The supporting brick peirs that make up the Balcombe Viaduct make for some great photos, you can tell this just by viewing the hashtags on Instagam. I bet they look even better when the sun is low, like very early in the morning. I thought I would take a trip to find out for myself.
The viaduct carries the railway from Brighton to London and by doing so it must see hundreds of trains cross it each day, quite good for something that is 175 years old. It crosses the Ouse Valley, which in turn means the river Ouse (not much more than a stream) passes underneath. If you watch out of the window while you are on the train going to London, you see great views from the top, but it is from the ground that you can see the ornate design, you can understand why some describe it as “probably the most elegant viaduct in Britain”, it’s a listed building. The material to build it came from the Netherlands, bought onsite by boat (handy when the river runs underneath). It’s a bit of a Sussex landmark, visible from the famous Nyman’s gardens, and it’s only about 20 miles from home.
The plan then would be to wake up very early in order to catch the low sun. The viaduct is within walking distance of a road which fortunately has a public footpath that goes straight underneath. The route would be circular which would mean a bit of time cross country along footpaths and over stiles, taking close notice of the GPS to keep to the track and eventually hit road again.
As it happens, the sun rises very early in the summer, and I don’t. I left a good hour after I really had wanted, the sun had risen but was still low but it would be mid morning now when I arrived at the viaduct. Not a problem, I would go anyway.
It was still early for a Sunday and so not much traffic about as I made my way towards Shoreham to get onto the Downslink that would take me all the way into Henfield. The wind was slight but against me, blowing from the North East which was not normal, and would mean it would be against me all the way. The Downslink from Shoreham has recently improved a great deal having been resurfaced and is now a smooth gravel track which is actually pretty nice to ride along. Add to that the lack of cars, the flatness and the nice vegetation both sides, it is now my chosen route to get through the Downs and to the other side for rides now. Normally I leave the route at Steyning but this time I was carrying on. The route leaves the course of the original rail line and detours over a small bit of very chalky Downs, giving a very much challenging ride as you bounce all over the place. Rejoining the old route, unfortunately you don’t rejoin the smoothness, it’s bumpy all the way to Henfield. Not unpleasant, but you are happy when you reach tarmac.
It was nice to be on roads at Henfield, but it did not last long until I reached the next bit of cross country. For years I have driven past a signpost to Shermanbury church which points down a road that is gated and marked as a bridleway. Looking on the map, it looks to be a useful road that cuts across and would cut off a bit if you were wanting to go West to East from Partridge Green. Being gated, I had never driven down it, the tree lined road, with the low light shadows of the morning, looking inviting, but denied. On the bike though, bridleways are there to be ridden along, and so I had included it in the route, I wanted to discover the village of Shermanbury and see why bits of this village did not appear on a public road anymore (ghost village deep in the wilderness anyone?)
It possibly been a road at one time maybe, although no searches I did returned any clue, maybe it is just a path that was never made into what we know as a modern day road, or maybe it was private land that again never made it to our modern day road network. It does have it’s parish church, and being little used was a mixture of unkept bumpy road and later on mud track.
The church is 14th century with the roof made with Horsham stone slates. Sussex seems dotted with these forgotten small churches which at one time would had been the hub of local life on a Sunday morning – today, it was quiet. I was more interested in the tumbledown derelict houses next to it, what looked like a one time large farmhouse with a large garage/workroom in front, all hidden away behind years of plant life slowly taking over. An interesting find, possibly not on par with finding a couple of neglected cars now overtaken by nature, the tax discs suggesting they last saw a road in 1997. One of them was a Triumph Acclaim, in not too bad looking condition considering. A bit of a last attempt by Triumph/British Leyland to make something of themselves, a bought in Honda car with a British name. It was quite successful for a very limited time, it was the last ever Triumph badged car and it was all over. You don’t see them around, you haven’t seen them around for years, so to find one here was probably more exciting than the abandoned house and even the 14th century church!
It was still early morning, it was quiet, the last human had left this place many years before… I continued on with the trip. The road turned into a track following the side of the river and then eventually back into what was many years ago a road. Real tarmac was finally found and I made my way towards the A23 and upwards. It seemed like a day of old roads as I soon hit the busy A23 but was maybe 40 years a bit late. My route would take me along the old A23 sitting next to the now busy dualed A23. A single carriage road but strangely wide and now empty, the odd worn down petrol station and pub dotted about, it would had been the source of business and activity before the next road, now it was just a country lane, a very wide one. I had the whole road to myself, it was as if the zombies had been, eaten, and left again. The quietness was soon gone though as I rejoined the modern A23, fortunately as a separate cycle path next to it rather than joining one of the three possible lanes with speeding traffic!
