High Weald

heathfieldstationPresent-day controversy

Debate about the impact of future 'fracking' operations at Balcombe, in one of England's most beautiful landscapes, reminds us of the need to find a way of living that reduces our energy usage. However, the Cuadrilla oil and gas exploration site is not the first instance of hydrocarbon exploitation in the High Weald.

The discovery at Heathfield tunnel

Believe it or not, but Heathfield – located in the central southern part of the High Weald AONB – was one of the first places in England where natural gas deposits were discovered.

Unearthed at the entrance to Heathfield train tunnel by chance in 1896, the first hint of gas was detected by workers for The London Brighton & South Coast Railway, during an attempt to find better quality water to supply their engine tank than was then available from surface springs. Initially dismissed as "foul air" from the borehole, it was only after the production of increasing amounts of gas, and subsequent testing by the chemist J. T. Hewitt, that it was confirmed that the workers had indeed stumbled across a pocket of natural gas.

When drilling was eventually ceased at a depth of 377ft – having found no useful amounts of water for the railway company's engine tank – gas was issuing from the wellhead at a pressure of 140lbs per square inch, and it was decided that the gas would be put to good use as a source of light for the rail station. A special medallion noting the discovery – with one side portraying the Royal heads, and the other side inscribed with "Heathfield, Sussex, 1902. Natural gas first used for light and power" – was even created to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Heathfield's gas reserves continued to illuminate the town's train station until the 1930s, when the reserves began to run low and the decision was made to switch to "town" (i.e. coal-derived) gas.

Further use and exploration

This did not, however, signal the end of productive use. Indeed, due to the unusual purity of the gas, the then Ministry of Mines continued to use it for several years, bottling samples for research into improving mine safety. When supplies from the well did eventually began to fail it was thought best to seal it off, with the well being capped in 1963 and the station closing two years later.

Remarkably, Heathfield train station wasn't the only attempt made to exploit the area's natural gas resources. In 1901 an American company, named "The Natural Gas Fields of England Ltd.", sank a number of other boreholes, with the output from one recorded at 15 million cubic feet a day – equivalent, at the time, to one eighth of the total daily sale of gas in London. Although the company was forced into liquidation just three years later in 1904, a rumour of an "oil belt" at Heathfield persisted through the late 1920s and early 1930s.


The final foray into natural gas exploration in Heathfield was carried out by British Petroleum in the 1950s, during which time a total of seven wells were drilled. However, despite BP's exploration efforts, any hopes of significant gas production in the area were dashed when the maximum production rate was deemed too low to warrant further development.

Find out more about the The Landform Story

Images from Around Heathfield in Old Photographs, Gillet G and Russell B.  (1990) Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd