Heathfield Tunnel

(Photos 10-12 © Bluebell Railway Museum Archive/
John J Smith collection
)

The link between Polegate and Eridge, built by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway, was established in two phases. The first resulted in a three-mile branch between Polegate and Hailsham at its south end, opening in May 1849. Three decades elapsed before the remaining 16 miles was constructed to form a through route, welcoming its first traffic on 1st September 1880 although services had run on the single line between Hailsham and Heathfield since April. Collectively they were informally known as the Cuckoo Line after the local legend that an old lady always turns up at Heathfield's annual Heffle Cuckoo Fair to release the first cuckoo of spring from her basket.

The market town's station was sited to the south-west of its centre at the bottom of a hill - this was punctured by a tunnel of 265 yards in length, allowing trains to continue their journeys northwards. It accommodated both an Up and a Down line.

The south portal, featuring a substantial keystone, is brick-built with narrow buttresses either side of the entrance and tapering wing walls. It is topped by a string course in stone, above which is an elegantly curved brick parapet with masonry copings. The tunnel mouth has a classic elliptical shape.

Six bricks thick, the lining features butt joints every 16 feet and extends around a curve of approximately 33 chains in radius. Functional refuges are provided in both walls. Water ingress is considerable in places - mitigation measures have included the installation of drain pipes and cutting of weep holes. Despite this, substantial mineral deposits have formed and many areas of the brickwork are badly spalled.

The north portal mirrors the design of its southern sibling except the parapet is now topped in engineering brick, presumably replacing the original stonework.

Like its opening, the line's closure came in phases. Passenger services north of Hailsham were withdrawn in June 1965 but the original section southwards to Polegate kept its trains until September 1968. The goods depot at Heathfield continued to be served by rail until its curtain was prematurely brought down by a lorry colliding with a bridge on 26th April 1968. The damage was deemed uneconomic to repair. Closure officially came on 5th August.

Between 1992-1994, the County Council reopened the 11-mile section of line between Polegate and Heathfield as a foot and cycle path. Known as the Cuckoo Trail, the intention is to extend it northwards and, to facilitate this, Heathfield Tunnel has been repaired and lit.

As part of a council-funded project, 'Millennium Gates' costing £22,000 were designed by local school children and fitted across the entrances in August 2001. A skateboard park was built in the southern approach cutting and the tunnel reopened in January 2002. However, following an alleged incident in March 2005, the gates were locked. After much discussion public access resumed on 26th March 2007.

Mayfield Tunnel, four-and-a-half miles north of Heathfield, was obliterated during construction of the Mayfield bypass.

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