Thursday, 30 December 2010

Wealdway Section 1 Eastbourne - Berwick

Eastbourne Pier
After a month of Christmas preparations and losing my last walk due to illness and the snowy weather, I was very anxious to get out as soon as public transport was working again after the Christmas break.  In these days of shortened daylight hours I didn’t fancy the long trip up to London to complete the next section of the LOOP as I neither wanted to face the traffic associated with the sales, or a train ride almost exclusively in the dark.  I was conscious that the Downs still had a covering of snow and so on that basis I picked a walk that I have been planning for a long time now although had previously been undecided which direction to take it.  The weather conditions and my mood dictated that I would try the Wealdway as per the guidebook suggested direction of south to north rather than the other way round which would normally feel more natural to me.
Bleak Midwinter Seafront

I parked at Berwick station (it’s free on Sundays and Bank Holidays) and took the short train ride down to Eastbourne.  On the way I could see that the Downs had just about enough snow on them to make them white, although in truth it was a fairly thin covering.  The day was rather bleaker than the weather forecast had suggested with little hint of any sunshine, despite what had been predicted.  Still on arrival at Eastbourne it felt good to get some lungfuls of fresh air after largely being indoors for the last couple of weeks.
The Meads

The seafront was pretty blustery and various elderly guests were hanging grimly on to their hats as they tried boarding their coaches from the seafront hotels.  It looked as if many of the hotels had done a brisk trade over Christmas if the coach traffic was anything to go by.  I took a quick look at the pier, still trying its best to look cheery on what really was a very bleak looking morning.  The paintwork on the pier was the only blue in existence, with the sea looking very grey and choppy and the sky looking little better, although there were hints offshore that the sun might make an appearance at some point today.
Dewpond View

The pier marks the official start to the walk although you wouldn’t know it as there is no marker for the whole of the promenade westwards from here.  In fact the first clue I was on the walk at all was almost two miles it at the point that the South Downs Way footpath section starts at the end of The Meads.  After a longish walk along the promenade it suddenly felt like a proper walk as I climbed up the steep hill that I had descended on my South Downs Way trip almost two years ago.  The paths coincide for about half a mile until splitting at the top of the steep slope.  This time I took the right hand turn and headed off along the ridge of the South Downs, heading towards the bridleway section of the South Downs Way, which I soon met.  I had now turned north and was pleased therefore to have the wind at my back for much of the rest of the day, making for much more comfortable walking conditions.
Eastbourne Trig Point

When I met up with the South Downs Way again, conditions underfoot had become a lot less friendly however, as I soon realised that when I reached the snow it was not the nice crunchy kind that I had been hoping for, but extremely hard and icy and starting to thaw.  This made it extremely tricky to walk on and I went over a couple of times before realising that the best way of dealing with it was to avoid wherever possible.  For the next couple of miles the path follows the old coach road towards Jevington and normally this affords great views across the Pevensey Levels, virtually the whole town of Eastbourne and further afield Hastings and the High Weald of Kent far off in the distance.  Today though the view was just about there but I had to use rather more imagination on account of the murky conditions.
Snowy Top

At Willingdon Hill the Wealdway takes its leave of the South Downs Way and heads on a bigger loop encompassing Butts Brow and Coombe Hill before descending into Jevington.  I was pleased about this as I was rather enjoying this high level walk and I always though that the SDW is too quick in some places to lose the high ground.  It also meant that I got to look at more of the earthworks left behind by the Iron Age settlers that once called this place home.  Remains of a Neolithic Camp and various burial mounds complete the scene.  Far below me I could see rather newer antiqities such as Polegate windmill, which I have great affections for since it is located a stone’s throw from where my Great Grandparents lived in the later 1970s.

After looping around this last part of the ridge I turned and faced into the wind.  I was a very uncomfortable experience!  I was pleased now to be heading off the ridge and down into Jevington village, where the path enters right opposite the welcoming sight of the Eight Bells pub, a little further up the road than the Hungry Monk restaurant where I passed by on the SDW.  The Eight Bells had a roaring fire on offer and looked very welcoming and hard to resist.  However, I had a feeling that if I succumbed I might still be in there rather than finishing the walk!
Approaching Folkington

My dalliance with Jevington was very brief for I was soon heading along the old coach road that once passed for a main route to Eastbourne from Lewes.  Now not much more than a mudbath, having thawed sufficiently to create an opportunity for horse to do their stuff, the coach road was far from a pleasurable experience.  A little way into the coach road and it appeared to have swallowed a family, since there were some very ill equipped people (even with pushchair) trying to use its debatable charms.  They didn’t look at all like they were enjoying themselves!
Folkington Church

My ordeal soon came to an end as the path finally swung away from the shadow of the Downs for the sun to finally make a breakthrough!  This was very welcome indeed, especially as I soon came upon the hamlet of Folkington (pronounced Fo-wing-ton in these parts!).  This delightful little place seems to exist in a different world to the 21st Century going on all around it.  The church, with its small wooden spire, positively gleamed in the weak winter sunshine and the bleakness of Eastbourne seafront seemed like a world away.  By now it was well into the afternoon and conscious that I still had four miles left and my pace had been very slow I decided against going in the church this time, but headed out through the wooded combe towards Wilmington. 
Folkington Woods

After a day that had seemed devoid of wildlife, the next couple of miles seemed to have everything that was available!  I was sung to by a group of goldfinches, a redwing put in an appearance and I was followed for some distance by a robin.  My spirits rose considerably and even more so up ahead as I surely came upon the highlight of the walk.  I left the wooded combe and headed out along the foot of the scarp slope of Windover Hill, covered with a thin layering of snow.  Up ahead the Long Man of Wilmington, that mythical and mysterious hill drawing, stood half camouflaged underneath the snow barely visible.  Even on such a day though the majesty of the man could be appreciated.  I have always been fascinated by this drawing, especially as no-one knows how he came to be there, what he represents or even how old he is.  One thing is for sure though and that is that he is the largest representation of a human being anywhere in Western Europe!
Snow Patch

Dropping down the path away from the Long Man was a treacherous affair as the path had been covered almost completely with sheet ice.  It was a miracle that I managed to get to the end without falling over, but I was relieved that this was the last of the snow for me today as from here on the sun and warm air was really starting to do the trick.  Wilmington Priory glowed in the sun just ahead of me and I assumed that I would have the opportunity to look around.  It is now owned by the Landmark Trust however, and not open to the public generally although it is occasionally on Heritage Weekends.  It looked occupied when I passed by so I didn’t loiter too much, moving on instead to the small church next door.  This resembled the church at Folkington and the two villages now share a parish council, along with the hamlet of Milton Street.  So as not to upset anyone by showing favouritism the parish is known as ‘Long Man’, a very diplomatic solution!
Long Man Under Snow

Wilmington Church had the most enormous yew tree living in the church yard.  The old beast looked like it was having trouble supporting its own weight and the locals had propped up some of the limbs with some fairly substantial looking telephone poles.  After lingering in the churchyard for a few minutes, I headed down through the village.  Wilmington is one of the more picture postcard villages of Sussex, with many lovely old cottages and even a few vintage cars on show.  My lingering memory though was of the smell of smoke from lots of open fires all working hard to keep the locals warm in their houses!
Wilmington Churchyard

If I could have stopped the walk at Wilmington it would have been a very fitting end to my journey.  There was still more than two miles to go though until reuniting with the car and these were less memorable miles.  The chalk downs were left behind me as I now headed onto the clay vale that characterises the next part of the Weald.  I soon crossed the extremely busy A27 (with difficulty) and headed out across squelchy fields towards Berwick village.  The terrain is almost marshy in places and so I was relieved that my path managed to steer clear of the worst of it.  I eventually reached the River Cuckmere, a very picturesque river downstream, but here nothing more than a muddy backwater.

I reached the road next to Arlington reservoir, a feature that I would have to explore next time for now I was very focused on my final destination, especially as the short-lived sunshine had disappeared.  Now the light was beginning to fade and I my feet were really hurting after all the hard work of trying to grip manfully to icy paths all day.  Today was far more of a struggle than I expected or wanted, but it felt very good to have some miles in my feet once again.  I think that I may end up doing this walk once again when conditions are better, for it has much to commend it and even on a fairly poor day the highlights clearly shone through.  I think the next section of the Wealdway will have to wait for the spring though – the idea of clay walking in the winter is too much for me!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

London LOOP Section 11 Elstree - Cockfosters

Elstree Flats
For days I had been wondering whether to do this section using only public transport to reach each end or do my normal routine of driving to one end and getting public transport to the other.  After a very frosty night my mind was made up for me when I didn’t have enough juice in my battery to get going!  I hot footed it down to the station and caught the train, safe in the knowledge that there were no dreaded engineering works to get in my way!  Sadly what I also knew was that the weather forecast suggested that there would be a lot of cloud after lunch and that by going on the train I wouldn’t get started until 11am.

