Result: NOC gain from Con

One has to congratulate Theresa May. Knocking 18 points off one’s own poll lead in seven weeks is a very considerable feat, as is arranging for a party that was entirely united around you 11 months ago to be entirely united in staying off the airwaves for the day except for periodic “sources suggest” ideas that you may be on the dole sooner rather than later.

Still, a few points are worth noting:

  1. The polls were actually quite useful. Normally they insist on saying “this will happen”. Because they were all experimenting after 2015, this time they were playing with different weightings of the results. Thus it was clear for all to see that if the youth vote stayed at home the Tories would get a majority of 80 and if the youth vote came out the Tories would lose their majority. The youth vote, thus feeling empowered, turned out in larger numbers than usual and the Tories lost their majority.
  2. Presidential campaigns do not go down too well.
  3. Neither do early elections, particularly ones called to prove a politician has power. Attlee was pushed into one in 1951 (and lost); Heath called one in February 1974 (and lost); May called one seven weeks ago (and, all precedent considered, has done extremely well).
  4. John Major-esque soapboxes and megaphones in high streets are better than choreographed events in warehouses with bored activists behind you waving vacuous slogan-cards. They can even get people to vote for disunited parties offering policies that haven’t won elections in years.
  5. Negative campaigning has been used on the sinking side of the 2016 London mayoral elections, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 General Election. It may now be obvious to most people that it doesn’t work very well. First, it paints the negative campaigner as just being a whiner who doesn’t want the other side to get something (particularly awkward when the negative campaigner has called the vote and therefore has evidently only called it to stop the other side getting something). Second, the side who does want something tends to be more powerful than the side that doesn’t want them to have it (try reading a few books by manager Gerard Fiennes for practical demonstrations). Third, it leaves your voters with no positive reason to vote for you. Corbyn presented a wonderful sunlit upland where energy and rail fares are cheaper, university education is free for all, hospitals offer immediate service, schools are clean and effective, there are enough police around and the rich are being politely soaked. Theresa offered to devalue your house in your old age.
  6. Theresa was also very unlucky in her electorate. She got 13,650,900 votes, or a 42.4% vote share. In absolute votes this is almost what got Macmillan a 100-seat majority in 1959, though then it equated to a 49% vote share. It is about what Thatcher got in 1979 and more than Thatcher got in 1983, though without the benefit of a split opposition. It is of course some 500,000 less than John Major got in 1992 – the highest ever absolute vote total – which raises all sorts of questions as to whether spending a few months considering her wider legacy, her intricate policy positions and why people would be better-off all round at the end of her term of office might have actually seen Theresa become Britain’s Most Popular Prime Minister. As it is the honour remains with Major. Blair peaked at a shabby 13,518,167 votes, which combined with a split opposition and a 1% higher vote share to give him a majority of 179. In 2015 Cameron stuck at just over 11 million and 36% of the vote. May has therefore gained another 6% of the relative voters and another two million votes to lose a net 13 seats.
  7. What is striking is Jeremy Corbyn’s 12,858,652 votes, or 40% vote share. Gaitskill got 500,000 fewer votes in 1959, a higher vote share and three fewer seats in the days when the party still had a decent presence in Scotland. Callaghan shed a million more votes to the Liberals in 1979, but was rewarded with seven more seats (and the Liberals got eleven instead of the twelve they have this evening). It is four million more that Michael Foot got. Perhaps most strikingly it is two million more than Blair got in 2001, three million more than he got in 2005, four million more than Brown got in 2010 (but earning only a handful more seats) and three million more than Ed Miliband. He is the most popular Labour leader in over 16 years. In terms of absolute votes he is the most successful losing leader since Clement Attlee won the popular vote and lost the election in 1951. Any leader who won this many votes since then could reasonably expect to be the largest party.
  8. In traditional 1950s two-party politics a 49/ 46 vote split was common – still providing massive majorities. We are still in multi-party territory.
  9. Odd murmurings have floated around that this election proves centrist policies are good because the Nationalists (Tories) and Socialists (Labour) have both failed to win a majority. They have also got the highest absolute votes, highest vote share and highest turnout this millennium. This is a healthy democracy, if an indecisive one.
  10. The result is also likely to be good for Northern Ireland, as British majorities mean the separate Irish political system – and therefore the interests of the voters – can often be quietly ignored. Tonight the Democratic Unionist Party begin discussions on shoring up the British Government.
  11. The Lib-Dems are making a shaky return – popular vote is actually slightly down, but it is better targeted and has therefore made a net gain of seats.
  12. First-Past-The-Post has once again shown its power as an electoral system, taking two bad candidates and giving them impossible results. It’s strange how such a blunt system can do such a good job at capturing a mood – I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted May to be untenable but Corbyn to lose…

