Thursday, 30 June 2016

Lydford Gorge

White Lady Waterfall
This is a bit of a walk with a difference for it is the only one on this blog that you actually have to pay for.  Lydford Gorge is walk number 1 in the Pathfinder Guide volume 26 Dartmoor Walks and is the main route through the National Trust property.  We have a membership so it didn't cost us directly but be prepared to pay an entrance fee if you don't have a membership.  We had this rather nasty surprise approximately 20 years ago when my wife and I did this walk as young students on a day trip from Plymouth.  Being fairly poor we hadn't expected to pay to get in, but we did bite the bullet and do it.  For us then this was a bit of a trip down memory lane although we had forgotten most of the walk in the intervening years.

Money Mushroom
Lydford is at the southern end of the Granite Way and after some deserved refreshment on finishing the outward stretch of the ride we embarked on the short walk around the gorge.  What was immediately obvious this time was that we would not have the gorge largely to ourselves as we had done back in 1995.  If I recall that wasn't such a great day weather-wise and so most people didn't bother coming.  The same couldn't be said about this sunny and warm bank holiday - it was glorious and the crowds were out as a result.

The first part of the walk is along the top of the gorge.  This makes pretty easy walking through delightful woodland and it has to be said that we picked just about the best time of the year to come as the flowers were all out in full song (maybe a couple of weeks too late?).  Ramsons were plentiful and the bluebells were finishing up, while there were plenty of greater stitchwort buttercups and Red campion.  It certainly made for a pretty palette.  The trees had mostly filled out with foliage now and summer seemed to be in full swing.

Railway Bridge
The first inkling of how busy the path was going to get was about a mile in when we started to hit traffic.  A lot of families were out walking and they started bunching up as either the children stopped to look at stuff or the large groups were simply walking at different speeds and needed to allow each other to catch up.  Luckily we passed most of them quite quickly and found ourselves at the other entrance.  We headed through the gate so that we could look at the tea shop but that too was rammed and so we decided to press on.

Descending into the Gorge
In order to leave via this entrance we passed under a railway bridge.  My edition of the Pathfinder Guide dates from 1989 and the included map shows that the line is still operating - must be a very old map for this former Great Western line to Launceston closed at the end of 1962!  This isn't the same line as the one followed by the Granite Way but would have met up just to the south of Lydford.  Unlike the Granite Way route this isn't one that is ever likely to reopen and the short stretch in this area is now just a footpath.

Our high level route came to an end at the railway.  In order to continue on our way we had to descend the steep valley side into the bottom of the gorge.  This was quite a tricky descent not made any easier by lots of people making their way down to the most famous feature of the Gorge; the White Lady waterfall.  This 100 foot waterfall drops dramatically into the gorge below and is probably the feature that most people come to see.  Ironically when we came before this was the only place in the entire gorge where we actually saw someone - a chap who took our picture.  Sadly I haven't come across that picture in years.  Probably tucked away in a drawer somewhere.  This time the scene could not be more different - there was quite the throng at the bottom of the waterfall!

End of the Bluebells
We hung around for a short while but taking pictures with no people in shot was nigh on impossible especially because one young couple seemed to be hogging the limelight and the girl was modelling all sorts of poses in front of the waterfall.  I was sort of amused at first but then got irritated as they clearly had no thought of anyone else wanting to take pictures without them in shot.

We continued on our way along the gorge at river level.  The River Burn cuts a tortuous route through the valley and in places the footpath has to take boardwalks in order to negotiate the steep sided valley.  It also meant that there was soon a lengthy traffic jam of walkers, mostly on account of people not really used to the rigours of such terrain taking things very slowly and deliberately in order not to have an accident.  Perhaps this was a very good thing but nonetheless it was aggravating that the slow coaches didn't step aside for us sure footed mountain goats...

Narrow Gorge
Despite the frustration of walking under such conditions it was easy to see why the gorge is so popular.  The river is full of interest at all times as it has carved out its channel in the rock, creating mini waterfalls and rapids as it heads downstream.  The walking was most interesting as we negotiated our way around the tight corners and through tunnels and across boardwalks.  In the river itself were scores of brown trout.  They must have an energetic life battling against the current.

Devil's Cauldron
Eventually we made our way to the Devil's Cauldron, a remarkable feature created as the river has drilled its way through the rock creating a hollow that is tens of feet deep.  A short walkway allowed us to inspect in more detail and it was incredible to see how much power the river had here.  This was also the point at which we started to head uphill quite sharply and we soon came upon the bridge that we had cycled over to get to the visitor centre.

