Its seems that arguments over planning are nothing new, in the latter years of the 19th century when Hastings Borough Council decided it wanted to construct a new funicular railway on the east hill its plans came under attack on two fronts.
First there was a covenant on the land in favour of the original owner the Rev Sayer-Milward and although the council owned the land The Rev Sayer-Milward could, and did, use the covenant to prevent any construction work.
If that wasn’t bad enough the council then received a petition from people at High Wickham protesting against the proposed development.
The council responded quickly with a petition of its own. Some 500 local residents backed its idea for a cliff railway and that created the impetus for a series of what were to be complex negotiations with the Rev Sayer-Milward which, after several months, ended in him giving his approval to the plan – that was in 1898.
As the UK’s steepest funicular railway the East Hill Lift is not just of national importance it is also a source of immense local pride. The East Hill Lift provides access to Hastings Country Park and overlooks the Old Town, Rock-a-Nore and the Stade which is, of course, home to the largest beach launched fishing fleet in Europe. There are spectacular views along Hastings seafront and on a clear day you can see Eastbourne and Beachy Head.
It is said that John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, got the inspiration which led to his first TV experiments while walking in the country park, what records don’t show is whether he used the East Hill Lift to get to the country park to have those inspirational walks.
One guide book says the East Hill Lift has become, “an enduring symbol of the unique charm and character of Hastings, a symbol powerful and true enough to withstand two world wars and the fast-changing tides of a turbulent century.”
But if the council thought that developing its plans for the new railway had been bad it was nothing compared to the process of building the structure which was fraught with unexpected pitfalls and seemingly insurmountable problems – it was nothing short of a nightmare.
Deep faults in the rocks made it extremely difficult to safely excavate the shaft and construction workers faced all manner of hidden hazards. Even when it was eventually completed, in the Summer of 1902, the opening had to be delayed because on a demonstration run one of the carriages, which contained several council officials, was derailed just 15 yards from the top.
Despite all of this, on August 10th 1902, the railway finally opened and started transporting paying passengers up and down the East Hill.
The lift initially worked on a water balance system and the twin towers at the station at the top of the railway originally stored the water that made the railway work. In the early 70s, however, the lift was converted to work off electricity.
A quick look at sites like TripAdvisor soon shows that people love the East Hill Lift, one commentator describing it as, ‘cute,’ she wrote: “I had no idea Hastings had this. It was a nice surprise… I was lucky to be on my own inside the carriage. It’s so cute!”
While another sees it as an adventure saying: “…very nice town and cliff railway is a real adventure… Overall it’s definitely worth it to visit the place.”
“These always take me back in time, the short ride up the cliff is exciting. As you climb you are presented with a wonderful view of Hastings town, pier and the sea.
“Once at the top there is the park area… you could spend hours meandering before returning your down the cliff. Brilliant and inexpensive,” says another.
And a writer for ‘Family Day Out’ says: “Unlike some resorts that boast more than one funicular railway, at Hastings the two railways could not be more different despite the fact that they were both originally designed on the water balance principle. The East Hill railway is a far more striking addition to the town, simply because it can actually be seen! This was cut into the face of the cliff, whereas the West Hill railway is largely hidden in a tunnel dug through the cliff.”
The lift was shut for more than two years from 2007 after a fault in the control panel caused the carriages to crash into the station causing extensive damage. Although initially saying the lift would be reopened within six weeks Hastings Borough Council was forced to concede it could not afford the repair bill, around £200,000, and it was not until 2009 the repairs were carried out and the lift was reopened in 2010.