22 February 2016

Devil's Dyke (near Brighton & Hove)

Judy Middleton 2002 (revised 2018)

   copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
An early Victorian lithograph of the Devils Dyke by F. Forde,  
(note the mountains in the background, which are non-existent in Sussex)

Although technically speaking the Dyke is a deep valley in the Downs north of Portslade and Hangleton, most people when they speak of a trip to Devil’s Dyke mean the viewpoint from the hill above from where broad views over the Weald can be enjoyed. This hill is 711 feet above sea level. It has long been a place of popular resort but an early mention of the site had a more practical purpose. In the Sussex Weekly Advertiser (18th March 1793) Devil’s Dyke was ‘spoken of as a very proper spot for an encampment in the ensuing spring. The situation is to be sure admirable for that purpose, being dry and healthy and commanding a good supply of water’. The camp in question would have been a military one because England was in a state of alert over a possible French invasion. Military camps were set up locally at Goldstone Bottom, or near St Andrew’s Old Church, Hove or at Brighton.

copyright © J.Middleton
The photographer obviously thought the view of Devil’s Dyke in the 1930s would be improved by the inclusion of some lovely ladies.

Henry Martin, writing in 1871, relates the tale of a Brighton fisherman who accompanied a bird-catching party that eventually found itself at the Dyke. The fisherman was astonished at the wide inland view and when he arrived home he told his family that he never would have believed the world was half so big before. (Martin states that it was quite usual for ordinary folk never to stray further than ten miles from their place of birth).

An advertisement of 1874 stated ‘Perhaps in no part of England can a spot be found which shall excel (if it equal) the summit of the Dyke Hill, from whence a view is obtained of scenery the most resplendent and enchanting, the spectator being enabled to distinguish some object in no less than six counties. One of the most prominent … and which is at most times distinctly to be seen stretching across the ocean and forming a picture at once soothing and delightful is the Isle of Wight’.

   copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Poynings &C.from the Dyke by Frederick Earp, 25 May 1846

The Dyke has had its share of royal visitors but when Charles II rode by in 1651, the scenery was probably the last thing on his mind as he was in flight after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. In more settled times the Dyke became a favourite excursion point for William IV and Queen Adelaide, and Queen Victoria was also a visitor. Near the Dyke the Duke of St Albans used to hold his hawking parties and Count Nesselrode and Prince Metternich stayed at the Dyke Hotel. Another intriguing resident was Azimullah Khan who stayed there in the mid-nineteenth century. He was prime minister to Nana Sahib and legend has it that while there, he was busily plotting the Indian Mutiny, which took place in 1856-1857. To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, there were a number of bonfires throughout Sussex. Originally there were going to be 60 bonfires but the idea proved so popular that the county ended up with 94. At Devil’s Dyke the bonfire was 22 feet high and it was made up of 400 sleepers, seven wagons full of rubbish, barrels of tar and a barrel of petrol amongst other things.

copyright © J.Middleton
View from Devil's Dyke looking north-east  c1920

According to Porter, in 1817 Mr Sharp, a confectioner of 13 North Street, Brighton, ‘hired a site north of the high vallum which runs westward to the brow of the hill’ and placed there a wooden hut that was formerly used by Mr Smith, a bacon factor in Ship Street Lane, Brighton. The hut was used as a refreshment stall and a Mr Russell was in charge. He was succeeded by Tommy Sturt, then by Tom King and on to Mr Edwards of Horsham. Porter also states that William Hardwick, who farmed at Hangleton, erected a small tavern here.

copyright © J.Middleton
The approach to the Dyke Hotel in Edwardian times

But in 1831 (on a different site to the wooden hut) a small hotel was built and opened by George Cheesman. The money was borrowed from the Provident Life Assurance Office but the venture could not have been a success because in 1837 they took possession of the hotel. However, they allowed William Thacker (who had become tenant in 1835) to remain and in 1883 he said he had lived at the Dyke for 48 years and the fact that he could still get around at the age of 73 was proof enough of its healthy situation. In 1871 a new hotel was erected and an old print shows the two-storey structure with balustrades along the roof and a single-story extension at the side with a projecting square window. The name ‘Thacker’ appeared at least twice on the edifice.

copyright © J.Middleton
View from Devil's Dyke looking west

In 1881 Provident Life sold the Dyke property of 182 acres, including the hotel, to the syndicate who were responsible for constructing the Dyke Railway, which opened on 1st September 1887. Thacker was present at the inaugural meeting to promote the construction of the railway but he retired in 1885 and the new landlord was JH Hubbard. Mr Hubbard was in the happy position of estimating that the railway brought in around a million visitors a year and he set about installing suitable amusements – there was an observatory, a camera obscura, a model cannon opposite the hotel besides two bandstands and a spacious coffee room. He promoted spectacular events such as the balloon ascent on 25th July 1892 and he inaugurated the aerial cableway and steep grade railway.

