Monday, 23 November 2009

London LOOP section 1 Erith - Old Bexley

Erith Station
After my odd introduction to the LOOP a month or so ago, I decided to start the walk proper this time, at the beginning and continue in sequence.  While for some walks, sequential walking is not that important I think in this case it might well be otherwise the danger is that I will do all the ‘good’ bits and leave out some of the ‘bad’ bits.  Other writers have suggested that Day 1 is a bit hard to take and may not inspire the walker to carry on!  A bit harsh perhaps, but having looked at other people’s pictures and a description of the route I can understand this sentiment.
Erith Waterfront

As it happens the start of the walk is reminiscent of the start of the Saxon Shore Way a few miles further downstream, starting off with a tour of industrial units before getting better as the section opens up.  In terms of transport from one end to the other it is pretty easy.  There is ample parking at Old Bexley, with a public car park in the street.  A four hour ticket should be plenty to enable the train journey to the start and a relaxed amble back.  There are direct trains from Bexley to Erith, although confusingly the trains ‘terminate’ at Crayford.  In reality if you stay on the train it normally forms the next service back to London looping back through Erith and Woolwich Arsenal.  At Erith station there are numerous signs directing you down to the riverfront where the LOOP officially starts.
Pub Decoration

The Thames makes for a satisfying start point and the frontage at Erith has obviously received some investment in recent years.  There is an attractive garden area alongside the Thames and a little further along the old deep wharf (I assume used by cargo vessels), is now transformed as a pleasure pier.  There have been lots of new shops built and yet despite this there is still a bleakness about the place that wasn’t wholly down to the gloomy weather.  Perhaps there is just too much new build that isn’t sufficiently weathered yet?  In among the new build there were some gems though – the old police station (now a private residence) and a pub on the corner of the main street with a huge mural of Thames sailing barges painted on the side (didn’t help the pub though – it was closed).
Erith Pier

From a fairly promising and interesting start what follows certainly tested my enthusiasm!  In order to escape Erith, the path continues out along a road following the Thames as closely as possible but crucially behind some pretty unattractive industrial sites.  All manner of activities go on, mostly to do with recycling it seems, from cars to wood and obviously all needing the river to transport their goods.  Fortunately after a ten minute walk the path hits the riverbank proper and heads out towards Crayford Ness.
A Gritty Start

The next mile or so, while not being a picture postcard country walk is a fascinating glimpse into life on the Thames.  In the short time it took me to walk this section it seemed that there was activity everywhere I looked.  In the very distance behind me I could see the construction works on the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, while across the river there were hundreds of seagulls and a number of construction vehicles in the business of covering the enormous landfills at Rainham Marshes.  The river itself was busy with shipping traffic, with some very large vessels docked in the distance and the odd one chugging past me.  To the east the massive bulk of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge was busy with huge lorries moving slowly towards the toll booths on the south side.
Erith Marshes
Eventually I reached Crayford Ness, marked by a couple of towers incorporating navigation aids for shipping and the last uninterrupted view back towards Erith.  To my right was what looked like a shanty town of scrapyards, full of old cars and other vehicles.  A few caught my eye in particular; two old publicity vehicles for Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland that are probably victims of the credit crunch and vehicles and trailers from defunct businesses such as Unwins Wine Merchants.  Their presence spoke volumes about our throwaway society and operations like this, despite their unloveliness are a crucial component.  It wasn’t the scrapyards that irked me so much as the unofficial piles of waste dumped outside by less responsible people.  One pile of tyres outside had formed a large mound, but had been there so long that it was slowly being absorbed into the marshes.

Crayford Ness

As I rounded Crayford Ness, I left the Thames and headed up the River Darent and past the flood barrier that protects Crayford and Dartford upstream from tidal surges.  From here the scrapyards become a distant site and although surrounded by other developments and traffic noise, this section of path has a rural feel that becomes increasingly pleasant further upstream.  After a mile or so the River Cray joins the Darent and the path swings round into the Cray valley.  The first few hundred yards are marked by large reed beds on either side of the river, all swaying violently in the stiff breeze that had by now also blown most of the cloud away.
QEII Bridge

