Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hamble Rail Trail

Hamble Rail Trail
Rail trails are not always found in the most obvious of places and this is no exception.  This short walk actually traces the remains of two separate branch lines, each no more than a mile long but built for two very different reasons.  The start of the Hamble Rail Trail is within Victoria Country Park near Hamble-le-Rice in Hampshire.  Details of the walk can be found at
Former Trackbed

There were no public transport requirements for me on this walk, although it could easily be started and finished at Netley or Hamble stations.  I parked for a modest fee in the park itself.  It was a pretty gloomy, damp December day although fairly mild and a good one to explore the old railways since most of the vegetation had by now died back.  From the old hospital chapel I headed up past the tearooms to find the first of the old railways.  This was the short branch that served the old Netley Hospital that used to occupy the park, but which mostly burned down in 1963.  A good history of the hospital can be found at  The half mile railway was closed over sixty years ago and despite its short length a surprising amount of it can still be traced.  In the car park there are noticeable lengths of rail embedded in the tarmac and just beyond the tearooms the access road follows the old trackbed.
Joining The Mainline

I followed the road and at a junction a little further on the road veered off while the railway cutting continued on.  For about 300 metres I had classic disused railway walking, but the experience was pretty short-lived as at the next road crossing the railway route is lost to undergrowth, while the Rail Trail continues on its way across an orchard.  To be honest I didn’t miss a lot for only 200 metres or so further on I met the main Portsmouth to Southampton rail line.  The old junction is not easy to trace but at the fence of the main railway line a path continues on towards Netley station and the junction can be just about picked out (with a little imagination).  I turned right at the railway fence and headed towards Hamble station.
Netley Park

It wasn’t long before I came across the second of my branch line railways, the disused but largely intact railway that serves the BP Oil Terminal on the Solent coast.  The railway was originally built to service a factory building aeroplanes during World War 1 but the war ended before the railway was completed.  It has more recently serviced an oil refinery built where the aircraft factory used to be, but has not been used for more than twenty years.  Unusually for a rail trail, this one follows a railway that it still intact although the chances of it ever being used again must be remote given its condition.  Oil is transported via pipeline these days, rendering the railway obsolete, although BP are keen to keep it ‘just in case’.  A full history of the line can be found at
Overgrown Track

The junction with the main line has been severed although could probably be restored fairly easily.  Almost from the off the railway is almost completely enveloped by nature and it is surprising to note that trains still used the route as little as twenty years ago, such is the overgrowth.  No attempt has been made to remove any of the trackwork though and there are sidings and points buried underneath.  Once past the small pond on the right the path now follows the old line quite closely for a short distance until reaching the entrance to a police training college, which once served as the mental asylum wing of Netley Hospital.  At the road junction the rails have been covered over and on each side of what would have been the level crossing there are warning signs advising people how dangerous it is to walk along the railway.  Seemed a bit odd seeing as there is free and easy access further along each direction of the Rail Trail.  Across the road the route deviates away slightly to avoid some allotments, but then meets back up at the main road into Hamble village, where our branch line crosses by way of a level crossing.  Crossing this road wasn’t easy, although I didn’t need to worry about diverting down to the level crossing as suggested in the brochure.
Level Crossing

On the other side of the crossing the path heads down the right hand side of the rail line, which is now completely buried in bramble bushes.  On the other side of the tracks is a housing estate that I’m guessing wasn’t even here when the railway last ran.  On the left I could see the wide open expanse that was once Hamble Airfield, but despite me craning my neck and squinting across the site I couldn’t see any remains of the airstrip.  I did disturb a couple of deer though, who ran away at great speed, their tails bobbing up and down as they did so.  I am guessing that the airfield is a popular place for unofficial dog walking as there were several gaps in the fence all the way along. 
Passing New Housing

Eventually I reached Spitfire Way and changed sides of the rail line once again.  Here the line had split in two once again and some quite large trees were growing in the trackbed.  Surrounded by housing with nicely mowed grass all around though made this part of the line look a bit odd.  At the end of Spitfire Way the line crossed the main road for the last time and on the other side entered the oil depot.  Ironically this is the best preserved part of the line, but off limits to walkers.
Enetering the Depot

