Thursday, 28 May 2009

Meon Valley Trail Knowle Junction (Fareham) - West Meon

Wickham Start
I have decided to change tack during the summer months. I find the three-weekly frequency of my various outings restricting at this time of year, wanting to go out more often but for less time due to the heat (I don’t much like walking around like a sweaty pig for hours on end – it’s too energy sapping). After some discussion with the family I am going to try and make the most of evenings over the next few weeks, which will give me greater frequency and not eat into my family time too much. Summer evenings are delightful for walking and have the added advantage of being relatively free of people.

For my first trip this summer I decided to continue my tour of railway line trails in the region and headed west to the Meon Valley, where I had flirted with the trail during my walk along the South Downs Way last year. The Meon Valley Line was another white elephant (as so many of the later lines to be built were), opened in 1903 by the London and South Western Railway to complete a direct route from London to Gosport (although it didn’t work since Gosport train station closed in the early 1930’s). The engineering of the route was almost as lavish as the previous line I visited north of Chichester. It beggars belief why the railway company built the line in this manner, for although there was significant agricultural traffic to begin with, passenger numbers were always small on account of the area being so rural.

Loading Gauge
The most obvious place to start the trail is at the former station site at Wickham, which was once the first stop for trains heading from Fareham to Alton. See how it once looked at Here there is a free car park, but the only hint that there was once a station here is the name of the approach road, for all signs of the platforms etc have been completely obliterated and a housing estate partially covers the site. In fact the rail line is not obvious from the car park and you would be forgiven for not knowing it was here at all (although there are some substantial bridges over the roads on the way in). The trackbed is almost hidden in the trees that grow along the side of the River Meon, a beautifully clean chalky stream that gurgles its way through Wickham on its journey to the Solent.

Official Signage
Wickham is about a mile and a half north of Knowle Junction, where the line once diverged from the still operating Fareham – Winchester direct line. Initially the route south is good and wide but feels physically separated from Wickham by the trees that have enveloped the embankments. In fact the only views outwards are at the road crossings of the A334 and B2177 where the houses and church of the town can be seen. After about half a mile or so, the trackbed runs across a golf course and the original rail land has been nibbled away at so only a narrow path remains. Beyond the golf course the trackbed does not widen out until it also passes a vineyard (which almost certainly didn’t exist when the railway was operational).

Iron Bridge
After the continual climb out of Wickham an overbridge is reached and the brickwork is showing signs of serious decay, with large cracks throughout the bidge, arch and surrounding structure. It remains to be seen how long it will remain in place. Given that the railway closed to passengers in 1955, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the infrastructure is failing. Knowle Junction was a little way beyond this, but the track to Fareham was only just visible through the fence and lush undergrowth. Some redundant points mechanism, rusting away by the side of the trackbed was the only clue of the former junction, although a couple of concrete sleepers were also still in place, half buried. Knowle Junction is the southern end of the line and as far as the walker/ cyclist can go at the moment (although a link to a former loop line heading into Fareham Town Centre is mooted).

Meon Countryside
Heading north out of Wickham is a bit strange at first since the path is very narrow and surfaced with loose gravel, a poor choice for a cycle route since it gives little traction. A short distance out of the car park and the track drops a little, hinting perhaps that initially I was travelling along the platform? The initial impression of the path wasn’t good, with the poor surface, some large puddles to negotiate and the sudden appearance of a lone policeman walking along the track. Was this a spot for anti-social behaviour I wondered? Why was he alone? He nodded and said hello and seemed quite relaxed so I pressed on cautiously at first, but soon relaxed when the surface got better and occasional glimpses of the River Meon passed me by.

Glimpse of the River
After about a mile or so the surface got much better and was more like a normal bridal way without the dreaded gravel. In fact I found it a little surprising that no work appeared to have been done to improve the surface for the rest of the ride up to West Meon. I could even go as far as to say that the whole path is an opportunity missed since it is poorly promoted by Hampshire County Council (who own it) and could be a much better experience than it actually is. For while on a summer evening it is a delightful ride up through the trees, I would not contemplate coming this way in the winter months at all.

