Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Forest Way Groombridge - East Grinstead

National Cycle Network Sign
Having completed the Worth Way a couple of weeks earlier it was only natural to explore the Forest Way, which is essentially a continuation of the same railway line from East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells.  The Forest Way does not extend all the way to Tunbridge Wells as the section from Groombridge has now become part of the preserved Spa Valley Railway ( .  Once a crossroads for several Wealden railway lines, Groombrdge itself is no longer on the national network, although I am sure a few locals use the steam train that plies its trade along to Tunbridge Wells for the odd shopping trip.
Leaving Ashurst Junction
The Forest Way starts just outside the village, close to the old spur line that accessed the village from Ashurst Junction.  However, in order not to upset any of the locals in the village by parking outside their house, I continued along the B2110 a short distance out of the village to a layby almost next to the former rail bridge and back-tracked along the short section to the beginning.  None of the Forest Way actually uses the former spur line, which is now substantially overgrown.  The cycle path link to Groombridge village runs alongside the spur line, under the still operational Wealden Line and alongside the track for a short distance before diverging at Ashurst Junction and continuing towards East Grinstead.  A casual cyclist would actually be hard pressed to know of the railway history here, especially on a summer’s day, since the junction is completely covered in vegetation and offering few clues as to its original state.
Still Watching
Having started on the main route it is immediately apparent how enclosed this line is now that lineside cutting no longer takes place.  As with so many disused railway lines, the path is largely insulated from the surrounding countryside, although I did get a glimpse out through the trees to the number of pillboxes that were provided here.  The jumble of lines around Groombridge would have undoubtedly given a useful corridor for German troops to march along had the invasion ever happened and the pillboxes were a necessary addition to protect this strategic route.  It’s hard now to imagine how strategic these rail lines would once have been, given that the still extant Wealden Line has been unnecessarily truncated at Uckfield and the others have all been closed.
Through the Woods
Unlike many of the lines I have recently explored the trackbed for this one is almost complete although there are a few places where the infrastructure has been completely removed.  The first example is at the B2110, where I parked.  Originally the train would have rumbled across the road by way of a bridge, but this is long gone forcing the cyclist to cross the road at level.  Fortunately on this Sunday morning there wasn’t much traffic about and this was nice and straightforward.  Shortly after regaining the trackbed I came across the first overbridge.  This line, along with many others was built to accommodate double track although in reality only a single track was ever provided for trains, with passing loops at some of the stations.  Above the cutting was yet another pillbox, sited rather awkwardly overlooking the railway.
Withyam Station
Having passed under the bridge the track resumed a straight course after a sweeping curve and I could see the track stretching out along the Medway Valley before me.  This is a section that is almost flat, in contrast to many of the other lines I have cycled on, where there is definitely a gradient (perhaps explaining why the railway didn’t make it, as trains would have been very slow along these sections).  There were no more overbridges between here and the first station at Withyam, only a succession of underbridges crossing streams that would eventually flow into the River Medway and ultimately into the Thames Estuary, some 30 or so miles away.  All along the trackside birds were warming up their voices for the day and squirrels were busying themselves with gathering food.  Although it would undoubtedly be a pleasure to ride a train along the route, these are pleasures that would be missed.  Since this is a line that is never likely to be needed again, it is perhaps the next best thing to enjoy using the transport corridor for cycling instead.
Medway Bridge
I realised that I was approaching the first station on the line some time before I reached it, as the trackbed widened out, presumably due to the sidings which would once housed waiting freight trucks.  Evidence of the former use was immediately apparent when I passed by a platelayers hut, a rare sighting on redundant lines now as many have been pulled down for health and safety reasons as they were easily vandalised.  An overgrown platform soon came into view and I could see that the station buildings were all still present, although hiding behind a large hedge.  Owners of former station buildings do not enjoy being gawped at by industrial archaeologists and trainspotters and who can blame them?  It was heartening to see the old place still being enjoyed and put to good use as a dwelling.
Hartfield Station
I crossed the road and continued on my way through a very thickly wooded section of line.  As time passed there were more track users about and the line appears to be particularly popular with dog walkers.  When I am walking dogs do not unduly bother me, but when I am on a bike I find that a lot of dog walkers seem oblivious to the cyclists needs and allow their dogs to get in the way and generally be a nuisance.  Dogs and cyclists don’t mix!  Given that the Forest Way is primarily aimed as a cycle route, I wish that promotional signage and leaflets would address this issue (rant over!).
Looking Down Over Hartfield Station
It wasn’t long before I reached Hartfield Station, another that is still complete and used these days as a pre-school nursery.  The owners have doe a wonderful job of preserving the buildings, especially for the road frontage which could still pass for an operational station.  They have also managed to retain enough of a view that railway buffs can enjoy, yet maintaining their privacy.  Out of pure nosiness I took a look at the station from the B2028 overbridge just to the west of the station.  If necessary it could be returned to use, although the chances of that happening are extremely remote. 
Three Arch Bridge
The track from Hartfield to the outskirts of Forest Row is almost completely straight, providing a seemingly never ending vanishing point to the path through the trees.  This was the quietest section of track, crossing the remotest part of the Weald on the whole route.  Every now and again I got glimpses of farms and large country houses but it was otherwise a pleasant and smooth ride, giving me time to daydream and wonder how the villages might have looked if this railway had been allowed to continue for another forty or so years.  I suspected that they would have become very desirable villages for London commuters, being only about an hour from the heart of the capital.  As it was they had not grown significantly in that time, allowing perhaps some semblance of the continuation of community life without being ruined by hoards of incomers.
Forest Row Station
I soon reached Forest Row and at this point I started to feel the trackbed starting to climb as I headed out of the Medway Valley to the summit station of East Grinstead, some three miles or so distant.  Forest Row is a village that has been allowed to grow, although growth has been modest compared to villages such as Crowborough and Billingshurst, where train stations still exist.  The volume of dog walkers increased dramatically too, and progress was somewhat slower as a result.  More noticeable earthworks began too. With the line actually entering the first cutting I had seen since way back at Ham Bridge, just outside Groombridge.
Crossing the A22
Surprisingly for a village/ small town the built up area seemed to continue for quite a long way before I finally reached the site of the old station.  Sadly this has not been as lucky as the previous two stations as the site has been built over.  Surprisingly though the two platform ramps are still in existence and the middle part where the tracks were has been filled in by a building that resembles a scout hut.  Reinstating the station would not be insurmountable if the wherewithal was there. From here though I had to take a slight detour along a parallel road as the trackbed is either further built over (a vet surgery occupies the far end of the station site) or derelict (the earth embankment leading to the A22).
Level Crossing Cottage
When I reached the A22 I was relieved to find that a proper traffic light controlled crossing allowed me to get across this very busy road safely.  The bridge that once carried the railway has long since gone, but I was relieved to find that the climb back onto the embankment on the other side had recently been surfaced with tarmac, perhaps to reduce the skidding that cyclists had to do when meeting dog walkers?  (sorry – I’ll shut up about that now!).  The remaining part of the journey up to East Grinstead is surprisingly steep for a railway and speeds achieved by small steam engines must have been very modest on this section of the line.  I took it steadily as by now it was getting quite hot and I was pretty thirsty.  I was a little envious of cyclists bombing down the hill in the opposite direction towards me, but smiled inwardly as I had chosen this direction on purpose so that I wouldn’t be faced with this climb at the end of the ride!  This was actually a section of line that I had explored previously on the High Weald Landscape Trail a couple of years ago (see , but I have to admit that cycling was much more enjoyable than walking along here.
Heading Into East Grinstead