Still after a trouble free journey to Elstree, I emerged from the train to ice cold temperatures (still) and not a sign of any cloud!  The write ups for this stretch of the LOOP weren’t very glowing and even the guide book bemoans the fact that there is too much road walking.  Yet even as I trudged up Deacon’s Hill Road to get out of Borehamwood I still had a sense of excitement as it was such a beautiful frosty morning.  I have to confess that these sorts of days are the most exhilarating for me as far as walking is concerned and even faced with a bit of road walking I was just pleased to get lungfuls of cold air!
Frosty Morning

After the seemingly endless climb up Deacon’s Hill Road, I turned left onto a main road where I was soon confronted with the odd sight of what looked like a salt and pepper pot in the adjacent field.  I soon realised that they were ventilation shafts for Elstree tunnel that I had just passed through.  What struck me as a little strange though was that they were built from different types of brick.  Just past these and I was able to get away from the road a bit as I found a parallel path that also gave me some decent views across the Hertfordshire countryside (ok so Borehamwood messed up the view a little).  I also realised that now we were much later into November, some vegetation was completely in the shade all day and the frost hadn’t actually melted for several days.  The white hoar frost was quite a contrast to the autumn scenes that I saw on the last section of the walk only three weeks earlier.

After this flirtation with countryside it was even better to get the real thing when I finally managed to leave the roads behind for a bit and head through Scratchwood.  If you think you’ve heard of Scratchwood, it’s because for many years the first set of services on the M1 were named after this green space.  Now they have the rather dull name of London Gateway, but they will always be Scratchwood to me.  In fact Scratchwood may not exist now if the original plan for the services had come to fruition.  Users of the service area will find the slip roads and set up rather odd – this is because the original plan was for a motorway link to built from here and almost obliterate Scratchwood itself on its way to joining up with the A1 at Stirling Corner.  Luckily nothing came of it so the delightful woods remain intact.

Despite surviving the bulldozer another intervention by a less obvious target now threatens to spoil the woods beyond recognition – the litter lout.  Sadly the woods are despoiled by people who supposedly come here to enjoy the countryside and defle it by leaving all manner of rubbish behind.  It was rather a shocking sight in places although nothing prepared me for what was to come – the side of the A1!  Having found my way through Scratchwood I was then faced with the most unwelcome trudge along the side of the ‘Great North Road’.  Sadly this most important of highways, linking London with Edinburgh, is a linear rubbish dump, with most of the litter finding its way beyond the reach of cleansing staff who wouldn’t have a hope of grabbing any of it underneath the most fearsome looking thorny bushes.  Some of the rubbish was quite eclectic too, with computer monitors and high heeled shoes in amongst the usual round of drinks bottles and fast food packaging.  The plod along the side of the road was a bit soul destroying if I’m honest and although I would have been unlikely to try my luck crossing this monstrous road, I still cursed the fact that this option wasn’t open to me on account of the substantial fence along the central reservation that would have required a large pole to help me vault it.
Out on the Razz

Having eventually made it to the underpass I faced almost the same distance back until I finally reached the car park of Moat Mount, which was closed (permanently by the looks of it).  A hapless dog walker in a car looked gloomily at the gate but there was no way it was going to be available for parking today.  I sauntered through, much to the annoyance of dog walker, and was surprised how quickly the sound of the A1 receded in the park.  Moat Mount is like a twin of Scratchwood but its pedigree is rather different since this is the erstwhile grounds of a long departed stately home.  Sadly the LOOP doesn’t allow for the best exploration of the parkland and with only a short amount of daylight hours available to me and many more miles to go I wasn’t inclined to venture off the beaten track.  Maybe another day?
Moat Mount

All was quiet as I headed out of the woods and out into open fields.  For awhile I just had the odd bird and fields full of horses for company.  Yet, as soon as I felt brave and patient enough to get a picture of a robin that had been following me, along came a jogger and ruined it for me.  Grrrr!  I soon realised that since my last outing some of the trees had lost their leaves entirely while others sported quite a lot of foliage.  Seems a bit daft to those in the know, but this was the first time I’d ever noticed that it was oak trees with leaves and all the beeches had lost theirs entirely.
Grazing Horses