The Sussex Daily News (24th May 1898) stated ‘The Dyke has become one of the most popular pleasure resorts in the South of England thanks to the indefatigable energies of the present proprietor who is ever improving and adding something to its already numerous novelties and attractions. On entering the grounds, which have lately been enclosed, a casual visitor cannot fail to notice a marked improvement in the park-like appearance of the estate for trees and shrubs have been planted and a miniature lake with several species of waterfowl is to be found in place of the barren Downs’. There was also a new pavilion capable of seating 150 people and a bar, the steep grade railway, the bicycle railway, the cable railway and the switchback railway, which has been lengthened and renovated. Then there were amusements such as shooting galleries, roundabouts, swings and coconut throwing.

copyright © J.Middleton
View from Devil's Dyke looking north

In late October 2013 there appeared in the window of the Framing Workshop, Church Road, Hove, a spectacular large-size, framed advertisement for the Dyke Park Hotel. The advertisement was dominated by a figure of the devil clad in doublet and hose and with ragged wings - all painted bright red; there was a black feather atop his close-fitting cap, a sword belted around his waist and his bearded face was adorned with eyebrows like triangles.
But there were also four scenic views delicately painted in pastel colours showing the exterior of the hotel, the aerial railway, the steep-grade railway and the approach to the Dyke complete with horse-drawn van. The cuisine was stated to be excellent and there were the finest of wines plus the musical delights provided by the Dyke Park Military Band composed of twenty-two performers. The sole proprietor and owner was JH Hubbard and he must have had a sense of humour because telegrams could reach him when addressed to Diabolo, Brighton; his telephone number was Brighton 330.

copyright © J.Middleton
The Dyke Hotel and its attractions in 1903

The hotel dining room displayed two splendid specimens of elk and bison while the refreshment room attached to the hotel was stated to be the largest and best equipped outside London. It seems that Mr Hubbard’s enthusiasm ran away with him – and some of his pet projects failed; by 1908 he had returned to Canada. In the early 1920s the environment of the Dyke was under threat when the new owner, Mrs Maud Barressford  (who also owned the Hippodrome) wanted to build some 24 bungalows near the hotel. Happily, planning permission was refused.

copyright © J.Middleton
The inscription on the stone seat plaque reads:- IN DEO FIDEMUS / His Royal Highness the / DUKE OF YORK /
KG.P.C.K. TGC. MGGCVO / dedicated / THE DYKE ESTATE / to the use of the public / forever on the 30 May 1928

Meanwhile, Herbert Carden had been busy buying up large swathes of the Downs since 1895, as and when they became available and in 1928 he purchased the Dyke Estate for £9,000. He sold it on to Brighton Corporation for the same price he had paid in order that the site could be preserved and enjoyed by everyone. On 30th May 1928 the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) dedicated the area for public use.

copyright © J.Middleton
The Dyke Hotel in 1911

On 24th August 1928 an inquest was held at the hotel into the death of Austin Joseph Miller, 44, a Post Office engineer, who had been missing from a Hove Mental Home at 19 Lennox Road since 4th August. The remains were discovered by Leonard Cecil Vicars, a butler, of 28 Arnold Street, Brighton, who was picking blackberries on the Downs north of Devil’s Dyke. The Poynings policeman said that when he turned the body over, an open razor fell from his right hand and the head was completely severed from the trunk. The deceased had just over 4d in his pockets.

 copyright © J.Middleton
These horse-drawn conveyances were popular with visitors to Brighton wishing to visit Devil’s Dyke. The one in the background is called Brighton Belle. It is interesting to note the postcard caption uses the word ‘char à bancs’ whereas we usually associate the word with the motorised variety.

