Trails from the Rails 10: Luxulyan to St Austell

  • Area: Cornwall
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway, Cross Country
  • Length: About 10 miles
  • Points of Note: Luxulyan Valley, Par Harbour, the Cornish coast, docks at Charlestown
  • OS maps – Explorer 107 (1:25,000); Landranger 200 (1:50,000)

This is a simple and attractive walk, mixing level walking, uphill and downhill sections, woods, industrial ruins and coastal views before ending up pottering through suburban St Austell.

It is also particularly a “trail by the rails”. It is never much more than half a mile from a railway.

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Luxulyan station, the first stop on the Newquay branch since the closure of the station at St Blazey, is a neat little affair. It consists of a half-overgrown platform set on the central Cornish plateau slightly down the hill from Luxulyan itself. Its one and pretty much only claim to fame came in 1991, when the shortest-ever High Speed Train formation to run in passenger service terminated here after a somewhat unscheduled journey from the other end of Luxulyan Tunnel. The power car at the other end of the train had derailed in an isolated location and this was the simplest way of ferrying the handful of customers back to somewhere with road access. Luxulyan remains proud of this sight.

The powercar involved has spent the ensuing years making other appearances in the media, including as the last powercar in British Rail’s Intercity livery, as the star feature (under a faked “43001” number) at a First Great Western relaunch and as the rear powercar in the Ufton Nervet incident, which gives her the dubious status of being the last UK rail vehicle to be returned to traffic after being involved in a fatal accident.

But to return to Luxulyan.

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On leaving the station and meeting the road, turn left up into the village and right at the top of the hill.

It is possible to do the first leg of the walk off-road (look at the OS map for details), but it is usually extremely muddy and involves disturbing the peaceful repose of several engaging native species of bramble, so instead follow the road down the hill out of the village and turn right at the bottom by Gatty’s Bridge. Follow the back lane into the valley for about half a mile, then take the left onto the lane heading sharply up the hillside. Take the second footpath to the right and follow this as it makes a level heading along the hillside.

The first footpath offers similarly good views and a similarly level walk through the same peaceful woods, but the second path leads to Treffry’s Viaduct and is therefore worth the extra little pull. It is a twin-level viaduct, with a stream on the lower level and the course of the old tramroad on the top. A curious irony of this particular railway is that it replaced a tramroad that was better engineered than the railway.

The viaduct is built of solid granite and very, very impressive. Through the gaps between the blocks that make up the deck can be seen the stream flowing along its lower level. Underneath the arches, swinging around endless sharp curves at a pleasingly low speed, is the replacement railway. It is unlikely that there will actually be a train to be seen here, given the branch’s service level. At the western end the tramway heads into a sheer-sided cutting through the granite, complete with stream, on its way back to Luxulyan.

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Having admired the viaduct, return to the eastern side of the valley and continue walking away from Luxulyan along this high-level path, now accompanied by a stream and rather a lot of evidence that this used to be an upmarket tramway. This evidence includes most of the granite sleepers and several lengths of rail.

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After two-thirds of a mile or so this opportunity for pleasant reverie, ambling along through the woods beside the silently bubbling stream, is brought to a rather abrupt end. The stream ceases to be peacefully bubbling and instead forms a waterfall off the end of a chute that drops it over an absent waterwheel. The tramway meanwhile takes up the course of a long-abandoned rope-worked incline, the winding house for which has tumbled down and returned to nature. (Or had its nicely-hewn granite building blocks recycled by environmentally-conscious locals, as the case may be.)

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Follow the incline downhill, across the lower path (which returns to Luxulyan to the right and dead-ends at a gate to the left) and on beneath an unusual skew bridge to the bottom of the valley, where it emerges next to and slightly below the current railway.

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Follow the path as it swings around the end of the hill and across a car park to the point where the tramway turns into railway. Until the early ’90s there was a china clay drying facility here, lightly served by this upgraded stub of the tramway route branching off the Newquay line. Now the stub is much overgrown and the path runs alongside as the rails rise to join the working railway.

The path dips and goes through a very small adit to pick up the hill side of the railway. It then runs alongside, separated from the running line by a stream, down to St Blazey.

There is nothing very notable about St Blazey as a place – the housing is fairly typical housing and the railway doesn’t get up to as much as it used to – but the stream runs through it in a green corridor so there is not too much need to attend to it. The first road is the A390 from Lostwitheil, Liskeard and Saltash, which crosses the railway on the level. Next to the crossing is the crossing keeper’s house, sandwiched between railway and stream and in private hands.

The path is now neatly gravelled as it runs down a fairly straight leg to the second level crossing. Here it is necessary to cross the railway, as on this side of the line the onward path plunges straight into St Blazey’s semi-moribund marshalling yard.

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Having crossed the railway, turn right (the first right, separated from the railway by a scrap of fence) and continue alongside a second stream that turns out to have been hiding on the other side of the railway (the railway losing no time in crossing the first stream, diving into the marshalling yard and vanishing behind a hedge). Follow this second stream down past the back of a wooded park. About halfway down the railway is crossed on the level as it curves sharply out of St Blazey yard and twirls up a 150-degree-or-so bend towards Par station. Continue to the end of this leg of the stream, where the path turns into a couple of dusty yards and a back alley before joining the A3082 to Fowey.

From here Par station is a left turn to pass under the railway and then another left turn on the other side to follow a gulley to the station forecourt. To continue to St Austell, turn right here instead and pass over the level crossing conveying the St Blazey Harbour branch (and former line to Fowey) across the A3082. This one retains not only its crossing keeper’s house but also a handsome set of classic crossing gates.

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Once over the railway, turn left and pass beneath the mainline on its low stone viaduct. The road promptly swings round to the right and a short, disagreeable bit of pavement-walking ensues, trapped between harbour boundary wall to the left, road to the right and Cornwall Mainline above.

After the harbour gateway the road dips to pass under the railway and the footpath diverges, running between railway and harbour before turning left to pass through the tail end of the harbour and clay dries complex.

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The path runs down to the seashore and turns right, following the cliffs and a sign marked “South West Coast Path” along the edge of a golf course. This offers some rather good views back towards Gribbin Head:

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On winter afternoons the sun also shimmers quite handsomely across the passing trains as they sweep round the curves on the climb towards St Austell:

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Less pleasing were the views of the abandoned Coliseum on the beach at Carylon Bay. These ruins have now gone, thereby mildly improving the view.

