I have always been fascinated by Newhaven, and recently had the opportunity to explore the town in greater detail. Lying at the mouth of the River Ouse, the whole place has an eerie ‘in-between’ quality. This unusual atmosphere is the product of several environmental features: the transitory nature of the town’s harbour, its brutally industrialised areas (which in themselves are unique maximal spaces) and its contrasting borderland, typified by rolling downland and white cliff faces. This melting pot of visual matter is daunting to explore, and while I enjoy the opportunity to take a range of photographs, I never feel a sense of place – one moment I am passing a quaint old pub, and the next I am crossing a body of grey water, via a concrete swing bridge. Bizarrely, it is this relentless sense of unease that is one of the main reasons that I am fascinated by the harbour town. In fact, it is why I enjoy being there.
Having reflected on Newhaven as a mix of disjointed environments, it is not surprising to discover that the local museum is itself unusually located – attached to a large garden/entertainment centre. Paradise Park is the brainchild of the Tate family, who also own the South Downs Heritage Centre, and is the rather noisy neighbour of Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum.
Walking into the museum, after a short trek through the Avis Way Industrial Estate, I instantly feel at ease – maybe for the first time since I stepped off the train? Although the museum space is just as diverse in visual matter as the rest of the town, a synthesis is quickly achieved through the friendliness of two museum assistants. After a warm welcome, I soon begin a tour through Newhaven’s past. Apprentice’s hard work; sunken ships; local factories; trips across The English Channel, and King Louis Philippe’s stay in Newhaven, are all brought to life through the words of my fantastic guide. I soon begin to understand the changes and developments in the town, which have made it the diverse place I see today.
Just as I am about to leave, a small display catches my guide’s eye. Looking at me with a cheeky smile, he asks if I recognise the model in the case, and I reply with a shake of the head. Whispering, he reveals that the tiny structure illustrates the layout of a series of secret tunnels, now only opened occasionally for maintenance. Further photos depict a world of Morse keys, teleprinters and clandestine operations. During World War Two, this maze of tunnels was a secret Royal Naval Headquarters and Geoffrey Ellis, retired telecommunications engineer, published a book on the subject in 1996. Unfortunately, despite attempts to make the space fully accessible, the tunnels remain hidden from public view. Ellis’s website and book are the only glimpses into this secret world.
As I leave the museum, I begin to wonder what other spaces there are to discover in this unusual town – I think I may have to return!