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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Brighton 53

I took the opportunity over the past weekend to travel down south with specific intention of seeing a tram restoration project well off the beaten path. In the lee of the South Downs and after traversing a single track lane on an uphill incline I finally emerged at the barred gate of land on which this rare (unique) example of a Brighton tramcar is being lovingly brought back to life. Having followed the progress of this small group of caring enthusiasts over several years online I felt it was time to see the actuality of their work. Their annual open day/weekend this month brought the opportunity to combine an extended trip almost as far as Brighton, with a visit to my wife's cousin and her husband living near Darford.

I can't say traversing the M25 south east was an enjoyable experience particularly having dealt with the M6 and M1 en route but we finally made it to Dartford and an entertaining dinner in the centre of that old town. Glorious sunshine and hot temperatures saw our journey continue further south the following day ending in the aforementioned country lane.

Standing next to one of the enclosed platform ends amid the tight constraints of the 'Bodyshop' and below : A profile of the inside curving side panel on 53 and inside the other recently enclosed platform end :

Having negotiated the barred gateway we ended up being greeted by friendly hosts - the Brighton 53 Group. A refugee from Graz and Summerlee Museum marking the site of what must be the most ruritanian tram restoration in the country. Brighton 53 was 'rescued' many years back more or less in skeletal lower deck saloon form and in the care of this dedicated and informal group, courtesy of a local estate and farmer, is being brought back to life. Without a formal workshop or museum setup, the Brighton 53 Group have perservered over decades to bring the tramcar to a rendition of its former self, albeit with a great deal of work still to do. Nonetheless with end platforms in place and panelled bodywork the tram is taking on a once familiar shape (at least to the citizens of Brighton old enough to recall trams in their town). Brighton was an unusual system, narrow gauge and thus limited to open top trams only. Its works at Lewes Road turned out ever more stylish and upgraded tramcars almost to the end of the system which coincided with Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939. Much of the tram system was converted to trolleybuses hence the absence of an official barrier to conversion when war became imminent. Even so the Corporation's workshops kept up with successive improved designs of trams appearing on the system right up to 1938 - with Number 53 being one of the later types.

Quite an impressive amount of parts and components have been located and gifted to the group in their efforts over the years. This includes the glazing for the lower saloon quarter lights (yet to be installed) - complete with blackout masking tape covering the glass in 1939 (and the advertising panels).

The saloon as a working environment with the newly built quarter lights stacked on one side. Original glazing with advertising from the 1930s will be installed in most if not all.

Housed in a makeshift barnlike structure now completely enclosed, the tram body makes an impressive sight to the newcomer - with newly completed side panelling that incorporates a lower curvature down to the running equipment. Staircases have yet to be fitted but a dummy model has been fitted at one end to provide an indicative appearance. Limitations of the tram's current 'premises' are helped by an impressive tall tree providing welcome shade in the hot afternoon, and protection of the nearby South Downs breaking up inward bound gales - are both immediately noticeable. The top deck will need to be assembled seperately as the tram's location will make it almost impossible to remove it in a complete form. Below : original interior fittings and components removed from another Brighton tram during its scrapping in 1939 - and now retained for future use.

The Tramway Museum Society kindly donated a truck and parts (ex Lisbon) from their store a year ago and this sits seperately in an adjoining area. The Group some 60 strong with around ten active members meet every Wednesday and on weekends much of the year and enjoy the help of a semi retired woodworking professional. His skills are apparent in the new end platforms which are of the 'hex dash' styling as opposed to rounded variety familiar in Blackpool. Work on the tram's saloon interior is continuing with the aim of securing its completion (and repainting/varnishing) in the near term. Installation of stairs at both ends and relevant fittings will be a parallel task for early attention.

Below : a remarkable preserved truck from the former Hastings tram operation now in the care of the 53 Group.

The 53 Group also acquired last year the body of a Brighton works car which had served as a garden gazebo at the home of the former Lewes Works Superintendent who arranged for it to traverse up a hill to a terminus next to his home from which it was manually moved into the rear of his house after closure of the system in 1939. Here it sat with successive caring owners over the decades providing an interesting feature at the end of the garden. Removal required dismantling of the bodywork on a 'flatpack' basis as it would have been too expensive to crane it out over the house, and in any event ground conditions had meant one end of the wooden frame had become rotten over the years. It came without truck.

Another piece of south coast tram heritage greeted us in the form of the truck of a former Hastings Tramways car, complete with motors, which had somehow survived locally and is now in good company. The Summerlee Museum providently provided the former Graz car which was originally a feature of that operation in its early years, being double ended and came complete from Austria. Now it sits somewhat woebegone in a field in Sussex nestled next to the makeshift premises of the 53 Group. Nonetheless it provides a welcome shelter and canteen for the Members showing its age with wooden bodyframe and early postwar styling of that system. Graz was one of the last places in western Europe operating two axle trams in urban service; Linz' s Postlingbergbahn being another Austrian example

Where would you find yourself with an early postwar Graz tramcar in the bucolic setting of the South Downs ? Mr and Mrs Woodman ---- Souvenirs from our visit at the weekend.

Mrs Woodman joined me on this voyage of discovery, the latest in a long line of adventures over the decades both in the UK, Europe and the USA. Fortunately the sunshine made it a highly enjoyable excursion, as did the friendly and informal organisation which we enountered together with other visitors. Thanks to Guy and his colleagues for this rare interlude with another seaside tramcar. The future is uncertain as to where 53 will finally end up for public display as an operating car which is the intention of the volunteers. No doubt an admirable solution will find itself in due course as the tram finally gains its completed appearance and Brighton Corporation Tramways colours. Enthusiasts or heritage minded donors from the south coast are welcome to aid the work of the 53 Group in their efforts to bring this unique Brighton tramcar back into a serviceable condition on the south coast. Further Details in a following Blog.

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