A change of direction now, I had gone north for most of the way and now I had crossed the A23 it was east until I hit the railway line and the viaduct. I followed the GPS arrow along lanes and through villages that looked familiar although slightly different viewing them from a bike instead of a car window. A couple of places getting lost/confused and using Google maps to back me up, I found out that I needed to go straight on a while back but instead had turned and gone down a hill. I didn’t quite fancy going back up the hill and so carried on the way I was going (little did I know at the time that this mistake added a good 5 miles). I kept an eye on the proposed track on the GPS and my current position and slowly made it back to the track, at just the right place too. It was at this time I had my first sighting of the viaduct in the distance.
The route I had mapped would come to the viaduct from the west and go underneath it before rejoining a road and turning south to go back home. Unfortunately, coming from that direction meant a long trek along footpaths and across fields, unlike the other side which was just yards away from the nearest road. With the GPS waypoints mapped out it was all set so I knew I would get to my destination, I just wasn’t sure how easy it would be to follow the footpath. Bridleways are normally fine as they are wide enough and big enough to take horses and bikes. Footpaths are normally very different, sometimes narrow paths through undergrowth and over stiles. I was more than happy to push and lift my bike, it was trying to keep to the path which I thought might be hard, long last under the summer undergrowth.
I wasn’t disappointed, I soon had lost any sight of the footpath as I continued along yet another long lost road that soon turned into a track, which then turned into a field. I could see the viaduct, I would see my waypoints, I continued slowly along the edge of the cornfields. I could see I was walking in the right direction, but I also sensed that the river at the bottom of the valley , of which I needed to be on the other side, was hiding there somewhere – and there might not be a bridge over!
The undergrowth at the edge of the fields grow higher, pushing the bike got harder, but I was getting so close. I confirmed the small stream any only hopped that it was so small that getting across it would work at some point. There was a clump of trees in the corner of the field, I headed towards it. I felt like the only human being around in miles (although from the rumble of a tractor in a nearby field I knew I wasn’t). The GPS said I was almost at the viaduct, and indeed I could see it so close, I just hopped the corner of the field with the clump of trees had a way through, and it didn’t include a stream.
The idea of turning back and finding my way out was not a nice one, so it was good news that the stream left left and the corner of the field led me into a field which contained…. the viaduct. The undergrowth was high, but I made it to the viaduct, I sat down and had a snack, I took some photos. I had made it.
It was yet another completely silent place, the sense of being the first person to be here for quite some time. You had to ignore the noise of the London to Brighton trains passing overhead every 10 minutes or so. After a rest I soon pondered about my next move. I was not where the GPS waypoint said I should be, there was the river between that and me. I only hopped that there would be a way out to what should be a very nearby road to the east. I walked through pushing the bike up the hill to yet another corner (everything happens in the corner of fields) with the hope of a gate out.
The corner did indeed contain a gate, which was fortunate as I had checked out the lower corner (going towards the footpath and where I should have ended up at) and found that the river Ouse was in the way. Just a small stream at this point, but living up to its ooze name all the same. I unloaded bits off the bike and lifted it over, followed by myself, put bits back on and followed the path through the woods. I was given hope when I notice tyre marks on the mud track and even better when tarmac was spotted with no fence or gate in the way. It was quite nice being back in the real world and tarmac, being somewhere I was actually meant to be. Quite a nice trek cross country though, off the beaten track with a small bit of adventure built in.
It was now mid morning, it was hot and the sky was blue. The wind had changed direction which meant it would probably be against me once again, it seemed a bit unfair. At least it was not strong. The route back would be all on road and nothing too interesting, I put my head down and started to pedal. For the first time in the long time I spent a lot of time on the lower bars in full “race position”. Even though the wind was against me I was still keeping a good speed of probably around 15mph along with long stretches of 20mph. It was going to be a relatively short ride today and so thought why not push myself for bits. This meant flying across Sussex, down to Burgess Hill and across. A quick stop at Woods Mill for a wee, a call home to find out that sausage and bacon muffins might be waiting at home if I get back in time. The last six miles flew by, back along the (now busy) smooth Downslink, along the side of the A27 and through the backdoor. Bacon and sausage muffins were being served.
A nice ride, not too far and with a suitable amount of adventure to liven things up. I learnt that the handle bar bag is not so good on bumpy routes unless you pack the contents down tight, lots of things jumping about and making a bit of a noise! Things including camera and phone. The camera now sporting it’s new flexible rubber case and the phone encased within its Armadillo case, both survived well with no damage.
Number of miles: 50
Number of ex-roads: seems to be a feature of Sussex
Number of viaduct arches: 39
Number of times lost in the middle of a field: too many
Number of British Leyland cars rusting away: 1