Any hopes of a rural walk from here were soon dashed as I drew alongside a closed landfill and a recycling plant that I remember visiting in my professional capacity a few years ago.  After a weekend of heavy rain the whole area was awash with water and I was pleased that the pavement at least sat above the very flooded road.  I passed under the curious railway bridge where a new access had been dug underneath to allow for the passage of lorries.  This was quite a severe cut, forming almost an inspection pit underneath that was inevitably full of water!
Cray Mouth

Fortunately the industrial landscape was short-lived for on the other side of the busy A206 road I came upon a much more attractive section of the River Cray running to the rear of residential gardens.  Apparently river traffic came along this section of river until very recently, delivering wood to a local sawmill and the last load came this way in 1977.  I found it very hard to believe, given the size of the river at this point.  Despite the forgotten feel of the river, it seems to be quite well looked after with some obvious conservation work having taken place along stretches.  There was little rubbish, despite reports given by other bloggers.
River Cray

Eventually I reached Crayford Town Centre, which was surprisingly attractive.  This was once a significant bridging point for the London – Dover Road as Watling Street came through here (the modern A2 now by-passes Crayford).  The River Cray seems to have been celebrated as an integral part of the Town Centre, now bounded by an attractive little modern park and not simply ignored by surrounding housing as it was just a little further back along the path.  I had noted there was a public toilet here and thought that I might use it, but on arrival it was one of those pay as you go tardis type facilities, so I gave it a miss.
Crayford Backyards

The LOOP leaves Crayford along London Road and then into Bourne Road, which were traffic choked and dull.  On the edge of Crayford I walked by a car showroom that had some unusual looking columns outside that I took to be old fashioned lighting columns.  However, these are apparently all that is left of the erstwhile Crayford Cinema.  The owner of the car showroom has given them an attractive paint job – hats off to him for maintaining them!
Crayford Town Centre

Just past the car showroom the LOOP turns left onto a large recreation ground and heads back to the River Cray.  The walk along this part of the river is beautiful and possibly the nicest part of the whole day.  It’s hard to believe that the walk is not in the depths of the countryside and far removed from the industrial creek it is destined to become only a mile or so away.
Following the Cray

I reached a sports building at the corner of the recreation ground and while the path crosses the river here and heads off towards the A2 bypass, I took the opportunity to have a nose at Hall Place (http://www.hallplace.com/) a gem of a place that would be criminal to ignore if passing by.  Best of all there is no admission charge to the old place, and a fantastic team room inside that overlooks the River Cray.  The Hall is a strange mix of architectural styles, with a brick half and a stone half that look like an odd marriage!  In the grounds are some fantastic gardens and some very portly looking yew topiary sculptures of mythical and heraldic beasts such as dragons and lions.
Hall Place

In order to access Hall Place from the LOOP, you need to walk around the perimeter of the car parks servicing the sports pavilion and the Hall itself.  Despite some tantalising glimpses into the grounds there is no other way in or out (don’t be tempted to try getting out through the grounds – you will be disappointed as all exits are sealed).  The house and grounds demand at least half an hour of your time, which shouldn’t be a problem even if you are on your four hour ticket.
Hall Place Topiary

After an enjoyable visit I continued on my way, crossing the Cray once again and heading towards the A2.  The noise is hard to ignore, but crossing it isn’t too bad, if a little convoluted.  The path uses the rail crossing, going up and over the railway and looping back underneath on the other side.  The underneath of the rail bridge is obviously a graffiti artists paradise, with every inch of available space taken up by lurid and colourful tagging. As I passed underneath one of the new express trains built for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link passed by, a little off the beaten track.
Tudor Brickwork

It was now a short stroll into Old Bexley through some very attractive woodland.  On the map it suggested that this might be just a fringe to the housing estate on the other side, but in reality it was like another world, with no sign of any housing beyond.  Even at one point when the path threatened to enter the estate it hooked a right and headed down towards the church in Old Bexley instead.  Rather than stick to the official path I took the opportunity to wander down through the old graveyard alongside instead.  This is a wonderful old place, full of graves that are slowly being absorbed into the natural world.  I’m not sure if this is being intentionally allowed to happen for it is now being managed as a nature reserve and some parts of the graveyard are obviously being kept clear of vegetation.
Bexley Graveyard