I soon reached the village of Barnet Gate, where I again faced a short roadside walk, although happily this one was pretty quiet.  After half a mile or so I entered Totteridge Park and the feeling of wandering across empty countryside continued, although this place is pretty hemmed in by urban development.  By now I was coming across a lot more dog walkers and as I crossed a very frosty set of football pitches I became aware of an almighty din caused I assumed by a dog kennelling centre away in the distance.  The dogs didn’t appear to be very happy to be there!  I also came upon the trickle known as the Dollis Stream, which seems to have an importance far outweighing its size as there is a dedicated path following its length, as well as the LOOP.  After a mile or so of frozen fields and barking dogs I reached the edge of Barnet.  I crossed to the other side of the Dollis Stream via a pretty sturdy vandal proof footbridge and it was immediately like entering a different country!
Dollis Path

Initially the housing estate on the other side didn’t look very inviting, with several piles of fly-tipped rubbish waiting for me.  However, as I headed eastwards the scene improved considerably.  Call me a snob if you like but I couldn’t help noticing that the rubbish dumping stopped when I entered a more expensive looking neighbourhood!  Nonetheless I was pleased to leave this seemingly endless housing estate behind and cross the road into some playing fields.  Normally this looks like it would be a very busy place but on such a frosty day, there was only one very lonely looking young man practising with his football.  In fact for a minute I could have sworn he looked at my attire to see whether I might be able to join him!  I’m not sure I would have kept up with him – he looked decidedly fitter than me!

At the far end of the park I passed a first for me – a league football ground!  OK, so Underhill isn’t exactly Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane but Barnet do just about play league football (albeit they are in great danger of being relegated out of it this year).  All was quiet today and a quick check of the upcoming fixtures at the far end of the ground suggested that there was no game here until the 11th when they face the mighty Accrington Stanley.  Just up from the ground is the Old Red Lion pub, no doubt a haunt of many Bees fans but for me it was the owner that caught my eye.  McMullen Brewery is based in Hertfordshire but does it have a family connection with my wife’s family (her maiden name)? 
High Barnet Station

A Northern Line train rumbled over the bridge on the other side of the road as I passed underneath.  When I turned left on the other side of the bridge I entered one of those almost impossibly rural pieces of countryside that still manage to exist cheek by jowl with suburbia.  The LOOP has an uncanny knack of finding them, which probably explains why it is such a fascinating walk.  The only clue was the proximity of High Barnet station just across the way.  Yet even the terminus of the Northern Line looks just like a country station.  The pathway across the park was like a skating rink and I must have looked quite a sight as I slithered across it, not having noticed when I was too busy looking at the tube trains!
King George's Fields

After crossing another short slab of suburbia I headed out across King George’s Fields, named in celebration of King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935.  It was a bit of a climb to the top, but I was glad that the LOOP had picked this green route rather than the more direct route up Barnet High Street.  At the top I looked back across London for quite a view.  Somewhere around this point was the decisive Battle of Barnet, one of the most famous of the battles of the Wars of the Roses which took place in 1471.  It was at Barnet that Warwick the Kingmaker died and with it the Lancastrian cause for fourteen years.  You can see why this was chosen as a battle site – the view all around was quite something although surely very different on that day over five hundred years ago!  The heart of the battlefield is now occupied by Hadley Green that is now a place for Sunday strolls and the back yard for the well heeled, who live in very sumptuous 18th Century houses overlooking it.
Barnet Pond

I lingered by the pond, which was almost completely frozen.  The one part that was free of ice was full of birdlife desperate for a swim!  The pond is situated at the top end of Barnet High Street, a completely different scene to the bottom end that I had left when I crossed under the railway line.  This is a picturesque and monied looking place, far removed from the housing estates at the bottom of the hill.  I continued across the Green and soon became aware that some of the very large houses had had some famous residents back in the day.  David Livingstone had lived in one and a couple of doors away was a house formerly lived in by Anthony Trollope.  At the far end of the Green was a delightful church with the tower picked out by the late afternoon sun.  This part of Barnet was definitely a far cry from the roar of the A1 and the dull walking that characterised the earlier part of the day.  I was quite disappointed that the daylight was starting to wane, for by now it was 2.30pm and the sun was starting to give up on me.
Barnet Green

Just past the church and I entered the world of Monken Hadley Common, a remnant of the once extensive hunting forest that covered this part of Hertfordshire.  Initially it was more of the same as Hadley Green, with a large open space bounded by some extremely large houses.  Eventually though the path descended into woodland and there was a flavour of what the hunting forest must once have been like (although I’ll bet that there weren’t lots of well worn paths in those days!
Barnet Church