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Swing across the car park, sticking close to the cliffs, and rise around the coast side of the Carlyon Bay luxury hotel. The coast path runs across a grassy area and tries to avoid a spate of suburbia by going around the cliff side of several back gardens. These attempts are almost successful, though a brief stint on Sea Road admiring the houses is necessary.

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But Sea Road is private, so no time is lost dropping off it again and running round the back of some more houses before falling down the hillside to Charlestown’s little harbour. Slightly unexpectedly, this will usually be occupied by a classic ship or two.

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Work around the docks and pick up the main road towards St Austell, leading directly up the hill from the left-hand dock. This is long, fairly straight and steadily climbing in a way that, for all of the mixed architecture, has been a bore for a bit when it finally passes the Penrice Academy and hits the A390 on the fringes of suburban St Austell.

Pass straight across the roundabout and follow the pavement into town. This is a classic Cornish suburban road which, apart from the car designs and traffic levels, has not changed much in forty or fifty years. The telegraph lines have a pleasingly cluttered air. At the bottom of a dip a slightly staggered crossroads is handled by a pair of mini-roundabouts, where Victoria Road emerges as Alexandra Road.

Alexandra Road is followed for barely a quarter of a mile up the hill to a discreet, carefully-signposted gulley off to the right. This leads up between a couple of garden walls to the railway and then follows the same to a footbridge over the three tracks of the mainline. The overgrown third line, swinging sharply away to a buffer stop, is the former access to St Austell’s goods yard. Cross the bridge and continue along the path, now on the other side of the railway but still following it with much the same dedication, to the road.

The railway station is straight ahead; trains to Par and Plymouth are down the road ahead and across the old yard, while trains to Truro and Plymouth are better reached by crossing the railway by the road bridge and running down the pavement to the station forecourt. The forecourt is strikingly built-up on the steep hillside above the town and provides a rare bit of level open space for the bus station.

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Long a beautifully-preserved harmonious mid-19th-century/ early-20th-century wayside mainline timber station, St Austell has been not wholly sympathetically renovated in the 21st century. In 1999 the Down platform building was flattened and replaced by a building that in other circumstances might have seemed modern and vibrant instead of severely out of keeping – such as if the opportunity had been taken to remove the subsequently-derelict Up platform building (replacing it with something that matched the new Down building) and the old signalbox (closed 1980, which looked in keeping with the old station and now doesn’t). A new footbridge, appearing high enough to be future-proofed for electrification west of Plymouth (stop laughing), took so long to appear that styles have moved on so it doesn’t really match the new building.

On the other hand, the station is still here and is moderately looked after.

Trails from the Rails 9: Medstead & Four Marks to Alton

  • Area: Hampshire
  • Local Train Operators: Mid-Hants Railway/ South West Trains
  • Length: About 8 miles
  • Points of Note: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
  • OS maps – OL32 & OL33 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 186 (1:50,000)

This is a pleasantly rambling sort of walk which done in this direction has a predominantly downhill orientation. If done in reverse, it is more inclined to have an uphill feel about it.

Travellers coming from the west (Alresford and Ropley) are advised to check their return train carefully before leaving the Mid-Hants station at Medstead & Four Marks.

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To say Medstead & Four Marks is a rather well-preserved sort of station is rather like saying the late Wolfgang Mozart’s music is rather pleasant to listen to. A comparison with some “past” photos on display in the station eventually reaches the note that remarks the signal box cabin had to be replaced after the original was demolished. This fits in very well, and otherwise it looks much as ever.

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Medstead is the old community which thoughtlessly was founded some distance from the route of the railway. Four Marks, which mostly consists of mid-20th century houses, later grew up around the station. There is a certain air to the architecture of a place which stopped expanding when the station closed with the withdrawal of trains between Alton and Winchester in 1973.

Head out of the station using the footpath off the Alresford-bound platform and work through the back alleys (right, left, right, left, right, straight across) to the main road, emerging opposite the Chinese takeaway, which is next door to Tesco and just up the road from the chippie. Cross the road (the A31 to Winchester) and turn left up the hill.

At the top, just before the turning to Medstead, turn right down the gully and follow it through the housing estates until it skirts into open country and drops onto a road consisting of suburban villas. Cross this road and take the signposted path on the other side into the woods.

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Proceed down this path, which goes on for quite some distance along the edge of the wood. Eventually the path opens out into fields with attractive views off to the east.

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These are the fields of the rather wonderfully-named Pies Farm and, unfortunately, are actually after the required turnoff. Go back into the wood and take the right turn (left from the Four Marks direction) and continue along a different edge of the wood. From here the walk follows St Swithun’s Way to Chawton, but this is not overly well-signposted so the fact is not much use. Make do with enjoying the gentle falling gradient through the dappled light beneath the deciduous trees to the pungent scent of the pines off to the left. Eventually the path emerges again, this time at Upper Woodside Farm.

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Follow the road as it swings down the hill and over a little ridge until it reaches a hedge and takes a right-angle to the right. Take the left turn down a track along the side of a field, avoiding the bollard provided to discourage vehicular access. (This bollard is made out of a bit of old tree and makes a very strong and stable base for resting the rucksack while taking a drink, with the added benefit that it can be moved around as circumstances require – though the farmer would no doubt appreciate it finishing up where it started.)

Follow this track as it goes halfway up the field and then turns right across another field. At the cross-tracks by the barns turn left and up a new track which rises gently through the copse on a slight embankment, curving gently to the right. This is the former Alton to Fareham railway. An overbridge at Southfield Farm highlights the route’s former use.

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After the bridge the railway alignment abruptly ends where it has been ploughed back into the fields. After the first field the footpath turns right, drops down to a wood, goes through the wood, turns right down another field boundary and comes out on the A32 Alton to Fareham road.

Cross the road (obviously quiet as there is no need for the railway) and go up the path on the other side. This works alongside a field and into a cul-de-sac. At the end of the cul-de-sac, turn left.

