The Sump Valley Railway


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Fictional History

West Sussex has a long-standing tradition of flint extraction, gravel and sand extraction, brick-making and lime extraction/cement production. The latter two in particular did, historically, generate their own narrow gauge and sometimes standard gauge light railways. In certain areas, the South Downs and the areas to their immediate south and north actually brought all of these industries close together.

One wealthy and aristocratic land-owning family, the Lambleys, secured their financial prosperity by capitalising on these industries where the appropriate deposits were found on the extensive tracts of land they owned. In particular, an area a little to the West of Littlehampton and northwards to the Downs into the extreme southern weald provided all of these various deposits within a distance of little more than ten miles. Within this area, as the industrial revolution expanded, they opened two lime extraction/cement producing quarries in the south face of the Downs, a brickworks on the clay beds close to the sea, a gravel extraction pit a little west of them, sand extraction pits and a sandstone quarry to the north of the Downs together with flint production from the south face of the Downs.

In the latter half of the 19th century they decided to build their own railway to assist in transferring the products to their customers. Much still ended up travelling by boat, and initially, had to be transferred by horse and cart to the harbour at Littlehampton. Ideally, they wanted their railway to serve their concerns and have access to a coastal harbour. Sadly, rail access to Littlehampton was blocked by another equally aristocratic but unsympathetic (and, some might say, old-fashioned) land owner.

Nothing daunted, they looked at the tiny fishing village of Broadsteyne, most of which they did own. The village harbour was too small and prone to silting, but, the inhabitants supported their proposal to enlarge the harbour, build a new quay and to keep the harbour dredged. As a result, by 1875, they had a minor network of 2'4" gauge railway serving most of their industry. A further by-product was that part of the line offered a passenger service from the harbour village to the small town of Sompting Lambley, where the family had their seat, following the valley of the River Sump whose estuary formed the harbour. The station was just outside the town and also served the nearby quarry. Other branches ran from this line to the remaining quarries together with the pits and brickworks, and the "main" line continued to follow the river valley northwards through the downs to serve the sandpit.

At the time of the Great War, the eldest son of the Lambleys, having inherited a mechanical bent from his father, chose to join the Royal Engineers rather than one of the traditional Guards regiments. Here, his familiarity with light railways quickly stood him in good stead. During the war, the railway, and indeed the whole estate, prospered under his father reflecting the demand for materials.  After the war, the engineering son visited the USA. On his return, he convinced his father to acquire a Shay locomotive to tackle some of the very steep inclines on the line.

By the time he inherited estate and title, the line was running a mix of locomotives from the UK, USA and Europe. In part, this reflected the fact that this had also become something of a hobby for him - but one to which he still applied a good business head. Nonetheless, during the 30s the rapid growth of road transport reduced the cost effectiveness of the railway. In the short term it was saved by yet another war, with, again an increase in demand for materials. The Lambleys, however, could see that this was a temporary respite and he and his son agreed that thereafter they would have to curtail operations. They were still determined to keep at least part of the line open for their own pleasure.

The war ended. The railway continued but it was no longer cost effective even with the demand for materials for the post-war rebuilding. Sadly, they closed much of the network, leaving very little more than the line between Broadsteyne and Sompting Lambley. Even this seemed doomed, until they noticed that a new post-war interest had arisen. The British were going on holiday en-masse. And their destinations included places such as Broadsteyne. With a little carefully planned advertising, passenger traffic increased significantly and the line just about avoided bankruptcy with its summer income. But, funds would permit only the most basic of maintenance.

As the country entered the 60s, times were still changing rapidly. Standard gauge closures after the Beeching Report and the gradual decline of steam led to a number of preservation societies being formed. It was apparent that while they faced a difficult challenge the public enthusiasm and support remained. The Lambleys made the decision to ensure their railway survived by creating a Trust and a Preservation Society for the line. Local support was whole-hearted and before long they had volunteers from all over southern England.

Times remained hard, but slowly the band of volunteers and enthusiasts - which still numbered Lambleys amongst them - restored the line not just to its former splendour but beyond. And, now, it proves a popular tourist attraction and is still able to offer a year-round basic passenger service to local people. With the existing line fully restored, attention is now being given to re-opening the line through the Downs along the River Sump valley to the sand pits north of the Downs.