The Devils Playground
by Roger Linn
The deepest dry valley in the world, Devil’s Dyke was once more than the beautiful walks and views it affords it’s many visitors. Roger Linn unearths this extraordinary story, still scarred in the earth today.
Nowadays Devil’s Dyke, situated six miles or so north of Brighton, is simply a renowned beauty spot covering some 200 acres of stunning downland and affording what the artist Constable described as the “the grandest view in the world”. North, the panorama takes in the entire sweep of the towns and villages, farms, fields and woods that make up the weald of Sussex and the eye is lead all the way to the faint purple line of the North Downs. To the south is the ever-changing, majestic sight of the English channel, swept by its cloud-driven kaleidoscope of light and shade. The far southerly horizon offers a parade of merchant shipping; tankers, bulk carriers, and container vessels all making their stately way down channel en route to the world’s ports. While away to the west, on a clear day, one can see the misty outline of the Isle of Wight.
The Dyke itself is a steep sided gulley some 700 feet deep and three quarters of a mile long. Supposedly created by the Devil in a failed attempt to flood the churches of the weald, it is the deepest dry valley in the world. Today the area is popular with dog walkers, hang gliders, mountain bikers and walkers on the South Downs Way. However, busy though the Dyke is today, it is nothing compared to its Victorian heyday, when on Whit Monday 1893 some 30,000 people visited. How they got there and what they all did when they arrived is an extraordinary story.
Throughout the 19th century, people had been coming out from Brighton to take the air on the Dyke. There, they could be refreshed in an early version of a tea room, or from the mid 1800s onwards in one of the previous versions of the Dyke Hotel – of which there have been at least four, including one which burnt to the ground. Of course in those days they had to travel on uncomfortably hard seats in horse-drawn wagonettes and the round trip would take a couple of hours. However in 1887, the construction of a single track railway from Hove which wound its way to a specially constructed station some 200 feet below the summit of the hill saw the Dyke gain a rapid increase in popularity. The station is now Dyke Farm and what was the platform is now crowded with black Aberdeen Angus cows, pushing and shoving for all the world like commuters at London Bridge. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The railway was an instant hit and the energetic new landlord of the Dyke Hotel, Mr Hubbard, set about taking advantage of it. He was reputedly a rich, big game hunter from Canada and he had some pretty revolutionary ideas as to how to attract people to his establishment. Today we would recognise his plan as nothing less than an adventure theme park.
The old photographs show that over time he created a huge range of activities and exhibits including a fairground, two bandstands, an observatory, a camera obscura, a wooden model of a huge naval gun, a coconut shy, and supposedly, the skull of a whale. There was a pavilion with a bar capable of seating 150 people and amazingly, a mini, gravity operated switchback railway.
In 1894, even more excitement was added when an aerial cable railway was built across the chasm of the Dyke. Two steel towers were erected on opposite sides of the valley some 650 feet apart and 230 feet above the ground. A cable was strung between them and two cars each capable of carrying four people were pulled, swinging and swaying, back and forth by a small oil-powered engine. All that remains of the cableway now are the two concrete plinths upon which the edifice was constructed, but just looking across the gulf can make your head swim. The Victorians were certainly intrepid. When I visited, I found that on one of the platforms there was a posy of wildflowers and a chalked message saying “Fairies welcome”.
The aerial cableway was followed in 1897 by the construction of a ‘Steep Grade Railway’ which ran down the precipitous north slope of the Down towards the village of Poynings. The two open-sided carriages could take fourteen people each and for the princely sum of 2p each way, day trippers could have a thrilling descent from the tiny station at the top, to stroll around in a field at the bottom.
The remains of the top station and the clear line of the track are still visible today, but the foot of the hill is now thick woodland grown over the hundred years or so since the little funicular closed.
Both these attractions had closed by 1909 and the funfair steadily lost its attraction for the Edwardian generation, but the railway continued to chug its way slowly up from Hove – so slowly in fact that it was said passengers could pick blackberries on the way. Throughout the 20s and 30s generations of golfers in their tweed plus fours and caps the size of aircraft carriers were carried to their golf and at the end of the day were eased out of the clubhouse by the Steward who was charged with ensuring that the members did not miss the last train. The very last train to the Dyke ran on the 31st December 1938 and subsequently the tracks were picked up to help with the war effort.
Devil’s Dyke is now managed by the National Trust as a part of the South Downs National Park and although the railway has long gone, you can still take a trip out from Brighton to the top of the Downs on an open top bus. And it is still one of life’s great pleasures.