This section of the walk was delightful and even though there were a lot of people about walking off the excesses of their Sunday lunches and taking their mutts out, the woods still seemed peaceful and tranquil.  In fact I was so in my own little world as I passed through the woods that I clean forgot to take a look at Jack’s Lake, supposedly the highlight of this end of the walk.  By the time I realised I had gone too far for me to walk back and look.
Monken Hadley Common

At the other end of the Common and it seemed all too soon I came upon the white gates denoting the entrance/ exit and I was in Cockfosters, the small suburb on the border of Barnet and Enfield that is home to the terminus of the Piccadilly Line.  I soon came upon it’s 1930s Art Deco splendour and was pleased to be whisked away within seconds of my arrival.  It was only upon stoppng with my walk how cold it had been, since I soon got pretty hot on the tube train!
Cockfosters Station

This section of the LOOP is not particularly exciting but redeemed by the delightful walking through Scratchwood at the beginning and across Monken Hadley Common at the end.  In fact the last three miles of today’s walk is perhaps one of the best sections of the entire walk and reminiscent of Kenley Common in the south of London.  It set me up nicely for the next section that will hopefully be walked in the next few weeks.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

London LOOP section 10 Moor Park - Elstree

Moor Park Golf Course
This is one of the longer sections of the LOOP and I had managed to find myself another glorious day to tackle it. Exactly a month after my last foray I was very pleased to find that a lot of leaves were still on the trees, although with a forecast of heavy rain and wind in the next few days, I suspected that this would be the last that I would see of the leaves in all their autumn glory.
Bramble Colours
I took the train from Elstree and Borehamwood station to the beginning of the walk at Moor Park where I had left off last month. By taking the train only as far as West Hampstead and walking the short distance from the main railway station to the underground station nearby I saved myself some time and money on the train ticket (a useful tip for end to end walkers like me). Moor Park was rather different from last time in that it was almost deserted – no school children on a Sunday morning! With a decided nip in the air I was keen to get walking and as soon as I left the station I retraced my steps along the link route that I had traversed last time. Underfoot was extremely wet courtesy of a very heavy dew and I soon regretted not taking a chance on my yet-to-be-worn winter walking boots. My summer boots were very wet very quickly, although to be fair the water didn’t actually penetrate through the canvass.
Crossing the Common
At the end of the wood I turned left to skirt around a golf course, one of several that I would be seeing today. The number of players on the course was quite respectable despite the wet underfoot conditions. I suspect most of the players already on the course were eager to get finished before lunchtime. As I wandered across the course the colours of the blackberry bushes were what struck me most. I had never really considered how bright their leaves can get in the autumn, as I usually lose interest in them when the berries are finished. Yet there was a rich tapestry of reds and yellows on all the bushes, whetting my appetite on what was surely going to come later in the walk.
Autumn Colours
At the far end of the golf course I had the first viewpoint of the day as the LOOP bade farewell to the Colne Valley for the last time and headed determinedly eastwards as the Colne and its partner the Grand Union Canal headed north. After crossing a main road the LOOP crossed a green space that was covered in morning dew. It sparkled in the sunlight so much that you could have been forgiven for thinking it was frost, but it was actually too mild for that overnight. The air was thick with the smell of wood smoke and fireworks from the Bonfire Night celebrations the night before, a smell I always associate with autumn. The green space was thronged with dog walkers all making interesting tracks across the grass, a sort of reverse snail trail!
Golden Carpet
After a brief dalliance with a piece of suburbia I was thrust into Oxhey Woods, a very pleasant slice of ancient woodland full of pretty colours but rather defaced by various pieces of rubbish. Why do people feel it’s necessary to leave their rubbish in such lovely surroundings and spoil it for everyone else? It’s not as even as if it was the odd piece of litter either – we are talking tables and mattresses! After passing by a very expensive looking lodge house and through sun dappled woods I became aware of yet another housing estate and with it brought more fly-tipped rubbish. Groan! Thus far I had also been following a couple of fellow walkers from Moor Park station. They looked lost as I approached them but avoided my gaze so I wandered on having failed to connect with them. I had a feeling that they were fellow LOOP walkers but clearly didn’t want my company. Who knows they may still be lost for all I know!
Oxhey Woods Viewpoint
