Saturday, 25 June 2011

Sussex Border Path Section 2 Emsworth and Stansted Park

Racton Monument
As is usual with summer months, I seem to have a lot of difficulty finding enough time to take a whole day to go walking and so this year I have decided to try and help myself by undertaking the Sussex Border Path in stages but by circular walks rather than the usual point to point walks that I normally do. I though this would be the best way of tackling the path since many of the suggested staging points do not have public transport links to each other, which would mean some very lengthy and convoluted trips.
Early Morning at Emsworth
The Sussex Border Path is highly unusual in that it follows the rather man-made county boundary of this historic kingdom (Sussex is a shortened name for Kingdom of the South Saxons). Since I have already completed the coastal walk it seems natural for me to complete my circumnavigation of my home county in order to get to know it better. I am particularly intrigued about the northern boundary since this is a part of the County that I do not know very well.
Tunnel Under the A27
The first part of the Sussex Border Path is a circumnavigation of Thorney Island and having completed this as part of my coast walk I wasn’t especially keen to do this section again, especially as I didn’t really want to walk through the military base again. Instead I decided to move onto the next section to the north of Emsworth. I identified a circuit that would include the Sussex Border Path as far as Stansted Park, returning via through the estate and past the big house, passing Racton Monument before returning to Emsworth through Westbourne village.
Westbourne Church Peeping
It was a beautiful Sunday morning and I had managed to rouse myself out of bed super early, so that I was ready to start walking at around 7.30am. I parked to the north of the town centre in Emsworth and wandered through Brook Meadow nature reserve before getting on to the official path. This wetland area was full of pungent smelling cow parsley, butterflies and dragonflies all out in force. The stream running through is apparently a favourite haunt of local water voles although to be fair I didn’t actually spot any this time.
Old Defences
At the far end of the nature reserve I crossed under the main Coastway railway line through a rather cavernous and dark tunnel like bridge. At the other side I passed by a field and then under the A27 by-pass, which couldn’t be more different from the railway crossing. This was incredibly brightly lit, preposterously so really! Once past the A27 I entered a field full of cows and buttercups and headed towards the pointy spire of Westbourne Church. Halfway across the field, almost buried in the undergrowth was a very strange looking pillbox, the likes of which I had not seen before. It was quite a large one with extra rifle holes and a second protecting wall on the outside. I had a good look round before moving on.
Emsworth Common
At the main road at the end of the field I was slightly disappointed to be turning left and not walking past the church that I had been heading for. What followed was a bit of road walking to position myself a bit for Emsworth Common some distance ahead. When I eventually turned off the road, I spotted a fox in the field adjacent to me. We had an encounter that seemed to last forever as the two of us sussed each other out across the fence. I knew that I would have to be extra specially careful to get my camera out without freaking the poor chap out. No matter how gentle I was I failed dismally as he turned and fled at the first hint of me doing something out of the ordinary.
Dog Rose
After wandering alongside some more suburban looking houses I eventually left the built up part of Emsworth far behind and entered…wood. As it was still pretty early in the morning the woods were alive with the sound of birdsong, a sound that always gladdens my heart! The first part of the woodland was quite short and I soon came across the busy Emsworth Common Road. The official path continues along this road eastwards for awhile but I decided to cross and use a couple of unofficial looking paths so that I could avoid the otherwise necessary road walking.It did the job perfectly, but I had to keep my wits about me to ensure that I didn’t get horribly lost in the woods. The worst part about my route was that I suddenly felt quite wet and realised that I had been slimed by cuckoo spit, which was everywhere around me and difficult to avoid!
Stansted Park
The onward path across the forest when I had regained the official route was delightful. Underfoot was a very well surfaced path and clearly defined, while the trees above me got taller and taller as I proceeded northwards. Eventually I left the woods to find myself walking between large fields of pretty mature looking crops. It was surprising how much these had come on in the three weeks since my last outing on the Isle of Wight.
Stansted Gatehouse
I passed through a couple of farms that were a bit heavy on the disused equipment and abandoned vehicles. In fact I am surprised that with the price of scrap metal these days that the farm owners had made seemingly no attempt to sell off this stuff. In the garden was a large tepee which was being offered as a place to stay. All rather interesting! The path worked its way around a couple of very large fields and woodland edges before pitching up at The Avenue, a lengthy avenue of trees that formed a memorable walk to Stansted House.
Stansted House

