Trails from the Rails 3: Kingscote to Horsted Keynes

  • Area: Sussex
  • Local Train Operators: Bluebell Railway
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: Gravetye Manor
  • OS maps – Explorer 135 (1:25,000); Landranger 187 or 198 (1:50,000)

This little amble involves going between two stations on a heritage railway, which means a more variable, more expensive and slower service than might be encountered elsewhere. It is also a pleasant rolling walk.

Google helpfully marks both stations with National Rail red “double-arrow” logos. Through tickets to the Bluebell from other National Rail stations are apparently available.

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Kingscote station is a typical London, Brighton & South Coast Railway station of its era, with two platforms linked by a subway overlooked by a combined building offering passenger facilities, the station office and the stationmaster’s house. The house is now privately owned. After some years as the Bluebell’s northern terminus Kingscote has been superseded by East Grinstead following a heavy and expensive extension. Nothing much happens here now, so after a few minutes admiring the peace press out of the station and walk straight up the hill along the road outside.

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After a few hundred yards of Sussex back lane there is a turning leftwards onto a Forestry Commission byway. This marks the start of the walk proper. Take it and follow the byway for a third of a mile until a discreet old timber post points to a public footpath heading off to the right. On this post are a couple of arrows indicating that this is the High Weald Landscape Trail.

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At this point the landscape consists of trees, which the path works its way through with several changes of direction. There is a left turn at a crosspaths shortly after leaving the main byway. After that the route is fairly easy to follow as it takes the obvious route at junctions and is generally signposted. Ten minutes or so comes to Home Farm, set in a clearing, which the track skirts round the top of. Soon after it meets a nice-looking back road which doesn’t seem to be marked on the map. It swiftly becomes apparent that this is in fact a nice-looking drive leading to Gravetye Manor, in which capacity it is indeed subtly marked in white. At the last moment the High Weald Landscape Trail decides not to go through the Manor’s main gates and instead plunges down the hillside through the trees next to the garden wall. The valley bottom is followed by a short stiff pull up the next hill, which in due course offers a pleasing view back of the manor in the landscape.

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The path then twitches to the right through a hedge, crosses the following field and drops into an unsurfaced sunken lane. This rises gently up the hill, becomes the drive to several houses and finally emerges onto the Selsfield Road at the northern end of West Hoathly.

The Selsfield Road proceeds to bypass West Hoathly at a slightly lower level and cut off a corner in the process, but as it has no pavement cross the road instead and carry straight on into the village. The road is lined with houses of various sizes, shapes and ages. Mostly in the same sort of “Sussex” style, they present a pleasingly unified sight.

At the church turn left – although a diversion into the churchyard to admire the church and then find the viewing platform over the Ashurst and Langridge Woods is worthwhile. The church is solidly built, with parts dating back to 1090 (and other parts, like the tower, being 400 years or so more recent). The view from the tower top would be quite striking were it not a) not open to the public and b) hidden by a spire.

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Follow the lane westwards down from the church into the dell and then up again, looking for an opportunity to stagger left off the lane into the adjacent park. Having done this, follow the fence alongside the lane until the park ends at the junction between the lane out of West Hoathly and the village bypass. Join the road and continue straight on into Sharpthorne. Keep an eye out to the left for the round brick cylinder of Sharpthorne Tunnel’s ventilation shaft. Shortly after this come a garage and convenience store on the right, which are accompanied by a Public Footpath sign indicating the Sussex Border Path.

This works its way out of the village, drops down a wooded old path and opens out into a field. Several fields follow, with a reasonably well-trodden path and marked stiles or gates leading the way over the rolling valley side. The railway is at the bottom of the valley, hidden in the edge of Courtland Wood and a deep cutting; it will occasionally make “chuff” noises, but actually seeing the origin of these noises is more of a challenge.