Shallow Cutting
The path from Wickham all the way to West Meon (approximately 10 miles) is almost completely shrouded by trees, with views outwards from the path limited to a few glimpses here and there. Initially though the path actually passes through a proper forest, evidenced by some fairly hefty machinery hanging around that was obviously being used for thinning operations by the Forestry Commission. At the top end of Upperford Copse the unmistakable roar of traffic pierced the otherwise peaceful countryside and I realised that I was upon the A32 already. This busy road between Alton and Fareham probably proved too strong a competition for the railway. The bridge carrying the road was in particularly good condition (but then I suppose it has to be considering what it has to do).

Decorative Bridge
After leaving the woods and the busy road the line continues up through open countryside, although only glimpses of this can actually been seen from the line, which is flanked by large horse chestnut trees in particular. From what I could see, the Meon had reduced to a trickle and the very pastoral landscape was dominated by grazing cattle. There were a surprising number of houses adjacent to the line, although it could not be described as urban.

Muddy Trackbed
I soon reached Droxford, the next station on the line. The station had a colourful past, with its most famous incident the staging of a meeting between the commanders of Operation Overlord (otherwise known as D-Day). Droxford also was the focus of a ditched attempt to preserve the railway, but prolonged vandalism put paid to that idea. See how the station once looked at . Far from being the death knell to the station building however, it now flourishes thanks to some loving restoration work by the owner. Don’t expect to get any decent views of the place though, for the occupiers quite understandably guard their privacy and have planted hedges most of the way round the boundary of the property. The path diverts briefly around the station and pitches up at the end of where the platforms once finished. Another busy road is crossed and then it’s a slog uphill to the last station on the route at West Meon.

Late Evening Sun
Shortly after leaving Droxford the trackbed deteriorates somewhat and despite being May it was still quite muddy. I dread to think what it must be like in February! There were a few notable spots where there had been some vegetation clearance along the lineside. I wondered whether this was done to help wildlife, or the drainage of the path. Even if the latter were not true, these sections were definitely easier to cycle along and the line didn’t feel so closed in.

Old Winchester Hill
About halfway between Droxford and West Meon I got a nasty surprise when the path ahead of me disappeared over the side of a bridge that had been removed. I backtracked a bit and what I had taken to be an access path to the road below transpired to be the actual cycle path. For such a small interruption I wasn’t quite sure why a cycle friendly bridge hadn’t been put in place. It would save the potentially dangerous road crossing. However, dropping off the rail line for even such a brief moment did afford a lovely view across the surrounding countryside and in particular to Old Winchester Hill, an Iron Age Hill fort that I had encountered on my walk along the South Downs Way last year.

West Meon Station
Further north I had another similar bridge to negotiate and as I approached the South Downs Way crossing, I encountered a number of youngsters who were out hiking. They waited for me to approach and as I got closer they asked me if I had seen some of their friends who appeared to have lost them. It was only then that I realised that I hadn’t actually seen anyone since Droxford, in contrast to the southern section where it had been quite busy.

Back to Wickham
Almost fifty minutes after leaving Droxford I reached West Meon Station. This is now the northern end of the route, although the original rail line continued northwards almost the same distance again to meet the Winchester – Alton – Farnham line at Alton. The northern stretch I suspect would make for a more interesting ride since it travels through some fairly hilly country and once had to pass through Privett Tunnel, approximately 1 kilometre long. However, the heavy engineering works associated with the northern section is probably why it is not open for cycling traffic! The station itself is returning to nature and heavily overgrown. The buildings are long since gone, but the platforms remain (all 600 feet of them!). I came here when I did the South Downs Way but somehow a summer visit made the place even more haunted as the platforms are slowly being enveloped by undergrowth. The path continues for a short distance beyond the station but not beyond the site of the former viaduct that carried the line across the now small stream that is the River Meon. This was one of the first casualties of closure since it was made completely of metal and so its scrap value was realised quickly.
Wickham Church

I turned tail at West Meon and headed back to Wickham. My ride back took only about 50 minutes (in contrast to the almost two hours to get here). Of course on the way back I barely stopped (except for the odd dog walker) and crucially it was mostly downhill (worth remembering if you decide to have a go at this trip).

