Lavender Line – history of the line

When railways took off in the early part of the 19th century, a vast array of rail networks soon spread throughout the country creating the opportunity for goods, post, live stock and people to travel long distances in the shortest amount of time. Isfield station was no exception, and by October 1858 the Uckfield and Lewes railway soon opened its link through the village allowing the community to expand with the newly opened railway providing direct trains to London and Lewes. This enabled live stock and goods to be transported quickly from the countryside stations in the south east to the busy depots of London and then allowed further distribution throughout the rest of the country.

Between 1859 and 1922 the London Brighton and South Coast Railway took over the running of the line along with a vast portion of the network in the south of England. By this time the line had become extremely busy with readily accessible trains to London, Brighton, Lewes, Eastbourne and Hastings, and although not all trains called at Isfield, there was still an intensive timetable for such a small station. By 1923 the railway network had been divided into the great four and so Isfield station became part of the Southern Railway and today Isfield is painted in the cream and green colours of the that organisation which helps provide a perfect picture of how the station would have appeared some 80 years ago.

By 1948 the entire railway network had been nationalised due to its dilapidated state following world war two and something then had to be done to save money which the railway was loosing rapidly! In the early 1950’s a certain Dr Beeching was put in charge of sorting out the UK rail network and began by making major cut backs and closures to the lines that were loosing the largest amounts of money. Unfortunately by 1965 plans had been made to sever the line between Uckfield and Lewes to save heavy money from maintenance bills and from running empty trains and so by February 1969 the railway had been ripped up and sold leaving the stations between Uckfield and Lewes, such as Isfield and its sister station at Balcome Mills to become abandoned and derelict.

The Forgotten Years

Like most areas left abandoned for some time it doesn’t take long before nature takes charge and returns the vegetation to how it was before the railway arrived. By 1973 Isfield station had been long neglected and with no up keeping the site gradually it started to fall apart and become heavily overgrown. Looking at the photos taken at that time it’s a wonder to see how how anything could have been salvaged from such a dilapidated site!

A particular building from Isfield station was its signal box which took a heavy beating through the harsh winter months and almost became reduced to a state beyond repair due to the collapse of the stairs and the missing equipment in the box which was later used at Horsted Keynes signal box on the nearby Bluebell railway. Thankfully that’s not the case now and the box is now classed as a grade 2 listed building!

The original waiting room on platform 2 was rescued from nature’s decay and taken to the Bluebell Railway where had been used as their model railway centre. The replica building that now stands in its place is now our gift shop and lies on the same spot as the original waiting room and looks exactly how it would have 80 years ago.

Lavender Line Rebirth

In the summer of 1983 Isfield station was taken into private hands for the first time when David Millham and his wife Gwen brought the station along with quarter of a mile of track from British Railways and turned it into their own private railway centre. After the news spread that a new railway was born in the area it attracted many new faces and so it grew bigger and bigger as the months went on. By 1984 a brand new replica of the waiting room had been constructed on platform 2 and ready for use. The station itself was beginning to get back on its feet and the level crossing gates were refurbished and given a fresh lick of paint. The waiting room and ticket office on platform 1 was converted into the station’s new buffet and the platform toilets were fully resorted and refurbished.

After laying down nearly quarter of mile of track Mr Millham needed a small selection of steam engines and rolling stock to carry passengers along the line and by the end of 1984 the first two locomotives arrived at Isfield station ready for public running. The first of these was a 2-10-0 War Department Loco which had been shipped over from Greece after playing its part during the Second World War. This extremely powerful heavy freight loco was built to haul heavy loads on very poor track along with a fair bit of neglect. Although it arrived at Isfield in a very rusty state the engine was in fact in very good mechanical order and within a few months David and his small party of volunteers has managed to repaint the engine in war department green lined in red. The other locomotive was an 0-6-0 Saddle tank called Ugly, this class of locomotive was similar to an austerity in both looks and performance.

