Friday, 24 April 2009

Centurian Way Chichester - Lavant and a little beyond

Centurain Way
 Following my short trip on the Hayling Billy I still had the rest of the afternoon to kill, so decided that I would stop off on the way home to take a look at the Centurian Way, another short cycle ride using an old rail route. This time the line forms part of the old Chichester – Midhurst route. This was expensively built in the 1880s but performed so badly its passenger service didn’t even make it to World War 2. Although the passenger service succumbed early, the route was used for freight services until the 1950s and the short stretch between Fishbourne Junction near Chichester to just south of Lavant was still operational until 1991 as a mineral railway to a gravel quarry. The history of the line explains why relatively little is accessible, but also why the section that is accessible is in very good shape.

Northern End of Line
Access to the route is not that easy but if you are travelling by car, the best access point is probably in Mid Lavant village, where you can park without upsetting anyone in the residential streets. The station building still stands and forms part of a very impressive centrepiece of a sheltered housing complex. It is not that easy to imagine the station in use though for passengers haven’t used it in almost 75 years. It is still clearly on a railway route though as the overbridges to the south will testify.

Former Lavant Station
However, before heading south, I took a peek at the northern end of what remains. This section of line has not been operational for any reason since 1957 and it shows. The line through Lavant itself has completely disappeared under housing development and it isn’t until you get to the northern extent of the housing that the route reappears. This stretch of the line is the most rural of all you will encounter and unless you knew it were a railway, few clues remain of what it once was. After a mile or so north of Lavant the route abruptly stops at a former overbridge now very overgrown and the Centurian Way continues its journey to West Dean not along the old rail route but along the A286 about ¼ mile to the west. The onward line of the railway is overgrown and no longer accessible to riff-raff like me. I think it’s a great shame that these transport corridors are no longer available to people and while it is great that some have found new uses as cycleways, I feel frustrated that so many routes are completely lost or stopped up.

Southern Entrance
I returned to Lavant and headed south along the much more interesting and well used section to Fishbourne Junction. This part of the route has a tarmac surface and on the afternoon I visited was being well used by families, especially with young children. The stretch out of Lavant station is uphill and through a tree lined cutting, meaning that there are almost no views of the surrounding countryside. It also means that most of the overbridges survive and you get the real sense of this being a former railway route.

Eventually I reached an arched bridge and just beyond is a nice picnic area with several sculptures. I have noticed that a number of former rail lines turned cycle paths have these featured along the route, presumably to keep the interest of young children who love to find such stuff en route. I know mine do anyway. This is actually the site of the old gravel depot/ railhead and the scene now compared to how it once was is quite startling. Gone are the conveyor belts, chugging diesel locomotives and the dust. Now the scene is dominated by a large area of planting in a grassy bowl where the gravel pit once was. The design looks like a circular maze and when I passed the raised ridges were dominated by cowslips giving a yellow hue to the pattern. I suspect though that the full impact of this sculpture can only be appreciated if viewed from the air. By the picnic area itself were some stylised sculptures of the characters involved in the area during history. There was a roman soldier, a group of workers and a surveyor (?). The sculptures themselves were quite curious, resembling torpedoes standing on end with the nose cones at the top. I wondered whether they were in fact scrap from the nearby Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Galloping Onward
The trackbed appears to disappear at this point as the path takes a rather steeper profile than could otherwise be expected. Indeed it isn’t obvious what the route looked like here and I suspect that the re-profiling was necessary to make good some of the damage caused by the gravel extraction. Soon enough this nice open area was replaced once again by a wooded cutting as I headed down towards Brandy Hole Copse. This little woodland is one of the natural gems of Chichester and as I passed through I could see the first signs of bluebells coming into flower.

I was soon aware of the proximity of Chichester and through the trees on a number of occasions I could see the outline of the Cathedral spire and its green copper roof. The route onwards was surprisingly rural though and obviously still performs a duty as a natural barrier between a still growing (but quite small) city and the surrounding countryside. As I headed south it became obvious that this section of the route had been used as a railway quite recently as the trackbed was good and most of the bridges were in good repair and intact.

Work Gang
Eventually I reached the junction where the line used to meet the Coastway line. It didn’t seem that long ago that I remember tracks heading off from the main route at this point, but now it would be almost impossible to tell if you were sitting on a passing train for the junction is now returning to nature and my view of the two trains that passed were quite obscured by the trees and bushes that now screen the Centurian Way from the still active railway.

