by Robert Veitch
There’s more to the disused chalk pits at Offham than meets the eye. Read on for a story of industry and innovation.
Offham Chalk Pits are beside the A275, north of Lewes, south of Offham, nestled away in the Downs. Blink and you’ll miss it’s scenery for the average motorist on the daily commute. The remains of this and other former chalk pits pockmark the Downs all around Lewes, indicative of a different way of life during eras past.
It’s thought chalk quarrying and lime production has been at Offham since medieval times. The Battle of Lewes took place in 1264 close to the top of the chalk pits. By the turn of the nineteenth century it was the horse and cart loaded with lime, which made the hazardous journey from the chalk pit down the slope to the flood plain, River Ouse and berthed barges on the wharf below.
Being so close to the River Ouse made onward transportation all the easier and the chalk pit began to flourish. Significant change began in 1801 during the industrial revolution and the unique nature of Offham became apparent by 1809.
Industrialisation took place under the stewardship of George Shiffner, who went on to represent Lewes in Parliament from 1812-1826.
Shiffner employed William Jessop, the civil engineer responsible for the construction of several canals and London’s West India Docks to create a funicular railway. It was thought to be the first railway of any sort in southern England. A funicular railway is steeply inclined, using a cable to connect wagons on parallel tracks, by means of a large pulley at the top of the slope. It used gravity to function, with loaded heavy wagons descending on one track, hauling the lighter empty wagons up the adjacent parallel track, via the cable and pulley.
Jessop’s railway ran from the chalk pit office, under the forerunner of the modern A275, down the slope to the flood plain and River Ouse. The drop own was 40 metres, at a gradient of more than 30%.
The manmade Chalkpit Cut is a short tributary of the River Ouse that allowed barges to sail up to the wharf at the base of the funicular railway. It was here that lime in the wagons was transferred onto waiting barges, ready for the onward journey.
The production of lime was predicated on an abundant supply of chalk. At Offham, chalk was plentiful and burnt in four limekilns, which were in operation from 1809-1890. At around 900 degrees Centigrade carbon dioxide is released from chalk and the remainder is known as quicklime. Quicklime is ‘slaked’ once it is mixed with water to create a chemical reaction. When the mixture dries out, lime is the result. Lime can be used as agricultural fertiliser, or in the building industry as mortar, plaster or cement.
Step inside the chalk pits today and try to imagine where the natural line of the Downs once was. Once upon a long ago a bustling workforce would have worked this pit, with pickaxe and gunpowder, gradually dismantling the landscape. It’s easy to visualise just how much chalk has been removed and how this place, once a hive of industry, is now silent but for birdsong and passing traffic.
The railways came to Lewes in 1846, the funicular closed in 1870 and the chalk pit shut in 1890. The quarry office remains intact today. For many years it was a pub, latterly it’s become a curry house. The tracks and machinery are long gone. Mother nature has done her best to reclaim the land on which the funicular was built. Chalkpit Cut was navigable during its heyday 150 years ago but old father time has seen it transformed, silt up and currently little more than a wide ditch.
The parallel tunnels under the road were just over 20 metres long and 2 metres high when they were constructed. In 2013, 140 years after they closed, English Heritage granted them grade II listed status. They’ll still be there next time you whizz over the top of them in that blink and you’ll miss it scenario. Some of you… driving to, or from, a home built with lime from the chalk pits at Offham.