Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Station to Station: Falmer to Lewes

Falmer Sunrise

I like to get out at least once during the Christmas holidays although this year looked like it might not be possible given the awful weather that we have experienced during December.  I rather guessed that most places in Sussex might be under several feet of mud so decided that I would try a new type of walking - station to station.  This is something I have been doing for a while where other walks have allowed me, but there are times when I just want to explore the countryside in an area where I would normally travel through by train.  This is the first then of an occasional series.
Falmer Church
The East Coastway line is the first I ever used as a train passenger in my childhood and I thought it would make sense therefore to go there first.  Additionally I knew that walking largely on the Downs would offer something of a respite from the mud!  I parked in Falmer village by the pond shortly after sun up (in reality not that early in the week of Christmas!).  Be aware that there is a 2 hour parking limit on weekdays here so be careful if leaving your car.  I reckoned on just about finishing my walk before the time limit was up thanks to my early start and getting some distance under my feet before the restriction starts (9am).
Looking Back to Falmer
Watching the sun come up over Falmer pond was quite a treat.  This little oasis of a village seems to have maintained its character despite the imposition of the A27 through the middle of it and the proximity of Brighton and Hove Albion's football stadium and the two universities of Sussex and Brighton close by.  I lingered for a short while enjoying the atmosphere before moving on.  There was a time not too long ago when this walk had a very unpleasant start as the only means by which you could access the downland ridge above Falmer was to walk along the verge of the busy B2123 road.  Thankfully that is no longer the case thanks to a new path built to facilitate walking to the stadium from Woodingdean.  It was the presence of this path that persuaded me that this walk should be done again.  If you decide to do it just be aware that the path is shared by cyclists and they come down the hill at a fair old lick!
Brighton Football Stadium
The path up the hill was a reasonable climb but steady rather than very steep.  Normally I would have turned off to the left about half way up and headed over to a small woodland.  However, I wanted to try and get a picture from Castle Hill across Brighton to Worthing beyond.  On a clear day it is possible to see the Isle of Wight from here too although when I reached it finally I was disappointed to see that it was too murky to see beyond Brighton.  Nevertheless the feeling of height and space up here is remarkable and it felt good to have some fresh air in my lungs after days of being cooped up at home.  Yet despite the sunshine it was not the cold crisp day that you might expect but a rather mild day such as you might associate with October.
Brighton From Castle Hill
Just before getting to Woodingdean I turned sharp left and headed to the crest of the hill and passed the communications tower.  I suspect this area has previously has a bit of a problem with travellers for every opportunity to install a defensive mechanism had been taken and there was bunding and padlocks everywhere.  I wandered along the mostly well drained track to the mast and turned to look at Brighton for the last time before setting my sights  on Lewes. 

Castle Hill Puddles
From here to Lewes I would be following Juggs Road; this was an ancient track used by the fishermen of Brighton (so called Juggs) to take their produce from the beach to the market in Lewes.  Back in those days Brighton was nothing more than a small collection of houses by the sea while Lewes was the biggest centre around back then - how times change!
Over The Hills and Far Away
At first the walk along the ridge was downhill and I had views southward towards the sea.  I have come to realise that I barely know this area of the South Downs despite living in the area for most of my life.  I think that may be something to put right in 2016?  The ridge I do know however and the views from here are some of my favourites anywhere along the South Downs; perhaps because they are so familiar to me.  I had the whole ridge to myself save for a Land Rover ahead attending to the feed for the cattle and sheep that always seem to be up here whenever I come. 
View to Lewes
Eventually I came to the end of the Downland ridge and reluctantly descended into the village of Kingston.  As I passed by a herd of cattle they gave me a rather noisy reception - maybe they thought I was about to steal the food they had just been given?  Dropping down the steep path from the Kingston ridge into the village itself was rather tough going as the chalky path was very slippery.  I felt rather foolish as I slithered down the hill to be passed by a couple of runners heading the other way looking rather more graceful in their stride than I was!  A word about the view across to Lewes though - this has been changed recently by the reappearance of Ashcombe Windmill, reconstructed after the original was destroyed in a storm nearly one hundred years ago.  I can only say that this addition to the landscape is a very welcome sight.