By now the sun was getting pretty hot and the cloud was beginning to bubble up a little after what had been a very promising start to the day. Every so often the sun would go behind a cloud and create a little shade, which was very welcome as I walked along a decidedly hot stretch of path down The Avenue. As I approached the house the path took a circular route around at a safe distance, which allowed me to get a good look at the old place. The house is not the original as this burned to the ground back in 1900, but is an Edwardian house built on the exact footprint of the original. Since 1983 it has been owned by a charitable trust and is open to the public during the summer season.
Fresh Crops
I headed off further east to a country road where I eventually looped around to another rather more surprising place – Racton Monument. This rather spooky looking tower partially hidden in the trees is an enigmatic place. It was built in 1772 although no-one is quite sure of what it was built for and its future is decidedly shaky too. It has been subject to various plans to turn it into a dwelling, which is what the present owner would like to do with it.Sadly though it is being left to decay and is covered in graffiti while the owner tries to get planning permission and finances together to sort it out once and for all. Standing at the foot of it, I couldn’t help but think that nature might get there first! It is undoubtedly one of the strangest places I have ever seen.
Racton Monument
Having had a good poke around Racton Monument I started to head back towards Stansted House along a tree line path with views out towards the Solent and Langstone Harbour to the south. It was a very pleasant walk and by now there were plenty of people about as it was heading in towards late morning. I threaded my way through the countryside, past the Brickkiln Ponds (I wonder how they got their names?) and down towards Westbourne Village once again. The last stretch of path was rather unpleasant as I had to cross a deeply pitted field, created by horses hooves in the clay that had now dried out following the dry weather we have been having.
Westbourne Pond
Westbourne Village is a delightful place, with a plethora of old style buildings from all sorts of eras alongside each other. It was also very well off for public houses, explaining why perhaps The Good Intent had recently fallen by the wayside. Another, The George and Dragon was now a doctor’s surgery of all things! I smiled at the irony. I made my way down towards the church where I left the road behind once more, following instead a canal leat that once serviced a local mill. It was a delightful walk, although the original purpose of the leat was now impossible due to the vegetation that had grown up all along its length. I passed a field of alpacas that looked very out of place in such pastoral surroundings but which seemed to arouse a good deal of interest among the growing numbers of Sunday strollers I was no encountering.
Westbourne Church
Further on I crossed the busy A27, this time over rather than under. The other side of the road provided quite a surprise after the roar of the traffic died down a little. The path took me through the grounds of Lumley Mill, a fabulous old building, lovingly restored and converted into living quarters. Yet there was no mistaking its origins as a watermill. It was a fine sight to end the day’s walking for a little further on I reunited with the path that I had taken earlier in the morning to make my way back to the car.
Lumley Mill
For me this was a fascinating ramble through a corner of Sussex that is completely new to me. Challenging the walk wasn’t but with such interesting history almost everywhere you turn, it didn’t seem to be important how challenging the walk was! This took me a little over three hours to complete and I was home by lunchtime!

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.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Perowne Way (Newport to Sandown Cycle Path)

Site of Former Shide Station
This former railway line is the longest continuous stretch of cycle path on the island, the route being preserved almost in its entirety apart from a couple of sections that are now in private hands and unavailable for recreational use. There are no official parking areas at either end of the line, although I did manage to get a space on the road at the northern edge of the route before the line disappears into the built up area of Newport and is untraceable. This unbeknownst to me at the time is almost the exact spot of the former Shide station, the first stop heading south out of Newport.