The church at the other end is highly unusual and immediately striking.  The steeple has an octagonal top built above what looked like it would be a more conventional pyramid.  It is as though the builders/ architects changed their minds half way through construction!  Strangely the church website does not mention anything about the unusual steeple in its history (http://www.stmarysbexley.co.uk/content.php?folder_id=5) .
Bexley Church

From the church it was a short walk back into the town centre along a road full of historic buildings back to the car park I had left four hours earlier.  This was a short walk full of contrasts, from the rugged industrial Thames riverside through areas of suburbia to the oases of history that have survived all the development going on around them with dignity and still providing character and interest.  Despite the bad press I enjoyed it immensely and am already looking forward to the next stage to Petts Wood.
Bexley Church

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sussex Coast Walk Day 10 Newhaven - Exceat Bridge

Old Course of the Ouse
An unexpected treat!  Thanks to generous Mum and Dad looking after the kids, I was able to take advantage of some fantastic early November weather and get out for an afternoon walk from their house in Newhaven the shortish distance along Tide Mills Beach and over Seaford Head to Cuckmere Haven and on to Exceat.  I had long thought that I would break up this section of path from here to Eastbourne for no other reason than I wanted to take a longer look at the Seven Sisters and Eastbourne itself.  I felt that the whole day would be too long to really do it justice.  Not only did I have no kids to worry about but it was an extremely rare opportunity to have a companion – my wife! 
Newhaven Lighthouse

We headed down the very sorry town centre that is now Newhaven, a million miles from the busy town I remembered as a boy.  Once at Newhaven Town Station, we turned right into Railway Approach and headed down East Side, once a thriving part of town but now most derelict, with large numbers of vacant industrial units and the semi dereliction of the Parker Pen factory, once one of the biggest employers in Newhaven.  As we wandered along the road a strange sight befell us when we passed three cadets, presumably from a navy or army cadet force (but not wearing uniform), walking down the street practising their drumming rhythm.  We assumed that it was ahead of tomorrow’s Remembrance Day Parade, but it was a slightly strange sight nonetheless.
Tide Mills

At the end of the road we reached an old concrete footbridge that crossed the Newhaven – Seaford railway line.  This bridge looks like it may need to be replaced soon, since underneath is some fairly substantial bracing keeping it up.  On the other side we were met with the unfortunate and somewhat sad looking original course of the River Ouse which used to reach the sea about a mile further east but has now been stranded following the canal cut of the ‘new haven’ in the 1500s.  Now that the breakwater is in place the spit which used to cover the mouth of the river has been starved of shingle.  There is only a remnant of river still between Newhaven and Tide Mills and looks to be in a fairly sorry state.
Tide Mills

We headed for the beach, crossing what were once substantial railway sidings that still had large numbers of trucks parked on them when I was a boy.  There are few traces of this kind of beach railway now, but if you look carefully the lie of the land suggests that only the tracks have been removed as the outline of the land needed is still there.  This part of the beach is possibly less visited than on the west side of Newhaven, but the view across to the breakwater and Castle Hill opposite are among the best along this part of the coast.
The Buckle

What follows from here to Seaford is very different from how it once would have looked.  For a start the village of Tide Mills, roughly halfway between the two towns has been abandoned and remains derelict.  Only a few half standing walls and foundations remain of this small village built around the focal point of a small tidal mill that ground flour (hence the name).  There was even once a railway station here, although it closed in 1942.  One of the platforms is still extant, a short distance down the track to the popular car parking area at the back of the beach.  The buildings of Tide Mills finally met their end during World War II when they were blown up by locally stationed troops, worried that they might be useful to the enemy in any invasion attempt.
Seaford Martello Tower

What is also obvious here is the appearance of railway tracks along the back of the beach.  These are a continuation of the railway sidings coming from Newhaven and I think this railway was once used to bring over supplies to build sea defences at Seaford, but strangely there is little information about to support this (can anyone shed any light?).  The filled in railway tracks do make for a more convenient path along here than the shingle that’s for sure.
Seaford Head

