Thursday, 28 May 2009

Meon Valley Trail Knowle Junction (Fareham) - West Meon

Wickham Start
I have decided to change tack during the summer months. I find the three-weekly frequency of my various outings restricting at this time of year, wanting to go out more often but for less time due to the heat (I don’t much like walking around like a sweaty pig for hours on end – it’s too energy sapping). After some discussion with the family I am going to try and make the most of evenings over the next few weeks, which will give me greater frequency and not eat into my family time too much. Summer evenings are delightful for walking and have the added advantage of being relatively free of people.

For my first trip this summer I decided to continue my tour of railway line trails in the region and headed west to the Meon Valley, where I had flirted with the trail during my walk along the South Downs Way last year. The Meon Valley Line was another white elephant (as so many of the later lines to be built were), opened in 1903 by the London and South Western Railway to complete a direct route from London to Gosport (although it didn’t work since Gosport train station closed in the early 1930’s). The engineering of the route was almost as lavish as the previous line I visited north of Chichester. It beggars belief why the railway company built the line in this manner, for although there was significant agricultural traffic to begin with, passenger numbers were always small on account of the area being so rural.

Loading Gauge
The most obvious place to start the trail is at the former station site at Wickham, which was once the first stop for trains heading from Fareham to Alton. See how it once looked at Here there is a free car park, but the only hint that there was once a station here is the name of the approach road, for all signs of the platforms etc have been completely obliterated and a housing estate partially covers the site. In fact the rail line is not obvious from the car park and you would be forgiven for not knowing it was here at all (although there are some substantial bridges over the roads on the way in). The trackbed is almost hidden in the trees that grow along the side of the River Meon, a beautifully clean chalky stream that gurgles its way through Wickham on its journey to the Solent.

Official Signage
Wickham is about a mile and a half north of Knowle Junction, where the line once diverged from the still operating Fareham – Winchester direct line. Initially the route south is good and wide but feels physically separated from Wickham by the trees that have enveloped the embankments. In fact the only views outwards are at the road crossings of the A334 and B2177 where the houses and church of the town can be seen. After about half a mile or so, the trackbed runs across a golf course and the original rail land has been nibbled away at so only a narrow path remains. Beyond the golf course the trackbed does not widen out until it also passes a vineyard (which almost certainly didn’t exist when the railway was operational).

Iron Bridge
After the continual climb out of Wickham an overbridge is reached and the brickwork is showing signs of serious decay, with large cracks throughout the bidge, arch and surrounding structure. It remains to be seen how long it will remain in place. Given that the railway closed to passengers in 1955, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the infrastructure is failing. Knowle Junction was a little way beyond this, but the track to Fareham was only just visible through the fence and lush undergrowth. Some redundant points mechanism, rusting away by the side of the trackbed was the only clue of the former junction, although a couple of concrete sleepers were also still in place, half buried. Knowle Junction is the southern end of the line and as far as the walker/ cyclist can go at the moment (although a link to a former loop line heading into Fareham Town Centre is mooted).

Meon Countryside
Heading north out of Wickham is a bit strange at first since the path is very narrow and surfaced with loose gravel, a poor choice for a cycle route since it gives little traction. A short distance out of the car park and the track drops a little, hinting perhaps that initially I was travelling along the platform? The initial impression of the path wasn’t good, with the poor surface, some large puddles to negotiate and the sudden appearance of a lone policeman walking along the track. Was this a spot for anti-social behaviour I wondered? Why was he alone? He nodded and said hello and seemed quite relaxed so I pressed on cautiously at first, but soon relaxed when the surface got better and occasional glimpses of the River Meon passed me by.

Glimpse of the River
After about a mile or so the surface got much better and was more like a normal bridal way without the dreaded gravel. In fact I found it a little surprising that no work appeared to have been done to improve the surface for the rest of the ride up to West Meon. I could even go as far as to say that the whole path is an opportunity missed since it is poorly promoted by Hampshire County Council (who own it) and could be a much better experience than it actually is. For while on a summer evening it is a delightful ride up through the trees, I would not contemplate coming this way in the winter months at all.