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The path eventually reaches a surfaced lane with a signpost instructing a left turn. After obeying and following the lane for a couple of hundred yards it opens onto Horsted Lane. Turn right and follow this “lane” (a perfectly reputable road) southwards. At Tanyard the Sussex Border Path diverges to the left; instead, turn right up the drive a hundred yards afterwards (signposted as a footpath and named “Vox End”) and follow this anonymous public right of way as it leads around the end of the garden into another field. Carry straight on down through the gates to meet the railway at a handsome bridge over its cutting. In front of the bridge is a classic set of upper-quadrant semaphore signals, providing useful guidance as to whether it might be worth waiting to see if a train is coming. (Raised arms denote a train approaching from Kingscote.)

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If the arms are level, or the train has now passed, or it hardly seems worth waiting, cross the lane that uses this bridge and follow the footpath down the side of the railway. Halfway down the field it crosses the railway (with a comprehensive array of warning signs and a good view in both directions). Turn left after using the crossing and continue alongside the railway – the footpath using the alignment of the former “Up” line.

This is a rather good photographic section if anything happens to come past, so on gala days is likely to involve picking past a lot of people with cameras. Otherwise it offers a slightly elevated view of the landscape and close-ups of a couple more semaphore signals (the latter of which owes more to operational convenience than authentic heritage).

The resumption of double-line for Horsted Keynes station forces the path off the railway alignment, so it drops slightly down the hill, swings round to gain a handy lane and carries back up to the railway, which is then crossed by a bridge (which again gives good views of the railway, including an angle on Horsted Keynes station straight into the sun, and is therefore liable to feature lots of people with cameras or simply enjoying the view).

Proceed through the gate and follow the track round to the right. It then drops through the car park to Horsted Keynes station, one of the largest in preservation and formerly a junction for a branch to Haywards Heath (that ironically lasted longer than the mainline, keeping the station out of preservation for the first few years of the heritage operation’s existence, but which is now mostly missing).

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The station is frequently used for filming by television and movie companies looking for a largish well-kept rural station with a good array of old-looking trains on hand which isn’t too far out of London. It may therefore be recognised from Downton AbbeyNorth & South and ITV’s version of The Railway Children, among other things.

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Trails from the Rails 2: Duncraig to Duirinish

  • Area: Ross & Cromarty
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: Carn a’ Bhealaich Mhoir and Loch Achaidh na h-Inich
  • OS maps – Explorer 428 (1:25,000); Landranger 24 (1:50,000)

Duirinish to Duncraig is in some regards the more logical option here, as Duncraig has the better views for admiring while waiting for one of the four trains each way daily that link the two stations (two daily Sundays mid-May to September; one daily other Sundays). However, starting at Duncraig gets a good sharp opening climb to get the walk under way and then provides an easy roll down – rather than a long, steady slog followed by a sharp drop at the end.

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There are many stations in Britain that wangle for the status of “best” and many of them do it on the grounds of “most attractive”. Few, however, can beat the view offered from the platform at Duncraig once the train has pulled away and, like a curtain at a theatre, revealed the setting for the opening movements:

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Trying to hide behind the pines on the island of Eilean Lagach is the village of Plockton, the main intermediate centre of population served by this railway (which links Inverness with Kyle of Lochalsh). The walk to Plockton along the shores of this little bay off Loch Carron is a particularly simple one, and from Plockton the road can be followed round to Duirinish to take in some wonderful nuggets of landscape with barely any mountain climbing at all.

After admiring the octagonal waiting shelter, and reflecting on the railwaymen who saved Duncraig station by refusing for several years to acknowledge the halt had been closed and continuing to stop trains here, the walk begins by leaving the platform and heading up what passes as the station access road past Duncraig Castle. The Castle has had a difficult life, culminating in being taken on by an extended family who tried to do it up. By the end of the reality TV series detailing their efforts the castle had not improved much and the family relationships had disintegrated. Nowadays it’s being renovated into a hotel, currently opening in Spring 2018.

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Follow the drive up to the road, turn left and walk a little along until a fingerpost points right into the remains of the wood. Commence climbing in earnest, following the old paths and aiming for the block of trees along the hillside to the south. At the base of these trees is a forestry track; pick this up and turn left along it. Glance back and admire the developing view.

