Great Coles Wood Halt is the current northerly terminus on the Nuthatch Line, a preserved 4½ mile standard-gauge railway, operated by the Nuthatch Preservation Society (NPS). Completed by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) in 1882 the rural West Sussex branch eventually became a casualty of the British Transport Commission (BTC) and closed to all regular traffic in 1958.
The Nuthatch Line name has long been familiar in the area, despite being of unknown origin; most likely it derives from the often seen woodland bird, seldom traveling far from where they hatch.
Just three intermediate stations were originally designed and built for the opening of the single line branch and, although declining traffic eventually lead to the demolition of station canopies, signal boxes, etc as early as 1914, all three remained open and largely unaltered until closure. As was typical for a 19th-century rural railway, the stations served lightly populated areas which were mostly situated some distance from the locations they professed to serve.
In the early decades of the 20th century it had become apparent that the branch never achieved the potential its founders had hoped for. Unlike some areas, where the building of a railway had proved a spur for residential development, villages served by the branch remained small hamlets with passenger numbers rarely fluctuating.
By 1916 one station master had begun taking the responsibility for two of the three stations - perhaps initially intended as a wartime economy this would set the trend for further such arrangements across the network in peacetime.
The Grouping of the line in 1923, together with the rest of the LB&SCR into the new Southern Railway (SR), made little difference, nor did the outbreak of World War II in 1939 - with the south east of England effectively being on the front-line of hostilities the predominately rural nature meant that the branch was largely immune from the heavy bombing suffered by towns and cities. The relative safety resulted in unused siding space being utilised for the storage of military items and more prestigious rolling stock which may have been at risk if held in more conventional locations; the short siding at Great Coles Wood Farm, originally constructed for the loading of local produce, thus became home to a wide variety of stock made temporally redundant by the war.
The emergence of peacetime and nationalisation saw a welcome timetable review which had been largely untouched since the 1920s - trains were still being held at either end of the branch to allow for the loading of milk churns and other such perishable goods. By this time, milk traffic (specifically) had been lost to the roads, therefore passenger trains were being held for goods which hadn't materialised for a number of years.
One positive change that had occurred during the war was the gradual relaxation of weight restrictions; prior to the 1940s the size of locomotives was restricted and largely the preserve of smaller pre-Grouping locomotives. From 1943, Bulleid 'Light Pacifics' could be seen on rambler's excursions, the rural surroundings proving popular in the late 1940s/early 1950s.
However, in the harsh economic reality of post-war Britain, the newly created BTC quickly found itself with spiralling losses and, with some justification, it was the underused branches that took the brunt of the blame. In May 1954 the Southern Region of British Railways (BR) announced its intention to close the branch; additional buses would be added to existing routes to compensate for the loss of a train service. This alternative, amongst many proposed, fell far short of adequate with local residents as they claimed that the replacement bus services were hopelessly ill-advised.
Despite much opposition, timetabled services eventually ceased in March 1958 however the northern section beyond Great Coles Wood was to earn a temporary reprieve; maintained on a 'care and maintenance' basis the large interchange station, an outpost of the third-rail Southern Electric network, hosted various workings over the following year such as tunnel inspection trains, weed-killing trains, empty coach stock workings and diverted newspaper trains. The last recorded passenger working was a race-day special in October 1959 with the final BR-owned locomotive operating a ballast train in December 1960.
With railway preservation in its infancy, initial (and youthful) interest in resurrecting the Nuthatch Line was greeted with understandable scepticism - undoubtedly rural Sussex had much to offer potential visitors however it was just one of many standard-gauge branch lines in the English Home Counties; steam-operated services could still be widely seen across most of the United Kingdom in 1959 and so it was unknown if anyone would take a special trip to travel in antiquated carriages behind a steam locomotive.
Faced with the seemingly impossible task of funding the purchase, coupled with BR wishing to proceed with the lifting of tracks on the southern section, the membership reluctantly had to concentrate efforts on a portion of line in the middle of the route, taking in to account future access to the interchange station. In December 1960, with limited funds and an unclear future ahead, the BTC eventually relented on their initial demand and offered a five-year lease, operative upon the granting of a Light Railway Order. Thus the Nuthatch Line Limited was formed.
Preparations for the summer season started swiftly in January 1961 with the construction of a primitive terminus at Great Coles Wood, just south of the still BR-owned interchange station; with no loop available, initial services would be limited to brake van rides until such time more substantial rolling stock and a second locomotive could be purchased. Although remote, the site was chosen to benefit from the much altered siding at Great Coles Wood Farm - despite years of neglect by BR the siding had remained active, acting as a catch-point on the gradient.
In May the first locomotive, No 31027, an ex-SE&CR P Class 0-6-0T was acquired. Withdrawn in March at Dover (74C) the locomotive arrived in basic BR black livery and was immediately relined and christened Primrose - an unsurprising choice considering how BR had expended so much effort in running down and subsequently closing the branch.
The first of many landmarks was achieved in August when Primrose operated the inaugural fare paying service on the reopened Nuthatch Line to Great Coles Wood Halt. The initial operating season would prove a success, however the following years will be crucial in securing long-term survival.