This is the old route of the Alton to Fareham road, which proceeds northwards for a couple of hundred yards past cricket fields and cottages to the village green and a road junction with the old road to Winchester. On the right are two pubs next door to each other (“Cassandra’s Cup” and “The Greyfriar”). On the left is a large brick house, formerly part of the local landlord’s estate. In the early 19th-century the then-landlord let his widowed mother, his two sisters and their friend use it as a home rent-free. Thus it was that here, overlooking the junction between the two main roads from London to the various parts of Hampshire, several key ports and the Isle of Wight, the novelist Jane Austen revised two novels, wrote three-and-a-bit more and became a good-selling writer.

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Before her publisher started putting her name on the title page (instead of attributing the latest work to “The Author of Sense & SensibilityPride & Prejudice, &c.”) she inconveniently succumbed to a severe bout of ill-health and died at the age of 41, leaving the world a mere six satirical novels (as opposed to, say, a rather more desirable ten or twelve) plus a splendid collection of juvenalia, fragments and Lady Susan. The house is now a museum and Chawton has been firmly bypassed; the upshot is that the room interiors and the traffic levels outside are both much as Austen would have known them.

The option exists of dropping in on the museum for a couple of hours idle perusing. Otherwise carry on past the pubs and a couple of cottages beyond and take the footpath down the gully off to the right. Cross the following field next to the hump of an old wall, leaving the spinney to the left. Head through the gate on the other side, climb up through the copse and go through the gate into the field. Follow the signposts, the path through the grass and the shortest route to the next stile or gate. Austen fans can imagine her taking her afternoon walks with her sister Cassandra along this way.

After some little while the path comes to Whitehouse Farm and heads north up the access road to the B3006. Cross the road with due care and head through the hedge on the other side. The path emerges onto two tracks, separated by a fence, both heading in the correct sort of direction and neither obviously signposted as the right of way.

It appears the further path is the correct one, leading up to the farm buildings, running around the western and northern edges of the complex and then following the hedge eastwards on the far side down a designated double-fenced alley. The nearer path goes around much the same sort of route, passes through a builders yard and then picks up the correct side of the eastward hedge – via several wire fences. At the end of the eastward hedge the two options come together (with no signposting as to which side is preferred by the landowner). Head for a footbridge which carries the path over the stream into a nettle bed. On the other side is a minor road. Join it and turn left. (It is sorely tempting to follow the bank of the stream for a dozen yards until it passes under the road and pick up the lane there instead.)

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This is a very pleasant lane to follow for maybe a third of a mile until it comes to a sort of crossroads after a gate. Take the bridlepath (Water Lane) to the left towards Alton. This leads to the Alton bypass, which turns out to have been very cheaply built in 1970; the dual carriageway (with central reservation but no crashbarrier) passes above Water Lane but has to be crossed on the level. Visibility is reasonable. This is not an unusual state of affairs on British trunk roads; users are urged not to bring the fitness levels of British walkers into disrepute (or, indeed, bring the fine reputation of British road safety into disrepute and infer that truncating the duplicate railway might have been short-sighted) by carrying out experiments into whether cars react to people using public rights of way and generally contributing to the business case for a subway.

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As can be not-quite-seen in the picture, continuing along the lane will come to a bridge carrying a minor road under the bypass for those who prefer to chance narrow back lanes against sweeping bypasses.

Once past the bypass, clamber straight up the following hill into Alton’s outer suburbs. Drop gently down the other side, looking first for a turning in from the left (as a reference point) and then a discreet gully with a “No cycling” sign off to the right. It is maybe two hundred yards before the continuing road crosses the railway back to Medstead. Follow this gully, turning left at the end down a further gully and dropping down the escarpment via a flight of steps to Lower Turk Street.

Cross Lower Turk Street and follow the path alongside the railway embankment. This comes alongside King’s Pond, which in some sort of Spirit has been allowed to be largely separated from the path by a bank of trees. At the occasional breaks are warnings not to feed bread to the ducks. The locals get around this by giving them digestive biscuits instead. One feels this is a severe case of loopholery.

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Head out of the park at the other end of the lake into Waterside Court complex, turning right and then left to gain the main road adjacent to a gold postbox. Turn left and pass under the railway. The station is up the slope to the right. Following the road to the top and turning left will bring the walker to Alton’s takeaway.

Alton station is one of several good examples of shared National Rail/ heritage railway station facilities. The Mid-Hants comes in round the back on platform 3; platform 2 offers a through connection for the occasional special running straight through to Alresford plus periodic stock moves. The original footbridge survives, though sealed off, at time of writing following a campaign that it is part of the heritage air of the station. Its replacement is fitted with lifts and is a considerably longer walk for anyone unfortunate enough to find their train home leaves from the 2/3 island.

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Trails from the Rails 8: Pont-y-Pant to Roman Bridge

  • Area: Conwy
  • Local Train Operators: Arriva Trains Wales
  • Length: 4 miles
  • Points of Note: Dolwyddelan Castle
  • OS maps – OL18 (1:25,000); Landranger 115 (1:50,000) 

This is an innocent and scenic little walk, probably best done as part of a day out on the Conwy Valley line rather than justifying a day out in its own right.

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The Conwy Valley line is a lightly-used route through lightly-populated countryside with a lightly-provided service. The timetable is, like all ATW services, based around a clockface hour; here trains leave Llandudno Junction for Blaenau Ffestiniog around xx:30 and return from Blaenau around xx:35. Owing to limited rolling stock, limited traffic and limited infrastructure, two out of every three of these hourly trains do not run. Some careful timekeeping is required to avoid being isolated in a notoriously wet corner of Snowdonia, particularly if aiming to make a Porthmadog connection at Blaenau.

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Pont-y-Pant is a pleasantly-placed little station, unencumbered by the presence of Pont-y-Pant itself; the community is a fictional creation of the London & North Western Railway and what housing does exist is situated on the A470 on the other side of the river. The station building remains, splendidly whitewashed and privately owned. Look out for evidence that the customer information system works and any signage remaining from previous train operators.

Turn right on leaving the station and follow the lane southwards up the valley. This follows the railway for a little way and then kinks up the hillside to a farm, where it ends. Pass the farm and continue along the successor track, which drops gently down over a ridge and falls to the valley bottom. A bridge under the railway leads out onto the floodplain of the Lledr and some pleasing views.

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Follow the track southwards as it wavers around the riverbank before regaining its road status and rises up to Dolwyddelan station.