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Carn a’ Bhealaich Mhoir briefly comes into view through the trees, topped by its radio mast. Admire it briefly (very briefly – it is not an especially pretty mountain), then follow the path round to the right and continue slowly rising with the “Carn” to the left.

After half a mile or so another forest track branches off to the left. Those who like their walks short (bearing in mind the paucity of Kyle line trains) can carry on here, as the turning is an out-and-back dead-ender – but anyone that unenthusiastic should have stuck to the shore route, so turn left and take the stiff slog that follows after a few hundred yards.

The track scrambles up through a gully, feeling far too steep for any self-respecting tyre-wearing vehicle, and then suddenly opens out onto the plateau high above Loch Carron. The heather ahead is lacking in paths, though a walk across it and down the sheer mountain face beyond will ultimately lead to the hamlet of Achmore and thence to the ferry-free station at Strome Ferry.

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The main track swings round and completes the climb to the radio mast, offering views across Loch Carron to the Applecross Peninsular and the Isle of Skye.

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Having admired the view to personal satisfaction from 343 metres above sea level (after a steady climb of about 340 metres), turn round and follow the track back down to the earlier T-junction. Turn left again and follow it round to Loch Achaidh na h-Inich. This is a pleasant little mountainside loch, triangular in shape, surrounded by a few cottages and feeding the Allt Dhuirinis.

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The direct route from here back to Duirinish is straight down the track until it turns into a road, then left when it meets the back lane from Duncraig and so down the valley. There is not much to note except the rather pleasant (now quite open) scenery. A discreet footpath turns off shortly after the first house on the right after the loch and twirls down the valley next to the stream. At the bottom of the road, turn left to come almost immediately to a handsome bridge over the Allt Dhuirinis.

For those who feel the walk is too short and have an hour to spare, turn left at the bottom of Loch Achaidh and strike back away from civilisation, along the flanks of the mountains. The winding path, running in this manner for just under two miles, is reasonably easy to follow, being the only one in the area. It offers some good views of the bottom end of Skye and the passage at Kyle Rhea (assuming the weather is acceptable) as it drops down into Balmacara.

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Turn right on hitting the road and begin to climb back out of Balmacara again. Take the first available right and continue following the lightly-used lane, rising from 50 metres above sea level at the end of the footpath to a peak of 159 metres while crossing the foothills back to Duirinish. The lane then twirls down the valley side and drops into Duirinish by the bridge over the allt.

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Duirinish is clustered around the little river and its floodplain, which doubles as a common. Highland cattle can occasionally be seen grazing here, with coach tours squeezing into the hamlet so their riders can get better photos.

Follow the left-hand road through the village. At the end of the houses take the right fork, leave the hills behind and strike out across the plain. The station is reached after half a mile, accompanied by a smattering of cottages.

Compared to Duncraig it is a bit of a simple affair; a longer platform, hosting milepost 59¾, lies nestled amongst the Scottish rolling hills hidden from the sea. A small wooden hut provides shelter. To the south the low mountains, freshly crossed, loom ominously.

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Walkers from Plockton or Kyle of Lochalsh who have misjudged their walk lengths and missed the last train for some hours will find it not overly difficult to get home by following the lanes instead. Warning should be given that the approach to Kyle of Lochalsh involves a lot of false starts to the township.

Trails from the Rails 1: Romsey to Mottisfont

  • Area: Hampshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway/ South West Trains
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: Mottisfont Abbey and Norman Thelwell’s House
  • OS maps – Explorer 131 (1:25,000); Landranger 185 (1:50,000)

Walks between railway stations can be dictated by various elements, including the prevailing gradient, where the sun is likely to be all day, the opening hours of pubs en route and whether paths can be more easily picked up in one direction than the other. In the case of this little walk, the main thing dictating walk direction is the balance of train services. Romsey has a half-hourly service to Southampton on one hand and Salisbury on the other all week; Mottisfont & Dunbridge has a train every hour Mondays to Saturdays and a train every two hours on Sundays.

This guide is therefore the wrong way round. Turn your screen upside down to do the walk in reverse.