During the Second World War the Army took over most of the Downs for training purposes; then in 1945 the hotel was destroyed by fire. Another hotel was built but only a few years later it was demolished and replaced by a new one in 1955. After the war promoter Leslie Kramer made several attempts to attract more visitors to the Dyke, his most ambitious project being to build a small-scale version of the Temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. Unfortunately for his ambitions, he never received planning permission for any of them. In 1967 new owners took over the hotel and using traditional Sussex materials, they re-built it as a restaurant.

copyright © J.Middleton
The re-built Dyke restaurant photographed in 2009


copyright © J.Middleton
The Aerial Cableway across the Devil's Dyke

William Brewer, a civil engineer, came up with the idea of an aerial cableway, together with Mr Scott-Russell and Mr Lothian. It was quite a novelty at the time and the Mayor and Mayoress of Brighton (Mr and Mrs W Botting) opened it on 13th October 1894. They shared the inaugural car crossing the ravine with William Brewer and William Spink (the chairman of the Telpher Cable and Cliff Railway, promoters of the project). There were two steel towers of open latticework, which were 650 feet apart and the cable was suspended between them at a height of some 230 feet above the ravine. Around eight passengers at a time travelled along it in an open cage. Cable Tramways Construction and Conversion Company built the aerial railway and it cost £5,000 but it only lasted until around 1909.


copyright © J.Middleton
This illustration provides more of a close-up of the engine house responsible for the working of the steep grade railway.
copyright © J.Roberts
This wonderfully clear view of the steep grade railway 
was posted to a Miss Jinks in Worthing on 21 May 1906.

The engineer of this project was Charles Blaber who was also responsible for the Dyke Railway. The railway went down a steep drop to Poynings and Messrs Courtney & Birkett of Southwick constructed it – a rather odd choice since they were well-known local shipbuilders. Sir Henry Howarth MP opened the railway on 24th July 1897 in front of a crowd of interested spectators. Two cars (carrying around fourteen people each) travelled at the same time, one car descending while the other one ascended. The cars had roofs but they were open-sided and the fare was 2d each way. It was estimated that 275,000 passengers a year used the railway, which was also utilised to transport goods and farm produce to the hotel. Although the railway was a great success, it came at a price. The hotel was increasingly by-passed as visitors headed straight to or from Brighton without bothering to enter the hotel’s portals. The railway closed down in around 1908. HG Smart, as a lad of fifteen, worked for a year as a conductor on the steep-grade railway. In October 1955 he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding – they lived in Clarendon Road, Hove.


A visit to Devil’s Dyke was a popular pastime but the old mode of transport for the masses was uncomfortable and tedious. A wagonette was fitted out with small hard chairs and for the privilege of rattling to the Dyke in this conveyance you would pay 1/6d on ordinary days and 2/6d on special days. The excursion also lasted three hours, of which two were spent in travelling. Therefore the idea of a railway must have seemed like a sure-fire success. However, the first two Bills presented to Parliament (in 1873 and 1874) were withdrawn and it was not until 1877 that another Bill was presented and this time it was successful. Apparently the second Bill had failed because there were problems between the railway company and the owners over whose land the railway would run – namely the Marquess of Abergavenny and Lord Leconfield. But these were ironed out, and Crown land near the Dyke was sold to the company at £100 an acre, subject to an existing lease. The new company was called the Brighton and Dyke Railway Company and it was headed by a trio of Williams - William Hall, William John Smith and William Hudson. In the prospectus the capital was set out at £72,000 in 7,200 shares of £10 each and the company had five years in which to construct the line. But progress was so slow that in 1881 the company (under a new chairman the Honourable Ashley Ponsonby) was obliged to return to Parliament for another Bill that gave them an extension of time. Even that was not enough and two further extensions were obtained before the railway was finished. The various plans had different engineers but the final choice was Charles Blaber.