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The station used to have an island platform, access only from the overbridge (which carries the “Sarn Helen” Roman road) and a crossing loop. An off-pattern service from Blaenau is timed to cross one of the “ghost” paths here. Not much actually happens here now, although those who alighted from a Blaenau-bound train at Pont-y-Pant have a reasonable chance of getting here in time to see it heading back to Llandudno.

Drop out of the station and use the nicely-modernised (a long time ago) Sarn Helen to cross the river to the community of Dolwyddelan, which like the community at Pont-y-Pant is located on the A470.

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Those used to the impressively straight lines of Watling Street and the Fosse Way will find Sarn Helen to be somewhat off the usual concept of Roman roads. There is a limit as to the ability to go in straight lines for thirty-odd miles in this terrain, so it wobbles its way across the mountain tops. It is alleged to have been built to allow a Roman Emperor to reach Caernarfon and collect the (literal) girl of his dreams. One has to have reasons for major infrastructure investment, after all.

For obvious reasons, when building the main turnpike road to Holyhead (now the A5) Thomas Telford used Watling Street to Shrewsbury and then took a lower route via Chirk, Llangollen and Betws-y-Coed to Bangor. It has some nasty curves, but avoids the bleaker mountain summits.

Once across the river and in Dolwyddelan, turn left and follow the A470 southwards. A pavement is kindly supplied, although at one point it turns into a lay-by. The Welsh Government is yet to follow their lead further south at Builth and recycle the pavement as part of a wider road.

Shortly after the lay-by, fork off up the byway that climbs off to the right. This swings gently round the hillside to a sign pointing to the left for the ticket office for the castle. This is awkwardly situated down in the farm (specifically it’s the farmer’s wife at the back door of the house) some sixty feet below the castle itself. If intending to explore the castle (a large tower on an outcrop) drop down to the farmhouse, buy tickets as required and then climb up back here before pressing on up the back of the outcrop.

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The castle has been coming in and out of view for a while, but is still quite something when actually reached. For all that it is one tower with a few ruins dotted around, its bleak situation tucked amongst the mountains gives it a grandeur lacked by larger castles sat in big cities. And while minimal in itself, the views are worth the entry fee.

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Once down from the castle, turn left and press on up the byway over the next rocky outcrop. It then drops gently down into the valley near Roman Bridge. On gaining the road, turn left to drop down to the water and the bridge itself.

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There is no centre of population here to speak of – merely a few scattered farmhouses around a bridge over the river. Thus having decided to build a station here – stark in its isolation amongst the mountains and wearing a coat of whitewash to match Pont-y-Pant – the London & North Western had to call the platform something and so why not Roman Bridge? Except, of course, for the small matter that the Roman road is at Dolwyddelan and the ramshackle stone bridge here has no particular historic connotations…

Follow the road as it snakes around the base of the hillock and then drops over the precipices to the station. Roman Bridge is well-maintained and provided with a customer information system. This draws train running information from the railway’s signalling which, like the train service, is sporadic. In 2015 it was Wales’s second-least-used station (Pont-y-Pant was fifth-least). The building was recently for sale for £450,000, including fishing rights. Aside from the railway station, there are no other facilities in the neighbourhood.

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Railway, river and passable track head two miles further up the valley (which can be followed by turning right at the end of the byway instead of left) before all comes to an abrupt halt beneath Moel Dyrnogydd. The river twirls up a gully, the road gives up and the railway plunges into a 2½-mile tunnel to emerge amongst the slate tips of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Trails from the Rails 7: Altnabreac to Forsinard

  • Area: Caithness
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: About 15 miles
  • Points of Note: Flow of Caithness
  • OS maps – Explorer 449 (1:25,000); Landranger 10 & 11 (1:50,000) (spans both maps)

There is only one word to describe this walk and that word is “unique”. Altnabreac is the most isolated and desolate station in the United Kingdom and the walk away from it is exceptionally barren.

Doing it in the other direction is a possibility for those who fancy walking out into the wilderness instead, but Forsinard not being wilderness is purely relative to Altnabreac in that the former has a hotel, a surfaced road and shelter on the station. (This shelter is provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who use the old station building as an unstaffed visitor centre. It has been known to include a machine that provides drinks.) Forsinard also has road access for the replacement taxi should the train home chance to be cancelled.

People doing this walk should bear in mind that “isolated and desolate” does not mean Haywards Heath after ten o’clock at night. It means a station with no road access, dubious communications, two houses in ten miles (neither of which are necessarily inhabited) and an eleven mile unsurfaced track across a bleak, rolling landscape back to a lightly-used road. Take emergency food supplies, plenty of warm waterproof clothing, a working powerful torch, insect repellent, a compass, the 1:25,000 map (not a satnav and certainly not Google) and lots of water. Do not rely wholly on these instructions.

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Welcome to Altnabreac.

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There are four stations in the UK with no road access. Berney Arms used to have a pub and, being in the Norfolk Broads not far from Yarmouth, has a homely air with civilisation (and wind turbines) on the horizon. Dovey Junction is not very far from a busy road and, being a junction, has a certain air of status and relevance, even when set in the middle of a marsh. Corrour has a restaurant.

Altnabreac, which most trains sail by without stopping (a request stop that nobody asks for), is the sort of place where people can get off a train, wander off onto the moor and do crazy things and nobody will notice. In fact it’s barely necessary to leave the station for this. In 2016 an “infrastructure summary” in the trade press reported the removal of the siding at Altnabreac. It had been missing a few years when these pictures were taken – in 2012.

Begin the walk by leaving the station, noting the amusing signs on the way out.

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Turn right and follow the forestry track alongside the railway and above the Sleach Water to the level crossing. Cross the railway and strike into the woods, still following the track up the flanks of Station Hill.

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The woods were planted as part of someone’s bright idea that the Flow of Caithness, also known as Europe’s largest freshwater bog, wasn’t doing much economically, commercially or in general (bogs generally don’t). Meanwhile woodland elsewhere in the world on more commercially-valuable land (which is, say, pretty much anywhere else on the planet) was being felled, thereby causing a shortage of trees. This was easily resolved by getting notable celebrities to invest in the coating of the Flow Country in conifers. The celebrities got the bonus of being eco-friendly while saving money on their tax bill until Nigel Lawson axed that particular revenue loophole.

In due course these trees were decided to be even more environmentally damaging than not having trees at all, and in any event the Flow Country is a highly interesting landscape, so the trees are being harvested early. This means the walk now benefits both from the presence of the forestry track and the absence of woods.