Dragonfly Seat
This line was operated by the Isle of Wight Central Railway and was completed in 1875. It fared a little better than the Freshwater line, staying in business until 1956 until it too succumbed to closure after stiff competition from buses and private cars. Journey times on the line couldn’t have been very quick, for there were quite a lot of stations on the seven mile section of route. The ferry arriving at Cowes also dropped passengers on the wrong side of the River Medina, meaning that the railway’s natural clientele of tourists from the mainland would have probably opted for Ryde as their port of entry, depriving this line of many of its passengers.
Merstone Station
Shide station is no more and the National Tyre Centre on the opposite side of the road from the beginning of the cycle path occupies the site, having been built shortly after closure and demolition. The trackbed is obliterated by the now diverted River Medina, a final ignominy to the former line. No trace of the line exists between here and the former Newport station, with overgrowth and development taking care of any part of the line to the north.
Merstone Station
The initial going on the route is through a tree lined path alongside the babbling River Medina, by now a tiny version of the River that forms a big gash down the centre of the island. While the surroundings were lovely, the same cannot be said of the surface of the path through the woods, which was rather loose and dusty. The path continued for about a mile in this vein, with signage alongside encouraging walkers and cyclists to take in their surroundings, showing them the kinds of species they could be looking out for.This trail forms part of the Sustrans network (NCN23) and these trails are well known for trying to maximise tourist potential in this way. At least they tried hard to maintain interest in a part of the route that would otherwise have been a tree lined tunnel.
Heading Out From Merstone
At Blackwater, the old station is still somewhat intact although the house is considerably larger than the original building, having been extended over what was the old platform. The cycle path takes a small detour off the route of the railway, but follows as close to the edge of the now privately owned station as possible. Considering how few houses there still are in the vicinity, traffic must have been very light at this station when it was operating.Should the line still be here the necessary level crossing would cause some considerable congestion, for my crossing of the road in front of the station was very difficult.On the other side of the road the line continues in the same vein to begin with, before dispensing with the trees after a short stretch.This made for more enjoyable cycling as I could now get a feel for how the countryside looked around me.
Level Crossing
As I was getting into my stride I had an unpleasant surprise ahead. The trackbed is unavailable south of Blackwater for more than a mile and I had to follow an adjacent farm track. Although disappointing this did not prove to be too bad though and it wasn’t long before I regained the trackbed. Ironically I could see the trackbed the whole time on the other side of the field and so I didn’t really miss out on any of the scenery. Having rejoined the line, it was pretty unremarkable going until I reached the former country junction station of Merstone.This unlikely place for a junction station still has a platform in situ and now houses a car park for cyclists to unload their bikes and explore! Formerly the station acted as an interchange for trains heading to Ventnor and Ventnor! Not as crazy as it sounds; the two lines actually went to different stations in the southernmost town on the Island by different routes. The more direct route was to Ventnor West, a rather inconvenient station at the western edge of town and quite a walk from the town centre. The other line went to Ventnor via Sandown and Shanklin. The direct line from here succumbed to closure as early as 1952, the first line on the island to do so. It was also the last to open, in 1900. It is now almost completely off-limits to walkers or cyclists & mostly overgrown.
My route eastwards though has been beautifully restored and provides possibly the best section of the whole route for the next quarter of a mile or so. Apparently the cutting that the route passes through was once infilled but re-excavated in 2002 to complete the trail. With the excavation is the only overbridge on the entire route (in fact one of only two I saw all day!). The next mile or so was very empty of traffic – I had the whole path to myself as it negotiated its way through the clay vale between the two ridges of the chalk spine of the island on one side and the massive bulk of St Lawrence Down on the other.
Nosy Cow
The route came to a sudden halt at a metal gate, from where I had to take a boardwalk detour away from the trackbed. A little further on I came to a surprisingly busy road, although thankfully controlled by a puffin crossing which made life a lot easier. Behind a large hedge adjacent to the road is the former station of Horringford (see pictures at Horringford of how it used to look). The old place isn’t that easy to see now due to the vegetation that has grown up. I headed onwards, along a pretty straight section, with only farm animals for company for some time. I got a few glances from the cattle but a field of llamas paid no attention to me. I wonder what folk from the 1950s would have made of them?
Christmas Tree Farm
The next station at Newchurch hadn’t been so lucky as Horringford. No trace of the station now exists, and the site is now occupied by a bungalow, ironically called Newchurch Crossing. Apparently a length of platform still exists in the garden but otherwise it is very difficult to imagine a railway ever came this way at all (for pictures of how it once looked see Newchurch). Further on the farm animals were replaced by a Christmas tree farm – they certainly know how to diversify on the island! A little way past and on the way to the next former station the line was joined by a very rusty looking stream. Although not the most pleasant of companions, it did pave the way for perhaps the most enjoyable section of the route so far through woodland that was fast sprouting into leaf on this April afternoon.Reminders of the railway were also evident as the route crossed some rusty looking but still very serviceable bridges across small rivers.
Newchurch Bridge
Alverstone station a little further ahead, also seemed to serve a non-existent community. With the sparsely populated countryside there must have been very little intermediate traffic on this route, perhaps explaining why it was among the first wave of closures in the 1950s. The station building though survives as a private house and was up for sale when I passed (offers in excess of £300,000 at Alverstone Station). Given more time I would have arranged a viewing just for a nose around! Looking at the blurb, I doubt that the estate agent even knows it was a station as no mention is made of its former status. They probably should – they would almost certainly have more takers then! Pictures of the station in its heyday can be found at Alverstone
Alverstone Station
The last mile into Sandown wasn’t so interesting and the surface of the path was very bumpy. I passed through another nature reserve where some attempt had been made to entice people in for picnics etc by putting some information boards and a few sculptures. It had attracted one couple, but given that it was the day before the Easter weekend it was all eerily devoid of people. AT the edge of Sandown perhaps inevitably the path petered out alongside a caravan park and no trace of the line can now be seen between the edge of the built up area and Sandown station a little further on.
Nature Trail
Sandown Station is still in business – one of only eight still operating on the island from a network that once boasted over 35. However, it is a shadow of its former self being rationalised several times. The entrance was rather interesting though, with images of the old railway system etched into concrete by school kids or so it looked. I waited for a train to come along as one was due. The slightly incongruous sight of a 1939 vintage ex London Underground train rattled in. These old museum pieces maintain the tradition on the island of all the rolling stock being reused from elsewhere. Now only 2 cars each, they maintain a service of sorts but for how long? The old problem of limited clearance at Ryde tunnel will probably mean that they are replaced by more ex-tube stock at some point, unless the steam railway people at Wootton Bridge manage to put together a service based on their steam fleet. Now that would be a spectacle!
Sandown Station
For me, I had other lines to explore and so I headed back along the railway path back to Shide. Barely pausing on the way back the return journey took only about an hour! This is probably the most satisfying of the railway rides on the island, principally because of its length. I cannot say that it was anything like as picturesque as the line from Yarmouth to Freshwater though.