Mount Caburn
The bottom of the hill I wandered along through some well appointed houses (even sporting daffodils in the garden - who would have thought that in December?) to Nan Kemp's Corner.  This is supposedly the final resting place of Nan Kemp, the perpetrator of a very grisly crime that has become something of a local legend.  I couldn't even tell you whether it is true but I can remember the story being told to me when I was a young boy.  Nan Kemp was supposed to have murdered her baby and served up the baby in a pie for her husband to eat when he came back from a day toiling in the fields.  When she lived and how much the story has been embellished is a bit of a mystery but I guess there is some truth to it as it has persisted for longer than anyone can remember.  She was hanged of course, it is said somewhere near this spot.

Ashcombe Windmill and Lewes Prison
I crossed the road that leads through the village of Kingston and headed up past the windmill.  As I got closer I could see that it actually has six sweeps, rather unusual for a windmill in Sussex.  Apparently the owner of the windmill has constructed it in part to replace the original windmill but also to generate electricity to sell back to the grid.  I'll bet even the most vocal of anti-wind farm campaigners would have a hard time objecting to this one.

Kingston Daffodils
I rather thought that the field that you have to cross here would be rather muddy but I was thankfully mistaken - those ancient fishermen obviously picked this route on the basis that it was dry for most of the year and therefore provided an easier track than the present day route along the valley.  I was 'joined' on this section of the walk by two boisterous children - they rather disturbed my peace.  Having left mine at home today this was rather an unwelcome intrusion. I have to say that I am a lot less tolerant of other people's children - I must be getting old!

Ashcombe Winmill
Thankfully I outpaced them and left them behind entirely at the next gate.  The onward path was enclosed and again rather cleaner than I remember it being.  The roar of the traffic from the nearby A27 Lewes Bypass now began to be a lot more noticeable and further on the line of the old Juggs Road is severed by the gash that this 1970s road created through the landscape.  Instead of gently descending into Southover the road now has to detour down to a big arched bridge where I can remember cycling as a child to get the thrill of the descent.  The saplings that were planted alongside the road have now developed into small trees and the uninterrupted view that used to exist across to the Victorian prison is no more.

The Swan
At the bottom end of Juggs Road a small housing estate has been built that further diverts the old road and the junction with the road to Newhaven (formerly the A275) has been lost as a result.  I passed by the Swan pub, still seemingly in good health, before continuing along Southover High Street.  As a driving experience passing along this road is not a pleasure since speed bumps and other traffic calming measures were put in some years ago.  However, it does mean that walking along here is more enjoyable as there is a lot less traffic.  The buildings along here are quite a mixture of historical styles and it is a very interesting road to walk along.

Southover High Street
A little past the Anne of Cleves House, so called because it was handed to the fourth wife of Henry VIII as part of their divorce settlement, I took a right turn to head down towards the Priory Ruins.  I still get a thrill to be able to walk through the ruins after they were opened up to the public a few years ago.  For most of my life they had been protected by chain link and barbed wire fencing but the safety works that were carried out with lottery funding meant that people are now free to walk through them and enjoy the atmosphere of this Cluniac Priory, the first of its kind in the UK.  From here it was a short walk to the railway station and on board for the short ride back to Falmer.
Lewes Priory

For a shortish trip this had a little of everything - magnificent views; some personal nostalgia; new and exciting developments that in my opinion have enhanced the landscape and the most fantastic views from the Downs.  I can see that this is the sort of walk that I shall enjoy repeating in the months ahead

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Puttenham Common

Car Park View

What happens when you give your children a free choice about what walk to do from a choice of 3 different Pathfinder Walk books?  The shortest one available of course!  This is what happened for our latest walk - they were both keen to go out in the absence of their Mum but when it came to choosing they decided on the one with more car time to and from the walk than the walk itself!  Still on these short wintry days that is probably a blessing.  This is walk 1 in the Pathfinder Guide volume 65 Surrey Walks.