Tucker's Pool
Before finishing the walk we decided to head along the river valley a little way more to Tuckers Pool, a delightful little oasis beyond the reach of most of the day trippers and principally because it is a bit of extra mileage without any real purpose.  When we got as far as we could we took the opportunity to dip our toes in the water.  It was toe-curlingly cold but very welcome and refreshing.  We retraced our steps and climbed back up to the visitor centre.  By now hoards more people were heading in - I think we could have had even more congestion.  The numbers of people coming here clearly show the wisdom of having a one-way system.  If you decide to do this walk yourself - be warned, it is a seriously popular place!  Our journey wasn't quite over though - we headed back to Okehampton on our bikes :)

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Granite Way

Okehampton Castle
It's been a long while since I posted a cycle trip on this blog but a recent trip to Devon warranted an exploration of one of the County's excellent network of paths.  The closure of extensive swathes of the rail network during the Beeching era has proven to be a mixed blessing for this very rural county.  Large areas of the county are now devoid of a rail connection but the flip side to this is that many of the routes were bought by Devon County Council following closure and have been converted into cycle ways, of which the Granite Way is the most recent example.

Okehampton Station
The Granite Way follows the former London and South Western Railway line that once connected Exeter and Plymouth via a route north of Dartmoor.  The section followed leads south west from the town of Okehampton for a distance of approximately 8 miles to the small village of Lydford.  Okehampton Station is something of a strange survivor - it was spared the ignominy of being closed by Dr Beeching and rather weirdly left at the end of a branch line from the still open Exeter to Barnstaple line.  The onward connections to Bude and Plymouth via Tavistock are long since gone and Okehampton itself lost its services in 1972 when there was obviously a realisation that the line wasn't really viable on its own.

Dartmoor Railway
Yet, Okehampton survived thanks to a large quarry nearby, which left the freight line connection in place until the late 1990s when rail traffic was no longer needed.  This left enough time for a heritage railway operation to get going and as Okehampton station was still in place this became the natural headquarters for the new rail operation.  A youth hostel and bike hire place also found their way here.  Surprisingly the connection to the National Rail Network was also restored albeit on Sundays and occasional other days only.  There is a long term ambition to restore the whole line back through Tavistock to Plymouth although there are no firm plans at present to implement this.  Keeping the line intact for a cycle path is probably a good way to help with these ambitions.

Shared Corridor
We hired our bicycles for the whole day.  For slightly less cost you can hire for a shorter time but being such a lovely day and with as much time as we wanted to take there seemed little point in hurrying.  Initially the route would not be on the line of the railway itself (for it still exists for the heritage operation!).  Instead we had to go down the steep Railway Approach road and then hook a sharp left after the under bridge in order to gain the route.  For the first little bit the route then follows alongside the track, presumably using the same formation but on the line of the second track (it is only a single track operation now).

Soon a gap in the trees opened up and the old Norman Castle in Okehampton could be seen.  From this angle at least it was pretty obvious why the castle was built in such a location.  There is a great view from there over the surrounding countryside although cyclists will only get a glimpse as soon the view is blocked by a thick hedgerow.  This stretch of line seemed pretty long too, which was a bit of a blessing as I got used to the bike.  As we came upon the Okehampton By-pass the railway disappeared through a concrete tunnel.  There wasn't room for us and so the path drops away steeply to the right and finds its way through an equally claustrophobic tunnel to cross the A30.  Climbing up through here was surprisingly steep too and I had to work the gears a bit to get to the top.  Negotiating the gates was a little awkward too, but thankfully once through it was a straight run thereafter.

Meldon Quarry Station
We continued along the side of the railway for a little further before the extensive sidings at Meldon Quarry came into view.  The Quarry's status is currently 'mothballed' although it could re-open at any time.  Ironically given its location at the end of a 15 mile long branch line after closure of all the other routes, most of the stone that came from Meldon was used for railway ballast.  Now it is home to the sort of rag tag and bob tail collection of rolling stock and various railway vehicles in a range of states of repair.  I lingered for a while taking it all in.  Perhaps the aspect of the scene that most struck me is that I remember a lot of this equipment in fare-paying service and not as museum pieces.  Does that qualify for me being old?  It is starting to feel like it!

Meldon Quarry
At Meldon Quarry is a small station that is used as the western terminus of the line.  It is nearby an old workman's station that existed here during British Rail days.  As the quarry is tricky to get to by road the station was pretty much the only means of access for workers getting to nearby Okehampton where most of them lived.  There is still no real access by road by the cycle path is an obvious alternative now (but then there are no workers!).

