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In Your Street: Underhill Lane, Clayton
Rarely do villages the size of Clayton boast such an impressive treasure chest of tales.
It’s a surprise, then, to discover that this leafy corner of West Sussex packs a historic punch when its chronicles of yesteryear are explored.
The village is situated six miles north of Brighton and yields stories of train disasters and ancient church murals.
There are only around 50 houses in the village, the majority of which are on Underhill Lane.
The lane is one of Clayton’s most prominent roads, hosting the 18th century church of St John the Baptist and allowing views to the pair of towering windmills called Jack and Jill.
It is also home to a large recreation ground, the village hall, a children’s play area and two football pitches.
At the west end of Underhill Lane, at the point where it meets with Clayton Hill, is the notorious Clayton Railway Tunnel.
With its gaping black hole and impressive 17th century architecture, the tunnel is easily one of the most recognisable features of the village.
Stretching an impressive one mile and 499 yards, it bags the title of the longest railway tunnel on the London to Brighton line.
On Sunday, August 25 1861, the tunnel witnessed what at the time was one of the worst accidents in British railway history.
A signalling error caused two passenger trains to collide at high speed, killing 23 people and injuring a further 176. The catastrophe was partly blamed on a signalman who had been working a 24-hour shift as opposed to the regulation 18 hours.
Although the signalman wasn’t convicted, a certain Mr Charles Legg, the assistant stationmaster at Brighton station, was found guilty of manslaughter.
Mr Legg was deemed negligent for allowing three trains to leave Brighton station in quick succession, a decision which caused confusion with signalling and then ultimately the disaster itself.
It is said the souls of the victims who perished in the tragedy still haunt the tunnel, and it is rumoured the incident was the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story The Signalman.
Also said to be haunted is the residential tunnel cottage that sits above the tracks opposite Underhill Lane.
Scores of trains hurtle underneath the gothic dwelling each day, prompting the question: “Is it a noisy place to live?”
David Porter, the cottage’s owner, explained: “There’s a lot of concrete here so I actually don’t hear a thing. In fact the only problem I have with noise is from the main road where cars whizz past all the time.
“It’s a unique place to live and I’m sure I am the envy of hundreds of trainspotters up and down the country.
“It was built in 1841 and the cottage was added in 1849. I’ve been here for about ten years. It’s great and acts as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life in Brighton.”
Another refuge in Underhill Lane is the 11th century St John the Baptist Church, which features some well-preserved ancient murals.
Thought to be the work of monks from St Pancras Priory in Lewes in the mid-12th century, the main subject of the paintings is the Day of Judgement, with devils, angels and Christ all depicted.
The paintings were uncovered in around 1893 during a restoration project and have been described by experts as some of the most important in the country.
Three years ago the murals were under threat of damage thanks to bat faeces.
A colony of bats took residence in the church and went about their biological business directly on the sacred paintings, forcing church staff to remove the droppings from the walls before each service.
Outside the church and opposite the recreation ground sits the popular village watering hole known as the Jack and Jill Inn.
Its name derives from the two iconic windmills that stand guard over the village, comprising of a post mill, a tower mill and the roundhouse of a former post mill.
Jill, the grand white post mill, was originally built in Dyke Road in Brighton in 1821 but was moved by horse to the site in Clayton a year later.
Hard-working Jill finished her days of labour in around 1906 before losing her fantails in a storm two years later.
She was restored to her beautiful best in 1953 but again succumbed to weather and fire damage during the Great Storm of 1987.
Janet Thomas, treasurer of the Jack and Jill Windmills Society, described what happened.
She said: “During the storm, winds reached over 100mph and caused Jill’s sweeps to turn against the brake, which was on.
“The friction between the brake shoes and the brake wheel produced sparks, which set the building alight.
“One of our society members battled through the terrible weather and climbed up the hill to try to get to Jill and put the fire out. He managed to get up there and doused the flames, but it took 18 months to repair the damage.
“It does sound a bit odd but it was terrifying at the time. We really thought that the mill would be burnt to the ground. I was up all night. The worst thing was not being able to get there and see what was happening. I shall never forget that night.”
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