Saturday, 17 September 2011

Sussex Border Path Section 6 Rake and The Black Fox

Storm Damage
My 6th outing on the Sussex Border Path took me back to the rather convenient car park that I had found at Durford Heath. Rather than an early morning expedition, the weather forecast dictated that this would be a late afternoon/ early evening trip. In fact the weather in the morning was pretty foul and it was rather a leapof faith on my part that I went at all. However, the rain stopped about half way to Midhurst and a small break in the cloud ahead gave me some reassurance even though the air was thick with moisture.
Bracket Fungus
When I finally got going from Durford Heath I was rather glad that I was walking through the sandy heath and pine forests of this corner of north west Sussex, for it did reduce the amount of mud that I had to trawl through. The first half mile was down rather a narrow lane with steep sides. Although the rain had stopped there were some rather large drops of water that gave me something of a wetting, especially every so often when a gust of wind blew. There was no doubt about it – it was far from the usual conditions I like to walk in!
Flying Bull Pub
I turned left off the road withsome relief, having been passed by only two cars on the half mile section. It was not a pleasant encounter on either occasion and I was pleased that it hadn’t happened more often. The path through the woods felt like an ancient trackway that had managed to stay a track rather than be turned into a country road. It was pleasant walking through the forest and the canopy of trees rather shielded the fact that it was quite cloudy above me. I also caught up with some fellow walkers which rather surprised me so soon after the wet weather had passed.However, when I approached it was clear that they weren’t seasoned walkers as they had completely unsuitable footwear for the wet forest conditions. I smiled sweetly and inwardly wished them luck picking their way through the mud and puddles with their canvas shoes on…
Hedge Woundwort
I eventually reached the first settlement of the day, the village of Rake. People were now emerging from their houses and into their gardens now that there was a hint of sunshine. Hedge trimming and snipping of dead plants seemed to be the order of the day now that the end of summer was fast approaching. I crossed over the former A3 trunk road, now by-passed some distance to the north.Although now very quiet it was obvious that this was a very busy road in its former life, for it was built with a much better specification than its current status as a ‘B’ road would suggest. I passed the Flying Bull pub, which was probably originally a coaching inn with a rather less silly name. From here I faced just over a mile of road walking, which wasn’t great but at least the road was relatively quiet.
Railway Crossing
Just past Brewells Farm I was rather alarmed to find a dog running helter-skelter towards me. It didn’t stop when it reached me luckily but kept on going seemingly at 100mph. I wondered where it was off to in such a hurry? A few minutes later it became clear when I passed the owner grumbling that the dog had chased after a vehicle up ahead thinking that it should be on board! By now the sun was properly out and in the hedgerows blackberries and elderberries were dripping with water, while the bushes they hung on groaned with all the extra weight of their fruit and rain.
Weavers Down
I passed over an obviously rebuilt railway bridge (it had very shiny new bricks, although the design was far from modern) and passed the small hamlet of Langley. From this point the character of the walk changed again. I had now entered a heathland environment and the path continued along the side of a pine woodland with views out across what was a surprisingly wild piece of countryside. The area to the north of here is Weavers Down, partially occupied by the military. The rest looks like a chunk of the New Forest dropped into this part of north-west Sussex. I am guessing that it is agriculturally useless, for there seems to be little attempt at any kind of obvious cultivation.
Folly Pond
Even though it was only early September, autumn seemed to have really got underway already. Fungi of various descriptions had pushed their way up through the soil and leaf litter and colours on the trees were showing beginnings of autumn tints. The wet weather that had passed through earlier in the day seemed to heighten the sense of autumn. Glimpsed through the trees was Folly Pond, a surprisingly large body of water that was full of swans.I tried getting close for a good look but it was soon obvious that from the south side this wasn’t going to be possible. I therefore decided to wander around the northern edge of the pond to get a better look and was pleased I did so for the setting was absolutely beautiful.By now most of the clouds had cleared and the air was clear and bright with late afternoon sun. On one side of the lake overlooking the view was a large looking building that I later learned was a health resort. Rather a grand setting and I am sure it does very good business. How could it fail being here?