Patches remain however. Pass northwards through this one and swing round the left-hand hairpin bend at the top of the wood. Drop gently down the hill to the south-west, cross the two streams at the edge of the wood and rise gently back up the hill on the other side. (There is a lot of room up here, so there is no need for the geography to rush the hills.) Stop at the top and look back at the view, such as it is.

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The path then swings around the southern flanks of Cnoc Maol Donn. Another track forks away to the left, towards the railway (which is lost amongst the landscape). Ignore it and swing round to the north. The path then takes a sharp left itself and heads westwards, but soon begins a drifting route that works steadily north amongst isolated lochs. The ruins of the woodland are clearly apparent. It is very open landscape, lacking obvious reference points except the steady supply of junctions (straight on, left, fork left).

While passing through the area on the train it is quite usual to see a fair few deer along this stretch. They are shyer when it comes to walkers.

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A feature eventually appears in the form of Slethill Hill – a 70-metre-high hulk that rises unexpectedly out of the Flow Country (reaching a summit 280 metres above sea level, most of which the train has climbed). The track swings around its south-western corner, ignoring another turning heading off to the south, and then flicks westward down the hill into Strath Halladale. Ahead is the rolling, semi-Martian landscape heading for the north coast of Britain.

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The hill is completely trackless, as most hills round here are, but those adventurous walkers who have not already tired of scrambling through Scottish heather elsewhere may wish to climb it and see what the view consists of. (Miles of blanket bog mostly, interspersed with conifers planted for tax purposes.)

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The track continues its northwesterly twist down the hillside until it makes a slightly unexpected return to what feels, after eleven miles in the wilderness, like civilisation. This is the patch of inhabited soil around Forsinain Farm, just south of where the A897 crosses the Halladale River by means of Forsinain Bridge. This means the road is now on the other side of the river, but happily a bridge is provided here too for crossing the rippling blue waters. The electricity pylons help link the former Dounreay nuclear power station with the rest of the National Grid; now the power is going the other way to Thurso.

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Having crossed the river, turn left and follow the road southwards. This goes on for about five miles, or a little under two hours – steadily rising and winding up the side of the Strath, accompanied by the Halladale on one side and the pylons on the other (until the pylons, in a sign of passing the two-thirds point, sling across the road and work down the other side of the river to bypass Forsinard).

Forsinard is opened by the lodge, set amongst its pine trees. There then turns out to be nothing else of interest (or at all) for about quarter of a mile, until what looks like the old chapel is reached and the place begins in some sort of earnest.

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A road sign indicates 440 yards to the end of the walk, which comes into view about the same time. About another five minutes walking should see this long explore finish up on Forsinard station – Britain’s most northerly crossing loop. It has a car park, telephone box, level crossing, abandoned signal box and a station building designed with snug permanence in mind more than architectural features. For an idea of its remoteness, reflect that this side of OE449 has almost as many miles of railway as surfaced road.

Several “hut circles” are marked on the map hereabouts, showing that the place has always been a centre of population, but clearances and harsh living have left little evidence of substantial numbers of residents.

The yellow steps on the platform are to ease access from the low platforms into the high train. If the train does not stop in exactly the right place, tired passengers should note that they are designed to prevent high winds or amusingly-minded people walking off with them.

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Trails from the Rails 6: Ascott-under-Wychwood to Charlbury

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: None really
  • OS maps – Explorer 180 & 191 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 164 (1:50,000)

This is actually a fairly simple walk which involves following a waymarked long-distance path and can thus be done pretty well without a map. Still, maps are handy things to have around even if it does inconsiderately involve two of them.

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The starting point of this walk is not celebrated much in song or story; despite its picturesque name, it turns out to be two unloved platforms next to a level crossing and an unattractive signal box. Most of the Wychwood has gone, leaving a wood at the top of a small neighbouring hill. This walk follows the valley back around the bottom of this hill from Ascott to the next station at Charlbury.

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Once the train has left Ascott-under-Wychwood station, head northwards (up the road on the opposite side to the signal box) to the first right and turn in towards the Manor House. Walk down the lane towards the manor, turn left at the end, follow the field boundary around, cross the stream and turn right.

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This is not an overly taxing walk on the gradients front and this first leg is reasonably typical; steady plodding around the edge of a field on a broad track. On the third field the Oxfordshire Way suddenly decides to be more interesting; it follows a field boundary around seven sides of an eight-sided field, past a gate which it appears to go through (but doesn’t) and then goes out again on the opposite side to where it came in. In this manner it continues in an easterly sort of direction to Pudlicote House.

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Pass along the bottom of Pudlicote House’s back lawn and cross Pudlicote Lane, continuing to follow the Oxfordshire Way signs. The path easily undulates along the bottom of the gentle hill, keeping near the River Evenlode.

After crossing Catsham Lane the Oxfordshire Way flicks to a north-easterly heading around the top of the Evenlode’s meandering curve to the south-east (a very meandering curve). This involves the first gradient of note, around the top of Greenhill Copse and down into a dell beyond. Take the right fork on crossing the stream and entering the wood beyond. This works rapidly back out of the wood and follows the top edge of a field. On reaching the other side, turn right along the field boundary (not working around the hedge through to the lane) and drop gently down the hill alongside Dean Grove.

After the end of the Grove, pass one field to the left and then follow the signs through the hedgerow down the gentle slope towards the Coldron Brook.

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The path crosses Water Lane and runs across three fields on the outskirts of Charlbury. Keep reasonably well-down these fields. Signposting is limited and the final gate well-hidden.

The Oxfordshire Way abruptly returns to trafficked roads on the village boundary at the bottom of Pound Hill.

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Head up the hill and into the village.

The takeaway is unhelpfully (for walks from Ascott) on the other side of town. Carry straight on down Sheep Street and Hixet Wood then double back to the left at the end into Sturt Road. There are also several pubs in the village centre – a rather shorter explore. Walkers not in need of such refreshment can take the second right after topping Pound Hill to drop down Dyers Hill and cross the river to Charlbury station.

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Charlbury station is a well-maintained little place with a footbridge that can be seen from outer space. Most of it is the result of recent rejuvenation of the line; for many years the only bit of platform here was a couple of hundred feet in front of the station building on the then-single-track line. The main building survived because the Chairman of the British Railways Board commuted from here and the user group persuaded him to sign the petition against British Rail’s plans for its demolition.