Shallow Cutting
The path from Wickham all the way to West Meon (approximately 10 miles) is almost completely shrouded by trees, with views outwards from the path limited to a few glimpses here and there. Initially though the path actually passes through a proper forest, evidenced by some fairly hefty machinery hanging around that was obviously being used for thinning operations by the Forestry Commission. At the top end of Upperford Copse the unmistakable roar of traffic pierced the otherwise peaceful countryside and I realised that I was upon the A32 already. This busy road between Alton and Fareham probably proved too strong a competition for the railway. The bridge carrying the road was in particularly good condition (but then I suppose it has to be considering what it has to do).

Decorative Bridge
After leaving the woods and the busy road the line continues up through open countryside, although only glimpses of this can actually been seen from the line, which is flanked by large horse chestnut trees in particular. From what I could see, the Meon had reduced to a trickle and the very pastoral landscape was dominated by grazing cattle. There were a surprising number of houses adjacent to the line, although it could not be described as urban.

Muddy Trackbed
I soon reached Droxford, the next station on the line. The station had a colourful past, with its most famous incident the staging of a meeting between the commanders of Operation Overlord (otherwise known as D-Day). Droxford also was the focus of a ditched attempt to preserve the railway, but prolonged vandalism put paid to that idea. See how the station once looked at . Far from being the death knell to the station building however, it now flourishes thanks to some loving restoration work by the owner. Don’t expect to get any decent views of the place though, for the occupiers quite understandably guard their privacy and have planted hedges most of the way round the boundary of the property. The path diverts briefly around the station and pitches up at the end of where the platforms once finished. Another busy road is crossed and then it’s a slog uphill to the last station on the route at West Meon.

Late Evening Sun
Shortly after leaving Droxford the trackbed deteriorates somewhat and despite being May it was still quite muddy. I dread to think what it must be like in February! There were a few notable spots where there had been some vegetation clearance along the lineside. I wondered whether this was done to help wildlife, or the drainage of the path. Even if the latter were not true, these sections were definitely easier to cycle along and the line didn’t feel so closed in.

Old Winchester Hill
About halfway between Droxford and West Meon I got a nasty surprise when the path ahead of me disappeared over the side of a bridge that had been removed. I backtracked a bit and what I had taken to be an access path to the road below transpired to be the actual cycle path. For such a small interruption I wasn’t quite sure why a cycle friendly bridge hadn’t been put in place. It would save the potentially dangerous road crossing. However, dropping off the rail line for even such a brief moment did afford a lovely view across the surrounding countryside and in particular to Old Winchester Hill, an Iron Age Hill fort that I had encountered on my walk along the South Downs Way last year.

West Meon Station
Further north I had another similar bridge to negotiate and as I approached the South Downs Way crossing, I encountered a number of youngsters who were out hiking. They waited for me to approach and as I got closer they asked me if I had seen some of their friends who appeared to have lost them. It was only then that I realised that I hadn’t actually seen anyone since Droxford, in contrast to the southern section where it had been quite busy.

Back to Wickham
Almost fifty minutes after leaving Droxford I reached West Meon Station. This is now the northern end of the route, although the original rail line continued northwards almost the same distance again to meet the Winchester – Alton – Farnham line at Alton. The northern stretch I suspect would make for a more interesting ride since it travels through some fairly hilly country and once had to pass through Privett Tunnel, approximately 1 kilometre long. However, the heavy engineering works associated with the northern section is probably why it is not open for cycling traffic! The station itself is returning to nature and heavily overgrown. The buildings are long since gone, but the platforms remain (all 600 feet of them!). I came here when I did the South Downs Way but somehow a summer visit made the place even more haunted as the platforms are slowly being enveloped by undergrowth. The path continues for a short distance beyond the station but not beyond the site of the former viaduct that carried the line across the now small stream that is the River Meon. This was one of the first casualties of closure since it was made completely of metal and so its scrap value was realised quickly.
Wickham Church

I turned tail at West Meon and headed back to Wickham. My ride back took only about 50 minutes (in contrast to the almost two hours to get here). Of course on the way back I barely stopped (except for the odd dog walker) and crucially it was mostly downhill (worth remembering if you decide to have a go at this trip).

Wickham Sunset
On the whole this was an enjoyable but although I had high hopes for the scenery, it was in truth disappointing since so much of it is obscured by lineside vegetation. The surface was poor for a cycle path and unusually I would recommend walking the route over cycling. I can’t help thinking that Hampshire County Council are hiding their light under a bushel with this line, but then I suppose it has no strategic importance with regard to the National Cycle Network and will probably continue in its present form for the foreseeable future.

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