DAVID ARNOLD - The incident at Laughing Fish that wasn’t funny

The Laughing Fish at Isfield
The Laughing Fish at Isfield

During World War II, Sussex housed a vast number of army camps that held many thousands of troops who were waiting, sometimes for years, to go into action.

These army camps were dotted all over the place in and around locations such as Crowborough, Maresfield, Buxted and Uckfield.

The little village of Isfield (about halfway between Lewes and Uckfield) itself had its very own camp a short distance from the Laughing Fish pub. Isfield’s camp was populated in the main by Canadian soldiers and was one of the better appointed facilities in that there was the village pub plus a train station close by.

In 1940 a rail extension was built from the down line on Isfield’s platform 2 which extended into the army camp so that troops and vehicles could get in and out quickly and efficiently.

The siding was first used in earnest to move British and French troops evacuated from Dunkirk in late May/early June 1940.

When the Canadians later arrived in force the village pub inevitably became a very popular rendezvous. But young men and plentiful beer – then as now – could be a potent mix. One evening the Laughing Fish landlord, Fred Pullinger, had a dispute with a group of soldiers who were causing trouble in the pub, and, as was his prerogative, he ordered them out. After the pub had closed for the night some of the group returned in a drunken state and planted a small amount of explosives that blew up the front porch!

The next day the landlord visited the army camp to complain. That afternoon the commanding officer marched the group responsible over to the pub where he ordered the troops to repair the damage.

The story goes that as a result of their repair work the front of the Laughing Fish to this day looks slightly out of kilter with the rest of the building.

As the war progressed the train line through Isfield for a while became one of the busiest routes in Britain.

This was due to it being one of only four major rail routes to the south coast and could link directly with Newhaven, a staging port for the armada that allowed the Allies to invade Occupied France in June 1944.

Once the Allied forces were ashore in Normandy the port became a vital conduit for reinforcements and supplies. The civilian inhabitants of Isfield could only guess at the military contents of the hundreds of wagons passing through their peaceful village by day and night.

Post-war the Isfield camp was maintained for housing National Service soldiers who would carry out training up on the Ashdown Forest. A few years later the training camp junction and spur to the army camp were taken up and the line returned to its original two- track section.

The line between Uckfield and Lewes was closed in 1969 and ever since has been the subject of repeated calls for it to be re-opened as an alternative rail route between Brighton, the south coast and London.

We are fortunate that a small section of the track has survived in working order. Today what the Lavender Line may lack in length of track is more than compensated for by what is a delightful family attraction in Isfield. Steam and diesel trains can make a two mile round trip between the village and Worth Halt.

As the Lavender Line HQ, Isfield still has the original Victorian station and signal box. As well as incumbent engines and carriages, occasional visitors include Ivor the Engine along with a certain Thomas; special events are held annually from March to October. There’s also a miniature railway and lots of memorabilia. Incidentally, the name Lavender Line has nothing to do with the fragrant plant – it refers to a local coal merchant who had an office at the station.