Thursday 5th May 2022
I took a ride on the wonderful Bluebell Railway on (Bank Holiday) Monday. I almost left it too late this year with peak bluebell season nearly over but I wasn’t disappointed.
Unlike many heritage railways the Bluebell wasn’t a victim of the Beeching axe. British Railways actually closed the line as far back as May 1955, although it gained a short reprieve between August 1956 and March 1958 after a disgruntled resident of Chailey discovered a legal loophole relating to a “Statutory Line” clause in the line’s establishing Act which meant a stay of execution before the offending clause could be repealed.
This delay helped the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society get themselves organised amazingly quickly following the line’s ultimate closure. They began running trains between Sheffield Park and just south of Horsted Keynes as early as 1960 making the railway the first preserved standard gauge steam-operated railway in the world. Quite a claim to fame.
Fast forward 53 years to 2013 and many subsequent extensions and reopenings culminated in that year’s opening of the significant and symbolic extension from Kingscote through to East Grinstead and the restoration of a connection to the national rail network. It’s now an 11 mile delightful ride through eastern West Sussex although Sheffield Park, the southern terminus, is just over the border in East Sussex.
Unlike the line’s three long standing stations at Kingscote, Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park, the station buildings at East Grinstead were demolished many years ago with a replacement modern functional building providing facilities for Southern Rail’s service northwards to London.
The Bluebell Railway has brought its single track line in from the south alongside Southern’s siding and uses a single platform south of the main station platforms together with a ‘turn back’ piece of track for steam engines to run round the coaches and a siding.
On Monday the Southern’s siding had an Electrostar train stabled in it making for a great contrast between heritage and modern.
Kingscote, the first station south, was the line’s northern terminus for many years with two platforms serving the double section of track at this point.
I took a stroll around the surrounding area including the extensive adjacent woods and I couldn’t help but think how isolated the station is and in the old days must easily have qualified as a ‘least used station’. There’s just two or three residential properties close by and that’s it.
It presumably saw trade in goods traffic as many such stations used to, with milk and other fresh produce coming from nearby farms.
Heading south after Kingscote the line passes through its only tunnel just after passing through the village of Sharpthorne where the remains of an abandoned platform can be seen.
The next station south is Horsted Keynes which is a substantial affair with five platforms serving four tracks passing through as well as a signal box and extensive sidings.
This is because the line used to split here with one track continuing due south to Lewes and another heading off west via Ardingley to connect with the Brighton Main Line just north of Haywards Heath.
So it was a true rural junction station and still exudes that charm thanks to the Bluebell Railway’s excellent restoration and preservation.
The station is now regularly used in films and television programmes
When the Bluebell Railway closed in 1960 the line from Horsted Keynes across to Haywards Heath continued to see trains for three more years and ironically was operated by Southern’s electric traction of the day.
This line from Haywards Heath still exists today but only as far as a cement works at Ardingly and there are aspirations to one day restore the link to Horsted Keynes as part of the Bluebell Railway, something that really would be wonderful to see.
Unlike Kingscote there is a sizeable village at Horsted Keynes although it’s about a mile from the station along footpath-less country roads. Metrobus run buses on its route 270 (East Grinstead to Brighton) close to the station at weekends.
After Horsted Keynes the line continues south through serious bluebell country before reaching the southern terminus at Sheffield Park.
Sheffield Park is the main base for the Railway’s preservation activities with engine sheds and workshops and, for the public, the inevitable gift shop and café as well as a museum.
It’s a lovely reminder of how rural stations used to be with plenty of period enamel signs and nostalgic images.
As are the trains themselves. As you can see from the earlier photographs, the Bluebell Railway had two steam locomotives out on Monday and a variety of coaches on which to travel up and down the line.
Not an ‘ironing board’ or seat back tray was to be seen.
Like Kingscote, there are few residential properties near Sheffield Park station with Sheffield Park Gardens being a close by modern day attraction but the main attraction these days is the Bluebell Railway itself and rightly so with all the great efforts of the volunteers who so obviously enjoy their work.
Heritage Railways aren’t cheap to travel on, but they’re not cheap to run either. An unlimited travel day ticket costs £27 for an adult although it’s £25.45 if booked online in advance.
The legendary Flying Scotsman is paying a visit to the railway at the end of August snd tickets for a ride on this iconic train have unsurprisingly been snapped up fast.
A visit to the Bluebell comes highly recommended.
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