After a fairly long section of woodland walking I was pleasantly surprised to get out into the open air shortly afterwards. This supposedly was the second viewpoint with a sweep of London allegedly before me (according to the guidebook anyway). It is true that Wembley Stadium and Harrow-on-the-Hill church were very visible landmarks away in the distance but other than that it wasn’t a very memorable if I’m honest. The path soon dropped away from this ‘high point’ (slightly raised more like!) and down to a farm where I met a dreaded mud bath that I had to pick my way through very carefully for fear of being swallowed up by it!
Pinnerwood House
A little past the farm I also passed Pinnerwood House, apparently the home of Edward Bulwer Lytton, all round Victorian hero by all accounts. I have to confess I had never previously heard of him yet it is claimed that he originated some of the great clich├ęs of our time in his capacity as author (he was also a politician, poet and playwright). He coined the phrases ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and my personal favourite ‘the great unwashed’. Anyhow his former house is a much photographed landmark of the LOOP and deservedly so.
West Coast Main Line
It was to be the last highlight for awhile; from here it was an airy but rather uninspiring walk around seemingly endless fields until I reached the West Coast Main Line, the main rail route from London to North West England and Scotland. It was surprisingly quiet even for a Sunday, suggesting perhaps that at least some of the lines were closed for the day. A couple of trains did pass though just to dispel my first though, which was complete closure. I crossed the line by means of a bridge where I was almost completely enclosed, presumably to prevent vandalism of the line below by people throwing stuff over. Secure it might have been but I was pleased to get across as it was far from a pleasant experience.
Grim's Dyke Golf Course
The path continued along a road and crossed at a junction by a garden centre, still managing to do decent trade despite the lateness of the season. I was pleased to cross the road opposite and continue out into open countryside. I got the distinct impression that the rather unloved piece of land I passed first was an unofficial rubbish dump and it was therefore some relief to pass through a gate and out into a golf course. This was the third encountered today and clearly golf is a very popular pastime in these parts. I guess planning golf courses was also a lot easier than houses in the green belt around London? I continued up the side of Grim’s Dyke golf course until I got to a track at the top of the hill, where I turned to look back across the view behind me. It was actually pretty good – rather better than the one across London earlier. A little further along the track and I came upon Grim’s Dyke, the ancient feature that the golf course is named after. This earthwork’s origin is a mystery and also barely discernable underneath all the vegetation. It did mark the beginning of another lengthy section of woodland walking as I crossed Harrow Weald.
Grim's Dyke
In the woodland are a number of man-made features of different vintages. First the modern, with a very large telecom mast unsympathetically dumped in the middle of the wood. It was so big that it could conceivably pick up signals from outer space (perhaps that is its function?). A slightly older construction was a little further ahead; the 1870 house also known as Grim’s Dyke and formerly the home of WS Gilbert or Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The weed choked lake reached before the house is the scene of Gilbert’s death. He had a heart attack while trying to rescue a woman who apparently got into difficulties when he was trying to teach her to swim. When I reached the old house I realised that I had strayed from the official path – it was worth it though. The old place is now a country house hotel that still puts on Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance were upcoming productions – good fun if you like that sort of thing.
Grim's Dyke House
I re-found the path through the woods and came out on Old Redding Lane. This is something of a local beauty spot, with a well-used car park and a great view southwards across the metropolis. Wembley Stadium suddenly looked a lot closer from this point and the intervening countryside looked like an autumn parkland rather than the endless houses you might expect of such a view. I lingered for a minute then continued along the road past the intriguingly name ‘The Case is Altered’ pub. Apparently this is more common a name that I realised, but it usually refers to a change to licensing law some 300 or so years ago. This example though apparently takes its name from a corruption of ‘casa alta’, Spanish for high house. Certainly the pub sign confirms that, for it depicts soldiers trying to capture the place, although the signage itself has seen better days sadly.
The Case is Altered