It is interesting to note that in February 1882 during a Public Inquiry into the building of an isolation hospital at Foredown, it was stated that a railway to the Dyke was projected ‘with a view to open up the neighbourhood for residential purposes.’  The first sod was turned on 2nd June 1883. The work of construction was difficult as there was hard chalk all the way and several deep cuttings – the one crossing Hangleton Farm being 40 feet in depth. The total length of the line was only five miles, but for three of them there was an almost unbroken gradient of one in forty.

 copyright © D.Sharp
The line of the Dyke Railway to the east of West Hove Golf Course, the smoke can be seen coming from the steam engine. Photograph from the Brighton Season Magazine 1912 

The line was formally opened on 1st September 1887 and on the first Sunday of operation the response by the public was so overwhelming that the issue of tickets had to be halted for a while. On the second Sunday (11th September) some 1,600 passengers were carried. Perhaps some of the passengers were disappointed that the railway did not carry them right to the top of the Dyke. In fact the terminus was 200 feet below the summit and the rest of the distance had to be covered on foot. The station was situated at 501 feet above sea level. Sometimes a heavily laden train was so slow in the ascent that in later years passengers were known to hop off and pick some blackberries and still be able to catch up with the train.

It is difficult to realise now quite how open the landscape was in the early days. Arthur George Holl, writing in 1897 said ‘everyone who has journeyed by the Dyke Railway will have noticed a short distance after leaving the main Portsmouth line and to their left hand side a sacred edifice (St Helen’s Church) standing absolutely alone, open to all the elements which pass over these wind swept Downs’. Years later the only other building between the main railway and the Dyke was the farmhouse of Gibbet’s Farm.

  copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1930s view of the Devil's Dyke Railway Station.

On 19 July 1898 three railwaymen working at the Dyke Station went down to the Aldrington Free Bathing Station for a swim. They were Mr Bishop (guard) Henry Coombs (signalman) and George Searle and they all lodged at 29 Newtown Road, Hove The tide was out and they were bathing around 300 yards from the shore when they got into difficulties – Bishop was the only one to survive. The inquest on Coombs was held first as his body was washed ashore in the evening but Searle’s body was not found until three days later. Both inquests were held at Hove Town Hall.

Initially, the line to the Dyke carried trains without stopping on the way but the first halt was opened in 1891. It was a private one – the Golf Club Halt. A splendid agreement was reached between the LBSCR and the golf club on 9th January 1895 whereby an electric bell would be installed in the clubhouse to warn prospective golfing passengers of the train’s approach. The bell rang when the signal was lowered at the Dyke, thus giving the golfers plenty of time to make for the platform.

The second halt was opened on 3rd September 1905. It was called the Dyke Junction Halt but in 1932 it was changed to Aldrington Halt. The third one was Rowan Halt, which was opened on 12th January 1934. But it hardly seemed worth the trouble since the line was already in difficulties. During the winter the carriages were virtually empty and the man who worked at the Dyke end of the line often saw nobody all day except the firemen and train drivers. The last train ran on 31st December 1938. As to be expected, the imminent demise of the line brought a rush of customers and 350 people waited to board the last train, the 5.07 from Brighton. As the train steamed out, a salute of fire-whistles and engine-whistles reverberated around the station. Inside the train, people sang all the way to the Dyke while a band played in the saloon coach. The train carried a special destination board that read, ‘Journey’s End 1887-1938’ and underneath a placard bore the message ‘So Long, Old Timer.’

There was such an interest in the old railway that it was decided to construct a trail on at least part of the route. Hove Library produced a leaflet called On the Track of the Devil that traced the line through the housing developments to the Downs. The line started at Aldrington Halt and followed the line of what is now Amherst Crescent, then under the Old Shoreham Road, past the present Fire Station in English Close, up the back of Elm Drive and Rowan Avenue and across a bridge at Hangleton Road. There was another bridge where Hangleton Library is today. In July 1991 Audrey Buttimer, Mayor of Hove, opened the Dyke Railway Trail, accompanied by more then 50 children from Hangleton and West Blatchington Schools. It catered for cyclists, walkers and horse riders. The cycle way was constructed by Hove Council with financial assistance from the Sports Council and the Countryside Commission. In January 1993 it was stated that the South Downs Conservation Board was to give £20,000 for Downland management and landscaping the Dyke Railway Trail.


copyright © J.Middleton
Bomb House in 2012
Almost on the highest point of the Dyke there is a long, oblong (now roofless) building, which has excited a certain amount of speculation in recent years. In the Evening Argus (28th October 2000) military historian Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell thought it was probably built as one of the Dyke’s leisure attractions such ‘as a viewing gallery across the Weald’. But farmers and local people called it the bomb house because it was thought bombs were stored in it during the World War I.