Eventually we reached Seaford, close by to where the more recent incarnation of Bishopstone station is (it was built in 1938 in a modest art deco style befitting the time, and precipitated the demise of the ‘Tide Mills’ station).  The walk along the promenade is very pleasant in Seaford and rather different from when I was a child.  Back then the effects of shingle starvation caused by the breakwater in Newhaven had resulted in Seaford beach being seriously shingle depleted.  This is now rectified by bringing in shingle from elsewhere to keep the beach topped up.  A couple of large monsters sit on the beach ready for action!  Opposite this bit of the beach is the striking building called ‘The Buckle’.  For many years this was a very popular pub, which brought a lot of life to this end of Seaford Beach but is now a private residence.
Fortification

Erin and I headed into Seaford for a spot of lunch at this point.  Seaford has the air of a town that had something bigger in mind but never quite achievedit.  The centre of town is quite pleasant, especially around the church but the seafront is a strange hotch potch of different building styles.  Maybe it needed someone of the ilk of the Duke of Devonshire (as Eastbourne had) to develop the town further?  Still the cafĂ© opposite Morrisons did us proud for lunch and judging by some of the other fare being consumed by other customers, a repeat visit may be in order!
Seaford View

Tummies full we headed back to the seafront and passed by the old Martello Tower, built for yet another possible invasion (this time by Napoleon).  However, it was built too late to be of any meaningful use and now serves as a local history museum.  It’s lucky it has such a benign use as the cannon which graces the top would surely have no deterrent factor for any would-be invader!
Looking Towards Brighton

Even at this late stage in the year the beach huts between here and Seaford Head were being used by many people enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.  The beach was thronged with what looked like geography students all standing around with measuring sticks and clipboards.  It made for an unusually busy scene for a November afternoon.
Seven Sisters

After admiring the beach and view back along the seafront we headed up Seaford Head.  It has been awhile since I’ve been this way and I was very surprised to see how close the remains of the old house at the foot had got to the edge of the cliffs.  The path used to pass up the right hand side of the old brick walls, but now although the old place is complete you can only pass by on the left now.
Hope Gap

The climb to the top of Seaford Head is quite steep, easily the hardest climb along the Sussex Coast so far encountered but oh so worth it on such a fabulous day!  The air was so crystal clear that we could see clear to the Isle of Wight, Selsey Bill and all points in between.  The cliff line along from Brighton to Newhaven walked on the previous outing was particularly clear.  On the landward side of the path golfers were out in force to play the epic looking 18th hole of Seaford Head Golf Course (well epic looking to me as a non-golfer…).  The tee is at the top of the Head, and the hole is at the bottom!  Hitting the tee shot on a non-windy day must be enormous fun, but on a windy day would I’m sure, be enough to tempt missing the hole entirely!  Alongside the golf course are the remains of little gun turrets constructed as war defences and almost completely hidden from view nowadays.
Seven Sisters

The walk along the top of the cliffs to Cuckmere Haven was an absolute joy.  The skyline is dominated by the Seven Sisters ahead, which were positively gleaming today.  This is probably the best loved and most well known view of the Sussex Coast and on a day like this it’s easy to set aside the clichĂ©s and enjoy it as one of the great views of anywhere in this country.  We descended into Hope Gap, but any possibility of walking along the wave cut platform into Cuckmere Haven were well and truly out of the question today as there was a very high tide.  We instead wandered the short distance over the hill to the coastguard cottages that appear in most views of the Seven Sisters.  This handful of houses must surely have one of the best views of any property in Britain, but at the expense of a very uncertain future as the sea continues to erode the gardens.  It is conceivable that in my lifetime they may disappear entirely.
Coastguard Cottages

At low tide it is possible to ford the Cuckmere River to continue the walk along the coast (and indeed I have done it a few times).  However, we had a date with the bus, even if it had been low tide.  After a few more admiring glances at Haven Brow ahead of us, we headed inland towards Exceat Bridge which remains the lowest bridging point of the river almost two miles upstream.  The path along the edge of the river valley is a delight (and very well used!) and the valley of the Cuckmere River remains as unspoilt as I remember as a small child when I would have day trips down to the beach at Cuckmere Haven.
Cuckmere Haven

The Golden Galleon makes for a very good refreshment stop if you are this way, but for us the bus stop outside was our last destination.  Despite the fairly remote feel of the valley there is a very regular bus service here as it sits between the major towns of Brighton and Eastbourne, meaning that buses can come as often as every 10 minutes and there is a 7 day service.  It is an excellent place for linear walkers!
Cuckmere Valley

