Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Downs Link Henfield - Southwater

Almost Reclaimed By Nature

With only a very short time at my disposal today, I decided to treat this section rather differently from the other two rides along the Downs Link. This would be almost a straight sprint from one end to the other and a quick turn round and come back.  In truth, although the route passes through some pleasant countryside, none of it could be described as remarkable explaining perhaps why this line was never a serious candidate for being preserved.
Disappearance of Trackbed

I know Southwater Country Park can get very jammed on a Sunday due to the popularity of the lake as well as the Downs Link.  I wasn’t sure whether a car park existed at Henfield but was pleased to find that a small parking area exists just to the north of the erstwhile station (it used to be sited in The Beechings).  As a hint, the approach road is called Upper Station Road!
Wide Open Spaces

While the ¼ mile stretch through Henfield is completely obliterated, immediately to the north of the car park the cycle route resumes along the old line through a cutting.  I am guessing that there was once an overbridge where the car park once was for there is a steep slope down to the level of the railbed.  It would have made for a good startexcept that being Sunday, the line was full of walkers and cyclists setting off for the afternoon and I had to be a little careful.  Luckily I was soon past them and had a long section of clear route. The surface of this section is very smooth, having had some work done to it and I wondered why the rest of the line couldn’t get similar treatment?  It would encourage even more families.
West Grinstead Tunnel

The first mile out of Henfield was very similar to the section to the south as the line continues up the Adur Valley.  Eventually I came to an impressive viaduct over the River Adur, which would be the last time that the line crossed.  Immediately afterwards was one of those slightly strange moments that disused railways sometimes give.  The field to the north of the viaduct looked as if it had never been crossed by a railway line, so complete was its return to pre-railway days.  In the adjacent field was what I took to be the remains of a pillbox, but nothing like any I had seen before.
West Grinstead Station

Once across the field and through another gate and the route resumed for half a mile of so.  This part of the route is obviously used by the local farmer since a car was parked halfway along, and there were some very large piles of dung at various intervals.  Such is the indignity of losing the rails!
The Train Now Stopped

Just shy of Partridge Green, I had to take the one and only detour of this section of route.  Fortunately it is not as onerous as the Steyning detour.  The trackbed to the north is taken over once again by housing and an industrial park, necessitating a diversion along a bridle path and short road section.  The road into Partridge Green has a rather odd hump in it and unless you have cycled this section of the Downs Link you may have been completely unaware that it is the remnants of the road bridge over the rail line.  You still need some imagination, since the underside of the bridge is not obvious, and the only giveaway is the wall running alongside the road on the eastern side only.
Gradient Marker

The trackbed has been taken into private ownership to the north of Partridge Green, but fortunately there is a wide enough path alongside so as not to make it a problem.  The trackbed north to West Grinstead, the next station, has rather a different character.  It is a section of short wooded sections and wide open spaces as the Adur is left behind.  The surface is pretty ropy here though so watch out for some big rocks that could send you tumbling off your steed.  It’s a section that is almost completely devoid of railway interest and I was pleased that I had started in Henfield for I was obviously going uphill to West Grinstead.  Always best to get the long drag out of the way early on I always think. 
Tree Tunnel

Eventually I reached West Grinstead, surely the most rural of the original stations which supposedly served a scattered community, but would probably act as the proxy station for Cowfold now if the line was still running.  The approach to the station is a little odd for the bridge carrying the A272 over the line has been reconstructed and where a brick built rail bridge would once have done the job, cyclists now have to make do with a corrugated steel tube under the road embankment.
Copsale Car Park

The station itself though is the only one still in existence on the whole route.  The platforms are still extant and the station master’s house still presides over the line.  There is even a signal on the up platform (this is a particularly popular accessory for my two girls who always make a beeline for it when we are up this way).  It was the original signal too, having been reinstalled in 2000 (see http://webserver01.westsussex.gov.uk/wscc/Assistant%20Chief%20Exec/Communications/Press%20Releases.nsf/d56a29d8ba25711c80256cf6003bf3c8/94139682da9b601d80256a07005978c9?OpenDocument) In the former cattle dock is an old coach that houses some interesting exhibits of what the line used to look like, including a working model of the station showing what it looked like in its heyday.
Bridge House

The line to the north is a bit of a slog up to Southwater station and the Country Park.It is also very well used, perhaps the busiest part of the track.  This is probably because of the ease of parking at Southwater, Copsale and West Grinstead.  In truth though it isn’t the nicest section – the trackbed is pretty rough in places and the missing bridge at Copsale brings an unwelcome conflict with a busy country lane.  My attention was drawn however to the pub sign, which showed a stylised artists impression of how the overbridge may have looked.  A little further on and the Southwater bypass cruelly cuts across the route, leaving the cyclist to negotiate a fairly unfriendly underpass.  The trackbed is not regained until the country park some distance further on.  The old trackbed is visible, but only as a fairly uninviting and overgrown embankment alongside the potholed service road that the Downs Link uses.
A24 Bridge

Southwater Country Park is a useful pitstop on quieter days.  The café and lake are enjoyable places to linger when the place isn’t too busy and a far cry from the original use, which was a large brickworks and quarry!
Bridge Abutment at Southwater

This section is a pleasant cycle ride although a bit rough in places.  It’s fairly short, with a round trip of about twelve miles, making it an ideal afternoon or summer evening outing.  The café at Southwater Country Park is recommended and there are also pubs at Henfield and Copsale immediately adjacent to the route.  If you are interested in rail history though it’s pretty short on remaining features, with the station at West Grinstead having most of what’s left!


  1. Thanks for this Paul. My wife and I took advantage of today's rare sunshine and walked the Downs Link from Southwater Country Park to West Grinstead today. A couple of points which may help other readers. Firstly the Bridge House pub at Copsale is closed and looking very sad. Builders are working on it; rumours of conversion to a B&B. Secondly, the former Little Chef on the A272 beside the old West Grinstead station is now the Orchard Family Restaurant with access through the garden from the Downs Link. They cater for just about anybody from families with children through hikers and cyclists to business travellers. Whenever possible they use local or Fairtrade produce. Friendly service and good value. Certainly worth considering for a refreshment stop.

  2. Thanks for your updated comments. Sad to hear about the Copsale pub - looked quite busy when I passed by. I have seen the Orchard Family Restaurant a number of times as we often take the kids to West Grinstead for a walk or bike ride. Never used it though so thanks for the heads up!