As it happens this turned out to be a pretty good choice as despite the wet weather that we have experienced this area is pretty dry thanks to the sandy geology of this corner of Surrey.  It was a pretty hairy drive to get to the car park at the beginning of the walk - the lane is very narrow with some steep sides in places and thank goodness we didn't meet any cars coming the other way!
Hanging on to Summer
The walk starts from the upper car park (the first one that you reach if you come from the Puttenham direction).  Immediately the view across the sandy heathland that characterises this part of Surrey was magnificent and we could see some considerable distance.  As we did on my last walk with younger daughter we had our lunch first before heading out - this is a good tactic as then we don't have to carry it!
The Tarn
Immediately our path headed down away from the car park towards the lake that is at the bottom of the hill, but which isn't obvious until you are almost upon it.  We had to walk along a short stretch of road on the way down which wasn't very pleasant.  I suspect that if you become familiar enough with the woods here you would probably be able to avoid that.  When we re-entered the woods we passed by some very large parasol mushrooms which rather fascinated all of us.  Despite the lateness of the season these were in fine fettle.  However, it has to be said that temperatures have been pretty high throughout the autumn and winter seems not to be in a hurry to properly arrive.
General's Pond
In fact as we got down towards the lake there were even signs that some trees were having a hard time letting go of summer let alone autumn!  As we reached the lower car park we passed by an oak tree that still seemed unusually green for the time of year.  A little beyond that and the reflections off the lake itself made the temperatures feel positively warm!  As we reached the lake the path continued along the shore for a little while and then headed off back into the forest.  That was rather a shame as for my money the stretch along the lake shore was the highlight of the whole walk.
Puttenham Common
As we walked through the woods I became aware of a fence blocking further access to the lake so we couldn't even wander across from our path for an extra look.  The woods themselves were pretty dark and the low sun clearly makes little headway through the trees.  Soon we reached another smaller lake, called the General's Pond. This is almost completely round in shape and the only gap in the woods for quite some distance.  It was also perhaps the only area where we found some mud and there was some extra entertainment in the shape of an overflow channel that we had to jump to continue our walk.  The pond itself is named after General James Oglethorpe, a philanthropist and prison reformer who founded the state of Georgia in America, who bought this estate in 1744.
Looking Towards Hogs Back
As we continued along the path my younger daughter commented on similarities in the countryside to the walk we did at Waverley Abbey earlier in the year.  This was a spot on observation for the path continued up on to a heathland in much the same way that we had done back then.  At the top we came across an Iron Age hill fort although to be fair I am not sure I would have recognised it if it had not been pointed out in the guidebook.  The ramparts were largely buried under vegetation and bushes but they could be picked out.  Ahead of us was the ridge of the Hog's Back, a feature that I recognised from many car journeys along this spine of hills leading westwards from Guildford.
Lascombe House
There was little time to enjoy the height we had gained though as we headed downhill once again to eventually join the North Downs Way.  This is a stretch I have walked but I must admit that in the 11 years since I walked it I barely remembered any of it!  The small Totford Hatch cottage was one I remembered but the short stretch that we walked was largely in trees and devoid of views so perhaps it isn't surprising that I don't really remember it.  I got told off by my children as we walked along here for I picked up a number of beer cans along the way.  My children don't like it because they think I look like a drinker but I can't bear to see unnecessary litter in the countryside, especially when it is good quality recycling!
At the top of the hill where the heathland opened out again we saw a very large looking pile ahead of us.  This house was designed by the celebrated architect Edward Lutyens and the surrounding gardens by Gertrude Jekyll.  This famous double act often collaborated and left their mark on many late Victorian developments.
Fading Light
From here it was a short stroll back through woodlands to the car.  Being such a fine day we saw lots of people out and about in this area - it is clearly a popular spot with locals.  Was I disappointed by the shortness of the walk?  Not really - it was good to get some fresh air in my lungs and even a short walk is better than no walk at all!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Ardingly Reservoir

Looking Over the Reservoir

Back from France and an INSET day came up before youngest daughter and I had to return to school and work respectively.  How lucky we were then that the weather was absolutely top notch for the day.  In fact it had an end of term feel to it as the weather forecast for the remaining part of the week was absolutely dire.  We decided upon walk number 10 from Pathfinder Guide vol 66 West Sussex and the South Downs (It is also walk no.7 in volume 52 More Sussex Walks) as we thought we would see some nice autumn colours before they all disappear.

Ardingly Church
We packed a picnic but ended up having this in the car before we set off so that we didn't have to worry about finding a dry spot.  The car park at Ardingly Reservoir is immediately below the dam and the water company that owns it seem to have finally abandoned charging.  I cannot say that I am overly surprised for the post barrier that enabled entry and exit was always failing.  It's good to know though - I might be encouraged to come more regularly now!
Tile Hung

We walked up the right hand side of the dam and through the woodland alongside the reservoir for a short way before turning our backs on the reservoir and heading up the slopes into Ardingly village.  As we wandered up the hill it was clear that autumn was starting to lose its influence to winter.  The berries on the hedgerows were starting to shrivel up and every breath of wind brought down a flurry of leaves.

