Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day

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Route 11: Gatwick to Eastbourne via NCN21 and the Cuckoo Trail

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Summary More disused railway mania. This ride starts from Gatwick Airport Station (why not?) and uses National Cycle Network Route 21. It crosses the High Weald on the Worth Way and Forest Way using traffic free disused railway paths. Then it traverses on reasonably quiet roads to the town of Hailsham, where you pick up the Cuckoo Trail along another disused railway to Polegate on the outskirts of Eastbourne. Finish at Eastbourne Station. Once you escape from the Gatwick/Crawley conurbation, you traverse pleasant scenery, though deep cuttings and tree lined banks on the railway paths can obscure the views.
Distance/time: About 55 miles; whole day
Start: Gatwick Airport Station There is one direct train per hour from Guildford, journey time 45 minutes.
Finish: Eastbourne Station
Get the train back to Guildford via Gatwick Airport. Typically 1 train per hour; 55 minutes to Gatwick Airport; a change of platform may be required, if so use the lifts; 30 minute wait; 45 minutes to Guildford; total journey time c2hr10minutes.
Start of Worth Way
Start of Worth Way
Worth Way
Worth Way
Conditions under the tyre: The disused railway paths have all been made up to a good standard. There is one stretch of bridleway just before the town of Heathfield, this could be muddy. (NB Old maps – including the Sustrans map “Downs and Weald Cycle Route” - may show the route of the NCN21 following a bridleway just south of the A26 at Eridge, between Hamsell Manor/Stitches Farm and Redgate Mill Farm. I used this and it was ankle deep in mud. I believe this branch is not signed now: stick to the road.)
Reverse route: No reason why you shouldn’t, provided you can navigate your way out of the Eastbourne one way system.
Route variations:
You could terminate at Polegate Station, and save the final few miles through the outskirts of Eastbourne. The trains from Eastbourne to Gatwick stop here.

You could use NCN 21 between Redhill and Gatwick to link this ride to my Route 2 along the North Downs between Guildford and Redhill, to make a route linking Guildford to Eastbourne, though it would be a very long ride for one day. I haven’t used the Redhill-Gatwick stretch, but others say it is not very rewarding.

Route description: Arrived at Gatwick Station, take the lift up from the platform to the first floor. The only way to escape is to find the lift down to the NCN21 cycle route. Head towards the the terminal, but immediately turn to your left and you should find the lift with a sign clearly indicating it is for the cycle route access. Check the Gatwick Airport web site for a map.

Once out in the open air, you should find it straightforward to follow the route south to clear the airport complex, passing through an office car park around the circular ‘Beehive’ building and emerging onto Gatwick Road heading South. At a roundabout turn right onto Fleming Way, left onto Newton Road, right on Manor Royal, left into Manor Court. From here a mash up of paths and roads is followed through Three Bridges: it’s easiest just to study the Google map, and hope you pick up the signs. An underpass takes you under Hazlewick Avenue, then a path beside a school and a Tesco Superstore (walk) finally delivers you to St Mary’s Drive, crossing under the main line and looping south. At the A2220 go right then left into Station Hill, and in a short way, on your left you should see the NCN21 Worth Way signed to East Grinstead. Phew!

The Worth Way is a good traffic free path which should be easy to follow through Crawley Down to East Grinstead, where you emerge at the (not disused) station. Take Railway Approach, then right into London Road, left into the High Street. Then at a roundabout with the A22, you will find the Forest Way signed right. This is easy to follow past Forest Row and on to Groombridge, where you emerge onto roads which arrive at Eridge station. Here cross the railway and take an underpass under the A26 and path along the south side of the road. After about a km, a road branches right to join Sham Farm Road.

Follow roads to Rotherfield, Where the B2101 bears left, be sure to carry straight on for minor roads to Mayfield. Cross the A267 (CARE) and take a path into Station Approach, then right onto Stone Hill then pick up Knowle Hill heading south. This becomes Newick Lane. After a few miles, where Newick Lane bears left, the NCN21 is signed right and a bridleway takes you to a lane into Heathfield. Turn right onto the A265 and cycle on to the High Street, where you will find the car park at the start of the Cuckoo Trail signed left down Station Road. The trail is easy to follow past/through towns beginning with H (Horam, Hellingly and Hailsham), After crossing the A22, and before arriving at Polegate Station, bear left to skirt the town edge and reach the A22, where a cycle path takes you south east, through a business park before joining the A22 again down to the sea front East of Eastbourne. You can cycle west on the sea front for a short way before joining Royal Parade passing the pier, then turning right up Terminus Road to the station.
Refreshments: There are some take away food outlets at the exit to Gatwick station (if you want to refuel before descending in the lift). You pass by or through numerous towns along the route, all of which should have pubs or eateries of various kinds – for example East Grinstead and Heathfield. Ditto Eastbourne.

Points of Interest The Worth Way in West Sussex links to the Forest Way in East Sussex. For much of its length the Worth Way follows the railway line which ran from East Grinstead to Three Bridges. Opened on 9th July 1855, Rowfant and subsequently Grange Road (Crawley Down) were the only stations along the route. In 1866 the railway was extended from East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells and now provides the route for the Forest Way. The whole line was closed as part of the line closures proposed by the then British Rail Chairman, Dr Beeching, in the 1960’s. Dr B lived near East Grinstead, and Beeching Way, which was built on a stretch of the railway bed, is named after him.

These shared use paths traverse the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: visit the excellent web site for more information. In particular, the Forest Way is coincident in parts with the High Weald Landscape Trail and you can download a free 60-page guide plus a map booklet packed with interesting info. Harrison’s Rocks, close to the route south of Groombridge, are a sandstone outcrop popular with climbers, being one of the few natural cliffs within such easy reach of London. The site is now owned by the British Mountaineering Council, which has applied to designate the area as Open Access Land. Also, off the route near Eridge are Eridge Rocks , a similar but quieter outcrop.

The Cuckoo Trail follows yet another disused railway. Opened in 1880, the Cuckoo Line was the Polegate to Eridge railway built by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway to prevent its rival, the South Eastern Railway, accessing the Eastbourne traffic. It was named the Cuckoo Line after the tradition that the first cuckoo of spring was always heard at the Heathfield Fair. In time it settled down to become a country railway carrying milk, coal, livestock and timber as well as passengers. As with the Worth Way and Forest Way, the line was eventually shut as part of the “Beeching” cuts.

Finding your way The route is essentially National Cycle Network Route 21 and is signed as such. The route in the vicinity of Three Bridges is rather complicated and a street-level printout of the 'theoretical' route from my Google Map would help. Sustrans used to do a map of the ‘Downs and Weald Cycle Route’, which was handy, but I think it is out of print now. Otherwise, you need OS Landranger 1:50K 187, 188 and 199, and/or OS Explorer 1:25K 134, 135 and 124.