After a brief respite from woods it was back into woodland walking again, crossing another section of Harrow Weald. On a sunny autumn day it was a joy to be walking through all these patches of woodland, but I’m not sure it would be so appealing at any other time of year. The woodland was finally interrupted by the A409 – a particularly busy road that was tough to cross. On the other side the character of the walk changed completely as I entered the grounds of Bentley Priory. The pathway through the grounds is surfaced, which made the going rather easier. I soon became aware of a very large barbed wire fence on my left and remembered that Bentley Priory was the famed headquarters of RAF Fighter Command during World War II. Apparently the old place is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, hence the rather stern looking security measures around the outside. As I walked around the perimeter fence I got the odd glimpse of the Italianate architecture of the old place, but I wasn’t going to risk taking pictures in these nervous times!
Bentley Woods
At the far end of Bentley Priory were some very salubrious houses of various vintages all clustered together on an exclusive looking estate perhaps once populated by the top brass in the air force but now more likely to be owned by footballers, stockbrokers and swanky lawyers? The path only briefly flirted with such a world though and it was soon back into woodland as I passed by Stanmore Cricket Club and then some picturesque looking ponds known as Caesar’s Lakes. These were allegedly dug by the Romans when they occupied this area (hence the name) but nobody seems sure. As I skirted Stanmore (famed for being at the end of the Jubilee Line) I became aware of two very different gatherings of people. The first was the sporting fraternity of Harrow Rugby Club, where boys from various ages were competing in some fiercely competitive games (if the crowd’s reaction was anything to go by). The second was the gathering of Muslims for what I took to be a pretty important event at the Islamic Centre just opposite the rugby club. There was a degree of traffic chaos in the area caused by both events, but it was good to see plenty of life around. Too often on this walk I have wandered through suburbia and seen no-one at all.
Bentley Park
I finally left the woodland and heathland behind a little further on when I passed by the National Orthopaedic Hospital. Judging from the appearance of the LOOP side of the campus the hospital isn’t used much, since many of the buildings look semi-derelict. Yet there seems to be no reference to this on the website – it’s all a bit confusing really.
However, this did mark the point at which woodland walking was almost completely left behind. I could hear the roar of the M1 ahead of me and at the corner of the hospital campus I got a great view out across the green belt towards St Albans. Although the motorway did create quite a din, it did not impose itself too much on the view which was a relief. I wandered down though a few fields before coming to an underpass that I could use to get across. I am always surprised at how wide these bridges are, and this one resembled a short tunnel it was so dark underneath. After playing chicken across the road underneath the motorway (the rather busy A41), I then faced a half mile trudge along the road into Elstree. This wasn’t actually that bad, although I was pretty frustrated not to be able to cross and join the perimeter path around Aldenham Reservoir at the first opportunity. Instead I had to miss a good chunk of it before the opportunity arose.
More Reflections
The bit of shoreline of the reservoir I did walk was delightful. By now the sky was full of puffy white clouds which meant that the shadows and light were even better than earlier when it was a cloudless sky. The water was like glass and all around was a throng of activity with Sunday strollers, families airing their children and the members of the lake boating club busying themselves with preparing their boats for winter. The lake itself was apparently built by French PoWs in the Napoleonic War and in keeping with the reluctance of forced labour they made a poor job of it. Apparently the reservoir leaked for years before it was finally fixed by the installation of a concrete dam.
National Orthopaedic Hospital
From the reservoir it was a short but fairly uninteresting walk into Borehamwood. Sadly the LOOP misses the charming village of Elstree entirely, with a brief view of the church all that is visible from the path. After crossing Watling Street, the old Roman Road that headed for North Wales and is now the pretty unimportant A5183, the LOOP then made an annoying detour away from the short road into Borehamwood, adding an extra half mile to my journey just so I could get a good look at yet another golf course! Over in the distance I was also getting pretty distracted by a police helicopter hovering over Borehamwood and I couldn’t help thinking that it had something to do with my car! Of course when I got closer I soon realised that it didn’t, but I have to confess that I rather rushed the last mile or so of the walk, not taking very much in.
Aldenham Reservoir
This is the longest section of the LOOP so far completed, although it is still a relatively modest twelve miles. It is perfect to do on an autumn day when the colours are at their most radiant. Would I have enjoyed it is much at another time of year? Difficult to say, especially as there are no real stand out parts of the walk. Pleasant it was, but nothing like as enjoyable as the previous section walking along the Grand Union Canal.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Stokes Bay Railway