After my exploration of the two railways the rest of the Rail Trail is railway free, cutting across Hamble Copse and Hamble Common to the shore of Southampton Water.  This is a path I know well, since it formed the part of the Solent Way I had walked a few years ago.  This time I would be heading in the opposite direction as far as Victoria Park.  There wasn’t much in the way of shipping out on the water, other than a few oil tankers moored at the storage depots either side of Southampton Water.
Bare Trees

This section of walk along Southampton Water is probably one of the best sections of the Solent Way and I was very happy to reacquaint myself with it.  I soon passed the unusual gun turret that still keeps guard over the harbour and a little further on I stumbled across a car that had had all its windows bashed out.  As I got closer I realised that it must have been a fresh crime scene (or training exercise from the nearby police college) as I saw a young police officer standing guard over it.  The vehicle looked like it had been partially burnt out.
Keeping Watch

I eventually got to back to the Chapel in Victoria Park that was closed on account of it being refurbished.  Normally there is a good exhibition inside and next time I am down this way I shall take a look.  I also took a little look at the miniature railway that runs around the park.  All deserted today of course, but probably worth a future visit.
Netley Chapel

This is a short walk, but full of interest to anyone who likes old stuff like me.  There are plenty of remains from both World Wars, railways, industry and other history as well as all the shipping activity along Southampton Water.  It’s not challenging though so probably only worthy of attention if you are low on energy or short of time.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

London LOOP section 2 Old Bexley - Petts Wood

Bexley High Street
During the winter months I always think it pays not to be too ambitious with the distance for a day’s walk.  Fortunately the LOOP is ideal from that point of view for there are numerous staging points and the walk has been set up for more casual walkers, with each ‘official’ section not being more than about 12 miles long.  This section in particular is ideal for the short days available in December (although I am sure it would also be ideal for a summer’s evening).  Weighing in at only 7.5 miles (including the station links), it is a far cry from the previous section with far less urban walking and some ‘real’ countryside en route. 
Loring Hall

Public transport wise, it was actually a bit of a pain since I had to contend with the dreaded rail engineering works that extended my journey somewhat.  Instead of changing at Hither Green I was forced all the way into Central London and had to change at London Bridge, meaning that my journey from one end to the other was in excess of an hour (rather a lot for 7 miles as the crow flies!).  The weather was looking fairly grey as I emerged from the train at Bexley but I did have high hopes that it might clear up as there were odd breaks in the cloud.

Bexley High Street was quite busy for a Sunday, with people still getting ready for Christmas.  For me though, I soon left the crowds behind as the LOOP disappeared back under the railway and on the other side I was back into open countryside.  This is a feature of the LOOP; it leaves the urban areas behind at every opportunity.  I passed by some very small kids having hockey practice, which was quite encouraging to see (I thought kids were only interested in football these days).  After passing by the hockey club I climbed up onto a rather featureless field that looked suspiciously like a landfill site (it was as I later discovered).  It wasn’t the greatest introduction to today’s walk, especially as I discovered pockets of flytipped material across the field.
Five Arched Bridge

Luckily this rather boring introduction was soon forgotten as I rejoined the River Cray near to Loring Hall.  Almost immediately my spirits rose as this started what would become a delightful walk along the banks of the shallow babbling river.  I also became aware of a rather horrible screeching sound overhead and remembered that other walkers have reported a colony of parakeets living in the area, having escaped from captivity many years ago.  I soon spotted their colourful green plumage flashing through the bare trees, with many roosting high up in the branches.  One suggestion is that the original birds escaped from the film set of ‘The African Queen’, a 1950s film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn and filmed in Shepperton Studios in south west London.  This exotic explanation may or may not be true, but what is undeniable is that these birds are causing concern due to their numbers and their competing for the same nesting spots as native birds.
Cray Meadows

