Written by Tim Locke
Sussex has been home to numerous national and global firsts over the years. Here are just a few of them.
The situation by the South Downs assists gliding considerably, allowing the aircraft to ‘hillsoar’. This is historic gliding terrain: it was from Amberley Mount on 27 June 1909 that the world’s first recorded soaring flight by glider was made, in a glider made by a French artist José Weiss who was living in Amberley; the pilot was just 17.
Shoreham Airport’s Art Deco terminal building © Les Chatfield
One of the Art Deco treasures of Sussex, Shoreham Airport is the oldest licensed airfield in the country. The visitor centre has a fascinating stash of aviation memorabilia, including models of some of the earliest craft, among them the Valkyrie monoplane which in 1911 made the world’s first registered freight flight, delivering a box of lightbulbs from here to Hove Lawns.
A spiral staircase at De La Warr Pavilion © Tim Locke
In the 1930s lucky Bexhill gained Britain’s first building in International Modern style, the airy, light De La Warr Pavilion. It was built in 1933–35 under Bexhill’s first socialist mayor, the ninth Earl De La Warr, who decided the town needed a palace to the people. He turned to the designs of Erich Mendelsohn, a highly regarded Jewish architect who’d fled the Nazis, and architect and designer Serge Chermayeff; together they created a masterpiece. Bexhill also has early links with motorsport – around the turn of the 20th century the town hosted the first motor races in Britain.
Near West Firle, Middle Farm has fair claim to be Britain’s very first farm shop, opened in 1960. It’s also home to the National Collection of Cider and Perry, with the largest choice of ciders and perries anywhere in Britain.
Sea Life Brighton
The Arcade at Sea Life Brighton © Sea Life Brighton
Architecturally this is the most significant aquarium in the country (and the oldest one anywhere still in operation), retaining many of its original Victorian tanks within the main crypt-like aisled hall. It hosted (in its ballroom) the very first Rhythm and Blues venue in Britain.
Pells Pool under fireworks © Pells Pool
Pells Pool, in Lewes, is the oldest open-air swimming pool in the country. Opened in 1860, the pool is almost Olympic-sized; fed by spring water, it can be distinctly bracing but has none of the smack of chlorine associated with indoor pools.
Volk’s Electric Railway
Running along the entire extent of Madeira Drive in Brighton, Volk’s Electric Railway has been in operation since 1883 – the world’s oldest electrically operated commercial railway (there was an earlier industrial electric railway outside Berlin, so the claims that it was the very first electric railway aren’t quite valid); it now runs from the Brighton Sea Life Centre to Black Rock, near the marina.
In the 1930s, St Leonards had a futuristic phase. The borough engineer, ‘concrete king’ Sidney Little – later to be involved in constructing the Mulberry floating harbours used in the 1944 D-Day landings – transformed Hastings and St Leonards into a veritable symphony of concrete and chrome, and ripped up tramlines to make a promenade. The tram rails he recycled as reinforcements for Britain’s very first underground car park in 1931.
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