Meanwhile I am off to write a re-make of Kind Hearts and Coronets about a Prime Minister who narrowly fails to get a majority so has small-majority opposition MPs quietly bumped off in the hope of winning the by-elections. I put this out there so that anyone who tries the same thing can sit comfortable in the knowledge that they will face the full force of copyright law.

Instead, why not consider the situation of this man, whose problems have been little discussed during the election:

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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.

___…___

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.

Flow Country 1 JPG.jpg

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.

Flow Country 2 JPG.jpg

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.

Forsinain 1 JPG.jpg

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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.

Forsinard 4 JPG.jpg

Election Literature 2017

Much as Trails from the Rails is getting more views, likes and general interest than my politics stuff usually does, and it’s nice to have a break from politics by sitting down and writing about peaceful walks around Duirinish, I’ve done this run-down for the last two nationwide elections so will pick up keyboard and go through it again.

Having attended the hustings it appears that for the first time the election material I have procured does actually match up with the number of candidates who think they are standing. So all I have to worry about is that I can’t find my polling card…

Conservative and Unionist Party (Tory)

  • Summary: The Tories have supplied two leaflets; the first is an awkwardly-folded bit of recycled paper and the second is a very posh “magazine” that calls itself the “Election Special” edition but which I have never heard of before. Note to parties – this sort of thing works better if the magazine comes round between elections too.
  • Key Policy 1: Advocate for the town.
  • Key Policy 2: Strong and stable Brexit.
  • Transport: Ongoing rail electrification and better roads.
  • Proud of: Living locally and producing jobs.
  • Quality of election material: Quite blue. Second one rather more impressive than the first. Couple of the pictures could do with being better quality; one looks like it might feature Theresa but might equally be a woman from round the corner. Exceedingly detailed; the magazine is a summary of the manifesto. While liking detail and thinking in politics, and nice to see the party does actually have some policies (they do an excellent impression that they have none at all), a summary pledge card on top of the detailed document might have been an idea.
  • Party has leader?: Yes.
  • Candidate remarks: Still a friendly chap who seems on top of his brief. Thoughtfully suggested in conversation that he’s in favour of actually privatising the railways. Gives an air that this is the candidate’s election more than the party leader’s, which given he is a better candidate than his party leader is sensible.

Green Party

  • Summary: Like the Tories, the Greens have put up the same candidate as last time. The leaflet promotes its policies through a series of Twitter “hashtags” and is very proud to have been “supported and funded by ordinary people.”
  • Key Policy 1: Opposition to the Government’s extreme Brexit.
  • Key Policy 2: “An economy for everyone”.
  • Transport: Renationalise railways and better buses.
  • Proud of: Campaigning to protect the libraries and buses.
  • Quality of election material: Small and coloured green, with more enthusiasm than specifics.
  • Party has leader?: No, but the Greens aim for localism and the leaflet is small so perhaps no mention expected.
  • Candidate remarks: Still a pretty impressive Green candidate.

Labour

  • Summary: The Labour Party have decided after last time that perhaps seven election communications is overkill. Two communications have appeared this time: one is a nice bit of A4 paper and the other is a newspaper-quality four-page spread.
  • Key Policy 1: The NHS.
  • Key Policy 2: Better education.
  • Transport: Renationalise the railways (benefits of this seem to go without saying, aside from the last trial having come in only marginally below national average traffic growth).
  • Proud of: Campaigning to protect the town’s libraries (opening hours and branches have been sacrificed on the alter of social care).
  • Quality of election material: Still red. “Widow and orphan” control could have done with another quick rake-through. Candidate looks serious but generally happy.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: New candidate after the previous one finally got the message (one win and two losses against the same Tory throughout). This one is ex-Army, now much involved in a community. Support for the party that sent her to Iraq (picture on the leaflet to prove it) presumably suggests Labour has moved on or Iraq was a while ago. Talks very fast. Blunt and direct. Unlike some of her door-knockers does actually know why her party supports certain policies, but doesn’t take kindly to being told the experts disagree.