Folly Pond
My onward route took me through fields and sections of more pine woodland until finding my way back to the old A3 at yet another coaching inn, this time the rather lonely looking Black Fox. All was quiet at the pub, although it did look as though it was still trading, which was some relief. So many have closed now that only the strongest seem to survive and these solitary places need to offer something extra special to stick around. It was here that I left the Sussex Border Path to start my return journey to the car park.
Back to the Railway
I crossed the road and headed off across a section of woodland that had recently been felled, leaving only tree stumps. Away in the distance I could see three large birds of prey (possibly buzzards) circling around above the still intact woodland and calling to each other. It was almost as if the three of them were working as a team. I joined what looked like it might once have been an estate road, marked as it was by some rather large columns on either side. It was obviously now a public highway, marked by the surprising number of cars that passed me as I walked the few hundred metres I needed to along it.
Black Fox
At the rather grand looking Milland House I turned to head across a still rather wet field. I passed by some more woodland and was just admiring a big clump of flowering heather in front of me when a small copper butterfly alighted on one of the stems posing and almost begging me to take a picture of it. Of course by the time I set myself it had taken flight – tease! I briefly came upon the old A3 for a third time, an unusual section for here it turned into a dual carriageway, very unnecessary now! The onward path left again almost at right angles and I felt rather odd as I crossed what appeared to be the bottom end of the garden of a rather large house in the distance.
Milland Estate
At the other side of the garden I passed through a gate to come into the extraordinary churchyard of St Luke’s Church. This Victorian church is certainly very pleasant and looked its best in the early evening sunshine, but it is surely eclipsed by the adjacent and redundant Tuxlith Chapel. This old church is now cared for the by the Friends of Friendless Churches (a rather bitter-sweet concept) and dates from some time in the 16th century although its origin seems to vary depending on which report you read! Declared redundant in 1974 the old chapel stands empty, but it is still possible to explore inside (I did).There are no longer any pews and I guess that its demise was principally because it was too small for its local audience, hence the bigger church was built next door. Nevertheless, it was a most enjoyable and unexpected find. I was amazed to think that I had never heard of this place, even though it is in the county that I have lived in for so many years.
From the churches I dropped down the side of a very steep and wooded hill via a set of slippery steps and passed the horse loving residents of Maysleith who were grooming their steeds. The next couple of miles were along a path through game bird shooting territory. There were literally hundreds of pheasants wandering about making the most awful racket calling to each other and warning their friends of my approach. By now I could tell that I was in a race against time to get back to the car as the sun was getting very low in the sky. I guess the pheasants were nervous as they were readying themselves for roosting down for the night.
Tuxlith Chapel
I passed through Combeland Farm, which seemed to be yet another full of junk as well as a hay barn that was literally falling down around the hay it was supposed to be protecting. A little further on and I reached Combe Pond, yet another delightful oasis of calm in the woodland. Judging by the fishing platforms this looked like a popular spot with the angling fraternity, although at this late hour I had the place completely to myself. I did linger for a short while enjoying the moment but from here on I did not hang about. I was anxious to get back to the car for daylight hours were running low.
Friendly Pheasant
In all honesty there was little to report on the last stretch for much of it was through rather dark and foreboding woodland, heightening my desire to return to the car! The only thing I have to report is that inevitably perhaps I did take a wrong turn and ended up having to walk the last mile or so back along the road. Not pleasant, but at least I didn’t get horribly lost!
Combe Pond
This was a nice easy walk with some really good highlights at Folly Pond and Tuxlith Chapel. There are few sections that are unpleasant and I am sure the last mile could have been avoided with more haste and less speed. The car park at Durford Heath is convenient for it lies directly on the path and there are a couple of pub stops en route for refreshments if needed. The only facility that isn’t available is a village shop, so make sure you have fluid with you before you set out. Conditions underfoot were mostly dry although there are a couple of the forest stretches where I could see that mud would be a serious problem in the winter months. I am looking forward to more of the same kind of terrain on the next section of the Sussex Border Path as I head towards Haslemere.
Last Sign

Saturday, 10 September 2011

VeloRail Perigord Vert

Ready to Depart
Ever since our first velorail experience in Normandy last autumn I had wanted to have a go at this activity. Our family holiday this year was in the Dordogne area of France and a quick search of the Velorails Federation website pointed to another opportunity at the nearby town of Corgnac-Sur-L’Isle ( I persuaded the tribe to come again to explore a different line! A rather different type of outing this time!