Gosport Station
Having exhausted all the ‘official’ railway walks/ cycle rides in Sussex my attention must now turn to neighbouring counties to see what I can find there.  Hampshire is a particularly rich vein to tap into and of course I have already found a few (Hayling Billy, Meon Valley Line and the Hamble Rail Trail).  A particularly intriguing railway that demanded exploration in the very short time I had available while in the area a couple of weeks ago is the Stokes Bay Railway.  This short line in the southern part of Gosport was constructed as a short cut to the Isle of Wight before the pier was built in Portsmouth for Isle of Wight ferries.  The line closed as long ago as 1915 so it is something of a miracle that any of it survives at all, but a quick look at the map will show that most of the line has been turned into a cycle path.  An interesting little potted history of the line can be found on including a couple of pictures of the pier and how it would once have looked like.
Former Stokes Bay Station

I parked at the sea end of the line.  There would once have been a pier out to sea here, but the site is now occupied by the local lifeboat station, a rather fitting change of use.  The pier finally succumbed to demolition in the early 1970s when the Royal Engineers were allowed to use the rest of the structure to practice their methods on.  There is almost no trace of any railway across the green area at the back of the lifeboat station so I picked up the trail once again in Crescent Road just to the north.  From here a well defined and signed cycle trail suddenly starts out of nowhere and heads north.  This is the line of the old railway, although inevitably there is little in the way of clues indicating its original use.
Now a Cycle Trail

The walk isn’t terribly exciting until after the next road crossing the only real railway feature left intact appears suddenly.  The line crosses Anglesey inlet via a short viaduct and at this point the view across to Portsmouth and the iconic Spinaker Tower comes into view.  How different must this view have been to the Edwardian traveller?  For a start there probably would have been next to no housing in this part of Gosport.  Its early demise can surely be no surprise when you consider how sparsely populated this part of Hampshire was in those days.  Once the pier in Portsmouth opened, life for the Stokes Bay Pier and its shipping service to the Isle of Wight would always be a struggle.  The ferry service initially became summer only and then ceased altogether in 1913.  It was a miracle there were any railway services at all once the ferry service was withdrawn, but the trains managed to soldier on for another two years!
Anglesey Viaduct

The walk continues between houses after the interesting little interlude of the viaduct.  Autumn has really got a grip now and the relatively few trees alongside the former railway (in contrast to most walks of this nature) showed a nice range of colours from yellow to burgundy.  A little further along the track and there was another glimpse across the water, courtesy of another inlet of Portsmouth/ Gosport harbour.  This one was intriguingly called Workhouse Lake, giving a strong hint to its original identity.  No sign of a workhouse now, just yuppie housing development but at least the presence of some birdlife made it a lot more interesting,
Workhouse Lake

A short way past Workhouse Lake and the trackbed stops for now, although there is an interpretation board reminding people that this was once a railway.  I would imagine few people in the area actually know this without looking at the board since there are so few clues left. 
Autumn Colours

Across the road would have been the only intermediate station on the route, Gosport Road.  The site has been completely changed beyond all recognition from thos days since it is now occupied by a telephone exchange, itself of some vintage by the looks of things.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that too was supplanted by something else in a few years time.  The trackbed immediately to the north of here has also disappeared for about ¼ of a mile and I had to walk the length of St Andrews Road opposite and dive down the back alley of the houses on the left hand side before finding the track once again. 

This time the trackbed was a more conventional tunnel of trees although to be fair that didn’t last very long at all.  Just ahead the southern end of the former triangle junction of the line as it diverged from the Gosport to Fareham line is still a junction, but this time of cycle routes.  Originally the south to west line in the triangle didn’t exist and passengers for Stokes Bay would have been seriously inconvenienced by having to go into Gosport first and in many cases changing trains entirely.  This arrangement was finally fixed but not until several years after opening.
Now an Alley

As I was pressed for time I decided that the Fareham section of line would have to wait for another day.  I took the right hand option and headed the short distance past a fairly unloved looking recreation ground and past a school and through a housing estate now built right across the trackbed.  I was keen to see Gosport station, one of unusual design and a listed building as a result.  This meant that following closure in the 1960s the old place was left to rack and ruin as no-one really knew what to do with it.  I was rather surprised to find it a building site when I arrived.  The old place is now to become affordable housing courtesy of the Guinness Trust (see the marketing blurb at ).  It wasn’t too easy to see how the place would look from the end that the trains would have once used, so I headed instead to the other end by negotiating a few streets.  The work then became much clearer, with many of the original features to remain although it would be hard to imagine that it was once a railway station.  Still there were some good pictures on the hoardings.  As I stood looking at what it was to become my image of the finished building was shattered by one of the workers who told me that it would look nothing like the publicity!
Triangle Junction

I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I headed back towards the seafront and vowed to be back to explore more in a few months time when the work has been completed.
Redevelopment of Gosport Station