Former Freight Railhead
I headed back to Lavant back along the same route, grumbling a little about the long steady climb back to the old quarry railhead. This must have been some benefit to the mineral trains since it was uphill while they were empty and downhill when they were full. For me though it was a bit of a slog to the summit, especially as the afternoon had got a lot warmer.

Artwork at Lavant Station
All in all this is a pleasant little excursion and probably all the better for being tied in with a trip to the Hayling Billy. Even for the modest distance from Worthing, it’s not really worth a special trip in itself (except if I were to bring the kids), but there is enough rail heritage on the route to make it interesting.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Hayling Billy Langstone Bridge - Hayling Island

Former Langstone Bridge

A couple of years ago while completing the Solent Way, I came across the short cycle path known as the Hayling Billy. I remembered that this used to be a short branch line that ran from Havant to the seaside island town of Hayling Island a mere four miles or so away. Having recently explored a couple of other former railways on my bike I thought I’d give this one a go to, especially as it gave me the opportunity to have a nose around a town I would not otherwise go to.

Start of the Track
The parking area that I used last time I came this way on the north side of the Langstone Bridge was absoloutely chock full of cars so I had to find somewhere else. Luckily just to the south of the bridge was a smaller and obviously less well known car park that fitted the bill perfectly. The road bridge now acts as the only way on or off the island, which would worry me greatly if I lived there. Up until the early 1960s the charming little Hayling Billy branch provided a second crossing across the Langstone Channel, the short stretch of water that separates Hayling Island from the mainland. Unusually this line was actually turning in a profit when the death knell came in 1963. As with many of these rural lines it was not the day to day position which was the problem, it was the crumbling infrastructure and specifically the Langstone Bridge. Never very strong, it was estimated that it would cost £400,000 to put right at the time and this proved to be too big an investment.
Sea Views

So the fate of the Hayling line was to ultimately join so many others as a cycle route, although of course without the troublesome bridge. The access route from the car park took me over to a point just south of the bridge, but it seemed appropriate to take a closer look before heading south to North Hayling and Hayling Island stations. The outline of the bridge can clearly be seen, with the stumps of where the bridge supports once were still sticking out of the water. Next to it was a rather forlorn looking signal, amazingly with arm still attached and not pilfered by a collector.
Former Station Site
I then headed southwards along a very attractive cycle path that largely skirted along the shoreline, affording me pleasant views of Langstone Harbour and the Spinnaker Tower away in the distance at Portsmouth. Although a very nice ride, the rest of the route was completely devoid of any railway interest. In fact, level route aside, you’d be hard pressed to know that this was ever a railway, so little is there left. North Hayling station, which was only ever a wooden platform anyway is now completely swept away, and the site acts as a car park for other would-be cyclists, walkers and horse riders.

The Only Railway on Hayling Now
Eventually I reached Hayling Island station after about forty minutes and was pleased to see that at least some of the original building remains, albeit now part of a bigger complex that acts as a theatre for the local amateur dramatics. Given that it was such a short ride I felt it only right and proper that I should investigate more of the seafront and took myself off down to the beach where I had a look at the only train now running on the island, the miniature Hayling Island railway which runs purely for pleasure along the seafront.

View Across Langstone Harbour
All in all it was a pleasurable little excursion although not really worth a trip in itself. I didn’t explore too much north of the island although I understand another short section can also be followed just north of Langstone village.

Friday, 17 April 2009

South West Coast Path Day 49 Sidmouth - Seaton

Sidmouth Front

Don’t be fooled by the length of this section, which is only eleven miles. This is actually pretty tough going due to the rollercoaster nature of the cliff-line along this stretch.

Sidmouth Church
Having completed the last stretch on Easter Saturday, I was pleased to see that the weather was to hold out for another day on Easter Monday and so headed down to Devon once again, although for the slightly shorter journey to Seaton. The bus service to Sidmouth runs on Sundays and Bank Holidays although there are only four return journeys. No matter; I got to Seaton at the civilised time of 10am and faced with a lack of change in my pocket decided not to bother the pay and display car parks, which I felt sure would do plenty of business that day. I instead headed out towards Beer and parked for free on the Beer Old Road high above the town. This gave me the opportunity to complete the last three quarters of a mile of the walk before setting off, which I felt sure would probably help later. I also had time to stock up on lunch and grab a coffee before boarding the bus.
Sidmouth Lifeboat Station

The bus left from Marine Place and I was treated to an upper deck view of Seaton seafront before heading out of town and towards Sidmouth. This would be a section that I wouldn’t actually walk probably until next time, but it was good to get a sneak preview. As it happens I thought the town was a little disappointing compared with its near neighbours at Lyme Regis and Sidmouth. I’m sure that this comparison gets made a lot, but it did mean that the place was mercifully free of tourists.

Sidmouth Cliffs
The bus ride to Sidmouth was a lot less eventful than the previous experience I had going to Exmouth and I was grateful for that. When I arrived at Sidmouth the weather looked as if it might bubble up and be rather grey. I really hoped that it wouldn’t, having made this trek down here. I needn’t have worried; by the time I had cleared the magnificent seafront and made my way up the first climb of Salcombe Hill, the clouds had cleared and the day felt as if it was to become a warm one!
View Back to Sidmouth

I had known that the first activity of the day would be to climb this hill, since it had dominated the onward skyline from Peak Hill on my last visit. I took it steady and enjoyed the bluebells in the wood at the top of the climb, knowing that I would have to keep energy in reserve for further climbs later in the day.
Pasty Stop

The view from Salcombe Hill across Sidmouth was astonishing and I was really pleased that I had again made the effort to come down here rather than stay closer to home. There were quite a few people up here enjoying the view and as most of them didn’t seem as breathless as me I assumed there was probably another way to the top that didn’t involve such a steep climb. After pausing briefly I pushed on along the clifftop path, which was pleasingly flat. However, my joy at being so high was short lived since I soon came to the head of the next steep-sided valley, Salcombe Mouth. It wasn’t the descent that occupied my mind, it was the sight of the hill ahead which was approximately the same height as where I stood, but with a huge gap between us!
Down We Go Again

Before continuing I decided to polish off the pasty that I had bought for lunch. It was far from authentic (now some way from Cornwall!), but was still very tasty. Feeling fortified I headed down the very steep steps and paused for those poor souls coming in the opposite direction. I found that this section of walk on the whole was less busy than the stretch from Exmouth and this was probably due to the extra climbing involved. Nonetheless there were quite a lot of people about and you could tell the seriousness of the walker from their sociability. Seasoned walkers tended to smile, nod or speak while the day trippers carried on with their boring conversations, pretending that the red sweaty fat bloke coming towards them wasn’t worthy of speaking to or simply looking the other way.
Beach Sculptures

At the bottom of the hill I was slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to actually go down to beach level since that saved a few more metres of descent. I was also relieved that I wasn’t heading the same way as a large group of ramblers who passed me on the way up. As a lone walker there is nothing worse than getting caught up in a crowd of people that you don’t know who seem hell-bent on getting in your way as they are oblivious to their surroundings. I sometimes wonder whether groups of ramblers actually get anything from the countryside that they are in? If it’s a social life you want, why not just meet in the pub? I find this is great after a day’s walking, but while I’m out I want to experience my surroundings, not listen to blathering from others.

Cuckoo Flower
The climb up Dunscombe Cliff was as hard work as Salcombe Hill and I was pleased to see another bench seat at the top, which I made full use of while taking a water stop and admiring the view. It is very difficult to complain about the frequency of climbs on any walk when the views are so breathtaking. At the top of Dunscombe Cliff I noticed how much closer the Isle of Portland had suddenly got. It’s distinctive shape wasn’t just a faint sliver on the horizon anymore, but much more noticeable. A little further on from my vantage point and on another welcome clifftop path I also noticed that the underlying bedrock had changed. No longer was it the red sandstone that had been a feature of the coast since Exmouth, but limestone. The cliff shape had changed too, for the cliffs were no longer vertical but characterised by landslips caused by solifluction. I welcomed the avoidance of another valley at Lincombe as the path skirted around the head of this rather short valley.
Gorse Show

On the other side of the valley I paused for awhile to watch a kestrel hovering close by at a very low altitude, obviously having spotted something rather than general reconnaissance. It moved away after some walkers came from the opposite direction and disturbed it. As I turned the corner I could see that I would be in for another steep climb for I had now reached the valley of Weston Mouth. By now it had got quite warm and I admitted defeat with the fleece and tied it round my middle. The way down this time wasn’t quite as steep although this time it went right down to the beach itself. There were a few people hanging around on the beach and as I looked back along towards Sidmouth I saw that I could have had a completely level route that way. However, the shingle would probably have been worse to walk on than the hills I had tackled (and far less interesting).

There were a few intriguing sights on the beach; the first were two very lonely looking beach huts that looked completely out of place. Why only two? I found that a bit of a mystery. There was also a small chalet that looked well preserved although still shut up for the winter months. On the way down to the beach I had crossed a babbling stream, which completely disappeared into the shingle before it reached the sea, emerging as a very different watercourse on the other side of the low shingle bank. As it reached the sea it was more of a seepage than a river; it was most odd. I later found that Weston Mouth beach is known locally as a nudist beach. No-one was brave enough to take in the sun’s rays without clothing today – a wise choice.
Branscombe Cliff

After lingering on the beach for a few minutes I summoned up the energy to climb once again up to Weston Cliff. This seemed steeper than the last climb, although this may have had more to do with my energy levels than reality. I again paused at the top, being in no special hurry to reach the car. Weston Cliff was a very enjoyable stretch of walking. On the landward side of the path was a wild flower meadow that was full of cowslips in particular. The path was level for quite some distance too, which helped restore me a bit after three strenuous climbs within such a short time frame.

Chalky Pillars
The flowers in the meadows were quite superb but even more eye catching was the gorse display along this stretch of clifftop. Some of the gorse bushes were so laden with flowers that it was difficult to see any bush at all. I can’t really remember such a flush of flowers in years gone by; perhaps the cold weather earlier in the year might take some responsibility? As I proceeded along the path I passed an old Romany Caravan, which had a beautiful location high above the sea. I also passed a whole bunch of vehicles parked in the field in some rather random places. I thought they might belong to a shooting party, but heard no shots or saw any of the occupants.
Beer Cove

Shortly after this I cut inland a little and headed through some woods overlooking Branscombe village and could see the handsome church through the trees. I suspect that this view is denied to the summer walker as the trees were quite densely packed, although devoid of leaves. This was a pleasant stretch, although I had to be reminded that I was actually on a coastal walk since there was no view of the sea for the first time today. Eventually I descended into Branscombe Mouth, which was rather more developed than the last two combes I had visited. This had its own café and car park and several hundred people were milling about enjoying an early season day at the seaside. I thought about buying an ice cream but there were too many people about so I pushed on. Branscombe beach is of course recently famous for the beaching of the MSC Napoli, a container ship that ran into trouble during stormy seas a couple of years ago. The story of the event can be found at but for awhile at least this beach attracted large numbers of visitors out of season hoping to get their hands on some treasure. Now the only reminders are a few notices warning of the pollution risk, and a container in the car park.

Beer Terrace
I was relieved to see that I didn’t have to continue to the top of the cliffs this time, but instead followed a rather interesting undercliff path through the landslips that now offer a completely different kind of habitat for seabirds and small animals. It wasn’t an especially easy route, for the path kept changing directing and was quite undulating. It was fun to look up at the cliffs though rather than down from above.
Beer Coast

Any notion that this low level route had enabled me to get away with not climbing to the top was soon dashed when I discovered that I had just delayed the inevitable just shy of Beer Head. I dragged myself up the hill, noticing that I was now entering a chalk area, leaving the limestone behind. The view from Beer Head was the last opportunity for me to see Sidmouth, now receded into the distance. Now the view would be only ahead, towards Seaton, Lyme Regis and beyond.

Seaton Beach Huts
I soon reached Beer, a nice little village full of character and more importantly an ice cream shop that was not full of people! I grabbed the opportunity and sat on the viewing area high above the beach. From here it was only a short climb up and over the cliffs to reach the car, which you might remember I had parked on the edge of Seaton. As I descended towards the car I overheard a conversation from a couple of local walkers about a hapless Polish tourist who had fallen over the cliffs here only the day before ( I made sure I kept well back from the edge when I took my last picture of the day; a view of Seaton. I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor chap all the way home…

Monday, 13 April 2009

South West Coast Path Day 48 Exmouth - Sidmouth

Exmouth Gardens
Don’t worry, you haven’t suddenly missed 39 days of the instalment of my attempt to complete the South West Coast Path. However, three years after officially starting (unofficially I have already walked several sections) and not managing to do any more of this walk, I have decided to change tactics and not wait for the opportunity to spend several days in the area before cracking on with it. Why the change of heart? Well, this is largely been borne of frustration. I felt that with two weeks minus family I might just get the opportunity to spend 2-3 days down there this Easter. The weather has definitely been against me, with heavy rain and miserable weather patterns dominating and with only small breaks available in the South West. Call me a fair weather walker, but I find no joy in making a 200 mile plus journey to be faced with looking at rain clouds, fog or being blown inside out. I can do all those things on the South Downs! Instead, when looking at the weather forecast on Easter Saturday and after a couple of days stuck at home painting, I discovered that the weather west of the New Forest was to be great while Sussex was likely to be facing drizzle all day. I needed no second bidding!

Exmouth Clock
An early start was required if I was to get down to my chosen destination of Exmouth. I chose this as it is approximately 2 ½ hours drive from home and about as much as I’d want to do for a day trip. As I travelled down I soon discovered that the weather forecaster couldn’t have been more accurate. I came across the line of cloud as I reached Ringwood and from here on the weather was absolutely fabulous. I felt well and truly vindicated.

Exmouth Beach
I parked the car in Sidmouth and took a rather scary bus ride to Exmouth. This wasn’t very quick due to all the stops en route and I flinched a few times as our single decker bus (full size) just about managed to avoid all the parked cars in some very narrow village streets. When I arrived at Exmouth I alighted in the main town square and headed down through some very pretty gardens to the seafront. The promenade just beyond was absolutely packed and it was easy to see why. The air was crystal clear and had some warmth to it, perhaps for the first time this year. I enjoyed the view up the Exe and all the way down the opposite coast to Dawlish Warren and down as far as Torbay. After a few minutes I turned and headed on my way, initially along the very man made coast of the promenade, which was rather longer than I expected. I felt distinctly overdressed when I saw how many of the beachgoers had their swimming gear or T shirts and shorts on. I knew though that shortly I would possibly be facing stiff breezes when I got up onto the clifftops. However when I did climb up onto the cliffs at Rodney Point I discovered that they weren’t much cooler than down below.

Exmouth Lifeboat Station
Rodney Point marks the start of the now famous Jurassic Coast, which was designated as a World Heritage site in 2001. The official website detailing what this means and all sorts of other information can be found at . For geologists this section of coast is probably one of the most interesting in Europe, if not the World. From this point to Bournemouth (and beyond) the rocks get progressively younger and most are fossiliferous. At Rodney Point the rocks are actually Triassic in age and date from approximately 250 million years ago. The cliffs are a distinctive red colour and were formed when this area was part of an extensive desert at a time when this part of England was a lot further south than it is today. At Orcombe Point, just along from Rodney Point a monument called the Geoneedles had been erected to celebrate World Heritage status and give a visual representation of the types of rock formation to be found along the Jurassic Coast.

Colourful Beach Huts
From here on the sea would be at my right, and the first part of the clifftop walk was high above a beautiful sandy beach. This extended all the way to Straight Point, where the beauty of the area was rather marred by a couple of recent manmade additions. The first, occupying the entire peninsular of Straight Point was a military range, which actually didn’t intrude too much although prevented me from actually following the coast at this point. The second was rather uglier, the largest caravan site I have ever seen, which completely dominated the hillside landwards of the military area. While I am sure that this would be a lovely place for a holiday, the appearance of so many white caravans rather took my breath away and not for the right reasons.

What could not be denied though was the panorama that greeted me as I crossed the car park of the site. At the cliff edge was the most astonishing view I have seen in a long time.

Wave Cut Platform
One of the reasons I love coastal walking so much is the views that you get of the coast from high cliffs. This cliff wasn’t that high, but faced exactly the right direction for almost the entire western part of the Jurassic Coast could be seen from this point and on the horizon I could even see the Isle of Portland, some 40+ miles away. The view both inspired and scared me, for it made me realise how much coastline I had to explore. The first port of call would be Budleigh Salterton, which was a rather more modest 2 miles away and now was in clear view ahead of me.

