Last days of the Cuckoo Line

For 88 years many Wealden towns and villages were linked to Eastbourne by a picturesque rail route - the Cuckoo Line. The last section of the line was closed 40 years ago on the instructions of Dr Beeching who was tasked with rationalising the loss-making British Rail. It was an era when the motor car was viewed as the future, and before Global Warming and the environmental benefits of rail travel were recognised. ANDREW RAEBURN looks at the history of the line, and its closure.

WHEN the last passenger train pulled away from Hailsham railway station at 10.30pm on September 8, 1968, one of Sussex's main transport routes went with it.

The closure of Hailsham station, 40 years ago on Monday, marked the end of the Cuckoo Line which had run from Polegate to Eridge for the best part of a century.

The line served rural communities in Hellingly, Horam, Heathfield, Mayfield and Rotherfield and its loss is still keenly felt today.

The Cuckoo Line opened in May 1849 and initially ran northwards from Polegate to Hailsham, which was the terminus for 31 years until the line through to Eridge was completed.

Its demise in 1968 has been documented by a number of rail enthusiasts. One Hailsham amateur historian who became fascinated with its history was Jim Hillman, who, with his friends Lez Smith and John Pratt, explored its remains.

Such was Jim's dedication to the line, he spent decades building a working recreation of Hailsham station in the loft of the home he shared with wife Ann in Falcon Way.

The incredible attention to detail included scale replicas of the station's cattle pens and every measurement was scaled down from the original plans for the station.

Jim also researched and began writing a book on the Cuckoo Line but this was curtailed when he passed away last year.

The story of the Cuckoo Line dates back to the opening of Polegate station on June 27, 1846. Before a regular train service was introduced, the only way of getting between Eastbourne and Hailsham was by horse-drawn vehicle.

Local farmers and traders had to load their goods on to wagons and it would take around five days to reach London. Using the train reduced the travel time to two hours.

In 1846, the London and Brighton Railway Company got permission to build two branch lines - one from Polegate to Eastbourne and another from Polegate to Hailsham.

The Cuckoo Line was built in two sections, starting with the branch from Polegate to Hailsham, which was estimated to have cost 30,000. Its name was inspired by the legend that the first cuckoo of spring was heard every April at the Heathfield Fair.

Work on the line went well, bar one accident in August 1847. Newspaper reports of the time stated a 15-year-old boy slipped on a rail while emptying one of the muck wagons and severely injured his arm, which had to be amputated at the scene by a local doctor.

Both the Eastbourne and Hailsham branch lines opened on the same day - May 14, 1849. The opening of Hailsham station was celebrated like a holiday and streets around the area were full of banners and flowers. The directors of the train company laid on a free ride to Eastbourne for children and those less well-off.

The station served both passengers and livestock for the nearby market. In his unpublished book, Jim Hillman described what passengers would have seen as they entered the station.

He wrote, "On arriving at the station, you would have walked under the front canopy and through the front doors into the main hall and waiting room.

"You could see up into the steep and heavily-timbered roof which was open to view. In the centre of the roof was set an ornate lantern light. The platform was made of bricks laid flat and edged with a timber kerb."

All northbound trains terminated at Hailsham until September 1880 when the line was extended up to Eridge.

For the next 88 years, the Cuckoo Line carried passengers across the Sussex countryside and connected with lines towards Tunbridge Wells and London.

The country's rail network was nationalised in 1948 but by the 1960s, the cracks were beginning to show. Car use had rocketed and much of the loss-making rail network was seen as expensive and surplus to requirements.

Dr Richard Beeching's 1963 report on the 're-shaping of British Railways' recommended wholesale closure of little-used or unprofitable rail lines and stations, including the Cuckoo Line.

In 1965, a survey revealed only 250 passengers a day were using the line, of which just 23 were season ticket holders.

The section from Eridge to Hailsham was closed first - it was wound up to passenger traffic in July 1965 but remained open for freight until April 26, 1968, when a lorry damaged a bridge at Horsebridge and it was not deemed cost efficient to repair it.

The later closure of the Hailsham to Polegate section was hotly disputed, particularly as Hailsham was then - as now - identified as a growing town.

Hailsham Rural District Council expressed its fears that bus services would not adequately replace the axed trains. A week before the station's closure, councillors asked minister of transport Richard Marsh to meet them to discuss the future of public transport in the area - but he refused.

And on September 8, 1968, the last passenger train left Hailsham at 10.30pm - and with it heralded the end of the Cuckoo Line.