Nestled above a railway tunnel, built into the side of the South Down hills, is an imposing Gothic folly evocatively referred to as Clayton Tunnel North Portal. Originally constructed in 1841, the folly was part of the railway tunnel construction linking the then up-and-coming seaside town of Brighton to London.
For three years, over 6,000 men toiled endlessly to dig the mile-and-a-half long tunnel through the chalk hills. So why was the folly built after the tunnel was constructed? No one really knows the true answer, but there are a few speculations. Back in the 1800’s, steam train travel was a relatively new technology and one that a number of people were fearful of. Thus, some claim the folly was built to “reassure” passengers about to enter the tunnel for the first time that they weren’t about to descend into the depths of Hell. Others claim it was built as a monument to the feat of engineering and to the men that worked to build the tunnel underneath 270 feet of rock. The most plausible answer however, was that the folly was built to appease the local land owner to allow the tunnel to be dug in the first place.
A cottage was added to the top of the folly in 1849 and it was in here that the signalman / tunnel keeper lived with his family. The daily routine consisted of walking the length of the tunnel, lighting the oil lamps along its length to guide the trains through. Today the oil lamps are a thing of the past but over 350 trains pass underneath the cottage each day. Despite this, residents of the cottage report that it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful, “like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
And it wouldn’t seem proper that a Gothic folly should exist without a good amount of supernatural goings-on: a signalling failure in 1861 resulted in the infamous Clayton Tunnel Rail Crash causing the death of 23 people and to this day, visitors still report sightings of two ghostly figures walking hand-in-hand into the entrance of the tunnel.