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.


  1. Another fantastic report....So many memories.


  2. Thanks Trevor. One more from the island to come hopefully this week. From the same day...