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Romsey is a pleasant station to start from. It has platform awnings on both sides for piling off the train in the rain and discussing whether to cancel the walk under; it also retains its listed Classical station building in apparently good condition, although a brief examination will reveal that it is in fact discretely boarded-up using black plywood with white stripes painted across it.

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Exits are available on both sides. From platform 1, head straight down the exit ramp at the back of the station to a lane emerging from a cattle creep under the railway north of the buildings. Those arriving on platform 2 need to get under the railway, either using the official subway or via the cattle creep. Having got to the east end of this cattle creep, follow the lane away from it to the Romsey Canal and turn North.

This has an air of the back end of Romsey’s more comfortable suburbs (actually most of Romsey is on this side of the railway and the canal goes through the middle). For a little way it is a tarmaced towpath besides a lightly overgrown non-navigable canal, populated by runners and dog walkers. It then strikes out of town, losing tarmac and houses. Water meadows abound on one side; woods feature on the other. The path slowly dwindles in quality. All is very restful.

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After working through the woods, the canal comes out into open country and swings across a couple of fields, where someone has made sporadic attempts to upgrade the surface. On a nice day it is rather pleasant that these have not been wholly completed. The canal has, like the path, become progressively less passable.

It abruptly and inconsiderately dies, along with the path, on hitting the A3057. This is not exceptionally busy by the standards of single-carriageway “A” roads, but it still has a fair bit of traffic, no pavement and a need to be followed for 200 yards or so to the right before taking another right turn through a discreet kissing gate. Follow the remains of the hedge across the field to the next road, reflecting on how very “Thelwell Country” the landscape hereabouts is.

Turn left on reaching the lane (which has a pavement – mostly) and follow it back to the A3057 (which also now has a pavement). Turn right and enter Timsbury. Follow the road to the large lay-by with a bus stop at the north end adjacent to the village hall; then cross the road (admittedly easier said than done for a fairly minor deviation; turning right here up the hill and left at the top avoids two road crossings, a church and more of the A3057) and drop down the lane towards Timsbury Manor and the church. Turn right at the end for the church and follow this lane to the church itself, which is a neat little structure in stone with a wooden bell turret. The surroundings (particularly the car park) do not quite set it to best advantage. It is 13th Century in origin, but much rebuilt.

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Beyond is a proud set of gates protecting “Herons Mead”, which house (and lake) is carefully hidden by several trees. Its development is described in Thelwell’s A Plank Bridge by a Pool (which is strikingly tender compared to Thelwell’s cartoons). The owners have quite enough Thelwell lovers leaning over for photos, so there is no need to add to the number. Instead follow the footpath around to the right, along the back and then diagonally across a field back to the road.

Continue along the main road to the next road on the right, which leads neatly up through a varied array of houses to Michelmersh. The rectory at the top of the hill is a splendidly grand brick structure. Turn left, rejoining the Timsbury Church-avoiding diversion, and continue climbing, following Haccups Lane and discretely admiring the architecture of the modern mansions on the right. At the T-junction at the end turn right.

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The lane then swings round a leftward curve to end at a fork. Mottisfont is to the left, down the hill, but a short diversion to the right will take in Michelmersh’s 12th Century church. It is an ordinary enough church in floorplan, but the flint-walled church body combined with a weatherboard tower is less common. It is also much better situated than Timsbury’s, being on top of the hill with views of the Test Valley.

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Return to the previous junction and fork down the hill, enjoying the quiet of the road, its easy, swinging route and the views across the Test towards Mottisfont.

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At the bottom of the hill, recross the A3057, drop down the path through the hedge and turn left along the cyclepath to the road junction. Here turn right and follow the lane towards Mottisfont past the old “Sprat & Winkle Line” Mottisfont station. (The Sprat & Winkle was an informal nickname after the fish and the water mollusc. It went up the Test Valley to Andover.)

The lane runs straight through a wood and then crosses the Test into the water meadows around Mottisfont Abbey. Several signs around the river crossing inform passers-by that they are being Watched. Beyond the unbreaking surveillance protecting against theft of this bridge is a slightly wider section of road running a little above the plain between iron fences. The Abbey and associated gardens are owned by the National Trust; more Northanger than Tintern, they present a few delightful sightings through the hedge from the passing road and are also responsible for a fair chunk of the traffic that negotiates this lane.

