking for a Station by Station Guide? - Find it here - http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/blog/1330/entry-11576-a-journey-down-the-cuckmere-valley-line-station-by-station/