The railway child inside me

Without wishing to bore you into submission within sentence one, trains fascinate me. Let me qualify that… Old trains fascinate me. The new deluxe hybrid spacecrafts that whizz up and down the dilapidated infrastructure of this sceptre isle couldn’t rouse me from my sleep during a blazing fire. Sleek and modern, with push button doors, “train managers” and a high regard for health and safety, they are boring and functional. You cannot have an experience aboard a Virgin Pendolino even if it does sound like something you could get arrested for. I prefer my mass transit to be loud and rattling, preferably powered by the acrid fumes of diesel (none of your electrification nonsense) and doors you can only open from the outside, with the fun and games that you might chop your limb off on a passing signal box.

I used to obsessively collect Thomas the Tank Engine figurines, following the life and times of Thomas’ locomotive friends in Sodor, and get borderline hysterical when Mum said we could catch the iron horse to visit relatives. I believe there was a time in the late nineties when we went on The Bluebell Railway and I nearly died of excitement. The miniature railway in Newhaven’s ‘Paradise Park’ (a somewhat misleading name, given the attendant attractions and the location) led to hours of fun, not least because the driver used to blow a whistle and wear a funky conductor costume.

The allure of trains was put on hold for most of my adolescence as I struggled to think beyond the pair of magnificent boobs at the forefront of my conscience. But now, with my peak years behind me having just turned twenty-three, I can appreciate them for the dazzling, beautiful creatures they are.

I have boarded a train every day for the past ten years, developing a worryingly acute knowledge of the Southern railway operator’s practises and customs. It is all very well having information about the here and now, as it’s there on my National Rail app and emblazoned across train station billboards. It’s the past that really brings out my inner train geek. On a whim, with a spare ten minutes to kill I looked up “disused Sussex railways” on my phone. I soon came to an article about the Volk’s Seashore Electric Railway.

I was already familiar with Volk’s Electric construction, the oldest working electric railway in the world. It doesn’t feel es-pecially world-beating when all you do is trundle from Brighton Pier to the Marina at a lackadaisical pace, seeing nothing more entertaining than pebbles and crazy golf, while paying top dollar for the privilege. It’s an enjoyable enough half an hour but it’s not much more than a decorated minibus with heritage.

On the other hand, the Seashore Railway was out of this world, despite being built in the 1890s. Known as ‘Daddy Long Legs’, the 4-mile track from Brighton to Rottingdean was built entirely at sea, with tracks laid underneath the water and a magnificent vessel atop the giant structure to house the travellers. It’s not stations that were required for the halts and terminus – it was piers. Quite how the finance was raised to build something so ludicrous remains a valid question, especially as they didn’t have PFI in those days.

There were significant problems with the railway. Whenever the tide was high and the tranquillity of the deep blue disturbed by anything resembling a wave, the pace slowed to a crawl. Not exactly known for its all-year-round fair weather, the South Coast line also took a battering from the regular storms that would brew in the English Channel and reign havoc upon the beaches. Disasters regularly befell the Seashore Electric Railway and it soon ceased to operate.

Most importantly, I feel, is that this wasn’t even the twentieth century and yet a bearded man with a big idea planned, constructed and implemented a giant 45 ton monorail in the middle of the chuffing sea! And it worked, and no one died!

I’m supposed to sit in awe at Neil Armstrong’s visit to the moon and his giant leap for mankind – I say that NASA’s assembled team of experts should visit the Rottingdean coastline at low tide and see the remnants of what TRUE ambition means. I’m supposed to be thankful to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his world wide web, enabling telecommunications on a previously unimaginable scale, changing the way we view the world forever. Yet more than one hundred years before he sat at his desk and said “I’m going to invent the internet”, you could pay one and a half pence to reach the heart of buzzing Brighton from a sleepy seaside community in just 25 minutes, and do so aboard a giant narrow boat on giant legs in the ocean.

I was shocked to discover that such a thing came to fruition so long ago and my sense of awe and wonder has changed my view of the Victorian era, which previously comprised of bleak adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, all misery, death, poverty and cruelty. Basically, I used to think the late 1800s were what Morrissey thinks the modern world is like. The Seashore Electric Railway, for all its eccentricity, vanity and sheer wonder, has made me re-evaluate an era I had defined in my head as belonging to Oliver Twist, child labour and urban pollution.