Wickham Sunset
On the whole this was an enjoyable but although I had high hopes for the scenery, it was in truth disappointing since so much of it is obscured by lineside vegetation. The surface was poor for a cycle path and unusually I would recommend walking the route over cycling. I can’t help thinking that Hampshire County Council are hiding their light under a bushel with this line, but then I suppose it has no strategic importance with regard to the National Cycle Network and will probably continue in its present form for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

High Weald Landscape Trail Day 7 Tenterden - Rye

There is something satisfying and yet sad about completing a walk. So it proved today when I bade farewell to the High Weald Landscape Trail. Amazingly, although completely unplanned it was a year to the day since I started the walk! The weather conditions were remarkably similar to the first day in that it had been a damp day the day before and the weather was still recovering a bit from the rain. The morning was quite steamy and resolutely overcast, although the forecast was for warm sun later.

Tilder Gill
I had a remarkably early start and got to Rye approximately 8.15am, in plenty of time to find somewhere to park (not easy in this tourist honeypot) and catch the first bus of the day to Tenterden at 8.40am. I had really hoped to make this bus for there are only a few each way on a Saturday and the next wouldn’t be for two long hours. I did have a problem though in that I only had a little change and a £20 note. I would not be popular with the bus driver! However, We managed a little ‘deal’ when I got on and for a few stops I was the only passenger. In fact the journey only got busy when we arrived in Smallhythe and a dishevelled bunch of teenagers got on, looking like death warmed up and I suspect having been to an all night party at somebody’s house.
Hammer Pond

Anyhow I got to Tenterden at a respectable starting time of 9.15am and took advantage of a very attractive looking bakery before I started walking. I felt sorted straight away! All I had to worry about now was getting myself the twelve miles back to Rye.

Almost immediately the path left the built up area of Tenterden. I was really surprised how quickly the path took me out into the countryside, although I found the path slightly curious as it was tarmacked for some distance. It was only when I reached the B2082 Rye Road that I realised why. This was the main walking route from the town to the cricket ground and I imagine that someone had decided this was too important a route to have an unmade surface.

Sitting on the Job
A little further on past the cricket ground and yet another pond, I entered the strangely mysterious world of Tilder Gill. To be honest I smelled what was coming long before I reached the wood. This magical place was not what I expected at all. The path led down a narrow stream valley through thick woodland carpeted with wild garlic and the remnants of this year’s bluebells. The woods were alive with the sounds of all manner of birdsongs including a few distinctive ones like the cuckoo (the first I had heard this year) and the green woodpecker (which sounds like it’s cackling!). This was easily the best part of the path of the whole day and I could have spent a few happy hours there just listening to my surroundings and sniffing wild garlic! Further down the valley and the sound of birdsong was joined by the sound of mating frogs from yet another hammer pond. This little section of countryside was very reminiscent of the first day of the hike, even though the rest of this part of Sussex is very different to the area around Horsham.

Smallhythe Place
I passed a farm known as Dumbourne, which seemed to be owned by people who liked collecting old machinery and vehicles around them. The view ahead was across what was once an inlet of the sea and across to the Isle of Oxney. I had been this way once before when I completed the Saxon Shore Way some years ago, although I was now at the other end of the old channel and island. I reunited with the Rye road approximately where the youngsters had got on the bus. The way ahead was along what could have been quite a busy road for about half a mile although luckily still being fairly early on a Saturday, few people were about. It gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the hamlet of Smallhythe. The main points of interest were a small chapel built in a Dutch style and a couple of half timbered houses, one of which was a National Trust owned property (Smallhythe Place), where the famous Victorian actress Ellen Terry once lived.

