The Days Before the Beeching Axe
As a nation, we look back at 1966 with fondness and pride. Nostalgia serves the era well, thanks to Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy and The Beatles topping the pop charts on three occasions.
But for many it was a time of great hardship, and for those working on the railways it was the end of the line. West Grinstead was a victim of The Beeching Axe – a huge restructuring of Britain’s railways, as laid out by the chairman of British Rail, Richard Beeching. The last train to use the line was the 9.28pm train from Brighton to Horsham on Sunday, 6th March 1966.
These days, the South Downs Link follows much of the old rail line. Walkers and cyclists navigating the Link can still see the old platform and the tunnel that passes under the A272 Cowfold Road. Whilst the sign on the platform may appear to be authentic it is in fact an attractive if not entirely accurate re-creation. The carriage used as an information point may be painted in post-war British Rail Buckingham Green, but it arrived from Wales with a white and red livery and bears little resemblance to the steam engines and horse boxes that frequented the station in its heyday.
Most who pass by would not know that there are still tracks from the old cattle sidings just behind the information point and herb gardens, or that the station master still lives just a few yards away.
West Grinstead was on the Steyning line, which ran from Horsham to Shoreham-by-Sea via Christ’s Hospital, Southwater, West Grinstead, Partridge Green, Steyning and Bramber.
Ken Bartlett was the station master on the last day, and 46 years since his last day at the station, he remains a local resident and is one of a team of volunteers running the information point. Ken looks back at great fondness at his days on the Steyning line. He said: “I came here in February 1958. I started off as a messenger at Portsmouth and Southsea station in 1950 when I was 16 and I ended up spending fifty years on the railway.
“When I came here it was my first job as a station master. West Grinstead was on the Steyning line on the Horsham to Brighton line. I looked after Southwater and Partridge Green stations as well and when in 1964
the station master at Steyning left I took over the whole line with Steyning, Henfield and Bramber stations too. I wouldn’t say it was a hard day’s work. It was a pleasant day’s work. Train travel was more comfortable and leisurely back then.
“The steam days were my favourite. You worked with railwaymen and you learned from them all the time, but health and safety has quashed all of that. When I think of some of the things we used to do! On my first day here at West Grinstead, the hounds from the hunt were chasing a fox down the line here. If the drivers stopped for the hunt they would usually slip half a crown to the driver.
“Here at West Grinstead, we dealt with horses from the National Stud and various stables in the area. There were more horses than people and in Southwater the line mainly served the brickworks. The Tabby Cat (now The Orchard restaurant) was a great place for horse transactions. I was often in the office and Mr Tommy Grantham would call the office and say ‘come over the pub. I want you to arrange transport for horses from here to Holland! So much business revolved around the station.
“The days on this line were my best working days. Everyone was friendly. Les Tyrrell was the porter signalman, Jim Lucas was a porter and he did the signal lamps. Ray Avis was a porter signalman. I remember the last day of the line – there were plenty of people about, more than we had seen for years. The last train was at about
9.30pm from Horsham, and I was here travelling up and down the line and finished in Steyning as the last train from Brighton terminated there. There were a lot of people there.
“It was a celebratory day and I recall a trumpeter sounding the last post. We felt sad, but that was one of the things of the day. We were not the only ones affected. Small branch lines were closed all over the country. It started off with eliminating the goods yards in 1962-63, except for a few serving the cement works. Signal boxes went next, so it was a gradual deterioration of facilities. We were aware of what was happening.”
Perhaps the most dramatic day in the 101 year working life of West Grinstead station came on 30th November 1942, when train driver 67 year-old George Henry Ansbridge was killed in a German air attack. When two fighter planes appeared from the south, George stopped his engine about a hundred yards from the signal box and tried to take refuge.
The pilots spotted the steam engine, swooped down and fired on George, who lost his life. Signalman Mr G. Court was in the signal box with the door open at the time and he crouched in the corner to take cover. The stoker, Eileen Colget (booking office clerk) and men working in the good yard all dived for cover and survived the attack.
West Grinstead resident John Raymond Grantham recorded the event in his sketch book and visitors to the Downs Link can view this image at the information point. John served as a rear gunner was killed two years later in an RAF raid on Chambly railway in 1944. John’s sister, Diana Holman, 92, still lives in Kennel Lane.
Diana said: “I went to London when I was 21 so was not here when the attack happened. The fighters came across our home – all the bullets fell in our garden. When John was at Steyning Grammar School he was in the Air
Training Corps, and he then flew gliders where Gatwick is now. He was always keen to be a pilot. He joined the RAF a couple of years after (the West Grinstead attack). “He wanted to be a bomber pilot but his maths was not good enough and so he became a rear gunner, which was awful. It was the worst thing you could be.
“It wasn’t such a strange thing for the Germans to attack a village rail station. There were lots of bombs dropped around here. I was shot at myself coming back from my father’s stables one time whilst crossing the field. I had to dive into a ditch. I don’t think they were aiming for me – they were probably dropping bombs left over from a raid in the city. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
John’s sketch is one of a number of fascinating features of the information point, which in itself comes with an intriguing story. The carriage arrived from South Wales via the Bluebell railway on a low loader. Staff from British Telecom on a Management Training exercise repainted the carriage and also helped to restore the pond and herb garden nearby in a project masterminded by Jean Rolfe, a West Sussex Countryside Ranger.
The carriage was gutted and volunteers including Angus Macintosh turned it into an interesting feature of the Downs Link. It was Angus who recreated the scale model of the station, as it would have been between the two
World Wars. A number of pictures have been given to ken and the volunteers over the years by railway enthusiasts such as John Scrase, a prolific railway photographer from Horsham.
Ken said: “The coach itself has been a popular feature. On a wet day you might get half a dozen people but on a good day there may be 50 visitors. The Downs Link is very popular. I was just speaking to two gentlemen who set off from Guildford and were going to do the whole route down to Shoreham and catch a train home. We try and open when we can but it’s open on most Sundays, and hopefully we can keep doing that for a long time to come.”