Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cuckoo Trail Polegate - Heathfield and a little beyond

Start of the Trail
I enjoyed my trip out on the Downs Link so much that I thought I’d try another route, this time one that I last visited in 1993, the Cuckoo Trail. This redundant line once formed a direct link between Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells, but since it ran through what was then some pretty rural areas, it succumbed to Dr Beeching’s cuts. In truth it is unlikely that even today it would be able to generate an awful lot of traffic since the gradients on the line meant that the trains were painfully slow. It’s a great shame though that it didn’t get the preservation treatment like the Bluebell Railway, for the scenery is just as special as on that line. How fortunate then that at least the route can be enjoyed from the seat of a bicycle (or indeed mobility scooter – I saw a number of these during the day!).

Crossing Keeper's Cottage
A little local knowledge helped me decide that the best way of completing the trail would be from south-north. Since the line rises almost 500 feet as it wends its way from the Pevensey Levels up to the High Weald, the outward journey would be an almost continuous climb. Better to do it this way round than face the possibility of the climbing when the legs are starting to tire!

Railway Tavern Hailsham
The trail starts a little to the north east of the present train station in Polegate. This is not the same station that existed when the Cuckoo Line was in operation, but a new one opened in the late 1980s closer to the town centre. The first few hundred metres of the line north from the old Polegate station are not part of the trail and in order to join it, you have to find the trailhead in a housing estate just off the Pevensey Road. This is not the official start of the trail either, that is back in Hampden Park, Eastbourne but since it wasn’t part of the rail route this section held no interest for me.

Heading Through Hailsham
The odd thing about the first section of the route from Polegate to the next station at Hailsham is that British Rail never actually wanted to close this part of the route in the first place. This part of the rail route started and ended as a short branch line from Polegate. It opened in 1849 and Hailsham station was not a through station until 1880 when the line northwards was completed. At the closure of the line the short branch to Hailsham continued for a further three years and British Rail wanted to retain it, conscious that the town was growing substantially. It was not to be and ironically now carries more people than it ever did as a rail line (200,000 people per year).
Hellingly Sculpture

As I left Polegate I was pleasantly surprised to find that the trackbed was tarmacked, in contrast to the rougher surface of the Downs Link. This makes it better for cycling although I don’t think I would like to walk on it for any extended distance. I didn’t expect it to last very long though for when I last traversed this route on foot from Hailsham to Heathfield in 1993 (the Polegate extension wasn’t ready then), there was no surfacing.

Hellingly Station
I immediately saw that the route was far busier than the Downs Link and in the three miles to Hailsham I passed several families out cycling, a number of horse riders and even a few old people using mobility scooters. The going was very good in spite of a couple of level crossings over busy roads and I reached Hailsham in no time at all. The section through Hailsham suffered from a number of developments over the trackbed and I had to negotiate a couple of housing estates, a busy road and a car park. I could only guess where the train station once was, as the site had been completely transformed giving no hint that it ever existed. Two local pubs were giveaways, the Railway Tavern and The Terminus. Pictures of the original station before and after closure can be found at

Viaduct Near Hellingly
My memory of the route north from Hailsham was pretty hazy (it was 16 years ago!), but I was very surprised to see the tarmac surface continue and even more surprised by the appearance of another housing estate, this one hadn’t existed in 1993. A little further on and I reached Horsebridge Road, where the original bridge was damaged by a road vehicle just prior to closure, bring forward the inevitable by a few weeks. Now there is no bridge at all, just a pelican crossing for getting across this very busy road.

Hellingly Woods
In what seemed no time at all I came upon Hellingly Station, which I was pleased to see was still complete and survives as a private house. The owners appear to operate some kind of dog training centre, given the frenzied activity involving small dogs jumping through an obstacle course in the back garden. The platform frontage is covered in bushes, which presumably encouraged to provide a little privacy from the hoards that pass by each day. Hellingly station was briefly a junction station for a curious little branch line that once ran to a mental hospital nearby. I looked for the trackbed of this railway but couldn’t find it, although it is apparently still distinguishable.

Horam Station
From Hellingly the climbing started in earnest. It feels odd to be climbing on what seems like a level route but by the time I got to Horam the gradient was 1:66 and the slope of the hill could be made out. The countryside on this next section was probably the best of all, and there were far fewer people about which enabled me to enjoy all the more. It was a fabulous April day and as the old line wound through the countryside the air was full of the sound of woodland birds singing merrily and the woods were carpeted in primroses and wood anemones, giving a fragrant smell. It was a good job the weather was fine and the countryside so lovely as the ride itself was a bit of a slog.

Site of Former Heathfield Station
When I reached Horam Station, I was surprised to see a housing estate confronting me. I don’t remember any of this being here when I last visited, although I do remember there being very little left of the station. Pictures of what it once looked like, along with some showing its demise can be found here . It felt a bit odd using the trail on the remaining platform rather than the trackbed itself. The station was clearly a staging post for dog walkers, for there were many about again, mostly heading northwards and they were quite difficult to negotiate.

Heathfield Station Booking Hall
If I felt that the climb up to Horam was bad, the next section up to Heathfield was even worse. Luckily it was only a couple of miles otherwise I would have given up at this point. The line opened out from the woodland and cuttings to give some great views across the Weald. As I approached Heathfield I noted the gradient marker saying it was 1 in 50. The locomotives must have belched out their smoke clanking up this section of track. My legs felt a bit like pistons too as I tried to maintain a reasonable pace.

Heading North of of Heathfield
Heathfield is much changed from when the railway ran through here. The town has expanded a lot since then and the various developments that have taken place since the 1960s have all required new roads to be built, where bridges across the line would never have been needed. Fortunately these don’t impact on the line too much and only one needs to be crossed at level. When I reached the station the area where the platforms once were have been completely covered by an industrial area. However, the main booking office is still extant and serves as a shop selling cooking equipment. It is in very good condition and decked out in Southern Railway colours.

End of the Line
For a short time in 1993 my parents lived in Heathfield, hence my previous expedition along the line. In those days the tunnel to the north of the station was not accessible and any attempt to pass through it would have been an unpleasant and wet experience (drainage was never its strong point). Now it’s a different story, with the tunnel restored, lit and surfaced so that walkers and riders can pass through it. Pictures of what it used to look like can be found here . I had heard about this, and my trip would not have been complete without exploring further. It was a pleasant ride through and on the north side was the Millennium Garden, which serves as the centrepiece for a network of local walks. The trail actually carries on for about a mile through the woods, although this is where the tarmac surface finally ran out. I wasn’t at all sure how far I could go, but I decided to continue as far as I could, knowing it probably wouldn’t be far.

Heathfield Tunnel
The end was not actually as I expected. I thought that there would be an insurmountable obstacle preventing further progress, but instead I was merely confronted with a huge fence, presumably erected by the landowner not wanting oiks like me travelling any further. I later read that East Sussex County Council have been looking into extending the Cuckoo Trail to Eridge, where it once ran to and where it could join the Forest Trail, another disused rail line running to East Grinstead. So far they have met opposition from landowners, although there are also some technical considerations, such as whether the very high embankments are still stable enough to carry the amount of traffic seen further south on the trail. I hope that one day these obstacles are overcome, so that even more of this special route can be enjoyed by people like me and the other 200,000 souls each year who come here.

No comments:

Post a Comment