It has been on the list for ages, the old railway line from Shoreham to Christ’s Hospital, carrying onto Guildford. All part of Dr. Beeching cuts in the 1960s and now 37 mile managed bridleway linking the South Downs to the North Downs. With only small parts being paved, it is a route I have wanted to do during the summer as I can believe it gets pretty rough going in areas. Coming to mid September it would have to be now or wait until next year, even the forecast of rain through out the day would not stop me.
I like the idea of all these old railways crossing the country, taking you back to a time not so long ago (when you think about dinosaurs and such like) and certainly within living memory of a large number of people. Railways were all over the place in a country now where such lines might actually be used more or even differently (trams instead of trains?), weird when you think a train from Shoreham to Horsham 70 years would probably been quicker and direct against today having to change and go backwards and forwards until you got there. In 1984, the route was tidied up, the track having long since gone and nature taking over, and turned into a national path.
I’ve taken the route from Shoreham to Partridge Green many times. It’s bumpy and offroad, but nothing my touring bike cannot handle as long as I can handle my bike getting dirty(!). It’s actually the only flat way out from between the South Downs and so it gets a lot of use. The only other options is the main road (not the nicest for cyclist or car driver) or the country lane which remains closed following the Shoreham Airshow crash last month. It means currently, the only way out is along this path to Steyning.
The forecast was rain for most of the day but little wind, getting wet isn’t a problem I was thinking as I packed waterproofs, the early morning red sunrise seemed to back this forecast up.
First stop would be at Shoreham and the rail junction that once would take you off towards Christ’s Hospital. You have to be on a train along the surviving line to see where this once joined on, but even from the road there are clues. These days a motor home sits on the elevated line, looking like it belongs to a car cleaning company. It does not get too far until it hits a gap where a second rail bridge would have crossed overhead (the first remaining and still carrying the line to Worthing). From there on an embankment carries the line to the riverside. This is all private land and so overgrown that there would be no hope in getting a bike through even if you tried, instead the paved path takes you straight to the riverside and rejoins at the end of the embankment. Freshly painted buffers stop any would be ghost trains crashing into the fence and into the undergrowth of the embankment.
It is not too far until you get to the first feature of the line, the level crossing over the old A27. It was not until 1970 that a massive flyover and major junction was built a little further down the road to carry the now dual carriage way A27 seamlessly over the river and onto Lancing. Until that took place, the journey from Shoreham to Lancing along this trunk road would include a major cross roads (now a mini roundabout, maybe it was a roundabout before?), the level crossing, then stopping to pay for the toll bridge. The bridge, made of wood having been rebuilt during the first world war, would only been wide enough for single file traffic. I can only think of the joy when the flyover was opened. This was the last toll bridge in Sussex to be closed.
You soon leave the smooth paved path and you will not see this again until you reach Cranleigh in Surrey. Hard packed orange ‘mud’ and then gravel become your friend and companion for a number of miles. It’s bumpy.
This bit of line was able to hang on a bit, not closing until much later after the Beeching cuts due to it servicing the cement works further up the line. The cement works remain although closed many years ago, they now stand either side of the main road like a ghost town. The amount of rail activity here was once great with many sidings going straight into the works and no doubt carrying goods from the works to the main line. The sidings now contain a collection of old and new buses, abandoned cars and many abandoned mobile homes. If ever there was a feeling of a zombie invasion when an early morning ride round here looking out for signs of old rail tracks was it. The decaying buses amongst the new ones (must be a bit of a bus depot), the old rotting mobile homes, and yet the faint hum of an engine running somewhere. Zombie fight back on a number 16 bus? I didn’t hang around, I quickly spotted the remaining rail tracks and shed – and then left to join the path again.
While the sidings at the cement works went one way, the line continued over the river straight on. This is no longer there although a foot bridge further on has been built further on down the river. You skirt the edge of the old cement works, passing some more remaining lines and buffers of the old track until you get to the new bridge. On the other side of the river you can see the slight embankment where the track would have pass over the flood planes. Once on the other side you soon rejoin the long straight line and on into Bramber.
Steyning is a nice little village/small town. I have had it described to me as a place that would fit very well in Middle Earth and I can understand what they mean. Little streets, little shops, overhanging first floors, the main school even dates back hundreds of years and the building looks like something out of Harry Potter. A bit of a shock when the motor car came and took over carrying a lot of traffic. A bypass was planned but I can understand the problems they would have had in their way, hills and rivers all over the place. A bit of a blessing then when the railway that passed through the middle closed and a straight unused route was opened up. You can see it when you know, why else would a bypass go through the middle and not around the edge of a town, and yet feel like it was in the country side with embankments and trees either side hiding the road from the town and the town from the road. Bramber station would be your first stop but now it is underneath a roundabout. I expect the main road from Shoreham, through Upper Beeding, Bramber would have had a level crossing next to the station to allow you to carry on to Steyning. A small garden nursery has a large Bramber sign painted on the side of one of their buildings, a little reminder of the past?
