Oil exploration today is a contentious subject, but nearly 60 years ago it certainly wasn’t. And with Balcombe in the news again as the latest plan to test the well has just been declined this is perhaps an opportune time to recall when ‘Dallas’ came to Cuckfield and how the village briefly welcomed the oil field ‘roughnecks’ into its community.
The drilling of the vertical well, called Bolney 1, by Esso started on 28 May 1963 and was all over in three months and a few days. If it wasn’t for a neighbour of ours, like most villagers, I probably wouldn’t have even been aware that anything so significant was going on - except perhaps hearing the occasional Texan drawl from a burly guy in the local newsagent, buying his cigarettes.
My family lived in Ledgers Meadow, and a neighbour invited a school friend and myself (I was 15 at the time) to visit the site.
He worked for the contractor WH Bensted that had been preparing the site for the oil company. The company was based in Maidstone and had a local office in Haywards Heath. The dark green vans were often seen scurrying around Mid Sussex, in attendance at council road surfacing jobs or involved in local heavy engineering work.
You might be interested to know, as Cuckfield is associated with the first dinosaur bones to be identified in the UK, that the company founder, William Harding Bensted, owned a quarry in the Queen’s Road area of Maidstone where he personally excavated a specimen of an Iguanadon in 1834.
The find, 11 years after Gideon Mantell's discovery of bone fragments in Cuckfield, gave him the vital clues he needed to build a complete skeleton of the creature. Mantell bought the fossil skeleton for £25 from Bensted - later nicknamed ‘the mantell-piece’. It is still part of the display at the Natural History Museum in London.
The Cuckfield oil exploration site was tucked away near the sharp bend in Broxmead Lane. The earth-moving provided a temporary blot on the landscape in this delightful rural idyll. Part of the field had been levelled to take the rig and a reservoir had been dug adjacent to it to take the spoil and effluent.
We all sat on the bank in the early summer sunshine as the men diligently worked below on the drilling operation. I frugally took photos of the scene on my precious camera film in my very basic Bella 44 camera while my neighbour, a keen amateur ciné buff, captured the scene on his Bolex.
Check out this video of a similar operation in Nottingham just a few months after in Nottingham (more info below).
The drilling didn’t inconvenience the local residents any more than a small building site - and noise intrusion was not problematic either. The workers were jovial and friendly and during the contract certainly gave no rise for complaint - in fact they were a welcome and generous addition to the local economy.
The site fully restored
If you were to go past the site today it has been fully restored to its original contours. It’s as green and as beautiful as it was before - and you would never believe that man had ever touched it.
The press later reported, that the borehole ‘was abandoned as a dry after reaching just over 8000 ft’ - or was it just deemed uneconomic at the time? A scientific survey in 2018 reported ‘no obvious surface expression of the well’ which in technical speak means that they didn’t find any environmental damage to the field.
The Esso site in Broxmead Lane 'Bolney 1' was drilled by Esso and falls in the area known as PEDL 244 (Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence. This licensing system was set up one year after the Broxmead drilling). This licence area also includes the well drilled at Balcombe by Cuadrilla in 2013 and an earlier well, Balcombe 1, 10m away, drilled by Conoco in 1986-7.
Incidentally, WH Bensted had a sister company in the Poole area, G and GF Maidment, which did the original landscaping and engineering work for the Wytch Farm oil field in Dorset discovered in 1960. Today this is the largest onshore oil field in western Europe. The facility is well screened from view and the traffic generated from it is less than from many industrial estate units - oil is transferred from the site by a buried pipeline.
In my view there seems to be an environmental logic that we should minimise the movement of ships full of oil from the Middle East and taking full advantage of our own supply. And being secure in the knowledge that you have home production makes sense too - and this ability proved a vital asset in the last War. At least until alternative energy sources take over, which they are just starting to do.
Around 2,000 wells have now been drilled onshore in the UK. There are around 120 producing sites with about 300 operating wells producing over 20,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day or about 1% of the UK's consumption. There are estimated to be 4.4bn barrels-worth of oil under the Weald basin, just 0.5% of the North Sea total - but just an estimated 10% may be recoverable. There are other exploration sites in Sussex including Horse Hill near Gatwick.
My neighbour with the Bolex, by the way, was John Carter who would became marketing director of the parent company, Tilbury Contracting Group, and 14 years later I became his assistant. It was a privilege and fun to work with him for eight years.
Tilbury Contracting Group incorporated Bensteds, and the group changed its name to Interserve. This British multinational group of construction companies with a £2.7bn revenue , last year had to be rescued form its financial difficulties.
It seems very likely that the oil men will be back but quite where and when, who can say?
The video is from British Pathé and was shot a month after the Cuckfield drilling, in September 1963, in Nottingham. This was probably taken at the Dukes Wood Field near Eakring. And it's just possible that this is the same oil derrick - but certainly the action is the same as I saw in Broxmead Lane. Several of the crew here were redeployed two years later on the first, and ill fated, North Sea oil rig, Sea Gem.
Photo of oil derreck crew: Roughnecks working on a drilling rig in Greeley, Colorado in 2008. [Public domain image]
All the black and white photographs were taken by the author in a cheap Bilora Bella 44, 127 format camera.
Many thanks to Sharon Stewart for her help with the data and information that she supplied via the Cuckfield Gossip, Facebook Group.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.