A bridge too far

Shoreham toll bridge
Photo by Bob Herrick
The crashed Southdown bus
Photo by Bob Herrick
The Westland 'Lysander' aircraft
Original sketch by Bob Herrick

Early in life my favourite places were to be found at the seaside, mainly Brighton beach and the two piers.  However, these were completely sealed off and ‘out of bounds’during the 1939 – 45 war, so this schoolboy had to look for a substitute.  The large range of ‘Southdown’ buses covered a wide area of Sussex countryside from their starting point in Brighton’s Pool Valley, and were the perfect choice for such a search.

A rather rickety construction
My ideal location was soon discovered not too far away, the Old Toll Bridge at Shoreham and its interesting surroundings.  It seemed to be a rather rickety wooden construction over the River Adur, but it was sturdy enough to take main road traffic.  The bridge was basically single carriageway with two wider passing places.  There was no indication of priorities but courtesy seemed quite enough to keep the traffic moving smoothly.  The toll of a few coppers per vehicle, was paid without any need for animosity.

Fishing from the bridge
Given these rather congested conditions it is perhaps surprising  that I decided to join a small band of hardy folk fishing from the bridge.  We were stationed in one of the aforementioned passing bays.  We somehow managed to avoid the traffic, and, more importantly, it somehow managed to avoid us.  I started with a handline and, though I hate to admit it, with the proverbial bent pin!  Over the months and years I did catch a few flat fish, but crabs there were a plenty.  They would eat up all the bait and then use the line for their version of absailing!

Wartime activities
But it wasn’t just a place for fun and games.  The bridge adjoined Shoreham Airport which was taken over by the R.A.F. for the duration of the war.  Its main use was to provide the earliest possible landing place for badly damaged aircraft which had managed to limp back to the English coast from sorties across the Channel.  Landing into the prevailing wind meant that the bridge was their marker for their final, often dramatic approach.  For some the urgency was so great that they dispensed with any such preliminaries, and touched down at the first possible moment   Shoreham was not the largest of airfields, and some aircraft had a problem stopping.  The railway embankment at the far end was more of a help than a hindrance in this regard.

The Westland ‘Lysander’ aircraft
Another section of the north end of the airfield was a base for several Westland ‘Lysander’ aircraft.  The reason for this only became plain after the war.  Although they looked rather heavy and unwieldy, they were extremely manoeuvrable and required only a very short take-off and landing area.  For that reason they were being used mainly for setting down and picking up secret agents deep in enemy territory.  These exploits were subsequently featured in a B.B.C. drama series on television.  It was only through reading an obituary just a few years ago that I discovered that the Commanding Officer of my own main R.A.F. posting had played a particularly heroic part in this covert operation, but had never let on.

A spectacular event
So, what goes around comes around. Back to ‘Southdown’ buses!  Some years after the war there was quite a spectacular happening when a ‘Southdown’ double-decker bus slewed off the bridge into the river.  I wasn’t there to see it happen and so took the photo after the bus had been recovered.  However, it was reported in the papers that nobody was seriously injured, and the engine was still running and the lights working when the bus settled in the river.

Quite a bridge, quite some tales to tell, and happy endings for the most part!

Comments about this page

  • Yes I remember going across that bridge many times in my dad’s old Austin 7 as a child! Going across there was one of my earliest memories and seemed to be the norm for us. It would never work now with the ignorance and ill feeling motorists have for other motorists. But it was the only way to cross that part of the Adur unless you went along the coast road. I also remember the railway line that went up the Adur valley passing close to the little bridge – was there a crossing? I don’t recall that bit. But I DO remember going up the line on a real live steam train – which of course was axed by Dr Beeching…. Shoreham airport was the first ever air-display I ever went to and the Black arrows (Hawker Hunters) were the main event, and there was a huge Bevely freighter on there too! Paul Edwards

    By Paul Edwards (04/08/2010)
  • Pleased to say that the bridge has been restored recently. It closed in mid 2008 and reopened early in 2009 I think. There is a sign there explaining that it was the main route from Worthing to Brighton until 1970! I guess it just got restored at the right time as there is no money for this kind of thing at the moment.

    By Jon Bradshaw (18/08/2010)

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