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Pass the Abbey entrance (unless wishing to stop off here) and head into Mottisfont proper. At the top of a slight hill the road turns right. Continue straight on and follow round to the left, past a Millenium Orchard, and then back round to the right through a gate. Follow this lane gently up the hill for a few hundred yards and then turn left down the footpath.

The usual process for crossing arable fields is to wade through the crop, using rights as a person in the successor lands to the Kingdom of Mercia to follow the assumed route of rights of way until the actual one is found again, or (failing that) walk round the edge. At Mottisfont the farmer decries the practice of walking round the edge and has (wonder of wonders) kept the Public Right of Way clear across the field. This is to be much praised, allowing walkers to navigate the oilseed rape unencumbered by its enthusiastic attitude for overpopulation. At the other end of the field, pass through the kissing gate, note the buildings of Mottisfont & Dunbridge station off to the left and strike down through the cow field towards the road. On reaching the road, turn left to reach the station.

Access between platforms here is provided by the half-barrier level crossing at the northern end of the station. The station building, which is typical London & South Western in design, survives in private ownership. A pub on the northbound (platform 2) side provides a form of waiting room. Other shelter is utilitarian, consisting of the old building’s diminutive awning on platform 1 and a verdigris-covered plastic shelter on platform 2. The station is operated by Great Western Railway, but none of their trains stop here nowadays so the timetable is branded with “South West Trains” and waits are interspersed by (largely 3-car) green units shooting past amidst crossing sirens. Dunbridge, which is barely larger than its station, is not the most attractive of places. Still, this means that peaceful summer afternoon waits for a train home are unlikely to be disturbed by other passengers.

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Upcoming: “Trails from the Rails”

Back in 2015, with an Interesting Election upcoming, I did several blogposts on policies, polls and likely outcomes.

This time the British election looks set to be rather more boring – there’s only so much fun to be had in watching a party react to predictions that it’s going to be reduced to 200 seats that would mostly vote for a baboon if it was wearing a red rosette – and the French one is frankly not much better. (Le Pen is not going to win unless a) Macron implodes and leaves everyone with the exciting question of the semi-fascist or the man you’ve just decided is going to destroy the country, b) someone manages to whip up a campaign that you have to vote for Le Pen if you’re inclusive because she’s a woman or c) everyone who gets polled is worried the pollster will think they’re a racist if they say Le Pen and they’re all saving their actual opinions for the ballot box.)

So this year I’m going to distract from it and write some posts about walks that should be possible to do from the train instead.

Railway-based walks are much more interesting than car-based ones because of the lack of obligation to return to where you started.

The aim will be to provide some ideas for routes with a mix of landscapes, gradients, lengths and areas, largely avoiding dusty roadsides and miles of flat muddy fields.

I was going to call it “Trails from the Track” and then remembered where I found that term in the first place. (Okay, I didn’t remember per se. I remembered it might be out there somewhere and Googled it. Turns out it’s a publication from the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership which I don’t own a copy of because, perhaps oddly for someone writing a series of walk guides, I prefer to eschew walk guides and design my own walks.)

“Trails from Rails” is a search term for putting multi-use non-car routes on old railway lines. This series is an attempt to reclaim the term for a more positive approach. Readers of certain webpages on the Wye Valley Railway will already know my editorial line on such schemes – I am, after all, a rail lobbyist – and will be unsurprised at the absence of such routes from the ensuing series of walks.

Along the way there may be a sudden interruption with a post about why the rail network should be privatised. To avoid this lessening your enjoyment of this politics-free zone, please feel free to ignore it until after the election. (Unless you were planning to vote for a baboon with a red rosette, in which case it will explain why retaining UK Rail under the control of public organisations may cause long-term fare increases, rising costs and poorer service. Owing to a degree of laziness and procrastination, the appearance of this post – ever – is not guaranteed.)

Here is a nice picture to get us started:

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