This section of the Cray valley forms the Foots Cray Meadow Nature Reserve and was obviously very popular with dog walkers and joggers who were out in force on this Sunday morning.  I soon came upon the defining structure of the reserve, the much-photographed Five-Arched Bridge.  It was easy to see why this landmark is much loved – it adds to the natural beauty of the park in a fairly understated way. Apparently it is the remnants of a country estate that surrounded the erstwhile Foots Cray estate, which was destroyed in the 1940s. Almost underneath the bridge is a weir, which holds quite a lot of water back and producing a pond rather than the fast flowing river that the Cray is.  The pond was a focus for water birds and ducks, swans, moorhens and coots were all busy swimming around and looking for people to feed them.  They soon were satisfied by a local family who had come bearing bread, precipitating a flurry of activity largely dominated by the swans. 
St Paul's Cray Church

About half a mile further on, the path alongside the Cray abruptly ended at a bridge and very high fence surrounding an industrial factory.  This was the last I would see of the river, with the path heading into Foots Cray.  I took the opportunity to have a look at the church adjacent to the path, which was a quiet and tranquil spot.  Foots Cray itself is a strange mixture of old and new, with some fine old buildings at one end and some fairly anonymous 1960s housing at the other.  As with so many urban walks I had to take a great deal of care getting through this section, courtesy of the jokers who think it’s a great laugh to turn signs around.
Cray Wanderers

The path does its best to avoid most of the urban area and winds its way through various alleyways and bits of greenspace through Foots Cray.  As I negotiated the twists and turns I passed by the ground of Cray Wanderers, the second oldest football team in the country.  The players looked like they had recently finished training as they were all huddled by the rather modest stand having drinks.  I passed by the deserted scout and guide halls before heading into the grounds of Sidcup Place.  I climbed the modest hill to the house, which was once Council Offices but now houses a public house.  There views back across the Cray Valley and despite the fairly countrified nature of the walk so far I was quite surprised how built up the view actually was. 
Sidcup Place

The grounds of Sidcup Place are delightful and I had a peek at the formal garden adjacent to the house.  The roses were still manfully continuing to flower, but were far from the riot of colour that they must be during June.  After the delights of Sidcup Place I had a rude shock as I had to negotiate the large junction with the A20 Sidcup by-pass.  Fortunately walkers and cyclists are well catered for, with a series of walkways, subways and bridges to enable a crossing of this major junction without getting mown down.

On the other side of the A20 I crossed into the London Borough of Bromley and immediately into Scadbury Park.  Notwithstanding the traffic sounds the path took on a very remote feel as it crossed the park.  Indeed it was very hard to believe that I was in London at all – I could easily have been on the North Downs judging by the scenery and feel of it.  The path looped around the very strange looking Scadbury Manor, which has long gone but has left behind some strange looking remnants.  Alas, I forgot to take some pictures of what I saw so I might come back and get some shots when I walk the next section.  Some good pictures can be found at
Park Wood

From Scadbury Manor the LOOP continues through Park Wood, a lovely woodland walk that was a lot quieter than previous sections despite being surrounded by housing.  Having the path to myself for extended periods of time was not what I was expecting from a path around the suburbs of London, but that proves to be a lot of the walk’s charm.
William Willet Memorial

From Park Wood I had to cross another busy road and headed into Petts Wood.  Sandwiched between Chislehurst, Petts Wood and St Paul’s Cray, this piece of woodland was once under serious threat of housing development but thanks to local campaigners and the National Trust it has now been preserved for all to enjoy.  I was aware of a couple of monuments to look out for in the woods but as both were a little off the path I had to be careful not to miss them.  The first is a monument to William Willett.  His claim to fame is that he campaigned for the rather taken for granted notion of daylight saving time.  I have to say that I have a lot to thank him for as I couldn’t imagine summer evenings ending at 9pm rather than 10pm.  That extra hour makes all the difference!
Late Fungi

The other monument is for Francis Edlmann for his work in helping to preserve Petts Wood for everyone to enjoy.  Even on a gloomy winter Sunday, it really is a delightful place so thank you Mr Edlmann!