Reading Sewer
I crossed the Reading Sewer and then across some drained marshland before climbing up through a couple of fields of loudmouthed sheep to the top of the Isle of Oxney. As I looked back across the valley I tried to imagine what it once looked like when it was a sea inlet, with coastal boats bringing cargo to the port at Smallhythe (for Tenterden). At the top I joined a farm track and enjoyed the extensive views across towards the North Downs some way distant. By now the sun was starting to make some headway with the clouds and I could feel some warmth creeping into the day. This helped bring out the smells of the flowers and the verge of the track was a riot of colours. What really caught my attention were some purple flowers that stood out from the crowd. Upon closer inspection I could see that these were common spotted orchids, a slightly surprising find for me as I thought these were restricted to limy soils.

Wittersham Church
I crossed the Rye Road for the last time and then headed across more fields, all the time by-passing the village of Wittersham. In the very distance I could hear the sound of one of the steam trains from the Kent and East Sussex Railway and was reminded that Wittersham had a station, albeit two miles from the village! I can’t imagine this was very useful for the villagers at all.

Wittersham Village
By now my stomach was rumbling and the roll I had bought earlier was starting to call my name out very loudly! I sat upon a stile and consumed it with relish. The view from my lunch spot was typically Kentish although I was by now almost at the next county border with East Sussex. Just after lunch I met the first walker I had seen today and we engaged in conversation. He was a veteran of the walk, having completed it a couple of times and was now heading in the opposite direction to complete that way. Ironically he was from Arundel and had completed many of the same walks as me.

Wittersham Oast
I soon approached another valley, this time for the River Rother and as I crossed the river I also made my way into my home county of East Sussex (being from Lewes originally). I also met with the Sussex Border Path, which I followed for a short way up to Decoy Wood. In the woodland the paths diverged and I headed down towards yet another hammer pond, this one having a new lease of life as a private fishing ground.
Decoy Wood

For the next half mile or so I passed through a couple more woods and the bluebells were still in full bloom, making for that wonderful bluish haze through the woodland floor that is unique to these few short weeks of the year. As I passed through the wood I met another chap who stopped to chat. He was the owner of the wood and was taking advantage of the glorious spring weather to look out for the abundant wildlife living here. He explained to me how he had coppiced his wood over winter to open up some areas to sunlight and increase the biodiversity. His wife was looking for more man-made treasures with her metal detector a little further on. She asked whether I had any treasure that I wanted finding!

Orchard Blossom
It was quite a shock to leave the wood and find myself on the main A268 road to Rye at Peasmarsh. Although the traffic wasn’t pleasant I did admire the rhododendrons that adorned the gardens along the road. Luckily I was able to disappear around the back of the village quite quickly and headed out behind a very large village shop called Jempson’s, which I later learned is the largest independent supermarket in Britain (see I climbed out of Peasmarsh via Peasmarsh Park and headed out on the last leg of the walk into Rye through some orchards and eventually onto a track through Clayton Farm. As I wandered down past the farm I met a very old fashioned looking farmer, complete with trousers done up with string and the kind of person that you don’t think exists in this modern world of ours. I passed the time of day with him and shortly after I was greeted with my first view of Rye. The town is dominated by the church at the pinnacle of the island like hill that the town sits on. It makes for a very distinctive view, quite unlike any other that I know in Britain.
River Tillingham

I descended into the small valley of the River Tillingham and although the edge of Rye was tantalisingly close I had to follow the meander of the river around to a bridge quite close to the Railway Station where the trail officially ended. By now the weather was very warm and I could see that the crowds had finally come out to enjoy the sunshine. I spent some time admiring the windmill at the end of the trail, which you can stay in if you are so inclined (book at Could be a memorable place to stay at the end of the walk! Disappointingly the end of the trail was only marked by a shabby looking marker post but it felt good to be in Rye once again. Of course I have been through here before for hike trips, on the Saxon Shore Way, but there are two other trails that come this way, the 1066 Country Trail and the Sussex Border Path. I feel for sure that both of these will be on my radar one day soon.
Rye Mill