Horse Traffic
Despite the blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures the one thing that we encountered that confirmed the change of season was the mud, which we encountered almost from the off.  It also meant that when we got to Ardingly church we had sufficiently muddy boots that we didn't feel too comfortable going inside.  We had a little look around the churchyard and admired the red berries now formed on the ubiquitous yew tree.  The church is located in a small cluster of tile hung houses away from the newer village centre.  All was very peaceful as we wandered through and headed out alongside the showground nearby.  
Autumn Splendour

The South of England Show is still a very big event in Sussex and the showground dominates the Ardingly village.  Over 80,000 visitors come every year in June to see the agricultural show, which surprisingly has only been going since 1967.  Other events are held throughout the year and as we approached there were large numbers of horse boxes around, suggesting that we may have just missed an equestrian type event.

Tillinghurst Farm
Our path continued along through some trees away from the showground and then down a farm track to Tillinghurst Farm.  There wasn't much action at the farm but the pond outside seemed to be quite a haven for ducks and there were plenty swimming around in the sunshine much to the delight of my daughter.  The farm track finished here and we had to continue down the side of a field.  To our right the woodland that we walked alongside is actually part of the Wakehurst Place estate.  As we reached the bottom of the hill we passed the cabin that is the focus of the Loder Valley Nature Reserve.  Any idea that we could access the estate here though were soon scotched by the fact that the entrance gate seems to be very well secured.  Seems rather strange, considering you would have to go to some considerable effort to reach the estate from this direction.

The path descended a bit more via a really muddy bit until we reached one of the arms of Ardingly Reservoir again.  This steep sided valley must have looked so different before it was flooded in 1978.  Now the lake looks quite natural and shimmered in the autumn sunlight.  The reflections of the yellow and brown trees in the water were quite beautiful and after we had crossed the footbridge I think we were both agreed that we would have wanted to walk alongside the water rather than climbing up through the trees.  It proved to be a rather steeper climb than we expected.

When we got to the top we faced a section of road walking, which wasn't so pleasant especially when we had to stand aside to let cars pass.  Fortunately this wasn't too long and when we got to West Hill we took the path opposite the farm buildings to head down to the reservoir edge once again.  This was a very squelchy walk down through some spent farm equipment at the top of the hill to what can only be described as a bog at the bottom.  I suspect that in the depths of winter this path would be nigh on impossible unless there has been a heavy frost.  We climbed over the stile and reunited with the reservoir by an interpretive board that has been rather creatively defaced to show a warrior helmet scratched into the dirt that has built up on the surface.
Reservoir Arm

The last section of our walk was now exclusively along the reservoir edge.  We were strangely detached from the water though, with the path mostly hidden behind small trees and bushes preventing open views.  There were lots of birds on the reservoir but strangely they mostly seemed to be seagulls rather than ducks or geese.  Maybe the seagull mafia protect against such riff-raff?

Yew Berries
We soon came back to the road we had left earlier as it crosses an arm of the reservoir via a large causeway.  It was only here that we started meeting other walkers as they headed out as far as here along the footpath from the car park.  We also passed some runners that looked as if they came from nearby Ardingly College.  I wasn't sure that this was a regular PE session though - we only saw three runners and the expected mass behind them didn't materialise much to my relief.  Before getting back to the car park we stopped by at the bird hide that has been built near to the dam.  This didn't detain us long as there were no birds to see!

This is a short walk ideally suited to an autumn expedition.  At only five miles long don't expect a big workout but for daughter and I it was just about perfect for our day together.  After finishing we headed off to Nyman's Gardens nearby for a well deserved cuppa - there is also a tea house in Ardingly village that would be worth a look too.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Velorail Des Andaines

Bagnoles De L'Orne
Whenever we go to France these days we try to look out for a velorail.  These operations are run on disused railway lines where the tracks have not been lifted and it is possible to use a specially adapted bike that takes up to four people.  There are a few such operations in Normandy and we have already tried the ones at Val de Maizet and Pont Erambourg.  A couple of others exist at Conde Sur Vire and Couterne but these weren’t open in October sadly.  We saw one at Bagnoles De L’Orne and weren’t sure whether it would be open as the website was a bit coy.  Nevertheless we thought we would try and if it wasn’t open we could still enjoy the scenery around this old spa town.