The rail line continues along flat, a bridge and a brick embankment straight after gives a clue that Steyning station was once here. Looking a bit closer you notice a large block of flats that look like they could have once been a goods shed… Cars are zooming along towards the A24 though and probably do not see this, or the gated exit where the line would go one way while the road continues the other.
It is only when you look at map (and in particular satellite view on Google maps) that you can trace where the road leaves the old track. It is obvious when you know, big metal gates on the side of the road are there looking like they guard something. On the side of the road the verge grows in width and it is almost as if a road junction was planned but never built, but of course it is the old track bed. You can’t get through the gates, but there is a footpath a little further down that you can take. If you are strong (which I must be) you can push your bike down this path but be ready to lift it over the styles and kiss gates. You are then back into zombie land with the feeling of no-one being here for some time and yet feeling watched all the time. It might well be the case, the gated road (of which the footpath continues along) goes to a electricity sub station and a police dog training course (who would have known of such a thing?!).
Referring back to Google maps I could see where the old line (and another embankment) carried on, OpenStreetMap suggested it carried a footpath and so I ventured off road to re-join the track. A had a close encounter with a horse that seemed more than happy to see what I was up to, a little off putting as they seem rather large when you are up close to them. He didn’t bite though, he didn’t help me find the gap in the edge of the field to take me to the path either. I found it in the end and was back on the old line, very much an overgrown path where it was hard to push a bike through let alone a train. This came out to a flat field and more friendly horses before it passed under a now blocked off bridge. The horses seemed to want to follow me out of the gate and onto the road, I was getting a bit worried about how one pushes a horse back into a field…. it seemed when it came to it they knew where they were best off.
The bridge takes the official DownsLink route across the now non-existent rail line, it had taken me a good hour to do these 4 miles. The DownsLink leaves the old line when it gets to Steyning, instead of making you join the bypass it takes you through houses and along old country roads, crossing the old line where I was now and then up and down some chalky lanes. Road bikes need not apply here, mountain bikes are more the thing – my touring bike bumped me about but took it all with no problem. I could had carried on along the route of the old line across the fields but the gate was locked. Good job as when the path meets the old line further on down, the old line is just an overgrown mess.
This would now be it for most of the way, a long straight(‘ish) track all the way to Christ’s Hospital and then onto Guildford. It had taken a long time just to get this far due to all the messy about trying to find the old track in the undergrowth and so it was nice now to be able to get on with the actual bike ride. The rain had not appeared just yet and the track was busy with other cyclists, joggers, and those walking dogs. As I got near the next station, Henfield, the track changed to a quite recent application of red clay like track. Last time I remember coming this way it was all mud, and so the newly laid track seemed quite welcoming, although I quickly found out that marks made by horse’s hoofs in the soft clay made for a very bumpy ride! I was glad when I saw the road coming up and a bit of a deviation from the original track needed.
Henfield station has long gone and since been replaced with a housing estate rather roughly called “The Beechings” just to rub it in. The surrounding roads are all about Station Road, Upper Station Road (there must be a Lower Station Road somewhere too maybe?) and a clue in a house near the line called “Bridge House” and yet there is no longer a bridge in sight. A typical looking station pub still remains as the track continues off towards Partridge Green. On it’s way you cross over Betley Bridge and then come across a second world war pill box sitting in the middle of the field pointing towards the bridge. During the war, sugar beet was transported along the line from Henfield making it an important link. The Germans saw the bridge as a strategic point too. Two pill boxes were built either side, I didn’t see the one to the south, but the one to the North was certainly noticeable.
It is not long until you get to Partridge Green and the next station, which again all trace has long gone. The trial goes off to the left and onto the road for a short section, while the track continues straight on for a little while but suddenly ends in a bank of horse manure. I’ll take the road I think. The station site and the track is now underneath an industrial estate, although by chance the factory building on the route has itself been demolished allowing you to see where the line would once come along. You pass Stan’s Bike Shack, a handy place to stop off but today due to the time taken already I decided to continue on. A small ride along the road until you get to what looks like a road bridge until you get to it and work out it’s a bridge no more, filled in and a housing estate to one side. The other side however, a path leading down to rejoin the track.