Start of Jurassic Coast
First though I had to climb up and over West Down Beacon, the first serious climb of the day. Before I summoned up the energy to climb I sat on the edge of the cliff and admired the view while eating my lunch. When the climb did come it wasn’t actually too bad, principally because the path to the top was a rather kind zigzag, which rather took the sting out of the slope. As I climbed I became very aware of the perfume of the gorse which enclosed the path. It was in full bloom and the sweet, slightly sickly smell reminiscent of coconuts filled the air. The perfume was obviously sending the local insect population slightly made, because I soon noticed hundreds of hoverflies and bumbles bees busying themselves around the flowers too.

Heading Into Budleigh Salterton
When I got to the top I turned to enjoy the view back towards Torbay and Exmouth one last time and then continued down towards the small seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. This stretch of path was simply stunning, with the onward view acting as a backdrop for a clifftop garden of gorse, hawthorns and Scots pines. It was with a slightly heavy heart that I arrived at Budleigh Salterton. It was without doubt a beautiful little place, but as soon as I reached the promenade I could see that it was completely overrun with people, all out to enjoy the sunshine for perhaps the first time this year. Although bemoaning the numbers I could not deny the obvious advantage this brought when I availed myself of a locally made ice cream from a café on the seafront. It was absolutely delicious and certainly worth every calorie! Budleigh Salterton did strike me as a nice place to stay one day and I’m sure that a summer evening when all the daytrippers had gone home would be particularly enjoyable. More information about the town can be found at

Budleigh Salterton Houses
As I left the town there would be a change of pace. Ahead of me was the River Otter, a small but significant obstacle that I would have to cross. In order to do this I had to head inland a short distance along a raised walkway that was built by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars. This walk is suitable for the mobility impaired, for it was properly surfaced and at various intervals had some interpretive boards telling visitors all about the natural history of the estuary. It was well visited, with several wheelchair bound people making full use of the facility. I often think that disabled people get a raw deal from the countryside, so it was good to see such a walk being enjoyed.

Otter Mouth
On the other side of the river the character of the walk changed as I was back to walking along field edges. Only glimpses of the river could be had though the edge of Scots Pines and my hope for losing the crowds on this section were not realised. A theme of the day was the number of people out enjoying the countryside. It got a little tiring trying to decide whether the walkers coming towards me would say hello, avoid my gaze or be absorbed in their conversations. From the snatches of conversations that I heard I was also quite surprised at how boring they were, with subject that usually involved work or finance. No-one appeared to be enjoying their surroundings!

Ruined Lookout
As I reached the mouth of the Otter, the path turned left and resumed its clifftop way forward. The section to Ladram Bay was rather different to what had gone before since the landward side of the path was completely dominated by pasture and my main focus of interest once again shifted to the cliffs themselves and the seagulls that were constantly wheeling around above me, with their distinctive cries. In fact I soon realised that there were several species including black headed gulls, the two species of black backed gull as well as the more familiar herring gull. The pastures were full of lambing sheep although I soon came upon a large field full of pigs and piglets, which made for an entertaining change. Just past the pigs I passed what I took to be a ruined agricultural building, but soon discovered that this was actually a look out post for the RAF during World War II and had an information board telling how the post at Brandy Head worked and what it was used for. It was a rather surprising ruin.

Ladram Bay
A mile later and I reached another dreaded caravan site, this time at Ladram Bay. I should have realised when I passed a number of oddly dressed walkers that there was something afoot. This site was less intrusive than the last and had clearly been sited to take advantage of the secluded beach below. This was dominated by a number of sandstone sea stacks that were covered in nesting sea birds, safely out of the way of the nearby holidaymakers. Looming large ahead of me between the caravan site and my final destination of Sidmouth was the wooded cliff of High Peak. Rather higher than the last cliff I ascended it was also rather less friendly to climb as the path went straight up the side. About a third of the way up I did enter some woodland which offered some very welcome shade as I climbed. I was slightly relieved when the path missed the summit and continued around the back of the peak for I felt sure that it would be all downhill from here. I was sadly wrong on this score for I soon reached a viewpoint that confirmed more climbing ahead of me to get over Peak Hill.

Overlooking Sidmouth
The view from this viewpoint was particularly special, looking out over Sidmouth below and the cliffs the other side that would form the basis of the next day’s walking. A little beyond here and there was a landward view looking across a vast area of the East Devon countryside and even as far away as Dartmoor in the far distance. Luckily I had packed my binoculars so took advantage of the view and looked around the whole vista ahead of me.