Liberal Democrat

  • Summary: This leaflet was procured by going up to the candidate in the street and demanding an election leaflet, which it turned out he didn’t stock. This explained why one hadn’t come through the letterbox anyway. So this leaflet is for the candidate next door, which is inclined to focus on why you shouldn’t vote for the others. What the candidate for my constituency has provided is a questionnaire in which I can tell him what he thinks about the issues that he thinks matter to me.
  • Key Policy 1: No damaging Brexit.
  • Key Policy 2: The NHS and/ or £26,801,284 on education (see some railway prospectuses vis-a-vis the rather precise education offering).
  • Transport: Wot?
  • Proud of: Something about a strong local voice.
  • Quality of election material: Orange and easy to read, though low on detail. Candidate seems to have only posed for one picture. Not sure if it opens the right way round. Grasp of commas is terrible.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: Nice chap, but not very memorable. The candidate whose leaflet I’ve got is memorable, mostly for her impassioned call at hustings that we kill all the badgers.

United Kingdom Independence Party

  • Summary: This seems to be the first time UKIP have stood in my constituency, or at any rate the first time they have felt it necessary to appeal for my vote. The latter suggests desperation. The leaflet (singular) explains that this is a second EU referendum, which I might find less irritating were there actually a party standing explicitly in favour of Remain.
  • Key Policy 1: Reduce immigration
  • Key Policy 2: Kill foreign aid
  • Transport: Cancel High Speed 2 (not in election literature; had to go to hustings for this snippet).
  • Proud of: Um. (Honestly “um”, not remoaner sarcasm. UKIP does not rest on its laurels, which means it never promotes its record.)
  • Quality of election material: Purple-themed. Fairly easy to read, but not very upbeat. Candidate looks awkward.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: Better than the candidate for the same party in the seat next door. Both trying to present themselves as centrists (an approach which is currently doing the Lib-Dems no good at all). Spent the hustings calling for the cancellation of High Speed 2, which obtained a sum total of no reaction at all. Would help if such key policies were more relevant to the constituency than irrigation methods in the Gobi Desert.

One thing we do seem to be fortunate about in this constituency is the candidates are all quite local; one hears about imposed party wonks from London and last time the Lib-Dem had been imported from 50-odd miles away, but this time it seems four of them live in the constituency. (The Labour candidate is the exception, being some rural rustic from ten miles down the road.) This is much to be praised, and suggestive of strong local parties, but means making the point of local candidates being a Good Thing is quite difficult because four of them have to lose.

In fact the whole constituency election is very local, with four of the five candidates standing seemingly wholly in their own right without any mention of party machines or who will be Prime Minister if enough of their fellow party members get elected.

The concept of fairness being hammered at in this election provides an opportunity to refresh (as though they’re newly discovered) some rules of how to tell where on the political spectrum your candidates lie. In order of likely controversiality:

  1. Left-wingers say fairness is everyone getting the same stuff. Right-wingers say fairness is everyone getting what they’ve worked for. (Variations on how broad the “same stuff” is and what flex is allowed to “worked” based on disability.)
  2. Libertarians trust you to do the right thing for everyone. Authoritarians trust themselves to decide what’s the right thing for everyone. (There is an awkward brand of authoritarian liberal who trusts themselves to decide on the certain definition of liberality that you are judged against.)
  3. Left-wingers blame the people above them in the social and economic pile for problems. Right-wingers blame the people below them in the social and economic pile for problems. (The embarrassing bit is that block of centrists who blame themselves for problems, which at least has the benefit of personal responsibility but makes identifying someone to blame for failed leadership very difficult.)

Here is a reminder of the circumstances in which you do not need to vote.

Here is a picture of some election hoardings, seen seven years ago:

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Vote early, vote carefully and vote hopefully.

“Trails from the Rails” is going to Altnabreac tomorrow after which, barring a sudden splurge of blogging ideas, see you on the other side.

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.

___…___

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.

___…___

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.

Morar Viaduct 1 JPG.jpg

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.)

K&A Bath 1

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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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.