West Grinstead is the next stop and after the non-existence of stations so far you are not disappointed here. You appear from coming under the bridge to be given two platforms, a station sign, a station signal and even a railway carriage! Quite a bit of work has been done here to make the past come back again, maybe not everything is original or even authentic, but it tells you the story. I’ve been meaning to come here with a picnic, but summer time seemed to come and go and so we never did. The site is all set up for such things though with tables and even a small selection of sweets for sale from the railway carriage (although no notice to say when it is open). The A272 passes over the bridge, a main route across Sussex and so the whole place can be reached by car very easily – and yet I spent months driving past here on the way to work and never noticed it.
The obvious bits here are… obvious, the platforms, the sign posts and signals. But there is a lot more, and most includes small information posts to tell you a bit more. The bits of bricks and small hole by the platform turns out to be all that remains of the old signal box. The sidings however were what I was looking for, just slightly off to the left a small opening in the bushes allows you to enter the past. The railway lines are still there in places, along with the sleepers and the straight long paths through the trees giving you a bit of history. You could well be in a zombie invasion here, although it seems peaceful rather than scary. The zombies are clearly not interested here and so don’t come by very often. With such easy road access, this portal into the past, the real past, is somewhere to visit and something you must see. Bring a picnic….
It’s a long straight flat line, constantly going forwards to reach the next station. The next one, Southwater, I came to a lot quicker than expected. With the country park just before you get to the village, the foot traffic was quite a bit as soon as I got passed (under) the A24 and it was my real first sign that I was arriving. The park is a nice place to stop, has a cafe and is a nice place to stop. It contains a number of lakes and if you are careful when you explore around you will find narrow gauge railway track, reminding you that this was once Southwater brickworks up until the early 1980s. I remember in the mid 80s when the park had just opened, cycling around on the gravel paths around a massively open area with little trees by the side. Now those trees have grown up and the lakes are now well used by water sports, infact today it looks like a group of Scouts were having raft races.
Southwater village centre has changed a great deal with massive re-development which has taken away most traces of any railway station, it would have once been quite an important stop, with sidings to service the brickworks. There is a road bridge, but it does not go over anything, which gives a clue to the past. However, the road bridge no longer carries a road which now instead is bypassed as the road comes down the dip and a junction with traffic lights sits on top of where the station once was. The new shopping centre (which includes a bike shop!) covers everything else. The village has not forgotten though, a station sign has been put up and is you look close you do find a small bit of old platform still surviving.
The next step would be the end of the first part of the line, where this line joins the current Adur Valley mainline for a small section and then big junctions off for the start of the Cranleigh line. What was once quite an important and busy piece of railway is now just a straight line through a small ugly station in the middle on no-where, this all happens at Christ’s Hospital station. There is lots written about this station and it is a sad story of dashed hopes. It was a very small abandoned halt once used by a diary farm, but when Christ’s Hospital bought the land to relocate from London, the plans were big. With the new school, and the railway company already thinking about a “West Horsham” station somewhere to stimulate local growth, they went big. In the end, the school helped finance the grand station, build with local Southwater bricks from down the line. The grand building serviced the Adur Valley and the Cranleigh line and had 7 platforms at this junction site, plus a large number of goods sidings. From what was once fields was transformed into a hub of rail travel. The problem was…. nobody really used it!
The school was set up to take mainly boarding students and so the regular travel did not come to anything apart from the start and end of terms. Because the school had bought up most of the local land, development of “West Horsham” never came to anything either. When the Beeching cuts were made, the once busy junction site with the Steyning line, Cranleigh line, and the still remaining Adur Valley line, just became a straight run through. The goods yards were then little used and closed afterwards. It was only the stepping in by large petition that the station itself was not closed. But even that did not save things, the grand station with all its platforms was demolished and replaced with a plain modern 1970s box. It was quoted to have been a “mammoth act of vandalism”. Today, it looks like a station of little importance and questionable to why it is there, just a small oblong non-descript part vandalised box.
I had read that although the station no longer exists, the actual platforms were simply fenced off and left. It would had been the start of the Cranleigh line, a junction bending off with platforms following. I had seen photos of decaying platforms underneath trees and undergrowth, but I had thought the changes of finding it and getting access to it would be very slim, if it was even still there. It was only by chance that looking at the map I decided to leave the DownsLink route and following path of the old line from the junction instead of the road which is where the route tool you to further down to rejoin. The map suggested it was a footpath, and I had marked it on my map to find.