The last climb proved to be quite hard going, although short and I took another long rest at the top and got some welcome drink inside me. From here though it was surprising how quickly I reached the edge of Sidmouth. The approach was via the old clifftop road, which had succumbed to cliff erosion and was no longer safe for vehicles. It did make for an interesting part of the descent, but better was to follow as I passed Peak House, an enormous pile that must surely have the best view of any house in Sidmouth. On my side of the road was a lovely park lined with seats for people to sit and enjoy the view of the sea and the huge cliff on the other side of the town.

Sidmouth Fort
At the bottom of the hill the path descended all the way to sea level and down underneath a small fort that had presumably been used to defend the town in years gone by. The path itself ran along the foot of a small cliff, which had been deeply etched with graffiti and was absolutely crawling with day-trippers most of whom it seemed were consuming ice creams. At the end of this undercliff walk the Esplanade proper came into view and I was surprised to see that on the landward side of the promenade was a large cricket pitch, which dominated this end of the seafront. At the end of the cricket pitch I was to turn inland and retrieve my car thus ending my day out.

Sidmouth Charabanc
This was a most enjoyable section of walk and it has whet my appetite to make a go of the rest of the Jurassic Coast. Although quite a long way from home I at least reassured myself that this section was the furthest of all and that any subsequent day trips I make will be a little nearer each time.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cuckoo Trail Polegate - Heathfield and a little beyond

Start of the Trail
I enjoyed my trip out on the Downs Link so much that I thought I’d try another route, this time one that I last visited in 1993, the Cuckoo Trail. This redundant line once formed a direct link between Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells, but since it ran through what was then some pretty rural areas, it succumbed to Dr Beeching’s cuts. In truth it is unlikely that even today it would be able to generate an awful lot of traffic since the gradients on the line meant that the trains were painfully slow. It’s a great shame though that it didn’t get the preservation treatment like the Bluebell Railway, for the scenery is just as special as on that line. How fortunate then that at least the route can be enjoyed from the seat of a bicycle (or indeed mobility scooter – I saw a number of these during the day!).

Crossing Keeper's Cottage
A little local knowledge helped me decide that the best way of completing the trail would be from south-north. Since the line rises almost 500 feet as it wends its way from the Pevensey Levels up to the High Weald, the outward journey would be an almost continuous climb. Better to do it this way round than face the possibility of the climbing when the legs are starting to tire!

Railway Tavern Hailsham
The trail starts a little to the north east of the present train station in Polegate. This is not the same station that existed when the Cuckoo Line was in operation, but a new one opened in the late 1980s closer to the town centre. The first few hundred metres of the line north from the old Polegate station are not part of the trail and in order to join it, you have to find the trailhead in a housing estate just off the Pevensey Road. This is not the official start of the trail either, that is back in Hampden Park, Eastbourne but since it wasn’t part of the rail route this section held no interest for me.

Heading Through Hailsham
The odd thing about the first section of the route from Polegate to the next station at Hailsham is that British Rail never actually wanted to close this part of the route in the first place. This part of the rail route started and ended as a short branch line from Polegate. It opened in 1849 and Hailsham station was not a through station until 1880 when the line northwards was completed. At the closure of the line the short branch to Hailsham continued for a further three years and British Rail wanted to retain it, conscious that the town was growing substantially. It was not to be and ironically now carries more people than it ever did as a rail line (200,000 people per year).
Hellingly Sculpture

As I left Polegate I was pleasantly surprised to find that the trackbed was tarmacked, in contrast to the rougher surface of the Downs Link. This makes it better for cycling although I don’t think I would like to walk on it for any extended distance. I didn’t expect it to last very long though for when I last traversed this route on foot from Hailsham to Heathfield in 1993 (the Polegate extension wasn’t ready then), there was no surfacing.

Hellingly Station
I immediately saw that the route was far busier than the Downs Link and in the three miles to Hailsham I passed several families out cycling, a number of horse riders and even a few old people using mobility scooters. The going was very good in spite of a couple of level crossings over busy roads and I reached Hailsham in no time at all. The section through Hailsham suffered from a number of developments over the trackbed and I had to negotiate a couple of housing estates, a busy road and a car park. I could only guess where the train station once was, as the site had been completely transformed giving no hint that it ever existed. Two local pubs were giveaways, the Railway Tavern and The Terminus. Pictures of the original station before and after closure can be found at

Viaduct Near Hellingly
My memory of the route north from Hailsham was pretty hazy (it was 16 years ago!), but I was very surprised to see the tarmac surface continue and even more surprised by the appearance of another housing estate, this one hadn’t existed in 1993. A little further on and I reached Horsebridge Road, where the original bridge was damaged by a road vehicle just prior to closure, bring forward the inevitable by a few weeks. Now there is no bridge at all, just a pelican crossing for getting across this very busy road.

