Engineering heritage: down and up

Our new heritage section begins with a visit to an unusual English cliff tramway.

The town of Folkestone in Kent has suffered in much the same way as other nearby seaside resorts on the English south coast. With the annual holiday makers seeking warmer climates, the facilities built in Victorian times were neglected and eventually demolished, while the nearby Channel Tunnel ensured the demise of the ferry service to France. As a result, it is likely that the harbour railway station, which serviced the ferry, will soon be demolished and the railway track removed. Much of the seafront is now empty, with plans afoot for its regeneration.

But one thing from the 19th century remains, however, and operates in the much the same way as it has for over 120 years.

The Leas Lift, sometimes termed "water-balance cliff tramway", is the oldest of four built between 1885 and 1903 for a town that was by then well on its way to becoming one of the most fashionable seaside resorts on the south coast. The practice of immersion in the sea and breathing the ozone-rich air had spread and had been made easier for those in London by the extension of the South Eastern Railway to Folkestone in 1843.

With little room left round the harbour, the building of houses and hotels to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors continued to the west at the top of the cliffs. But getting down to the harbour and seafront area for residents or holiday-makers was a problem, involving either steps, a steep road or a circuitous route via the cobbled Old High Street. Climbing back up was not for the old, ill or faint-hearted. So, when the idea of a pier was mooted in the early 1880s, the time also seemed right to search for a less arduous way of navigating the cliffs. Water balance lifts, which already operated in Scarborough (constructed 1874) and Saltburn-by-Sea (1884), appeared to provide a solution to the problem. In 1885, the Folkestone Lift Company was floated and construction began.

It is often said that the Victorians built things to last, and this was certainly the case with the Leas Lift. The 50m-long rails were attached to 30.5×15.25cm sleepers, themselves bolted to 30.5cm square timber beams which were embedded in concrete several feet thick. Retaining concrete walls on each side further stabilised the cliff.

Safety features

Safety was of great concern, and the 3.5cm steel cables connecting the cars were tested to a breaking stain of 40t each and passed round the cast iron balance wheel that was firmly attached to iron girders, embedded in concrete set 6.1m into the cliff. Securely attached to the spindle of this wheel was a wrought iron brake wheel, with a powerful friction band that was applied by yet another wheel in the operator's cabin at the top of the cliff.

Should the speed of the cars exceed 4mph, a governor would activate the brake on the balance wheel automatically. A safety chain was added to hold each carriage if the cable failed. However, should both cable and chain break, an ingenious mechanism, which is still in use today, took over allowing the release of a double set of spiked cams into oak beam laid for this purpose in the centre of the track. At the same time, two arms sprang forward to exert a grip over a sleeper. When one of the carriages was detached to test this device, it moved barely 1.25cm before being stopped.

With the safety measures winning the approval of the Board of Trade Inspector of Railways, the lift opened for business on September 16th 1885. Crowds flocked to use what many probably treated as a fairground ride as much as a means of transport. Queues formed on most days and in the first year 236,645 passengers were carried, with a record 104,978 in the month of August 1888, so that in 1890 a second lift was built alongside.

The same company was also responsible for the construction of a lift up Sandgate hill to the West of Folkestone, and finally, in 1903, one was installed near The Grand and the Metropole Hotel. However none of these were as successful as the first, lack of business forcing the Sandgate Hill lift to close in 1923.

The Second World War saw the remaining three shut for the duration, with the Metropole lift so neglected that it never reopened. The heydays of Folkestone as a seaside resort were gone and, with the advent of holidays abroad, the crowds never returned. The 1890 lift carried its last passengers in October 1966, the Folkestone Lift Company going into voluntary liquidation in 1967. However the original 1885 lift survived and runs today, operated at first by Folkestone Town Council and now by Shepway District Council.

Ticket to ride

I visited the pump room with Eamonn Rooney, the toll collector and local historian, who also told me much about the history of the lifts. After collecting my 45p for a ticket from his old bus conductor's machine, he rang a bell to indicate that he had some passengers. The brakeman at the top acknowledged with his bell and the ride commenced.

The ride up was smooth, with only a little creaking from the old wooden carriages. On arrival the brakeman showed me the balance wheel round which the cables pass and told me more about the operation of this remarkable remnant of Victorian engineering of which both he and Eamonn are rightly proud.

 The future of this last remaining lift is now assured as it is included in the Foster & Partners Masterplan for the regeneration of Folkestone Seafront site. But when this retail, leisure and residential development achieves its aim of bringing back the crowds to Folkestone, there will be a need for additional methods of transporting people up and down the cliff.

A covered external escalator is proposed as well as a 'skywalk' to the top of a building in a nearby street and thence a lift down. It has also been suggested that the 1890 lift, of which the track is still in place, should be reopened using newly designed carriages - the new running alongside the old. 

Readers are invited to come forward with suggestions of significant engineering heritage monuments (machines, bridges, buildings, installations etc.) in their area they want to feature in our new series. 

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