Trails from the Rails 5: Arisaig to Morar

  • Area: Ross-shire
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: About 6½ miles
  • Points of Note: Silver Sands of Morar
  • OS maps – Explorer 398 (1:25,000); Landranger 40 (1:50,000)

This walk is not perfect from a technical perspective, as it is entirely on-road. However, the road was bypassed many years ago so traffic is now pleasingly light. This allows an easy stroll over rolling Scottish coastal hillocks from Britain’s most westerly railway station to one of the nation’s most beautiful beaches.

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There is not much to say about Arisaig station except that it is Britain’s most westerly station. The Government subsidy for the West Highland extension, the last railway in Britain to open up a new area to communications, did not run to such things as architects.

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The budget has also not run to station or signalling staff for some years; the signal box is retained for largely decorative purposes and the line is controlled by radio from a cabin near Fort William.

Drop out of the station and cross the A830 (surprisingly busy considering it doesn’t actually go anywhere). Try to avoid being run over while distracted by the views across the village, down Loch nan Ceall and over to the Isle of Eigg (most heavily-populated of the Small Isles and accessible by ferry from Mallaig).

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Having dropped down from the A830 to the main lane through the village, take the first right and follow the lane back out of town again. At the crossroads (or what ought to be a crossroads) go straight on, rising up past the church and the school to cross over Keppoch and peak at the walk’s summit – 48 metres above sea level.

Ahead, as the road drops away to cross the marshes below Loch Morar, can be seen the other end of Eigg and the bulky form of Rum. The notice, on what used to be the A830 and therefore the “Road to the Isles” until the bypass went in, is typical of road signs in these parts.

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At the bottom of the hill turn left and then follow the B8008 as it turns right and works across the bottom of Mointeach Mhor, with views of the bypass cutting up the hills on the other side (left of picture). This has an air of being the old way out of Loch Morar – Britain’s deepest body of freshwater (only beaten for Britain’s overall deepest body of water by the Inner Sound between Skye and Applecross, north of Kyle of Lochalsh). It is very wide and boggy, and mostly barely above sea level. The loch is at the eastern end, leading into it in a manner that suggests the loch should simply flow out into the sea through this gully. Actually it makes no above-ground contribution to the watercourse at all.

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The road continues along the coastline, amongst grubby sandy beaches, wooded hillocks and golf courses.

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After passing Traigh House the landscape becomes slightly more varied and there are some gradients to work over, though nothing very hefty. Glenancross is situated in a small valley, making a sort of mini-Scotland that seems out of scale, beneath the not exactly towering 88-metre height of Beinn an Achaidh Mhoir.

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The road then turns right and negotiates the flanks of this little Beinn before dropping down into the highlight of the walk – Morar Bay. To the north can be seen the village of Morar, its little local Sgurr and, hulking on the skyline, the rather larger Sgurr Eireagoraidh. On this side of Morar Bay is the first hint of Morar’s silver sands.

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In due course the road drops down to them, providing easy access onto this wooded silvery shore.

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A diversion up the beach beside the clear blue water will more than repay the small effort involved, and procure more photos for friends to claim were actually taken in Cuba.

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After finishing with the beach, return to the road and turn left up the hill. This leads up to the junction with the A830, where its new incarnation crosses the old alignment at a different level and with provision of a generous subway. At the other end of this subway the path weaves back down to the old road, which resumes its meandering course under the title of B8008. In this form it comes to the River Morar – a short waterway which links Loch Morar with Morar Bay by means of a scenic gorge. Over this gorge is a scenic one-piece concrete viaduct, carrying the railway into Morar. Its arches have a certain disconcerting effect of throwing the sound of a rushing river to somewhere about ten feet above the railway. Stopping in the narrow, lightly-used roadway to admire the shuttering work on the concrete will invoke Sod’s Law.

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After passing under the railway, turn right off the B8008 and follow the river. This rapidly leads up to the shores of Loch Morar, firstly offering views of pleasant churches snug beneath the hills and then, of course, views up the loch itself. (But not far up, as the west end of the loch is scattered with islands and some walking is needed to get past them all.)

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The loch can be followed for some miles up the north shore – first on a surfaced lane and later on a narrow, wending footpath. This is very much a no-through road; the path eventually climbs over a mini-pass, somewhat short of the top of the loch, and ends on the shores of a sea loch at Tarbert. Short of catching the ferry back to Mallaig (and it only calls by prior booking) the only way back is to walk 9 miles home again.

Otherwise turn left just before the church and rise up another back lane to come out onto the B8008 again. Turn right and proceed for a few hundred yards to reach Morar station.

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The line is served by four trains each way daily (three of which are through trains to/ from Glasgow Queen Street) except on Sundays, where the service is somewhat reduced. In summer these are augmented by limited-stop “Jacobite” steam services from Fort William, for which special fares apply. Morar is not one of the places served by this service.

One place which is served by the Jacobite is Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie rose his standard (he would later be seen in this area being carried over the sea to Skye after Culloden) and now home of the famous viaduct. The viaduct has featured in the Harry Potter films. This leads to the obvious amusing speculation that the Hogsmeade branch, serving the castle itself, diverges somewhere between Glenfinnan and Mallaig. A most reasonable candidate for the location of Hogwarts, therefore, taking one thing with another, particularly bearing in mind total isolation, presence of ruins on the map and the handiness of a nice big body of water reputed to contain a monster, would be the upper end of Loch Morar.

Trails from the Rails 4: Bath to Avoncliff

  • Area: Somerset
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway, South West Trains
  • Length: About 12 miles
  • Points of Note: Bath, Kennet & Avon Canal, Avon Valley
  • OS maps – Mostly Explorer 155 (1:25,000); Landranger 172 (1:50,000). East end is on Explorer 142 and 156 orLandranger 173

This is a hilly version of a very simple walk. The easy way to do Bath to Avoncliff is to walk out of the station at Bath, pick up the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath and follow it to Avoncliff. At the outside this will take 3½ hours steady walking along the gravel towpath, which is shared with runners, cyclists, dog walkers and a variety of other people. Once clear of the Bath lock flight it is also completely level, barring a couple of bridges; the canal “pound” continues to the next lock at Bradford-on-Avon.