Ken Fines, former Brighton planning chief, recalled that Richard Attenborough used the building for location shots in his film Oh What a Lovely War (1969). It served as a derelict building in the middle of a battle with guns being fired from it. On the very day of filming, a helicopter clattered overhead with observers carrying out an aerial reconnaissance on behalf of Brighton Council. Attenborough was furious because he had ascertained that no planes would be flying over that area while he was filming.

In 2012 there came news that archaeologist Martin Snow had solved the riddle of the bomb house. He researched National Archives and the results were published in the Argus (10th November 2012). Apparently, the bomb house was constructed during the last stages of the war in 1918 and it was used not to store bombs but to test them. Steel sheets lined the house and bomb detonators were tested there. It was also interesting to learn that the bomb house did not stand in splendid isolation as it does today but was once part of a complex of other buildings. Perhaps the bomb house escaped demolition when peace was declared to serve as a mute reminder of what once took place there. Naturally, local people did not know exactly what was going on because the Dyke was a restricted area during the war. But they would certainly have heard a bang or two when high-explosive Cooper bombs were dropped into the steep Devil’s Dyke valley from warplanes 250 feet up in the air.

In a way it was reminiscent of what was going on at Shoreham Harbour at no great distance from Devil’s Dyke. It was more top-secret work with the latest technology involved and they were dubbed the mystery towers. The project was the construction of concrete towers that would be towed out to sea and sunk; then chains and steel nets were to be hung between them to serve as a defence against the U-boat menace. Work started in 1917 and two were not completed until November 1918 while the construction of two more was abandoned when the war ended. But all was not lost because one of the completed towers later became the base of the Nab Tower Lighthouse.


It seems there was a tradition of a gypsy fortune-teller being in attendance at the Dyke. In 1898 the gypsy was called Livinia Cooper.

Perhaps the most famous one was Gypsy Lee who used to travel daily to the Dyke from her Brighton home. She also used to be a familiar sight in St Ann’s Well Gardens where she held court in a genuine gypsy caravan that was there for some years. EV Lucas wrote an evocative description of her. She was ‘a swarthy ringletted lady of peculiarly comfortable exterior who, splendid (yet a little sinister) in a scarlet shawl and ponderous gold jewels, used to emerge from a tent beside the Dyke inn and allot husbands fair or dark. She was an astute reader of her fellows, with an eye too searching to be deceived by the removal of tell-tale rings. A lucky shot in respect to a future ducal husband of a young lady now a duchess, of the accuracy of which she was careful to remind you, increased her reputation tenfold in recent years. Her name is Lee and of her title Queen of the Gypsies there is, I believe, some justification’. She died in 1911 in St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath.

copyright © J.Middleton

According to Porter, the earliest legend of the Dyke was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1810 – it was in verse and it was the work of William Hamper of Birmingham. The first prose version by Shoberl appeared in 1813 and a ballad of the legend by HC Porter called Old Meg o’ the Dyke was published in February 1857. The story also featured in Harrison Ainsworth’s Ovingdean Grange and the legend was printed as a separate booklet in 1876 and reprinted by Ernest Ryman in 1984. The legend revolves around the Devil being furious about the number of churches in the Weald and setting to work to dig a dyke through the Downs to let in the sea and drown the churches. An old woman realised what was afoot and thwarted his efforts by lighting a candle and putting it in her window. Then she knocked her sleepy cockerel off his perch so that he crowed. The Devil thought dawn had arrived and threw down his spade in disgust but he was so furious that he aimed a hefty kick at a large boulder, which sailed over the hills to Hove and became the Goldstone.

The following c1930s postcards were obviously intended as a souvenir for visitors to Devil’s Dyke many years ago. A touch of humour can be found in the amusing depiction of the old women with her hair in pigtails in her four-poster bed. Apparently, this set was produced in other colours too.

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Betjeman (J) Gray (J) Victorian and Edwardian Brighton (1972)
Clark (Paul) The Railways of Devil’s Dyke (1976)
Harding (Peter A) Dyke Branch Line (2000)
Locomotion 3rd December 1938
Lucas (EV) Highways and Byways in Sussex (1904)
Martin (Henry) History of Sussex and its Environs (1871)
Porter (Henry) A History of Hove (1897)
Prospectus of the Brighton and Dyke Railway Company 1882 (Photocopy Hove Library)
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Ryman (Ernest) Guide to Devil’s Dyke (1984)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015
page layout by D.Sharp