Trains Heading Out
As a quick reminder for those that haven’t read about our previous experience, France still has many miles of disused railway lines that are still intact. Apparently they are retained for strategic reasons in case the military need to use them and removal only happens once a solid case is put forward. This has led to the development of velorail (railway cycling) as a popular way of exploring some of these otherwise redundant and unused lines. There are approximately 40 velorail operations across the country.
Corgnac Sur L'Isle Station
The Perigord Vert operation is a rather different kind of experience to the one in Normandy. Firstly we had to turn up at a specified time, which we had to book in advance. We chose the 10am slot, on the basis that it might be a bit hot later in the day. We needn’t have worried as the weather was decidedly overcast, which was disappointing from the point of view of taking pictures. For pedalling though it was a bit of a godsend.
Rolling Stock
The ‘station’ at Corgnac Sur L’Isle where the rail cycles are collected is actually a little way out of the small town and not at the railway station. There is a small booking office and a line-up of rail cycles which is the only clue that the operation exists. According to the website there is a choice of routes from here, one way to Thiviers and the other to St Germain. The reality, certainly on the day we visited, was that the route to St Germain doesn’t actually seem to be available for the moment since all the timetabled slots were for Thiviers only.
River Crossing
The line forms part of a longer route that once ran from Brive to Angouleme across a very rural part of what is now known as the Perigord Vert. A railway line still crosses this part of the country, although from Limoges to Perigueux. It does at least pass through Thiviers, although I don’t think there are many stopping trains. The Brive-Angouleme line was opened fully in 1889, although some sections of the line opened rather earlier on a piecemeal basis. It closed for passenger traffic in 1940, presumably due to the war, and it never re-opened.
Heading Uphill
Goods traffic continued for some time afterwards in the shape of tobacco, wood and materials from foundries. The line closed in sections from 1960 and finally closed for good in 1993 and the remains were bought by the Departmental Government of the Dordogne. I understand that other sections have no track remaining, but the trackbed has been converted into cycle path, although the route is a bit fragmented.
This velorail was a little more expensive than last time (25 Euros) and slightly shorter at 6.5km (13km there and back). There were no rules of the road to worry about before we left. The reason for being timetabled soon became clear when we set off with all the other participants at regular intervals. Thus everyone was initially travelling in the same direction, meaning that no lifting cycles off the railway was necessary. The cycles themselves were very similar to the ones on our previous experience with no gears and so only modest speeds can be achieved.Braking is fairly rudimentary with a metal shoe being applied directly to the wheel! Anyhow, after the initial novelty value of the cycling it felt really good to be cycling along real rails again.
Level Crossing
Shortly after getting going we came upon the former station at Corgnac-Sur-L’Isle. This was still in very good condition and a siding still contained some vintage looking rail inspection vehicles and even an old looking diesel unit that still looks serviceable. The platforms of the station were pretty grassed over and would probably need to be relaid if the line were ever to re-open, even as a tourist line.
Woodland Viaduct
Past the station and we crossed the L’Isle river by way of a cantilever bridge, a rather interesting way to cross a relatively modest sized river. The L’Isle drains away into the mighty Garonne at Bordeaux. A little beyond there and we came to a level crossing. Unlike ‘live’ railways the priorities are different at level crossings. Velorailers give way to road traffic and the owners of this operation were not taking any chances.A barrier had to be opened in order to continue on our way and we actually had to cross carefully on foot for this first crossing was actually a well used road.Indeed, there was a slight build up in velorail traffic as we had to wait for a couple of cars to pass. As with Normandy, the crossing keeper’s cottage had a beautifully laid out garden alongside the rail line.
Just beyond the first level crossing the reason for the style of operation became clear. From a fairly level section of track, the line began to climb gently and rather more effort was required to move our ‘train’. Another level crossing followed shortly after although this time there was no barrier. We were required to get off and walk again across the level crossing. Probably a sensible requirement, but slightly frustrating nonetheless as it seemed slightly unnecessary.
Final Crossing
From the second level crossing the line began to climb a little more steeply and as we puffed a bit we passed a sign that advised that it would be uphill for the next 4km and offering some encouragement to keep going! The third level crossing soon came and this one was protected by quite a loud bell, which appeared to be activated by a trip sensor between the tracks triggered as we passed by. I suspect that this technology is still employed on rural lines that are still operational in France.
