Post Boxing Day I felt it was high time to head off on a mini adventure with Daisy and Jack to try and give them a good burst of fresh air before school started again the following week (Molly, being on the brink of teenage-hood opted to see friends and go shopping and visit Nanny Val in Dorset with Gary). The plan was to catch a train to Guildford but then engineering works scuppered that idea as the bus service that South West trains laid on didn’t allow bikes, which meant that any cyclist catching the train from Portsmouth to London got usefully kicked out at Haslemere and left to their own devices. Anyway, had the bus allowed bikes, it would have taken a hefty hour and a half to get to Guildford (usually 20 minutes on the train) as I think it was going via Boggy Bottom or Nether Wallop or Upton Snodsbury (yes, all real places) or somewhere like that.

So, action stations Gary! With bikes and prams we piled into the army camper and tallyho’ed up the A3 where, to avoid getting caught in the gridlock of Guildford, he jettisoned us into the grey, late December murk near Shalford, which roughly was the start of the Downs Link.

We’re off. Speeding across the first bridge by the River Wey.

The Downs Link is a 40-odd mile bridleway following the old railway and connects the North Downs Way and the South Downs Way before continuing to the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea. The northern part of the railway line ran from Guildford to Christ’s Hospital and opened in 1865, and the southern part went from Itchingfield Junction (near Christ’s Hospital) to Shoreham-by-Sea and opened in 1861. Trains took 50 minutes to traverse the route, with 6-8 trains a day stopping at Bramley & Wonersh, Cranleigh, Baynards, Rudgwick, Slinfold, Christ’s Hospital, and Horsham, among other stations. Thanks to the Beeching rail cuts both of these useful and lovely routes were closed in the 1960s. As a result this old route is commonly known as the Hundred Years Railway.

Waiting at Bramley and Wonersh station for a train that will never come.

My plan of action was to follow this old railway all the way to the sea. Although Jack can ride a bike he wanted to take his hobby horse-like balance bike as he likes doing tricks on it. Daisy rode her bike while I walked and ran and pushed a fourth-hand pram loaded with essential clobber – most of it edible. It also provided a seat for Jack should his 5-year-old legs give up the ghost, though in the event he only used it once for a quick sleepy flop mid-afternoon south of Southwater.

Old railway bridge near Cranleigh.

More bridges.

Tunnel bridge.

Graffiti bridge.

Helmets. heads and ears. Bridge art.

This way, that way, t’other way. The emblem for the Downs Link is the double bridge emblem, second from top.

As demonstrated by Jack here.

And here’s the double bridge. The brick bridge was built in 1865 to allow trains to cross the River Arun. But as the railway inspectors then decided that the gradient was too steep to reach nearby Rudgwick station, the embankments were raised and a second bridge (an iron girder one) was built over the original brick archway.

With the added excitement of old railways and canals (the Wey and Arun) the whole route was incredibly interesting and very fun. Slowly, we passed from the North Downs through the High Weald, Low Weald, the Greensand Ridge, Clay Vale, the South Downs before emerging through the Shoreham Gap to reach the sea. We then sped along the lovely seaside bike paths from Brighton to Worthing.

Quite a lot of the route was muddy and boggy which Jack was very happy with. A favourite pursuit was to charge full pelt into large puddles to form bow waves.

Daisy about to take a nose-dive.

Old railway path near Rudgwick.

A rare hill.

Me in pram-pushing action up steep slippery bit. The route takes a diversion from the old railway at Baynards station to bypass the old railway tunnel which has been boarded off.

A handy picnic perch south of Cranleigh.

Handy tree perch.

Dilemma spot. Daisy eyeing up a steep hill to fun/roll/fall down.

Trying out some different flavoured bikes in Southwater.

The rare moment when Jack’s legs went on strike and he decided he needed to flop.

We were away a week and with multiple diversions to find food and places to sleep we did 73 miles altogether. The longest day was 14 miles and 2 days were 13 miles but surprisingly Jack didn’t once ask for a rest in the pram on any one of those days. Strangely for us we had no storms or floods or record-breaking awful weather. For 5 days of leaden-grey skies it was oddly dry and strangely unseasonably warm.  Near Shoreham we had our first and only rain – about five-and-a-half drops. And then it stopped. The last 2 days were sunny but very cold and Daisy in particular suffered from frozen toes and fingers despite multiple socks and thick gloves. To combat this we had to keep stopping so I could blow on her extremities and to join her with an assortment of star jumps to get the circulation circulating.

That man on the bike would once have been a train. West Grinstead old station.

Signalman Jack in action.

The worst bits of the route were on the small occasions we had to encounter motorized traffic (the trail disappears around Christ’s Hospital so we had to join some country lanes for a bit where vehicles passed too fast too close) and cross a handful of busy A-roads with drivers charging along, many on their mobile phones. The only way get across the road safely was to wait at the side of the road long enough for a considerate driver to notice us and stop and flash their lights for us to cross which would then stop a vehicle in the opposite direction.

The only other problem was darkness falling at four. This meant that I had to keep the pace up so we could find lodgings before we were cocooned in blackness. Twice we failed in this but we had good bike lights and head torches which only added to the excitement and uncertainty of the whole event. Anway, we got to stay with some interesting people: an artistic vet, a musical director and an 89-year-old squash coach to name a few.

Approaching the South Downs we had our first bit of sun.

Progress though was often precariously slow. We had multiple stops for food (they were constantly hungry), wees, stone-collecting, mud-stamping, puddle-stomping, river-damming, stick-throwing and tree-climbing (my health and safety rules were particularly thin on the ground) – they climbed trees as high as houses. To keep morale high we had good sing-songs as we wound our way along. As we were only just fresh out of Christmas firm favourites were festive carols with slight revamping of some words: ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came….Most highly flavoured gravy. Glor-or-or-or-ria!’

On the banks of the River Adur.

Crossing the Adur.

Jack came out with some thought-provoking thoughts too. One day, near Rudwick, Jack said, ‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, Jack’.

‘Mummy?’ (He usually says ‘mummy’ a few times to make sure I’m paying attention). ‘Mummy? Mum? Do you not either know what I was thinking about then?’

‘No. No idea Jack. I was a bit busy dragging this load up the hill. What were you thinking about young laddie?’

‘I was thinking I was that I would like to be borned a giraffe coz then my head would be as high as a house tall and I could see ages.’

‘What? Like the Middle Ages?’ I said to confuse matters. And then our deep and historical and exotic African animal-based conversation was interrupted by a dog walker who looked like he had his head on upside down (he had a big beard and a bald head). He looked us grubby muddy threesome up and down and then said, ‘By golly! You got enough bags on there?’

To which I always say, ‘You can never have enough bags on board – especially when half of them contain food!’

He then wanted to know what we were doing so I told him we were spending several days walking and cycling the Downs Link. It turned out that although he had lived here for 12 years he had never realised the Downs Link linked the Downs so it was nice to give him a little bit of historical background chit-chat so that he could better appreciate the railway relevance of his daily dog-walking hot-spot. ‘Well I never!’ he said before giving me a hearty pat on my back and then we continued on our separate ways.

Beneath the roaring A27. I’m glad we’re down here and not up there.

Birds, bikes and rivers. Near Shoreham.

Bike path near Worthing.

Worthing beach.

Shoreham-by-Sea station. Waiting for the train home.