Friday, 24 April 2009

Centurian Way Chichester - Lavant and a little beyond

Centurain Way
 Following my short trip on the Hayling Billy I still had the rest of the afternoon to kill, so decided that I would stop off on the way home to take a look at the Centurian Way, another short cycle ride using an old rail route. This time the line forms part of the old Chichester – Midhurst route. This was expensively built in the 1880s but performed so badly its passenger service didn’t even make it to World War 2. Although the passenger service succumbed early, the route was used for freight services until the 1950s and the short stretch between Fishbourne Junction near Chichester to just south of Lavant was still operational until 1991 as a mineral railway to a gravel quarry. The history of the line explains why relatively little is accessible, but also why the section that is accessible is in very good shape.

Northern End of Line
Access to the route is not that easy but if you are travelling by car, the best access point is probably in Mid Lavant village, where you can park without upsetting anyone in the residential streets. The station building still stands and forms part of a very impressive centrepiece of a sheltered housing complex. It is not that easy to imagine the station in use though for passengers haven’t used it in almost 75 years. It is still clearly on a railway route though as the overbridges to the south will testify.

Former Lavant Station
However, before heading south, I took a peek at the northern end of what remains. This section of line has not been operational for any reason since 1957 and it shows. The line through Lavant itself has completely disappeared under housing development and it isn’t until you get to the northern extent of the housing that the route reappears. This stretch of the line is the most rural of all you will encounter and unless you knew it were a railway, few clues remain of what it once was. After a mile or so north of Lavant the route abruptly stops at a former overbridge now very overgrown and the Centurian Way continues its journey to West Dean not along the old rail route but along the A286 about ¼ mile to the west. The onward line of the railway is overgrown and no longer accessible to riff-raff like me. I think it’s a great shame that these transport corridors are no longer available to people and while it is great that some have found new uses as cycleways, I feel frustrated that so many routes are completely lost or stopped up.

Southern Entrance
I returned to Lavant and headed south along the much more interesting and well used section to Fishbourne Junction. This part of the route has a tarmac surface and on the afternoon I visited was being well used by families, especially with young children. The stretch out of Lavant station is uphill and through a tree lined cutting, meaning that there are almost no views of the surrounding countryside. It also means that most of the overbridges survive and you get the real sense of this being a former railway route.

Eventually I reached an arched bridge and just beyond is a nice picnic area with several sculptures. I have noticed that a number of former rail lines turned cycle paths have these featured along the route, presumably to keep the interest of young children who love to find such stuff en route. I know mine do anyway. This is actually the site of the old gravel depot/ railhead and the scene now compared to how it once was is quite startling. Gone are the conveyor belts, chugging diesel locomotives and the dust. Now the scene is dominated by a large area of planting in a grassy bowl where the gravel pit once was. The design looks like a circular maze and when I passed the raised ridges were dominated by cowslips giving a yellow hue to the pattern. I suspect though that the full impact of this sculpture can only be appreciated if viewed from the air. By the picnic area itself were some stylised sculptures of the characters involved in the area during history. There was a roman soldier, a group of workers and a surveyor (?). The sculptures themselves were quite curious, resembling torpedoes standing on end with the nose cones at the top. I wondered whether they were in fact scrap from the nearby Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Galloping Onward
The trackbed appears to disappear at this point as the path takes a rather steeper profile than could otherwise be expected. Indeed it isn’t obvious what the route looked like here and I suspect that the re-profiling was necessary to make good some of the damage caused by the gravel extraction. Soon enough this nice open area was replaced once again by a wooded cutting as I headed down towards Brandy Hole Copse. This little woodland is one of the natural gems of Chichester and as I passed through I could see the first signs of bluebells coming into flower.

I was soon aware of the proximity of Chichester and through the trees on a number of occasions I could see the outline of the Cathedral spire and its green copper roof. The route onwards was surprisingly rural though and obviously still performs a duty as a natural barrier between a still growing (but quite small) city and the surrounding countryside. As I headed south it became obvious that this section of the route had been used as a railway quite recently as the trackbed was good and most of the bridges were in good repair and intact.

Work Gang
Eventually I reached the junction where the line used to meet the Coastway line. It didn’t seem that long ago that I remember tracks heading off from the main route at this point, but now it would be almost impossible to tell if you were sitting on a passing train for the junction is now returning to nature and my view of the two trains that passed were quite obscured by the trees and bushes that now screen the Centurian Way from the still active railway.

Former Freight Railhead
I headed back to Lavant back along the same route, grumbling a little about the long steady climb back to the old quarry railhead. This must have been some benefit to the mineral trains since it was uphill while they were empty and downhill when they were full. For me though it was a bit of a slog to the summit, especially as the afternoon had got a lot warmer.

Artwork at Lavant Station
All in all this is a pleasant little excursion and probably all the better for being tied in with a trip to the Hayling Billy. Even for the modest distance from Worthing, it’s not really worth a special trip in itself (except if I were to bring the kids), but there is enough rail heritage on the route to make it interesting.


  1. Walked part of this today as part of a walk on the New Lipchis Way. I was just trying to research if the building in Lavant was the old station and found that it was indeed. Most of the photos on the internet of it are derelict so I was pleased to see it is now used again, looks like it is flats.

    1. Thanks Jon - yes it is good to see that the station survives. The ones at Cocking and Singleton do as well but they are both private houses and it isn't possible to look around them. This line was built to lavish standards as the size of Lavant station demonstrates