As I walked on I came upon yet another railway line.  This proved to be a busy one, with trains rattling by every few minutes.  The path turned to follow the line, eventually leaving the woods and heading into farmland briefly.  At this point I crossed the tracks over a caged footbridge (presumably to help protect the tracks below from hooligans chucking stuff on trains.  I can’t help but feel sad about this development.  The tracks below revealed that a little further on is a massive railway junction as two main lines cross each other.  The trackwork gives every permutation of joining the two lines together in any direction.  Almost as soon as I crossed the bridge I was surprised to cross another bridge, this time over a single line that I assume is rarely used since the bridge had no caging over it.
Cage Bridge

I cut along the back of a rather attractive housing estate and came upon yet another railway bridge crossing the north-south line.  I could see the extent of the rail works that had forced my earlier train diversion, with several engineers working on the track, only feet from trains continuing to rattle past.

For me this meant the end of the official walk for the day.  All that remained was to head along the link path the half mile into Petts Wood and reclaim my car from the station car park.  It was a short but very satisfying section of walk feeling a lot more like a country walk than a circular route through suburbia.  If you are walking this way in the summer, it could easily be tacked on to the first section, but I wouldn’t in December!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Wye Valley Walk Monmouth - Chepstow

Monmouth Viaduct
One of these days I shall complete the whole of the Wye Valley Walk from Plynlimon to Chepstow along what is perhaps the most scenic of all rivers in England and Wales.  I have completed the sections from Hereford to Chepstow although sadly no photographs exist for the section north of Monmouth and I shall once again make the pilgrimage (perhaps as part of the full 12 day walk!).
Monmouth Wreck

However, the section from Monmouth to Chepstow is definitely worth doing in its own right and makes for a great walk at any time of year.  On the day I completed this section it was a cold February day, starting grey and after a few bouts of snow it became very sunny for awhile before heading back into terminal greyness as I approached Chepstow.  One of the best parts about this stretch of the walk is that you are never too far away from the Wye Valley bus route, which runs 7 days a week even during the winter months.  It means that if you struggle to complete the 16 miles the bus will pick up the pieces (although be warned – there are only 4 return journeys on a Sunday).
River Wye

I had stayed the night in Monmouth and as I was anxious about making an early start, I set off walking from there rather than getting the bus to the beginning as is my normal preference.  It was a Sunday morning and as a result the first bus was quite late in the morning and I knew that would mean the possibility of it getting dark before finishing otherwise.  It did mean that I had Monmouth pretty much to myself at this fairly early hour, since most sensible people would have been having a leisurely breakfast or even a lie-in!
Redbrook Bridge

I immediately crossed the Wye using the A466 bridge and headed out across that most Welsh of leisure facilities, a set of rugby pitches.  A little further on at the confluence of the River Monmow, the remains of two viaducts that once carried railway lines from Ross-on-Wye and Chepstow into Monmouth Troy station, stand guard over the river like monuments to a lost railway empire.  The path continues around a sewage works, not the nicest of introductions to the day!  On such a grey morning the fields looked very muddy and the river was swollen and full of sediment.  I couldn’t help but notice an abandoned vehicle in the middle of one of the fields, partially burned out and creating a pollution hazard to the hapless farmer owning the land, a visual nuisance to passers-by and a logistical headache to anyone tasked with removing the old heap.  Looking at the field it must have been quite a journey to get down here for the nearest road was a good few hundred metres away.
February Mud

Around the next meander loop I was once again joined by the A466 and every so often the sound of the wind through the trees and the bubbling water below me was punctuated by the sound of the odd car passing by.  Luckily on a fairly cold and inhospitable day there wasn’t much traffic about.  As I approached Redbrook, I was heartened to see some blue sky and suddenly the sun came beaming through, completely transforming the scene.  I began to think that I had made the right choice continuing as I had contemplated earlier not bothering and heading home early.
Wye Overview

