All aboard! My next journey outside London takes me to East Sussex as I take a trip by steam engine from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park station on the Bluebell Railway, before heading to Sheffield Park and Garden.
My adventure begins on the Bluebell Railway, which is an 11-mile (17.7 km) heritage line managed by the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society running between East Grinstead and Sheffield Park with intermediate stations at Horsted Keynes and Kingscote.
Back in 1954, before the Beeching Axe, the branch line committee at British Railway proposed closing the line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction near Lewes, but despite local opposition, the line was officially closed on 29 May 1955. However, on 15 March 1959, the future president of the society, Bernard Holden, met to form the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway Preservation Society with £940 raised in donations to start the society.
The society’s name was changed to the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society whose aim was to reopen the whole line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction, but these plans didn’t come to fruition. The committee then recommended the stretch of line between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes could be run as a tourist attraction using vintage locomotives and stock, with volunteers helping on the railway. In 1960, the stretch from Sheffield Park to Bluebell Halt was re-opened to the public with an extension to Horsted Keynes opening two years later. A further extension to Kingscote re-opened in 1994, before the re-opening to East Grinstead in 2013.
The expedition I’m embarking on in this ‘Beyond London’ edition takes me to Sheffield Park station, which is the southern terminus on the Bluebell Railway and located on the southern bank of the River Ouse. The station first opened in August 1882, but closed in May 1955 when the line closed, before reopening on the heritage line in August 1960.
The station now plays host to a shop, model railway, museum and the Bessemer Arms pub (named after Miss Bessemer who fought British Rail over the closure of the line claiming it to be illegal, and whose victory spurred the movement to save the line). It really is a step back in time when you’re on the platform – from the booking office and luggage to adverts on the wall and the steam engines smoke billowing out of the funnel. It’s every kid (and adults!) dream to see how rail travel looked back in the golden era of steam and to have the sheer excitement to travel in immaculately restored coaches. For a railway enthusiast like myself who has visited many of the UK’s heritage railways and loves model railways, this is a real treat!
I’ll now leave Sheffield Park station and head to Sheffield Park and Garden, which is owned by the National Trust. Located near Uckfield and Haywards Heath in East Sussex, the stunning landscape garden was laid out in the 18th century by Capability Brown and developed further in the early 20th century by Arthur Gilstrap Soames – who owned it.
The gardens formed part of Sheffield Park House, which was a gothic country house that’s still in private ownership – and you can still see it when you walk around the gardens. In August 1538, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, entertained King Henry VIII in the Sheffield Park estate and by 1700 the Deer Park was formalised by Lord De La Warr who planted trees and created lawns. In 1769, politician John Holroyd acquired the estate and was given the title Baron Sheffield in 1781. James Wyatt remodelled the house into the fashionable gothic style we see today with Capability Brown commissioned to landscape the garden. The centrepiece of the landscape is the four original lakes that overlook the beautiful plants and trees.
Located at the back of Sheffield Park and Garden is the Sheffield Park Cricket Club, which was established in 1845. Between 1881 and 1896 it was the home ground of Lord Sheffield’s XI and in 1896 his side played the touring Australian team in front of 25,000 spectators. Luckily on my visit, there were plenty of old artefacts and displays to commentate the occasion.
In 1891-92, the Earl of Sheffield was in Australia as a promoter of the English team led by W.G. Grace – with the tour including three tests. At the conclusion of the tour, Lord Sheffield donated £150 to the New South Wales Cricket Association to fund a trophy for an annual intercolonial cricket tournament in Australia – between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The new tournament commenced in the summer of 1892-93 and teams competed for the Sheffield Shield, which is still the domestic first-class competition of Australia today – though now six states compete within it – New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.
The Sheffield Park estate was purchased in 1909 by Arthur Gilstrap Soames with further mass planting completed. After he died in 1934, his nephew – Arthur Granville Soames – inherited the estate. The Canadian armoured division used the house and garden as their headquarters during the Second World War, before being split up and sold in lots in 1953. The National Trust purchased approximately 98 acres (40 hectares) in 1954, with 197 acres (80 hectares) in further additions.
Walking along the pathways through the plants, flowers and trees while meandering around the lakes and over the bridges is a true joy. Every part you look at has sublime splendour from the rhododendrons right the way through to the waterfalls, it really is a magnificent and awe-inspiring feeling. Immersing yourself in natural and magical wonders like this illustrates that heading out of your local area or even county, can open your eyes to new and exhilarating experiences. Sometimes going beyond London makes you fully appreciate a world outside the capital, that’s still on your doorstep.
Hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on my journey around Sheffield Park Station and Garden and stay tuned for my next ‘Beyond London’ discovery. Thanks for reading and in the meantime, you can follow all my walks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube – and don’t forget to sign up to my blog too so you don’t miss a post! Also, why not have a read of my other walks which explore all over London, from north to south, to west to east via central, there’s something there for you – and you can also read my very special walk of San Francisco too – and that’s not all – you can also listen to some of my walks on my London Wlogger podcast.
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