This route skips most of that and takes a looping route via three substantial hills and several pubs. Done in this direction, it gets the first hill in early as a leg-stretcher and finishes up by a pub with a large beer garden in a very attractive valley.

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Bath station has recently been slightly modernised, but generally retains the appearance it has had since the original station (with four lines and overall roof) was knocked down in the 19th Century.

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Leave the station on the south (platform 1) side and cross the Avon using the footbridge provided. To the left can be seen the start of the independent Kennet & Avon Canal, vanishing under its first bridge into lock 7. Turn left at the end of the footbridge and drop down to join the canal. (For reasons of administrative convenience lock numbers 1 to 6 have been given to the locks between here and the start of the Feeder in Bristol. The bridges meanwhile are counted from the other end of the canal in Reading, at which point 192 bridges seems quite a small number.)

The first thing the canal towpath does is swap sides using the bridge over lock 8/9. It then follows the canal through its sweeping curve around the hillside into suburban Bath. What was once a blot on the landscape has now become an attractive feature amongst the allotments. (To avoid doubt, the reason why it is not in Northanger Abbey is not because it was unattractive but because Northanger‘s writing very slightly pre-dates construction.)

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Follow the canal for half a mile to the bridge over the lower mouth of lock 13 (the last lock on the flight). Cross this and strike up the alley up the hill. This crosses a road, rises some more, forks (keep right) and then opens out to run alongside fields. Turn right into the first field, cross it to the gate opposite (pausing to admire the view) and then angle left up the second field to the top corner. Pass up the gap to the road and turn right.

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Climb up this road (Bathwick Hill – and it is quite one) for about a third of a mile to North Lane. Turn left up this lane (it cuts off a corner) and turn left again at the top. This is North Road, which drops slightly down to the entrance to the University of Bath. Turn right up this entrance. Signs abound on the next bit warning that anyone not on the public right of way is trespassing – but this is the public right of way, so ignore them.

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When the roadway reaches the university buildings and car park it swings to the right. Follow the path which continues up behind the building and then curves around the top of the student accommodation.

For all of the University’s insistence that right-of-way users stick to the path and don’t stop to talk to the Big Bad Postgrad, the point where the public right of way actually leaves this path is very badly signposted. It is not the first (discrete) kissing gate which is passed opposite the first block of accommodation. A couple of hundred yards later a path swings off into the hedgerow with a well-hidden post ten feet into the bushes indicating a junction in the right of way. The bridlepath continues to follow the wall southwards, while the footpath cuts through the hedge and across the golf course.

Either will do, and both involve crossing the golf course eventually; the bridlepath takes the next left across the greens while the footpath crosses one part of the course and then follows an old stone wall gently around the top of the hill, offering views of the A46 escaping the Avon Valley up the opposite hill. Permanent-looking signage warns of golf in progress, thus avoiding any risk of legal action should some students come back from the pub at two o’clock one morning and decide to have a quick round.

The paths rejoin on the other side of the summit (with signpost, and after the footpath has gone through a scruffy patch used for silage storage rather than golfing) and drop down the hill to Bathampton. Maintain a fairly direct route down the hillside. The first field is still golf course; for the second, veer slightly to the right and past the back of a bench (picture below) to drop through a large hole in the hedge. Take left after the hole and gain a muddy path, which becomes a muddy lane that in turn becomes a surfaced byway. This then opens onto the A36 about two-thirds of the way down the hill.

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Cross the A36 (with care) and follow the onward suburban road down the hill. Turn right at the bottom and continue along the road to the canal at Bathampton. Here is a church and the first pub.

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Turn right after crossing the canal, but pick up the lane alongside the canal (Tyning Road) instead of the towpath. The two part company quite quickly and the lane then peters out beside a crossing of the railway. This is a secondary route headed for Trowbridge, Westbury and Salisbury (and Avoncliff) which also follows the Avon Valley southwards. The crossing is obligingly provided with white lights which, when lit, indicate a train is not approaching. Follow usual “stop, look, listen” guidance anyway. Once across, follow the footpath diagonally across the ensuing fields towards the mainline and its river crossing at Bathford.

The path clambers up the embankment side and demonstrates a benefit of Brunel’s broad gauge – its removal has left enough room for a footpath, hemmed in by a pallisade fence, to follow the railway over the Avon. To the south is a pleasing view down the valley. There are also several interesting buddleia to be observed here.

Drop down the other side to the road. An unfortunate feature of this walk is its tendency to hit roads where the traffic will not give quarter and this road is no exception. Unfortunately, because of the bad design of the bridge carrying the road over an adjacent stream it is necessary to cross it twice in a hundred yards at each end of a blind bend. On the other hand, here is the second pub.

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Take Ostlings Lane (to the right of the pub) and follow it up the hill, turning sharp left when it reaches the “Private” signs at the start of Church Lane. Stagger right at the top and continue climbing up past the church. Stagger right again up Mountain Wood, following the grassy sward to the right of the houses. Turn right into the field and climb diagonally across it to the stile into the wood. Stop and look back at the view.

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The wood is based around a Folly which this walk, thoughtlessly, does not detour to (although the detour is a simple enough out-and-back stroll along the ridge at the top). Along with the Folly there are interesting animals, elm trees and steep gradients. Dig into this one and follow the generally straight route up the hillside. It is periodically distracted by cross-paths, but resumes its course very quickly. The Folly comes into view briefly at one point to the left on the way up.

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At the top, turn right and undulate along the ridge beside the wall for a little under a mile. The path then falls, slowly at first but ever more steeply, past caves and through sweeping curves appearing to be maintained by mountain bikes, until it makes an awkward junction with the A363.

This is another road which gives no quarter. Stick to the thin gravelled verge as much as possible. It is not a long stretch of road walking, as the road quickly reaches a cottage and a public footpath sloping off to the left. This turns out to be a sort of slip-path onto a bridleway which passes under the road; turn right onto the bridleway, appreciate the subway it offers and then take the left turn to follow another wall through the wood. There is a short stretch alongside a field with views across the valley. Then the path swings round to the right and falls into a triangular junction with a narrow lane. Turn right and descend to Sheephouse Farm.

There are two entrances, the second of which is prominently signposted as “No public access to Warleigh Weirs” (which aren’t through the farm, and which this walk doesn’t go to) and less prominently signposted with a little green walker sign pointing along the drive into the farmyard. Before following this sign, admire the view of Claverton Manor.