The High Weald Landscape Trail is an interesting walk, better to be done in the Spring after the mud has dried up for it would be susceptible to some muddy tracks. Spring will allow you to enjoy the woodland flowers at their best, although autumn might also be a good time for colours in the woods also. It isn’t especially challenging and public transport links are good although a lot of forward planning is required because of the poor frequencies of some of the services.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

High Weald Landscape Trail Day 6 Cranbrook - Tenterden

Cranbrook Church
Following the disappointment of not seeing too much in the way of blossom last time I headed up into Kent, I felt more confident this time. Driving to this part of Kent is rather difficult to gauge how long it will take and since the intended bus today was on a two hour frequency I decided to pitch up at Cranbrook and take my chances at the other end. As it happens I didn’t have any worries about how long it would take for this would be my last day of complete freedom before the return of the rest of my family.

Overlooking Cranbrook Mill
The whole day and night before today’s expedition had been monsoon conditions although the weather promised to be really good today. The start of the day’s walk in Cranbrook though was still a bit grey and murky as the rain clouds were still on their way out. I parked in the free car park in town and headed out through the churchyard and after a couple of wrong turns (the signage was a little sparse) I soon found myself in the countryside. The path ahead was familiar as many years ago, when living in Kent, we had come this way on a short circular walk. The path ran alongside what looked like a large country estate although the house it belonged to was out of sight.

How Do I Cross That?
Along the fence line a little way I turned right and continued across a field where I once again had a great view of the windmill that dominates the Cranbrook skyline. As I wandered down through the field I realised how much rain there had been as my KSB boots were completely soaked within minutes. After crossing a couple of fields the sight of oast houses greeted me once more, reminding me that I was firmly in Kent. These would dominate many of the views for the day. I am not especially a fan of these structures, although I enjoy their distinctiveness and in particular I like looking at the additions to the weather vanes that are an integral part of the design. Although many are plain, others are decorated with motifs of various animals including Invicta, the rampant horse symbol that represents Kent, and other Englishisms (is that a word?) such as cricketers.

Benenden Cottage
As I crossed the first road of the day, I was greeted by the bus that I had originally intended to take from Tenterden and was relieved that I hadn’t done so, for I would most certainly have missed it. What lied ahead though was rather a nasty surprise. The field that the path had crossed was completely ploughed over and the path was a complete quagmire after 24 hours of rain. To say I wasn’t pleased is probably the biggest understatement of the year!

Benenden School
After cursing all the way across I was relieved when I came to a wood on the other side. I was soon disappointed though when I found that the wood had been spoiled by being used as a local tipping ground. What was odd though was that we were some distance from a track or road, so tipping here must have been quite difficult to achieve. I felt on a bit of a downer and was barely two miles into the day’s walking. Maybe I should have headed west again!

Benenden Oasts
Things soon got better luckily and I soon passed Benenden School, a large girls public boarding school with famous alumni such as Princess Anne and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz. All was quiet today though as I assume all the girls were still away enjoying their Easter holidays. The path kept away from the front of the school so I didn’t get much of a view of the facilities (although for the very nosey there is a path that runs right along the front of the main building). Upon leaving the school grounds the path did its best to stay away from the village centre of Benenden. Actually I kind of understand why, since the alternative would be a fairly unappealing stretch of road walking. Instead I descended down into a valley and turned left by some ubiquitous oast houses, heading back up the hill that I had just come down. At the top I passed through a field of donkeys and caught a glimpse of jade coloured feathers that flashed before me. The bird they were attached to was travelling to fast for me to follow but it was fairly obvious that I had just seen a green woodpecker, the first I had seen for many years.

