A spin on Brighton's famous Volk's Electric Railway and hunting through churchyards for the grave of royal dress designer Sir Norman Hartnell were hardly what Sussex author Alexandra Ayton anticipated when she was researching her book Sussex Remembered.

Her book spans two centuries, though, and characters as diverse as 'Mad Jack' Fuller, 'Dr Brighton' and the Wounded Indian Soldiers of the Great War, and spiritualist and psychic Betty Shine, and took Alexandra the length and breadth of Sussex to uncover the fascinating stories behind some of Sussex's best-known legends.

There are 25 stories in Sussex Remembered, some of which started as magazine articles and expanded into the idea for the book. “I have always been fascinated by history and people,” says Alexandra, who lives in Lindfield. “The research has been fun, with people willing to help me all the way. I read a lot of books in the course of the research, but with each person, I liked going to the places where they had been. That was the part I enjoyed the most.”

Her approach was to go and see for herself, and so the current manager of the Volk's Railway was the obvious choice for her chapter on Magnus Volk, who invented Britain's first electric railway in 1883. “I was invited to ride on it by the manager Stuart Strong, who also showed me Volk's workshop to give me a little taste of how the man worked,” says Alexandra. As she recounts in her book, Volk was obsessed with the then new power of electricity and his house in Brighton was equipped with the first telephone and electric light system. He opened the railway in 1883, a huge success in a town of horse-drawn carriages. But it is less well known that he also invented the 'Daddy-Long-Legs', advertised as 'A Sea Voyage on Wheels, in Brighton - Fare 6d Each Way'. It was a “strange 40-ton saloon car... on 24ft-high stilts along an ultra-wide track dug deep into the chalk seabed approximately halfway between the high and low water mark”. However, a few days after its inaugural run in 1896, the sea destroyed it, but Volk repaired it in time for the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Fife to enjoy two pleasure trips on board the saloon car, “reminiscent of a tramcar, yacht and seaside pier all rolled into one”.

It is surprising to learn that Sir Norman Hartnell, couturier to the Queen and the royal family for more than 40 years, lived in Hassocks and is buried in the graveyard of the Church of St John the Baptist in Clayton, near Ditchling. Alexandra's meticulous research uncovered details of his early life in Hassocks, where his grandmother lived, the death of his mother, and his father's subsequent re-marriage and a new life in Brighton.

Early on, after working with court dressmaker Madame Desiree, he was already designing for Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Barbara Cartland, while Sussex socialites Maud Messel, of the famous Sussex family at Nymans, and her daughter Anne, Lord Snowdon's mother, wore his gowns. His finest moment was probably the Queen's wedding dress, adorned with 10,000 seed pearls and thousands of white crystal beads, and in 1953 her coronation gown. When he died in 1979, the floral tribute from Buckingham Palace was given pride of place in the church in Clayton, alongside the vivid pink wreath from Barbara Cartland. “I'd had no idea of his connection to Sussex until someone mentioned it,” says Alexandra. “I was told that his gravestone was in the churchyard, but when I arrived I had no idea where it was and spent ages hunting for it. Finally, I asked someone and they said they thought they knew where it was. And there it was, under a yew tree.”

One of the most stirring stories in Sussex Remembered is that of Lewes-born Dame Grace Kimmins, who founded the Guild of Poor Brave Things to give disabled children a fighting chance to live an independent life. “At the time,” writes Alexandra, “society viewed children born with disabilities as useless and unable to contribute in a meaningful way. Consequently, they received no education, were malnourished and many were forced to fend for themselves with a begging bowl on the streets of London. Their future was grim until Grace, a small woman with a big heart and a big dream, determined to give the children a fair chance.”

Subsequently known as 'the greatest beggar in England' for her fundraising efforts, she founded the Chailey Heritage for Cripple Boys in a rat-infested former workhouse in North Chailey in 1903, which subsequently became the Chailey Heritage School, which is still there today. Its philosophy was to give each child the skills to support them in adulthood, so boys were taught carpentry and leather craft while girls learnt household skills, and all enjoyed games, gymnastics, music and movement. “A great believer in fresh air,” writes Alexandra, “Grace had the children, including babies from a few weeks, sleep outside all year round with a tarpaulin providing shelter from the elements and a ready supply of hot water bottles. The school had a no-nonsense Spartan approach, with doors and windows open in all weathers, something that Grace, addressed as the Commandant, insisted upon.”

It's clear that Grace was instrumental in changing society's attitudes towards people with disabilities, including the words used to describe their condition, and it is in Alexandra's interesting choice of personalities such as Grace that makes Sussex Remembered such a remarkable chronicle of key parts of the county's history. She includes writers as diverse as Patience Strong and G K Chesterton, psychic Betty Shine, who was convinced she foresaw the events of 9/11, and the inventor of the flying car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Many moving stories, such as that of the Wounded Indian Soldiers of the Great War and Alexandra's visit to The White Dome of the Chattri to discover the history behind the memorial to our Indian comrades, are little known and deserve to be told. It's thanks to Alexandra that they have now been recorded.

Sussex Remembered: Personalities and Events of the 19th and 20th Centuries by Alexandra Ayton, £7.99, Pomegranate Press, available at selected bookstores in Sussex, including Serendipity at 98 High Street, Rottingdean, from Pomegranate Press at 51 St Nicholas Lane, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 2JZ and www.pomegranate-press.co.uk, and from Alexandra at alexandra.ayton@tiscali.co.uk.