Autumn Colours

We arrived at the town shortly before lunch and it was immediately obvious that this town was rather different from others around the area.  It was grandly laid out for the type of discerning clientele you might expect of a place where people come to take the waters.  The railway station was still intact although trains have not run here since 1992 when the branch line from the nearby town La Ferte Mace closed down.  This would once have provided direct access from Bagnoles to Paris by train.  There was a sign up at the station suggesting that we would be in luck early in the afternoon and so we decided to have a look around town and head for a leisurely lunch first.
Bagnoles Hotel

Bagnoles is built around a beautiful lake, and this acts as the focal point of the town.  As it was now the zenith of autumn the colours of the trees were a fantastic palette of yellows, reds and browns.  Judging by the colours on show I rather suspect that the planting had been planned to ensure maximum impact.  Someone clearly had a lot of foresight!  The cloud had cleared just before we arrived to really add some extra colour by virtue of its golden light.  We wandered around the perimeter of the lake and then found ourselves a charming pizzeria/ galleteria for lunch.  Galletes are a sort of savoury pancake eaten in this part of Normandy and two of us had those while the others two had wood fired pizza.  It was delicious and feeling fortified we set off for the velorail to find that it was open for business.
Bagnoles Station

Bagnoles station is a two platform terminus that has clearly seen better days.  It wasn't always a terminus as a line continued on to the nearby village of Couterne but this appears to have closed in 1941, probably as a wartime measure that was never reversed.  Any trace of the onward line has disappeared I imagine under new development and the local road network.  History of the line is hard to come by even on French language websites but maybe one day someone will be interested enough to do some research.  It was even possible to travel by train to Alencon and Domfront by rail from here by changing at Couterne.  Some of this line is available as another velorail route - one for the future perhaps?

Draisines Lined Up At Station

The station seems to be used as some form of community building since its closure but the platform side of the building is badly neglected.  The only track still remaining is on the building side of the station.  The other platform is very overgrown and I suspect that it has not been used for more than 50 years judging by the tree growth on the platform itself.  We paid our money to the young lass in the booth and mounted our velo.  The daughters had really fancied a go at pedalling and so far have not been able to because they were too young.  They were very excited when the lady invited them to have a go and reduced the size of the seats to accommodate them.  Us parents were pleased to have the youngsters do the work for us!

Passing Former Yard
As we left the station along the track it was obvious that there had been some freight facility here in the past for there were the layouts of sidings on either side of the solitary track remaining.  Initially the cycling was easy as we headed through beech forest.  We soon passed the hippodrome, a rather different looking racecourse to ones that we might be used to seeing in the UK.  For one thing it was a much smaller facility with some pretty tight looking corners for the horses to run around.

Heading Through The Tree Tunnel
As we passed the hippodrome we picked up a bit of speed and it was soon obvious that we were heading downhill through the forest.  On the right was a pretty looking large house that was done out to look like some kind of castle and was large enough to suggest that it may be some kind of country house hotel.  That was pretty much the last civilisation that we saw for a while as we descended through the forest.  It was pretty murky in there as the density of trees was such that the low autumn sun struggled to penetrate through the wood.

Level Crossing
On our way down through the woods our passage was interrupted at a level crossing.  As is customary with velorail operations, cyclists have to give way to cars and this is quite effectively enforce by stringing a bungee cord across the line with a big stop banner attached to it.  The effect of that is that you have to get off the bike in order to pass underneath the cord.  As with just about every one of these crossings that we have come across over the years the road was deserted and didn’t look as if any cars would ever come.  There was no sign of any crossing gates or gatekeeper’s cottage so this may well have not had any during operational days.

Getting Through The Forest
Eventually we came out into more open countryside and passed underneath a large arched bridge, the only engineering structure of any note along the route.  Cycling became much harder now as the gradient was against us and we shuffled around to make sure that others could have a go.  It wasn’t long before we saw a crowd of other velorailers and found that we had come to the end of the line.  The rails came to an abrupt end and the onward passage was only available on foot.  The main reason for this is the construction of a by-pass across the line of the track.  This was probably the death knell for the railway in the first place although it was interesting to see that it had been constructed in such a way that the authorities could reconfigure the routes to ensure that both could co-exist.

Only Bridge
At the end of the line we quickly discovered that we were the last of this contingent of cyclists to head out and all the others were therefore waiting for us so they could head back.  We used the turning wheel to turn our cycle and without further ado we headed back to Bagnoles.  The whole route was probably no more than about three miles in each direction.  Heading back took rather a lot more effort for the route was more uphill than down but we soon rolled into Bagnoles station where we saw another crowd of people waiting for our return so that they could do the trip.
End of the Velorail Section
This was a short velorail by comparison with others we have been on and a little short on railway engineering structures to look at.  It was a very pleasant ride through the forest though and especially in autumn (although I imagine that spring would be good too).  Combined with a day out and lunch/ looking round the shops in Bagnoles and you make for a mighty fine day out if you are in this part of the world.
Arrival Back at Bagnoles