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The path crosses the farmyard and then completes the descent down the hill, through several gates, to reach the riverbank. Steady progress across the first field brings a short bridge with a stile at each end. After this Dundas Aqueduct starts to come into view.

The aqueducts at Dundas and Avoncliff carry the canal over the Avon and back (there is a third example at Trowbridge in less impressive surroundings). This avoids a need to cross the Midford Brook and Frome valleys and provides a shorter route around the inside of the corner at Freshford. The Dundas aqueduct is a very proud thing in the standard style of the time, looking like a bridge in a Regency country estate (which it is really). Being east-west it is a bit of a pain to photograph from this side, but the views from the top, back up the valley, are excellent.

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The path heads through a corner of the field and up the embankment side to the canal. Turn right and cross the aqueduct. The canal then swings round to the right itself and a bridge is provided for the towpath to cross over. Cross this bridge, turn left and follow the path around the basin and across the entrance to the Somerset Coal Canal almost back to the aqueduct.

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The tempting-looking little gate by the aqueduct which appears to be the entrance to a sweet little footpath is in fact for engineers to access the railway. Instead use the larger gate just before it and drop down the cyclepath. If it’s open, it’s worth clambering almost straight back up again to the Coal Canal towpath and following this instead of the cyclepath below. It only lasts the few hundred yards to the visitor centre and then drops down again. Beyond the visitor centre and its cafe can be seen the walled-up bridge which took the Coal Canal beneath the A36 until the canal beyond was excavated to make way for the railway to Camerton.

The drop off the canal at this point finishes on the trackbed of the railway, which to the left makes an overgrown curve into the (south-facing) junction at Limpley Stoke and to the right has been made up into a road. Take this right turn and pass under the A36 to come out alongside the Monkton Combe sports ground. (It is the only flat land for miles.) A downside of the proliferation of trees here is that they completely hide the rather handsome viaduct that carries the A36 over the valley.

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This railway was an early closure and weeds had already been left to take hold by 1952. This proved quite handy when Ealing Studios turned up with a streamroller, a bus, several eclectic bits of railway stock and the locomotives Great Western/ British Rail No. 1401 and Liverpool & Manchester No. 57 Lion to film The Titfield Thunderbolt.

For all this cinematic history the next section of line has not come off that well, so signposts indicate that a diversion is required up the hillside alongside the classrooms of Monkton Senior School. Quotes applied to the windows for schoolchild inspiration can be read backwards while passing – “Hark! what light through yonder window breaks?” (“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” etc.)

At the top of the path turn left along the roadway into Monkton Combe, which is dominated at this point by its rather institutional school. At the pub, turn left back down the hill along Mill Lane.

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The village lock-up is passed at the bottom of the school (there is no truth in the rumour that it is now used for detentions) and the old Monkton Combe station follows soon afterwards. This was Titfield station in the film. Aside from two gateposts, there is nothing much to admire. Press on down the footpath and cross the abandoned leat by the mill.

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The path then runs across the valley to the bridge over the brook. Turn left after the bridge and follow the footpath along the bank, up amongst the houses and into a lane. When this lane peaks and joins another lane coming in from the right, take the public footpath sign pointing up the hill into the woods.

This is a pleasing little wood, with the path clambering up a series of flights of steps to meander amongst the trees around the end of the hill (the top is never reached on this third and final slog) before it drops back down to the A36 at the top of Limpley Stoke village.

There are two ways through the village. One is to go straight on down and then turn right at the pub at the bottom; the other is to turn right along a lane running level below the climbing A36 and then take a bridleway dropping straight down the hill to the left. The former gets in another pub. (There was also a pub at the top of the hill by the A36, which has been lately flattened.)

Limpley is a pleasant village, despite its vertigo-inducing position.

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After the two routes have rejoined the lane, having undulated peacefully southwards through the village, shows a disconcerting inclination towards rising again to reach Freshford. To avoid this, take the left turn immediately after this hill has come into view – a small turning, discreetly marked as a public footpath, which promptly goes under the railway and emerges onto the river bank. Turn right and proceed through the fields. This is a very peaceful bit of walk, with no major road handy and both railway and canal fairly quiet. Most walking and cycling traffic here is following the canal in the trees to the left.

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A track works up the fields alongside the railway, but the map suggests the footpath stays lower. Certainly the stile in the second fence is a total red herring and passage should be made around the bottom of the sewage works (although admittedly the air is fresher above it). Beyond the footpath picks up a track which leads up to the railway at Freshford station. Use the station footbridge to cross the line. The walk can be finished here, although there are no real hills left and the scenery is worth the extra mile-and-a-half.

The station road leads up into Freshford itself, with views out across the valley much improved by the clearance of vegetation from the railway embankment.

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Turn left at the top of the road and drop down through the village (used as Titfield itself and a lovely place) to the pub. Around here the walk falls off the bottom of the principal map. Happily the rest is easy to follow without.

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Cross the river (the Frome) after the pub and take the path to the left across the fields. This passes the Avon/ Frome confluence and then runs into a patch of woodland where it has been deemed necessary to concrete the path (which is rather tight between hill and river). At the other end of the wood it runs through fields along the riverbank with lots of little gaps between the waterside bushes for stopping and dozing in.

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The bridge over the railway carries the canal to Avoncliff Aqueduct and marks the imminent end of the walk. Passage through a gate at the end of the fields and a walk along the ensuing lane comes once more to housing and a tearoom. This is Avoncliff. The aqueduct has always looked like that.

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Pass under the aqueduct and come up the other side for the pub, the onward towpath to Bradford-on-Avon and the railway station. The railway station is on the other side of the river, so cross over the aqueduct and (unless in a particular hurry) stop awhile to admire the river flowing over the weir, the industrial hints from the chimney, the enormous beer garden and the surrounding woods.

Avoncliff is a rather small station; although no longer a request stop, most trains do not call here. A broadly hourly service operates Mondays to Saturdays, reducing to around two-hourly on Sundays. But it’s a much more agreeable place to wait than Bath, and the tearoom (or pub, depending on taste) can act as a waiting room (on purchase of something) during longer service intervals. The wide track spacing is to get the lines around the central bridge pier that holds up the canal trough.

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