Meldon Viaduct
Beyond the quarry is perhaps the most significant structure on the whole line - the magnificent wrought iron Meldon Viaduct.  What a joy it is to still be able to travel across such a magnificent structure, even if it is by bicycle rather than on a train.  Indeed Network Rail have stated that the old viaduct is no longer strong enough to carry a train and it would have to be replaced if the line were ever to re-open.  I guess this is a significant obstacle to re-opening proposals.  The six truss viaduct is over 150m long and 46 m high.  Dartmoor looms up above it to the south and the reservoir at Meldon is just beyond.  The viaduct actually had to carry road traffic across it while the dam was being constructed in the early 1970s.

Junction with Bude Branch
Having cleared the viaduct the path descend into trees and continues without its railway companion.  I also got the sense that I was starting to head downhill for the going started feeling a little easier.  No long after and I came to what I assumed was an artwork installation or was it just picnic benches?  A family was camped out having a picnic so they obviously assumed the latter.  I decided to wait on a picture of the installation for when I came back later in the day.  Annoyingly I completely forgot so I have no picture of said installation.  I later discovered that this marked the junction for the Bude branch, one of the many destinations for the famed Atlantic Coast Express from London Waterloo to Devon and Cornwall resorts.  Given that the junction is masked by bushes and trees I suppose I could be forgiven for not really knowing it was there...

Sourton Church
The onward track provided some fantastic views of Dartmoor and was largely a very open route, unlike some of the tree tunnels that I have witness elsewhere.  I guess the inclement weather associated with this area during the winter has helped arrest the growth of trees too much?  Rhododendrons and may blossom provided some wonderful colour alongside the trackbed.  Cycling was incredibly easy too for the surface of the Granite Way is tarmac almost the whole way apart from a short gap which we were going to come across fairly soon.

Lake Viaduct
I paused briefly at Sourton to admire the church alongside the track.  Fortunately the old sections of diversion in this area no longer apply and the way is clear beyond.  It is also quite significantly downhill for I really motored along this part.  It wasn't long past here though that I came to a juddering halt for the path reduces to a narrow section winding between the trees and has clearly been left unimproved.  This section is privately owned still and no attempt has been made to improve the track surface.  Fortunately it is only a short section and once through the gate marking the southern end it was back to tarmac path again.  I am guessing that negotiations are underway to include this section officially for there was no attempt to divert us on to a nearby pathway or road.

Platelayer's Hut
Just beyond this section and we came to Lake Viaduct.  This is a more conventional stone viaduct and having been spoiled by Meldon it wasn't quite as spectacular.  Nevertheless there was a lot of activity on the viaduct deck as we approached for it looked like a school group were birdwatching from the parapet.  We paused briefly to look at the view and after enjoying what we saw we pressed on.  The onward path had a platelayer's hut still guarding the way - a real relic from the past!

Bridestowe Station
Not long after the viaduct and the path took an obvious detour away from the trackbed.  This is because we were approaching the only official station between Okehampton and Lydford, the small one at Bridestowe.  This is now a private dwelling that is very much out of sight.  However the footbridge is still intact and the station is in pretty good shape in its new guise.  I wouldn't mind betting that the owner still has an urge to catch a train from his front garden every now and again.  I cannot imagine there were very many passengers using the station though - it is a long way from Bridestowe (more than a mile).

Lydford Castle
Onward from here and it was actually a surprising short stretch to Lydford and the presence of Dartmoor for the last section is a lot less obvious.  When the end does come it is a little unexpected for the tarmac path takes the form of a slip road when it reaches an over-bridge leading the cyclist up to the road into the village.  The trackbed continues as an overgrown and unloved former transport corridor to Lydford Station beyond.  Hopefully this onward section of the railway path will be reopened too?  It would be good to see it join up with the Drake's Trail onward into Plymouth.

Lydford Church
As a cycle path this is a joy to cycle - the scenery is magnificent and the going is easy.  Be aware though that Okehampton to Lydford is largely downhill while the return is steadily uphill.  With a relatively modest length (8 miles) it is an easy one to do in a short day but I would suggest that you combine it with a walk around Lydford Gorge (that is where we are headed next) and possibly even a peek at Lydford Castle and a pub lunch in the welcoming pub next door.  As an all day outing I can certainly not praise it enough!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Cuckfield and Ansty

Cuckfield Church
I'm a little late with posting this but our latest walk was a family affair and designed to catch the height of bluebell season.  We had actually been elsewhere for the day and so this walk was to fill up the remaining time we had on what was a glorious day that demanded we made the most of it. On the face of it this walk didn't look too promising, with rather a lot of road walking in its relatively modest length of 5 and a quarter miles.  However, as we were in the area it did make a lot of sense to give it a go.
"Cathedral Close"

