Today the inviting acres of the Cuckmere Valley are pearls in the crown of the South Downs National Park that was created in 2011.
However some seventy years ago east of the river a light industrial railway system flourished, but has since been virtually vanquished.
Although it may be hard to imagine picturesque Cuckmere Valley from Exceat to the river outlet was once an area of considerable industry, until the mid 1960s when sand and shingle extraction from the coast was terminated by the Marine Agency. On 16 September 1931 the Acting Clerk to the Cuckmere River reported that they had received a draft lease from Messrs A F Smith Ltd to create a narrow gauge railway from the estuary to a terminus at New Wharf on the south side of Exceat Bridge. Initially it was agreed that removal of 700 tons of sand and shingle monthly from the foreshore between West Beach and Cliff End.
During WWII the valley was heavily mined and acreage south of the bridge was commandeered by the RAF. A decoy lighting array No 605, to replicate Newhaven harbour’s north quay, was created to draw enemy aircraft away from the port to the unoccupied Cuckmere region. It is not known if this intriguing ploy was actually successful. Reed type shrouded lights on stakes were turned on if a raid was expected.
Clem Berry, who worked as a Southdown bus driver during WWII, related the first occasion that he witnessed the lighting. Driving east at night up the A259 Exceat Hill. Momentarily thousands of small lights were turned on across the valley. It must have quite a spectacle, even if the ploy was fruitless.
The narrow gauge sand and gravel extraction lines were reinstated post war by A F Smith Ltd of Hailsham. The railway system was elementary by current standards. The driver-less trains were often derailed and industrial debris littered the meadows. Latterly managed by Frank Avann Ltd the foreshore extractions at Cuckmere were terminated in the mid 1960s by the Marine Agency.
The concrete lane towards the estuary was laid about 1970 by the Milk Marketing Board to access collections at Fox Hole Farm.
The traditional problems of longshore drift at the estuary were self-functioning by a high beach formed at Cliff End, although the estuary is constantly is in need of attention. As is coastal erosion at West Beach and the Coastguard Cottages.
In August 2014 property owners there had to self- fund emergency coastal protection measures.
Long gone are the times when campers and bathers could hitch a lift to the beach in those light railway trucks.
Article submitted by Peter Tyrrell