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wye Valley Railway Chepstow - Monmouth

Permanent Way
I have had a fascination with this railway for over twenty years ever since first coming as a teenage scout to the area and coming across some of the derelict track just north of Tidenham Tunnel. Back in the late 1980s this quarry line was on its last legs and although there were still some trucks stationed on the line, they were clearly destined for removal as the quarry had just about closed.
Driving Through The Thicket
This exploration is actually on two separate occasions, concluded recently when I took the opportunity to try and find the Tidenham Tunnel once again using the same track as my original visit. The section north of Tintern station formed a part of a completion of the Wye Valley walk section between Monmouth and Chepstow done some time ago but which has not yet appeared on this website.
Rails No More
It is impossible to follow the whole trackbed from Chepstow to Monmouth along the former route of the Wye Valley Railway since some is blocked off, bridges and tunnels are no longer in use and a small section still has track and has not officially been closed! However, there are some long sections available and for the railway walker it is still a good and interesting project. In the next few years the section between Chepstow and Tintern/ Brockweir is likely to be transformed if Sustrans get the wherewithal to proceed with their plans to turn the old route into a cycle path.
Tintern Tunnel
The original railway ran from Chepstow to Monmouth, a distance of 15 miles and was opened in 1876. The engineering of the line was quite difficult due to the tightness of the Wye Valley, which must surely have contributed to its scenic beauty when it was operational. After leaving the main Gloucester line just to the north east of Chepstow it plunged through a 1000+ yard tunnel at Tidenham, clinging to the side of the valley until reaching another tunnel at Tintern. It crossed the Wye three times en route up the valley until reaching Monmouth Troy station where it met with another line (now closed) that connected Ross-on-Wye with Pontypool via Usk.
Inside Tintern Tunnel
The section of line south of Tidenham Junction is still in situ although now heavily overgrown in places and impassable by trains, which have not been this way for almost twenty years. The tunnel itself is now block in the south portal by a fence keeping out all but the more determined trespasser. My journey though started from the north portal. As it happens just a couple of hundred yards to the north of the north portal as the undergrowth was so dense that I couldn’t penetrate the thick jungle! Since I am really a walker with an interest in old railways rather than a serious jungle buster I thought I would leave this to others (or come in the depths of winter when there is less undergrowth!).
Wireworks Bridge
It was slightly surreal coming across such an overgrown piece of line where little attempt had been made to remove the tracks. Rock falls across the tracks are evident where the vegetation doesn’t cover it all up. This was the section where I can remember the trucks being stationed last time I came this way in 1988. Eventually the rails are lost and only the chairs are visible and soon enough any evidence of track is lost entirely. Ironically just beyond here the trackbed is in much better condition, for it is now an official footpath all the way through the forest to Tintern tunnel. This section was one of the hardest to construct apparently, for the engineers had to build a shelf for the line to sit on so that it could cling to the edge of the valley. Now it makes for a very pleasant path through the woods, but because of the steepness of each side of the track it isn’t really possible to make anything much out of the engineering features, even the small viaduct crossed along the way.
Tintern Loop
Eventually I reached Wireworks Junction, still very visible even 60+ years since it actually acted as a junction. From here a short freight only branch headed into Tintern Village, to an old factory that manufactured, guess what? Wire! It was built with private money as a result of the railway company’s decision to by-pass the village for engineering reasons. Now some people have offered the branch as a possible opportunity for restoring the line to at least Tintern. The path ahead takes the Wireworks branch, but before I did I took the time to have a proper look at Tintern tunnel, a fairly short one, but because it is on a curve, impossible to see to the other end. The tunnel is closed off by a fence strong enough to deter all but the most determined trespasser and even if passed through it offers nothing for the onward walker for on the other side is a missing bridge over the Wye.
Former Bridge at Tintern
I instead took the short branch line into Tintern along what is now a very attractive woodland walk and difficult to believe that it was once a railway line. I soon reached another bridge across the Wye, the very useful (for walkers anyway) Wireworks Bridge and the only one across the Wye between Chepstow and Brockweir. This provides a good access for walkers based in Tintern to get across to the walking country on the English side of the River. For walkers of the railway line a mile long detour through the village is needed, but in truth this is no hardship and if there is time there are plenty of refreshment opportunities and the second hand bookshop is one of the best I have ever been in (even if a bit pricy).