Benenden Village Hall
I emerged by Benenden Church and the enormous green that dominates its frontage. I decided to head into the village to stock up on provisions and was quite glad to find a well stocked village shop. Business looked as though it was quite good for the place had a fairly luxurious air about it. I would recommend a stop if you are ever this way. Feeling fortified I retraced my steps to the church and had a look around the churchyard. The church itself was built in a similar style to many of the others I had passed in this part of Kent, with a castellated tower rather than the spires that are more common in Sussex.

Benenden Church
After a quick snack I continued onwards through the cacophony of sheep that were now lambing. It’s funny how normally quiet sheep can change when the newborns are around. The path to Rolvenden, the next village en route, crossed a mixture of agricultural fields and short stretches of bluebell filled woods, which were just starting to come into bloom. It reminded me of the start of this walk, almost a year ago back in Horsham. Bluebells themselves have no smell, but as I passed through one wood in particular I got a whiff of a pungent but familiar smell and soon realised that at the edge of the wood was a large patch of wild garlic. Just before I got to Rolvenden I passed a very well preserved windmill standing guard over the countryside. In the next field was my next obstacle when I realised that the field of harvested maize that I had to cross through had no discernable path. The signage wasn’t helpful either, so I had to guess the way forward by heading for the next church.

Rolvenden Mill
Rolvenden Church was a similar style to Benenden, with a castellated tower, but with a short steeple added to the top for good measure. Although I got a good look at the church, the path kept away from the village itself and once through the churchyard I was back into the countryside once more. A couple of fields later and I entered a fabulous bluebell wood at Great Maythem. This wood was obviously well managed for the trees were less densely planted and all the underbrush had been removed, allowing the bluebells to grow unfettered. The path took a curious course here too, through a tightly fenced section. When I looked at the map it soon became obvious that I was crossing a country estate and the owners did not want me to leave the path. It was a bit unsubtle! I glimpsed the house through the trees and most impressive it was too. Allegedly this house was the setting for the children’s story, The Secret Garden and given my allowed passage through, I could well believe it. More details of the place can be found at . Although my views of the place were quite restricted, I did enjoy the variety that crossing the parkland gave and the perimeter of the estate was flush with flowers and blossom.

I soon came to the next village, Rolvenden Layne and passed along a street with some very picture postcard cottages with fabulously maintained gardens. Despite being a Saturday afternoon, there was very little activity and few people about and the atmosphere about the place was a bit strange as a result. I was actually quite pleased to be out in the open countryside once more. The farmer maintaining the fields that I would now have to cross was obviously very walker friendly (and quite smart too) since he had maintained the footpaths across his land by mowing some nice wide strips through them. I was now at the Rother Valley and could see almost to the end of the walk at Tenterden ahead. I soon was reminded of the amount of rain there had been last night though when I had to pick my way through a very boggy section at the lowest part of the valley.

Great Maytham Woods
Along the Rother Valley runs the Kent and East Sussex Railway ( and as I was crossing the track I saw the signal just to the north of my position change to indicate that a train was coming. I have to confess to being quite excited as it’s a rare opportunity to see a preserved train passing by without actually planning for it. As I waited I soon realised that timings on preserved railways are somewhat different to the main network, for it was almost 15 minutes before the train actually passed, and when it did it was rather disappointingly a diesel multiple unit rather than a steam train.

Kent and East Sussex Railway
Thinking I would be now late for the bus, I rushed the last mile or so into Tenterden and searched for the bus stop. When I reached it I quickly realised that I was actually in the hour between buses (2 hourly service remember), so I had plenty of time to look round the town. I made a beeline for the station just down the hill from the main station and got my wish when I watched the last train of the day belching out of the station on its way to Bodiam. One day again soon I shall bring the kids over here to look at the castle and ride on the train.

This was a pleasant if slightly unexciting stretch, marred by a few ploughed fields and flytipping. The villages are delightful however, and with all the woodland flowers and blossom, this could well be the best time of year to complete this stretch. My next foray on this walk expected in mid May will be my last for I now only have the few miles left to get to Rye.