The line became a lot more wooded in nature from here on and views out across the surrounding countryside were only fleeting. The countryside was largely agricultural with plenty of cows in evidence. Most seemed to be laying down – were they trying to tell us something? Of perhaps more interest than the surrounding countryside though was the wobbly nature of the rails. They had obviously suffered from years of not being maintained to a standard that would be suitable for powered rail transport. Even on a rail cycle we leaned and rumbled a bit over the rails. Some of the sleepers looked pretty rotten and I suspect that some replacements will be needed in order to maintain the operation.
Thiviers By-Pass
Towards the top of the slope we reached the station of Eyzerac-Labaurie. Some distance from the villages of the same names, it is now a private residence although the rather elderly chap that lives there seems to be very friendly towards velorailers as he gave us a cheery wave as we passed by. He keeps the old station beautifully, although the platform now resembles a lawn rather than its original appearance. No passengers have got the train from here since 1940 and yet the old place looks like it could reopen for business tomorrow!
Refreshment Point
At the end of the platform we again came across a level crossing, the last time that we did on the way out. Not only was there a barrier crossing but also a rope that we had to lift over the kids in order to move forward. This was clearly a reminder to make sure that all riders crossed the road on foot rather than on the bike. The slope continued beyond the level crossing and we passed through a short tunnel, which caused a little excitement with the small passengers on our ‘train’. A little way past the tunnel and we reached the end of the line. Thiviers station is on a busy operational line and so the velorail operation stops short of the junction at the back of a house with a decent sized garden. This has been turned into a refreshment stop serving coffees, ice creams and other drinks.It was a welcome break after the surprising slog up the line from Corgnac.
Heading Back
Turning all the rail cycles was performed by the staff rather than the riders. All the outward riders had to be accounted for before there was any chance of us heading back and so the layover was approximately 20 minutes. We sat and had a coffee, which was a very civilised way of passing the time.
Downhill all the way
We re-boarded in turn and waited for our slot. The system resembled a ‘real’ railway in that the start was signal controlled. I am guessing that the departing cyclists would trip something on the rail on the way down in order to reset the colour light signal in front of us. Once the green light came on it was go-go-go!
Kinky Track
As soon as we set off it immediately felt like a different ride! Of course we were now losing all the altitude that we had gained and once through the tunnel and across the first level crossing we gave it as much speed as we could. Our speed was probably fairly modest as the gearing of the rail cycle wasn’t set up to allow for great speed. Yet, it did feel like we were licking along at the speed of an express train – very exhilarating! Even the bumpy track didn’t feel too bad, although going round the corners Pendolino style was a little scary! Going along at this speed quickly made me realise why this line had operated in this style. Trying to stop one of these rail cycles to allow another coming the other way to get off would be nigh on impossible.
Speeding Along
As we hurtled down the track we were acutely aware that we had to stop at the elevl crossing. Firstly though another unexpected hazard became clear as a shoe came speeding past us, having left the foot of one of the cyclists ahead of us. There was no way the poor lady was going to stop to retrieve it. Countless drinks bottles and other ‘luggage’ could be found on the track, I am guessing from others having had a similar experience!
Eventually we drew into the village of Corgnac once again and reached the level part of the track. After the downhill section it was rather hard work trying to pedal very fast again as we had to put some effort into the last couple of kilometres. After passing across the bridge and through Corgnac station once again we were back at the beginning in rather less time than on the outward journey!
Inter City Coming Through
This was another hugely enjoyable velorail experience. My only criticism of these operations is that they seem to have little in the way of information available about the lines themselves – I had to rely on other sources to find out anything about this one and even then there wasn’t a big range of sources to choose from. The railway infrastructure though is largely complete and for this I am very pleased for so much has been lost of our rail heritage in this country. I was less sure that this operation would be a pre-curser to a heritage railway project and slightly mystified by the advertising of a route that didn’t seem to exist, onward from Corgnac to St Germain. It might be my only just able to ask for necessity French that meant I was missing something about the onward route. If you do visit though and you manage to do the section to St Germain I would be very interested to know about this route and how you get to ride on it…
Final Stop