I rode around the back of the station houses and under the railway and into the deep dark forbidden woods. A little bit of GPS action meant I found the “t-junction” of the path through the woods and followed down and up the other side a path I could just make out and get my bike pushed through. Above I could make out what could be an embankment and so headed towards it in order to find the old line and follow it through to rejoin the DownsLink further on. As I got nearer I looked for a way in through the trees and thought I saw a bit of concrete. I investigated further, leaving my bike down on the footpath while I climbed the steep embankment which opened up to…. the old platforms!
This was pure zombie land, and I knew they were there watching me, waiting to come out and get me. The trees and the general undergrowth was restricting the light, the decaying concrete platforms were just peaking out in places but they were indeed there. I climbed up on the first “platform” and I found myself at a major train station, I could see the tracks and the other platforms, I could even see the base of the platform lamp posts… of course the tracks and the trains had not been this way for years, the tracks themselves had gone and were now replaced with trees. Nothing was fenced off, it was just lost, even those walking along the footpath below would pass it unnoticed, and yet there was so much to see. I could had explored for hours, I didn’t want to wake the zombies who were obviously sleeping and unaware of my presence, I was also aware that I still had a large distance still to cover. But I had found the lost station and platforms, I had found the start of the Cranleigh line .
I re-joined my bike and set off. While strictly still a footpath I could just about get through on my bike and it did soon turn into a bridleway. This showed the difference between an abandoned railway path never touched, and an abandoned railway path managed as DownsLink. On DownsLink you can always visualise how it used to be a railway, whereas here it was an overgrown path with no clue of its past at all. If DownsLink was never made, it would had been just another lost overgrown path that no-one would know about or use.
A new line, I was way behind schedule after all the extended stops, and I was now in unknown country biking to places I had never biked through before whereas on the previous line I had good knowedge even if it was the first time I had seen it from an old railway line. The path was now just mud and I was glad the weather was still sunny and in actual fact the mud was smoother than the path had been before. I reached Slinfold station quite quickly on the new line, the small row of “Railway Cottages” gave the suggestion of the past, the station now sitting underneath a caravan park with no sign of anything.
Rudgewick, the next station would have a bit of interesting history. The station was not opened at the same time as the line due to concerns about the steep gradient meaning trains stopping at the station might would start running back down the hill, and indeed I would think find it hard to start moving off too. The long embankment was raised to make the gradient more manageable, but it meant a bridge crossing the river had to be abandoned and a bridge built over the top. Such is this sight that a “Viewing Point” has been made, and a good job too as while on the line you would pass over the bridge without noticing. Upon walking down to the viewing point, you can see just how much higher they had to build things. After all that work, there is no sign left of the station that caused all the trouble having been pulled down years ago when the line closed.
I knew some parts of the line I could not follow, most of the time due to development since the railway was pulled up means the path just no longer exists, but also because of the one tunnel that is on the line. Some old railway paths take you through their tunnels which have been modernised to allow safe passage through, for this line however it has been saved for bats. I had forgotten about the tunnel until I notice the flat path go off to the left and up a massive bit hill, a little too steep for trains I thought. I stopped and looked forwards through the undergrowth and indeed I could see the tunnel entrance in the distance. I decided to follow up the bricked up entrance, with a locked steel door and a small notice explaining about the bats inside. They seem to like it in there, I had a peak through but I all I saw was deep blackness and a damp smell. As well as bats, I expect zombies too.
At the top of the steep path away from the line the signs announced that I was crossing the county path, I would now be in Surrey and be leaving Sussex. While still the DownsLink trail, it was a bit hard to work out which way it went, I fell back on using the GPS and following the line shown along now narrow forest paths. Surely not the right way, but a DownsLink signpost suggested it was. I really was convinced further on that I had taken the wrong turning as biking was almost impossible, my legs were well and truly getting stung as I pushed my way through the narrow opening in between the stinging nettles. I did meet the line once again though, the undergrowth had well and truly hidden any trace of railway line towards the other end of the tunnel where going by foot to investigate would had been hard, with a bike was impossible. Due to time, I decided to carry on, getting to Baynards station.
Railways always have stories of rich landowners allowing the line to cross their land in exchange for a station to be built, even if that station had no village or town or reason to exist. Baynards was one of those stations it seems, although was able to take advantage of the nearby brickworks and had a number of sidings. Baynards is interesting as it is the only station building that exists having been a private house for many years with the owners keeping the look and feel of a station. So much so, the only thing missing is the actual track (now a lawn) and any trains. The station, the platforms are all there. If you are lucky, at points in the year they open up their house and take people around. The other claim to fame is the 1957 BBC Railway Children TV series… was all filmed here.