By 1986 a third steam engine joined the railway; this being 0-4-0 Andrew Barclay, Annie. This diminutive little engine with its 12 inch cylinders was a regular performer at the line and was regularly seen on both passenger duties and on goods trains recreating scenes reminiscent of the heydays of steam. With the three steam engines and a good collection of wagons and carriages the railway continued to grow in both size and members of staff, by the late 1980’s Mr Millham started running wine and dine specials which proved to be very popular and continued for many months.

By 1991 Mr Millham had made the decision that it was no longer feasible to run his own railway due to the mounting bills and costs of not only the site but the steam engines. By this time the war department 2-10-0 which had now been named Dame Vera Lynn had left the railway due to the unusable size of the engine but the railway had gained an 0-6-0 austerity locomotive built in 1943 to a wartime standard. This engine later became known as Blackie and remained at Isfield for many years until 2007

Lavender line LLPS

In the autumn of 1992 the decision was made by Mr Millham to give up his private railway and from this point on a small group of members decided to take things into their hands and so the Lavender Line Preservation Society was born. The steam engines, rolling stock and buildings were all purchased from Mr Millham then the railway was registered as a charity and membership became open to the public.

One of the first major projects of the newly formed society was to build an inspection pit outside the engine shed to make life easier when oiling up and preparing the steam engines for a days work, along with the new pit, track work was taken up and repaired to ensure everything was safe for public running, luckily not a lot of work was needed for the upkeep of the site itself as Mr Millham had kept the station and builds in very good condition along with his rolling stock and steam engines.

Many more different types of motive power was drafted in to the railway over the years including an ex two car 115 unit still in its network southeast colours, a class 12 and two class 73’s! Along with resident loco’s Annie and Blackie all of these engines proved to be the perfect mixture of steam and diesel loco’s with most Sundays at this point running steam motive power.

By 1996 there was an increasing spell of broken springs on both the steam and diesel engines, the cause of this was later found to be uneven and distorted track which put tremendous stress on the locomotives springs and chassis. The problem had to be solved as soon as possible due to the rough ride and the increasing amount of money that was bring spent repairing the engines, so the railway was shut for a number of weeks for major repairs to be carried out and to ensure that both the running line and the shed line were safe to carry passengers.

Over the years the Lavender Line had seen many steam engines come and go from ex Southampton shunter Cunarder to ex BR Ivatt class 2 and by 1998 had its very own workshop and preparation areas to carry out the overhaul of steam engines, one of the first being 0-4-0 Annie which was privately sold off to a member at the time who fortunately decided to keep her at the railway and spend a great deal of time overhauling her. She eventually returned to traffic in the spring of 2004 at one of the railways goods trains weekends where she could be seen paralleling with resident loco 0-6-0 Kitson Austin 1 at the time.

By the summer 2000 the railway had struck a huge amount of bad luck due to the heavy flooding which affected Isfield and its surrounding areas, although the station itself suffered only minor damage, the newly laid extension at the north end of the line was another story. Concrete sleepers, ballast and the embankment itself were all washed away leaving a total mess after the working members had spent so long building the new extension. Although this was a mighty blow to moral at the railway, the members never gave up and started work immediately rebuilding the embankment and salvaging the sleepers. By 2003 the line had been relayed and joined with the current running line. A tamper machine was brought in to finish off the track work and by the summer of 2004 the line was used for the first time on the last vintage weekend which included both Austin 1 and Annie running double header trains.

Unfortunately by this point the railways resident steam engine Blackie had suffered a crack in the inner firebox and so was taken out of service for a complete overhaul and repair. Fortunately Austin 1 was on hand to take over passenger duties for the next four years and proved to be a very reliable engine. By the spring of 2006 the railway was treated to something very special, its first steam gala weekend for ten years. This weekend included resident loco Austin 1, resident engine Sentinel and a guest engine, Terrier Martello. The gala proved to be a complete success with top and tailing, double headers and goods trains recreating the Lewes to London goods trains which frequently passed through Isfield.

Over the past few years Isfield has grown in both size and membership, with two working steam engines, four working diesels and a Thumper unit, with the railway still providing an enjoyable and beautiful journey through a mile and quarter of Sussex countryside. To this day The Lavender Line still boasts to be “Sussex’s Best Kept Secret”.