Thursday, 16 June 2011

Ryde to Cowes Railway

Token Exchange
I have to confess that I did not ride my bike all the way from Ryde to Cowes, but I did travel along a substantial part of the line on two wheels and in a train! The former Ryde to Cowes railway line was the last of the Isle of Wight railways to succumb to closure in 1966. It has had mixed fortunes since. Originally a group of enthusiasts took over Newport station, once the major interchange station on the island, with a view to keeping the whole line open. With this objective they unfortunately failed, but did succeed in keeping a section of the line open from Smallbrook Junction (just south of Ryde)to Wootton Bridge (about two miles from Newport). The whole section through Newport was lost when the local Council redeveloped the line into a by-pass. The onward section to Cowes fared better though, becoming a cycle path from just north of Newport alongside the River Medina.
Ashey Station
After my trips along the other lines earlier in the day I rather fancied a bit of rest and so it seemed like a very good idea to take a trip on the preserved steam railway forming the first part of the originally closed line. This is a really enjoyable trip behind examples of the small steam locomotives that provided the motive power and in the old vintage coaches that lasted right until the end.
Wootton Bridge
Smallbrook Junction is a rather odd place, being a railway interchange of sorts, between the London Underground trains on the Ryde to Shanklin line and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. The trains seem to wait patiently for each other, maintaining the sense of a proper service. Indeed there have been suggestions that the remaining network might end up being operated by the enthusiasts and the existing steam railway extended into Newport and (rather more fancifully) onto Cowes once again. Even the option of restoring the Ventnor link has been looked at, which would restore the railways back to their 1960s state.
Now Abandoned
The train journey from Smallbrook Junction to Wootton Bridge is delightful and especially today with so many spring flowers adorning the woods. The bluebells in particular were in full bloom and it was a real pleasure to see the flash of purple through the trees. Ashey station is the first on the line and still functions for the steam railway although this is focused on the passing loop for the original station, as the station building is now an attractive private house on the other side of the line and not available for railway use.
No More Level Crossing
A little further on is Havenstreet which is now the headquarters of the line and a far cry from the original wayside halt that was once all that served the local community. Now there are engine and carriage sheds as well as all the visitor facilities you might expect at a preserved railway. Eventually I got to Wootton which is not the original station (closed in 1953), but the present end of the line where it is blocked by a local road. This is where I started cycling.
Whippingham Station
The road bridge which once existed at this spot is long gone, being filled in many years ago. This means that cyclists get a good head start on the journey to Newport, which a long downhill stretch to get you going. The track starts out very well, with a good surface and through a fairly thick wood. I am not sure how good the surface is after wet weather but during the dry weather in April it wasn’t a problem. After a short distance I came upon a bridge over the line that has obviously been recently restored and suggesting that this stretch of line has a real future as a cycle trail (or dare I say it – being brought back into railway use?).I then had to cross a main road at level, never a pleasant experience especially when the road is as busy as this one seemed to be.
End of the Track
The line continued downhill alongside a fairly hefty looking pipeline until the official route suddenly bore right. I noticed that the onward path continued although wasn’t a cycle route so I decided to see how far it would go (this is as it happens a public footpath, so no worries about trespassing). I soon became aware of a platform to one side of me and was surprised that this was a station that I hadn’t known had existed before. The station house was still intact and used as a house (although quite well concealed from nosy cameras!).It turned out this station was Whippingham and was apparently built for Queen Victoria as the nearest place that a train could get to Osbourne House.Given its very remote location, even after it opened for public use, very few passengers ever used it and it succumbed to closure in 1953 along with most of the intermediate stations on this route.
Approaching Newport
The path along the old line soon deteriorated to the point where cycling was quite difficult. Just as I was thinking that I might yet make it all the way to Newport, I came across a rather immovable problem when I encountered a bridge over a road that still had its frame in place but none of its decking. Any thoughts of continuing were dashed therefore and onward progress to Newport would have to be along the official route along the A3054.
Heading North From Newport
There isn’t much left of the onward trackbed through Newport just a little further on, although a small tunnel just before the bypass. This is still in use as a subway, the only tangible remains of what was once an important and busy stretch of line.
Paddle Steamer Ryde
The line to Cowes can be picked up once again just to the north of Newport on the edge of an industrial estate. There is a small car park, which I took advantage of (not wanting to ride too far along roads, which I find a bit scary!) just at the end of the trail. This is one of the original cycle routes along an old railway and the 4 miles or so from here to Cowes was utterly delightful. The River Medina is rather a different kind of river to the Yar that I had visited earlier, but was no less fascinating, full as it was of river boats and various other traffic. The cycle route was also extremely popular, with dozens of people charging backwards and forwards along the former rail line.I often think that these lines are probably more popular as cycle routes than they ever were as railways!
The first engineering feature of the line is not far from Newport and is a fairly lengthy low viaduct over a tributary of the Medina. Its survival is a small miracle and it has happily been restored from the treacherous crossing it once was when the cycle route opened. Just past here the old cement works, which was served by a small works halt is now being redeveloped into into some large industrial units. A little further along the route and a surprising sight comes into view. Across the Medina is the rusting remains of the former paddle steamer Ryde, looking very forlorn and seemingly beyond repair after her funnel collapsed some years ago. A former life as a nightclub came to an end over 20 years ago and she is now slowly deteriorating.Apparently all is not lost though as some enthusiasts are trying desperately to save the old vessel before she is well and truly past it.
Partly Demolished Bridge
As I headed towards Cowes glimpses through the trees showed ever bigger collections of yachts along the river. Although it was a very pleasant ride there is little evidence that this was once a railway at all. There was an odd bridge that had been partially demolished, but anything of note has been pretty much swept away.
Approaching Cowes
The path eventually winds up at the edge of a housing estate on the edge of Cowes. If I was really determined to look further apparently some remains of the old tunnel that took the line into Cowes station can still be seen, but by now the light was beginning to fade a little and I was anxious to get to my ferry which was due in about an hour and a half. I figured that a quick ride without stopping wouldn’t take long and in this I was right, arriving back in Newport in a little over 20 minutes.
Cowes Shipyard
In terms of a through route this is a bitty section, although I would definitely recommend a ride on the steam railway as an authentic experience of what rail travel on the island must have once been like. The section from Newport to Cowes is highly recommended, especially on a spring or summer evening when I did it. The light was superb and even the large numbers of users of the line wasn’t particularly offputting.

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