Eventually I reached East Grinstead where the trackbed abruptly ends at the A22.  The way forward to the former high level station that once served this line has now been taken over by Beechings Way (yes, groan).  Someone at West Sussex County Council must have been a great fan of the axeman’s work for this isn’t the first time I have seen a street named after the infamous Dr Beeching.  What was particularly galling for East Grinstead, which went from being a country junction of four separate rural lines, was that Dr Beeching was actually a resident of the town at the time of the cuts!  Not surprisingly he spared the one line (to London) that he regularly used as a first class season ticket holder.  Beechings Way now acts as the urban relief road for East Grinstead, taking the A22 traffic around the town centre in a kind of by-pass sort of way, before dumping drivers back onto an urban road just north of the town centre and saving them about five minutes journey time.  For that luxury, any hope of the re-opening of this line surely went by the board.
East Grinstead Outskirts
For me this wasn’t really the end of the ride, but the halfway point.  I gleefully turned around and cycled at high speed back down to Forest Row, which was a pleasure indeed!  The Forest Way is another enjoyable off-road cycle route that has given an old rail route a new lease of life and is enjoyed by a great many people if the Sunday morning cycling traffic I encountered is anything to go by.  As with the Worth Way, it is probably better to finish at East Grinstead so as to complete the uphill section during the middle of the ride rather than at the end.  Of course if you are feeling really ambitious you could do both together and make a day of it (getting from one end to the other via public transport is not that easy unless continuing on to Ashurst or Tunbridge Wells at the Groombridge end, in which case a rail transfer is possible either via East Croydon or Redhill respectively to connect back to Three Bridges).  For me though this trip completed the full set of official railway trails in Sussex.  Further trips will have to be outside the county or along unofficial trails on disused railways.  The latter possibility intrigues me – there are still several to choose from!


  1. Fascinating stuff and great pictures

  2. Thanks for your kind comment - glad you enjoyed the read!

  3. great read & pics cant wait to do the route this week

    1. Many thanks Andy - I hope you have a great time. It'll probably look very different in the late autumn

  4. Just walked the forest way and is a marvelous straight pretty walk and easy cycle, so is a must for all levels of walker and cyclist even young children. Great pics.

  5. Just walked the forest way and is a marvelous straight pretty walk and easy cycle, so is a must for all levels of walker and cyclist even young children. Great pics.

    1. Thanks Brian - it really is a great little trip & I shall probably take my children next time I tackle it :)

  6. It is a great walk. I do feel the need to mention that too many cyclists give no consideration to walkers and certainly show no common sense when approaching dogs. This path is described as a "shared" path. Expecting every other path user to give way to cyclists is unreasonable and it isn't too long ago that a dog was killed on this path because of the arrogance of a cyclist expecting it to move and giving little warning of his approach. All animals are unpredictable. Human beings should exercise tolerance and common sense. Rant over !!

    1. As a cyclist who is considerate to others I have obviously had the opposite experience but since this article was written six years ago I have also witnessed the growth of the inconsiderate cyclist who think they have a God-given right to plough on through at whatever consequence so I freely acknowledge your point. There needs to be consideration on both sides.