At Redbrook I was reunited with the disused railway line, which would once have had a station hereabouts although now completely obliterated by road improvements.  Despite the disappointment of the station having disappeared there was a treat in store as the path crosses the river courtesy of a footbridge still attached to the substantial former rail bridge that once made the same crossing.  On the other side of the river I passed by a very attractive looking pub that was once apparently served by another station on this side of the river (now also disappeared).  For the next three miles the walk continues along the old trackbed of the railway line, which makes for very easy walking.  Unfortunately the sunshine which had greeted me earlier had now disappeared once again and the clouds above looked very threatening.  By the time I got to the site of Whitebrook Halt (also now gone) I feared the worst as far as the weather was concerned.  Within seconds the heavens opened and the shower that ensued was a wintry mixture of snow, sleet and hail all within the space of a few minutes, making my surroundings completely white very quickly.
Classic Wye View

Luckily the precipitation didn’t last long and from here I was faced with a complete change of pace as the path left the nice easy disused railway path and climbed steeply out of the valley.  To be honest it felt good to get some climbing done after the 5 mile or so warm up I had had sauntering along the river valley.  It was good to get a complete change of scenery and I hoped that I would get some views from up top.
Frog Spawn

When I eventually reached the top of the hill at Cuckoo Wood what I was actually greeted with was a sea of mud which was quite hard work.  Nevertheless with the sun out once again it was a delightful stretch and the woods smelled very earthy and wet.  There were signs of spring coming too, with camellias out in bloom, snowdrops in flower and I even spotted some frog spawn in a puddle (which hopefully won’t dry the poor blighters out before they’ve even hatched!).  I crossed a road high above Llandogo and could hear the rushing sound of Cleddon Falls below me.  I then continued on to Bargain Wood where now and again I got some fantastic views across the valley, when gaps in the trees allowed.
White Bridge

At the southern end of Bargain Wood I started coming across other walkers and even families, tempted out by the sunshine.  I wasn’t wholly in favour of this as I had enjoyed the solitude offered so far.  However, I soon left these people behind as they seemed to restrict themselves around a small area near the forest car park.  At the intriguingly named Botany Bay, the path started to head back down into the valley, gently at first but eventually pretty steeply as I got towards the bottom.  I crossed the A466 and reunited with the trackbed once again.  From here it was a short walk down to Tintern old station, where I used the opportunity for a sit down and a spot of lunch.  I didn’t hang around too long this time (see the walk at … for more details of Tintern Station).  I continued along the trackbed until it comes to an abrupt halt where the bridge once crossed the Wye but is now missing.  At this point I left the trackbed for the last time and headed along the banks of the Wye once again into Tintern village, a good mile away from the station.
Tintern Signal Box

Tintern itself was pretty quiet, which was pleasing since the path continues along the side of the road through the village.  Before getting to the famous abbey, I left the main road and headed up out of the valley once again.  The only view of the abbey was a brief glimpse as I headed out behind one of the hotels overlooking the old place.  Eventually the road ran out and I found myself climbing slowly up a fairly dank and dark valley to Limekiln Wood and then up on to Black Cliff.  The woods at the top were completely deserted and a joy to walk through, although strangely quiet as most of the birds I assumed had hunkered down out of the cold.  One of the most enjoyable aspects to this stretch of the walk were the odd glimpses of view that I got across the wider countryside and the valley below.  Eventually I reached Wyndcliff and stood and gazed out at the fantastic view from the wonderfully named Eagles Nest.  From here the mouth of the Wye can be seen where it meets the Severn, together with the Severn crossings and across into England beyond.
Approaching Chepstow

From Wyndcliff the path then negotiates 365 steps down to a lower level on the valley sides.  It’s a deceptively long way from here to Chepstow through the woods and by now the weather had closed in once again.  Despite the proximity of Chepstow racecourse on a piece of flat land above the path, it is like a different world walking through the woods.  This is a most interesting stretch of the walk full of fairly derelict features such as grottoes and viewpoints, which apparently formed part of a landscaped walk around the grounds of Piercefield Hall (see   These apparently are subject to some improvements being carried out, which will no doubt raise their profile considerably  (see for details).  Knowing that I was up against time, I rather skipped through this section but have made a mental note to return one day and pay proper attention.  I was very aware that I would face a two hour wait if I missed the next bus back to Monmouth so hot footed it the last mile or so to make sure I wasn’t stranded!  As it happened I just made it and my five hour walk to get here was reduced to a half hour journey back on the bus.
Chepstow Castle