Miniature Railway
As I stayed in Tintern this time I did not venture further north of the old station, which is sited about half a mile away from the northern edge of the village. Follow the main road through the village and then pass by St Michael’s church at the edge of the village following the signs for the Wye Valley Walk. I crossed a couple of muddy fields before coming across the railway line once again at a bridge abutment from the missing bridge across the Wye about three hundred yards from the tunnel mouth I had left over a mile ago! The Wye Valley Walk climbs up onto the trackbed and within a couple of hundred yards the old station is reached. This is a delightful location even in closure as it has been fully restored and serves as a visitor centre and tea room. I have visited the old place a number of times and is well worth a trip in itself if you happen to be passing.
The Train Now Standing
Outside in a siding that now represents the only section of track remaining between Tidenham and Monmouth is a couple of carriages that act as a countryside centre and display about how the railway once looked. It makes for a fascinating place to while away an hour or so and the old station building is still full of atmosphere. A signal box, old signals and water tower complete the scene but alas the possibility of trains coming by this way once again seem remote as 50 years have now passed since the passenger service ceased for good.
Tintern Signals
The trackbed does continue north for a few hundred yards from here but abruptly stops at the road that crosses the Wye at Brockweir Bridge. The bridge that once allowed the railway to pass under the road has now been filled in and replaced by a set of steps carrying the Wye Valley Walk northwards towards Monmouth. This is a very enjoyable route but high level for about four miles and for the railway walker there is no sense of what the rail traveller would once have seen. The trackbed from here for a couple of miles has been subsumed within the straightened A466 road and I have previously continued northward using the Offa’s Dyke Path on the English Bank of the Wye. Although on the other side of the river the old trackbed can eventually be made out nearer to Llandogo and Bigsweir beyond.
Tintern Station
For me though the second excursion on the track was made a few years ago while completing this section of the Wye Valley Walk. From Bigsweir bridge the old track can be picked up once again using an official footpath. Beyond the old tollhouse it is worth having a bit of a nose at the old St Briavals station, which is still extant but off limits to all but a brief glimpse. Interestingly the village it was supposed to serve is over a mile away, several hundred feet higher and in a different country!
Redbrook Bridge
After a mile or so of easy walking the Wye Valley Walk is reunited with the railway and continues along a very pleasant stretch of trackbed through trees and alongside a bubbling and angry looking River Wye (at least it was on the winters day I came through here!). Another station used to exist here, but as it was only a halt with a wooden platform not surprisingly no evidence remains. Eventually just before Redbrook the end of the rail walk comes with a final flourish as the path still uses the old bridge across the Wye, albeit on a short footbridge attached to one side.
Redbrook
Alas Redbrook station is now long gone – a great pity as was once a rival with Tintern for the best kept station on the route. The path from here to Monmouth doesn’t follow the railway line, but the bank of the river. It is nonetheless worth continuing to Monmouth just to look at the two old viaducts that converge upon the old Monmouth Troy station across the Wye. These are now silent monuments to a lost connection to the national rail network lost in the 1960s when good traffic finally ceased on the Wye Valley Line and passengers no longer used the Pontypool to Ross-on Wye line. Walkers can continue up the Wye using this old line as the Wye Valley Walk heads that way. I have done that myself many moons ago, but alas with no surviving pictures. Another trip that way beckons I think! There are also other lines heading into the Forest of Dean that are worth exploring, many of which are useful cycle routes these days.
Monmouth Viaducts
Since my first trip down this way in 1988 this line appears to have been the focus of a lot of attention, with some interesting web histories at http://www.urban75.org/photos/wales/wye_valley.html and an incredible and detailed plan of how the railway could reopen, courtesy of Nigel Nicholson at http://homepage.ntlworld.com/nigel.nicholson/gn/page%2032.htm . The most likely reuse option realistically though is for Sustrans (http://www.wyevalleycycling.org.uk/) to continue its plan for reopening the Chepstow to Tintern stretch as a cycle path and continue northwards as opportunities crop up. Considering the route has been out of action for 50 years, there is a surprising amount of infrastructure and trackbed left and it could make for an interesting and useful cycle route along the whole former line.