Cranleigh was a way off but was the next station. I remember Cranleigh for mainly two reason. Firstly for claiming to be the largest village in the country (although I am sure nearly every large village claims the same?!) and for the swimming pool which at school in Horsham we would all get on the smelly old coach where I would often feel travel sick, and indeed be sick, and then spend 20 minutes at the swimming pool before going back. Why we had to go through all that I don’t know, when Horsham had it’s own pool. I never licked swimming… or coaches.
Cranleigh station was once something, a major stop on the line taking commuters to Guildford and on to London, along with the local school, and bringing in coal for the local gas works. A welcome relief upon reaching the village as the track turned into smooth paving for quite a number of miles. The station itself, I could find nothing, just knowing that as I passed behind Sainsburys that the station was once there, the large carpark being the old goods yard?
On to Bramley and next stop the Bramley & Wonersh station, it’s not very often a station takes on the name of two places. My arrival was announced by replica level crossing gates in a permanent open position for the road. I had a sit down at the platform, the only thing arriving was an old bloke on a walk, no trains. History to note here was the random attack by a plane during World War 2 of a train leaving the station, killing a number of people, a memorial is placed at the station.
Onwards to Guildford way, I would reach there soon but not before meeting the Wey and Arun canal a number of times. The first would be crossing over, I would have had missed it if it were not for an information sign. The canal at this point just an overgrown wide ditch going under the track. Infact the “bridge” was in place but had seemed to have been filled in, either on purpose of due to time? Either way, the canal had seen much better days, indeed it had seen water. The information board gave details on the clean up and restoration plans, over the years I am sue they will get there. I bet the railway companies thought they had the last laugh as they saw the struggling canals slowly close one after the other. It’s the canals that are laughing now though, with tourism bring a lot of these old routes back to life, there will certainly be narrow boats back here a long time before any train every returns – if indeed one ever does.
The next stop, Guildford! The railway and the canal followed each other for most of the way in a kind of Thomas the Tank Engine style. From the overgrown ditch it turned into an overgrown ditch with water in and then finally an actual canal with locks, boats and everything. The disused line soon met up with the existing line into Guildford where the footpath would follow, but I wanted to go as far as I could. At this point, a junction off to Shalford would have once curved around and gone over the canal before reaching the station. Shalford station still exists and so does the line from Guildford, but the curve from the south had long gone. I found the old embankment and followed it as far as I could, to the river where the long gone bridge would have allowed it to carry on. Before getting to the canal I was met by a World War 2 pill box guarding the way, I wasn’t quite sure how the line would had passed it as it seemed right in the way, but it seems many of these types of boxes were placed near rail bridges and could normally work together in a line giving cover for each other. I’m sure they knew what they were doing.
I joined the tow path at this point and rode into Guildford city centre. The weather was hot and I sat down next to the river to have something to eat and a bit of a break.
After lunch it was time to turn back. It had taken nearly double the amount of time I thought it would due to the amount of long stops searching for lost stations. I estimated it would take 3-4 hours to get back home along the road, by which time it would be getting on to tea time. I left Guildford along a cyclepath which took me away from most of the traffic, although did take me up a flight of steps which didn’t seem the best design for a cyclepath! The journey home was uneventful, just head down and press on. I got to Horsham and instead of following the roads that I knew well I thought I would try out the new cycle route across the A24 and through the new housing estates. “I remember when all this was green fields”, of which I actually did! The A24 didn’t exist as it went straight through the town, which means the latest development of houses and new junction makes me feel even older. The cycle route took me through the “new” out of town Tescos (new in the mid 1980s anyway!), over the A24 on a new foot/cycle bridge, and through the new houses. I made a quick route through the middle of Horsham and our the other side along Kurves Lane.
I pondered what to do at Partridge Green, would I turn left and go through Henfield, or right and through Partridge Green. I detest the route through Partridge Green as while the road is only 4 miles until you get to Steyning, it seems to go on for hours on a slightly constant up hill although in reality if cannot really be the case. The Henfield route is probably longer and has its own fair share of hills, but for some reason seems nicer. In the end, I decided after a day off road, I would rejoin the DownsLink and follow the old railway line back to Shoreham the same way I came.
Getting back to Shoreham, the sun was getting quite low. On a day where I expected rain all day I now instead had clear blue sky with an autumn sunset. I cross the old toll bridge, still covered in flowers from the plane crash the other week, through the airport and back home. It had been a long day, the bike had coped with the off road very well, much better than I had done!
Signs of the past:
Bridges and tunnels:
Number of miles: 86
Number of wee stops: millions (is there something wrong with me?)
Number of Station Roads no longer near a station: lots and lots
Number of Bridge Roads with no bridge in sight: about the same amount
Number of bridges: millions
Number of zomies: the presence felt, but none actually seen