We started in the very agreeable village of Cuckfield.  The guide book describes its olde world charm and it is hard to disagree although these days it has the air of commuter village about it and I suspect that many of its residents jump on the train to head to the Capital each day.  If the railway company had had its way the village would have had its own railway station but perhaps thankfully the local landowner would have none of it and the line took a different route further east through Haywards Heath.  This decision ensured that Cuckfield would remain picture postcard pretty and crucially did not grow in the same way that its neighbour Haywards Heath has done.  That would surely have changed the village out of all recognition.
New Growth

We parked in the free car park and headed south along the High Street.  Although it was Sunday afternoon there were plenty of people about and the shops seemed to be doing quite well.  Although still quite early in the season the heat of the day suggested that summer wouldn't be too far away now.  From the High Street we headed through the gap into the nearby church yard.  It may only be a small village but the church is quite grand and the approach has more than a hint of cathedral close about it.  We crossed the surprisingly extensive churchyard and turned left on the path beyond.
Flush of Colour

What followed was a rather delightful walk with the new foliage of the trees positively gleaming in the warm sunshine.  It is a combination of colours that is such a winner with me - I cannot think of a better time of year to be out walking.  The bluebells we came to see were very much in evidence too although not in the carpets that we wanted quite yet.  The path headed due east along the southern boundary of Warden Park School; a gleaming looking building that was a lot more modern than I remember from a professional visit a few years back.  I guess its academy status helps on that front.

Copyhold Lane
The path was still a bit sticky, courtesy of the winter and early spring weather that we experienced.  Worse was to follow though as we crossed the A272 and headed along the path opposite we discovered that it was completely impassable and was nothing more than a swamp.  With our experience in Burwash fresh in our minds we had no desire to repeat that mudfest and cast around for an alternative route.  Luckily one presented itself although it wasn't especially palatable.  We headed back along the A272 and down Copyhold Lane, adding a short distance to the overall walk.  It proved to be a far more pleasant experience.

Copyhold Lane was to be our companion for quite a while.  Along its length were a number of rather splendid looking houses, although I suspect they have pretty hefty price tags to go along with their agreeable surroundings.  I did enjoy looking in the gardens though - the spring colours really brightening up the route considerably.

Anstye (spelled Ansty most places)
Eventually we ran out of lane as we got to the first of the bluebell woods.  Our path headed right and away from the track and around a large field towards the village of Ansty.  As we got to the end of the field we passed by some people acting rather strangely.  I rather suspected that they might be trying to trap animals judging from what they were doing.  They certainly didn't welcome any attention and so we hurried along on our way into the village of Ansty.  This small place is on the junction of two former coaching roads and I remember stopping here a good few years ago to use its rather agreeable pub (The Ansty Cross).  Sadly this is no more despite what the guide book says so if you need a drink by this point you will have to make do with the fuel station next door.

Ansty Cross
The next stretch of the walk it has to be said isn't very pleasant with more than a mile of road walking.  I cannot say it was even particularly memorable.  Looking at the surrounding map though suggests that there are few alternatives to making the loop back to Cuckfield without adding quite a lot of mileage.  What this section loses in charm though is more than made up on the last stretch heading back into the village of Cuckfield.  Just shy of a place called Winscot the path takes a right hand turn from the road and we breathed a sigh of relief at not having to dodge cars any more.  We were also treated to the sight of a buzzard overhead although it quickly retreated when mobbed by a couple of crows.
Wonderful Sky

We then headed through the woods and saw exactly what we had come for - a whole carpet of bluebells stretching out before us.  This stretch of the path was delightful and perhaps got even better as we flirted with adjacent fields enabling us to get some great views out over the South Downs as well as having the bluebells at our feet.  The path crossed the north end of Cuckfield Park, the local pile once owned by the squire that had refused permission to the railway.  Sadly the path doesn't allow for a great view of the park, but some of the old landscaped features are hinted at, including a balustraded bridge that we passed by.

View of Cuckfield Church
At the top of a small hill that we had to climb is perhaps the best view of Cuckfield; across the park to the church beyond and all neatly framed by a magnificent looking oak tree.  For my money this was the best scene on the entire walk and great that it was saved until almost the very end.  We were soon back in the busy High Street and walking under another memorable tree - an umbrella-like cedar tree that I remember liking as a child.

Umbrella Tree
This walk could only be described as pleasant - it isn't taxing and the views are memorable.  However, the section of road walking does spoil it and perhaps with a bit more research and some more time we could come up with a lengthier but better version.  If I do I shall be sure to let you know :)
The Old Vicarage