They would never allow it
today but Victorian
entrepreneurs weren’t shy about putting pioneering technology in practice in the most ostentatious way they could.
Take Devil’s Dyke, a topographical jewel in the South Downs National Park. You can bet your life that no one these days would be permitted to put a building on top of such a wonderful natural phenomenon and the present pub and associated structures only survive because they are already there.
But in the last quarter of the 19th Century Devil’s Dyke morphed into a major tourist draw, complete with a fairground, two bandstands, an observatory and a camera obscura. Such a plethora of attractions needed plenty of custom so a rail branch line was constructed that began at Aldrington near Hove and ran for three and a half miles to the Dyke Railway Station at the foot of the hill. It proved a huge hit with Victorians, with a record 30,000 people riding the rails on Whit Monday in 1893 to visit the Dyke Hotel, enjoy the attractions and, quite possibly, to marvel at the amazing views.
The Dyke Hotel was owned by J. H. Hubbard. Today we would call him media-savvy; he even published his own newspaper, “The Devil’s Dyke Times”. To keep the visitors returning ever more spectacular attractions were needed. In 1894 Hubbard had a suspended cableway strung across the Dyke, running from one great hump to another. A distance of 1,200 feet separated the two anchorages and the cable cars at one point were suspended in mid-air over 200 feet above the steep grass slope.
A fare of sixpence was charged for the two-minute “flight”. Up to eight passengers could be accommodated in each car and it was reported to be a disconcerting experience to be aloft in one when the machinery malfunctioned!
Not satisfied with a just a cable car, Hubbard next commissioned a Brighton man, Charles Barber, to design a funicular. Called the “Dyke Steep-Grade Railway”, it was built by a firm of yacht-makers and engineers based in Southwick. It had a double track and a narrow gauge of just three feet and ran from near Poynings straight up the Dyke. Unfortunately by 1909 both the cable car and funicular seem to have lost their novelty value and were operating at a loss.
With no buyers forthcoming, they were gradually dismantled between 1913 and 1920.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 the cableway was acquired by the military for use as an artillery target, a practice that only ceased when local villagers, alarmed at errant shells whistling over their heads, lodged complaints.
The conventional train link to the Dyke station continued to carry passengers until 1938.
It is a pity it is no longer there; in today’s traffic-jammed times it would surely be viewed as a very green route to the heart of the heady green delights of the Devil’s Dyke.