Brighton is steeped in a rich history but perhaps nothing compares to the innovations of Magnus Volk and his electric railway, now the longest running of it’s kind. After a mammoth 18-month renovation task, the new and improved Volk’s Electric Railway is back for the whole season. They’ve extended the Visitor Centre to now include the history of the railway and house a permanent exhibition on it’s inventor. Magnus Volk was a 19th Century electric wizard who can take accountability for bringing the first telephone line and electric lights to Brighton in 1879 and 1880, respectively. He also is responsible for the hydraulic ball at the top of the infamous Clock Tower, which you may or may not have noticed, rises just before the hour and drops once the hour hits.
Magnus Volk changed the face of Brighton’s sea front forever when he introduced the railway on 4th August 1883. There will be no-one in Brighton who remembers the long stretch between the aquarium and the marina without the rickety tracks and occasional trains passing by, running from the Aquarium to Black Rock (five minutes walk from the Marina). It’s been lobbied against a couple of times with the most recent opposition coming from ‘renowned’ architect Nick Lomax who said to The Argus “From an urban planning point of view Volk’s Railway makes no sense. It does nothing for that part of the beach. I would prefer to see it relocated”. Despite this very outward, and somewhat cynical, criticism the railway stands proud for all to see some 135 years after it was first opened.
Magnus Volk was a hugely influential character in Brighton and was known for his eccentric projects and passion for electricity. In 1892, the Volks Electric Railway was up and running very successfully so Magnus wanted to push himself even further. He had heard of an ‘underwater’ system operating in St. Malo harbour, Brittany, so when he was faced with challenges trying to extend the railway he looked across the channel for inspiration. He had wanted to extend the railway Westwards towards the town centre but the patrons of the town refused, so he looked to the East and decided he wanted to connect Rottingdean with the urban centre. He had a vision, instead of a steep climb or a man-made viaduct he built the ‘Pioneer’.
Affectionately dubbed ‘Daddy Long Legs’ by locals, the huge 18ft locomotive stood on four legs and ran through the shallow tides of Brighton’s seafront. It weighed 45 tons and had a 45ft long by 22ft wide deck which offered heightened views of the coast and Marine Drive. Permission to run the mega-vehicle was granted on November 28th 1896. However, the innovative venture was hit with disaster as Brighton braced for one of the worst storms it has ever seen. The Pioneer broke from it’s moorings at Rottingdean and left the land behind as the storm raged on. After the setback, the sea -water tram was rebuilt slightly taller than before and welcomed over 44,000 passengers in the following year. The endeavour was sadly brought to a close when lack of funding, damaged tracks and an announcement of new sea defences came all too quickly for the company to handle. If you visit Rottingdean at low tide you might be lucky enough to see some of the old sleepers still in place from the historic invention.
The recent re-development of the railway comes after £1.65 million funding was granted from the local council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, with work beginning in Autumn 2016. The renovated Visitor Centre and Halfway Station prove to be worth the money that was spent. There’s an additional conservation workshop, with viewing platform, to maintain and protect the historic carriages as well as giving training to volunteers to develop their technical skills. There’s three original carriages that have been brought back into action so the railway can increase it’s capacity to 80 people at any one time.
There is a wide variety of workshops available all over the Easter break at the Visitor Centre. Your kids can build a Morse Code machine or a model of the Pioneer and the adults can enjoy a 2 hour long drawing tour of the beautiful Victorian architecture that straddles our coastline (with return journey on the Volks Electric Railway too). There’s only a couple of sessions available for each workshop so be sure to book in before it sells out.