Hellingly Woods
In what seemed no time at all I came upon Hellingly Station, which I was pleased to see was still complete and survives as a private house. The owners appear to operate some kind of dog training centre, given the frenzied activity involving small dogs jumping through an obstacle course in the back garden. The platform frontage is covered in bushes, which presumably encouraged to provide a little privacy from the hoards that pass by each day. Hellingly station was briefly a junction station for a curious little branch line that once ran to a mental hospital nearby. I looked for the trackbed of this railway but couldn’t find it, although it is apparently still distinguishable.

Horam Station
From Hellingly the climbing started in earnest. It feels odd to be climbing on what seems like a level route but by the time I got to Horam the gradient was 1:66 and the slope of the hill could be made out. The countryside on this next section was probably the best of all, and there were far fewer people about which enabled me to enjoy all the more. It was a fabulous April day and as the old line wound through the countryside the air was full of the sound of woodland birds singing merrily and the woods were carpeted in primroses and wood anemones, giving a fragrant smell. It was a good job the weather was fine and the countryside so lovely as the ride itself was a bit of a slog.

Site of Former Heathfield Station
When I reached Horam Station, I was surprised to see a housing estate confronting me. I don’t remember any of this being here when I last visited, although I do remember there being very little left of the station. Pictures of what it once looked like, along with some showing its demise can be found here . It felt a bit odd using the trail on the remaining platform rather than the trackbed itself. The station was clearly a staging post for dog walkers, for there were many about again, mostly heading northwards and they were quite difficult to negotiate.

Heathfield Station Booking Hall
If I felt that the climb up to Horam was bad, the next section up to Heathfield was even worse. Luckily it was only a couple of miles otherwise I would have given up at this point. The line opened out from the woodland and cuttings to give some great views across the Weald. As I approached Heathfield I noted the gradient marker saying it was 1 in 50. The locomotives must have belched out their smoke clanking up this section of track. My legs felt a bit like pistons too as I tried to maintain a reasonable pace.

Heading North of of Heathfield
Heathfield is much changed from when the railway ran through here. The town has expanded a lot since then and the various developments that have taken place since the 1960s have all required new roads to be built, where bridges across the line would never have been needed. Fortunately these don’t impact on the line too much and only one needs to be crossed at level. When I reached the station the area where the platforms once were have been completely covered by an industrial area. However, the main booking office is still extant and serves as a shop selling cooking equipment. It is in very good condition and decked out in Southern Railway colours.

End of the Line
For a short time in 1993 my parents lived in Heathfield, hence my previous expedition along the line. In those days the tunnel to the north of the station was not accessible and any attempt to pass through it would have been an unpleasant and wet experience (drainage was never its strong point). Now it’s a different story, with the tunnel restored, lit and surfaced so that walkers and riders can pass through it. Pictures of what it used to look like can be found here . I had heard about this, and my trip would not have been complete without exploring further. It was a pleasant ride through and on the north side was the Millennium Garden, which serves as the centrepiece for a network of local walks. The trail actually carries on for about a mile through the woods, although this is where the tarmac surface finally ran out. I wasn’t at all sure how far I could go, but I decided to continue as far as I could, knowing it probably wouldn’t be far.

Heathfield Tunnel
The end was not actually as I expected. I thought that there would be an insurmountable obstacle preventing further progress, but instead I was merely confronted with a huge fence, presumably erected by the landowner not wanting oiks like me travelling any further. I later read that East Sussex County Council have been looking into extending the Cuckoo Trail to Eridge, where it once ran to and where it could join the Forest Trail, another disused rail line running to East Grinstead. So far they have met opposition from landowners, although there are also some technical considerations, such as whether the very high embankments are still stable enough to carry the amount of traffic seen further south on the trail. I hope that one day these obstacles are overcome, so that even more of this special route can be enjoyed by people like me and the other 200,000 souls each year who come here.