The Forest Way : Three County Challenge.
It’s been just under a week since Walk 8, but I’m keen to take advantage of the long days and calm weather. We have a motto in our house “Don’t be complacent” or “DBC” for short. So with memories of being soaked to the skin on Walk 1, crossing floods for Walk 2 and with perfect weather forecast – Walk 9 was hastily planned.
This was originally going to be Walk 4 in late March when conditions underfoot off road were too challenging. Obviously circumstances changed and I had thought I’d return to this route later in the year.
However, logistics plays a part in the challenge now and the 20 mile linear routes I had planned over the summer aren’t currently an option.
As my vision and migraines can be triggered unexpectedly, I need to have company with me. Whilst I can social distance with someone on a linear 20 mile walk , I can’t in a car on the lift back. Therefore, Neil has suddenly found himself my number one walking buddy as well as designated driver. Routes are therefore currently circular or 10 miles out and back. I’m not really a fan of ‘out and back’ as I prefer the variety of a circular walk, or the sense of achievement in distance of a 20 mile linear route, but its still definitely a 20 mile walk.
I’ve walked a disused railway line before (Walk 2 Cuckoo Trail) and my last walk was through Bedgebury Forest – so walking a disused railway line through the Forest was a natural step. It was also very flat – a key part of the original June plan! I’d booked a week in Norfolk with the view to complete 3 walks given the infamous terrain and lovely long days. That plan was obviously now scuppered so the challenge is to find flat walks locally which are slightly gentler and enables a quicker recovery.
The Forest Way runs for just under 10 miles between Groombridge and East Grinstead. Groombridge village straddles the border of Kent & East Sussex, and we would be walking out to East Grinstead (and back) in West Sussex. A three county challenge.
Long days and no closing times to take into account meant we headed out a bit later than usual and parked in the centre of Groombridge so we could make up the extra half mile we would need. There’s no signage from the village to the start, but with a bit of research and some helpful locals we found our way to the start point at the bottom of a hill. Noted : hill finish to look forward to..
It was perfect walking weather. Around 17 degrees a mix of cloud and sun so not too much of the dreaded glare for my eyes. We started on the trail and were almost immediately confused by the first sign: “Horseriders beware of approaching trains” – why only horseriders? – why not walkers and cyclists? – what trains? – isn’t this disused after all? The loud rumble of a train cleared things up – the first part of the path ran parallel to the active railway line it was very close and the noise could make a horse bolt.
The line we were walking on originally opened in 1866 but was closed in 1966 as part of the Beeching cuts to branch lines across the country – the same as the Cuckoo Trail Line. Ironically, Dr Beeching used this particular line for his own commute as he lived near Forest Row.
This first part of the trail from Groombridge starts with beautiful views across the countryside before you head into the Ashdown Forest.
The view ahead is a relentless straight line disappearing into the distance. The trail itself though takes you through many different landscapes as it skirts the River Medway (a river that will hopefully feature in Walk 10!) and through the Forest itself. Ruby loves to have a dip in water and was keen to lead us off the track to the river bank – but it was a bit too steep for her on this occasion.
This trail was the right type of busy ; lots of cyclists and dog walkers. Whenever we neared a village or town the numbers increased considerably. We’d been warned that in the summer the trail gets busy, so if a Tuesday in early June is an indicator, then this would be difficult to walk at peak times. The path isn’t quite wide enough to manage cyclists trying to get past walkers in both directions. Luckily, for us, it was fine and we soon settled into a good rhythm and pace.
There are many tunnels on the path and I love the echoes that your footsteps and voices create as you go through them. A silly childhood pleasure of calling out as you go under each one – even if it made Neil roll his eyes. Some of these tunnels were starting to be reclaimed by nature and as you went deeper into the forest you could have been on an Indiana Jones set.
As we approached Hartfield, the forest thickened and the river was again close by. We were in Winnie the Pooh territory here and could have ventured off to the famous bridge and play Pooh sticks. We were only a few miles in though and wanted to keep the momentum going. We will come back another time for that.
As we walked, the trail brought some amazing country views between the forest landscape as it skirted the edge of the forest. This would have been a beautiful commute on a train.
There was of course wildlife too. Wildflowers, birds and an abundance of squirrels everywhere. We heard a cuckoo calling out which somehow always breaks through all other sounds and catches your ear.
The trail has marker posts along the way as well as formal cycling signs as well. These aren’t necessarily needed to guide you – the path is obvious except for a short part around Forest Row , but they give you clear mileage indicators for your progress.
There’s a ‘gap’ in the trail at Forest Row where you head down a small lane and cross the busy A22 and join the final part towards East Grinstead. This part of the trail was so much busier and it felt like we were facing a sea of people walking and cycling towards us from East Grinstead. Its obviously a much valued resource and the path here was much wider. We had decided that once our apps had hit 10 miles we would turn round and head back. We could see the end of the trail but it was so busy there we were keen to start back along the quieter sections.
I managed to accidentally stop my app when checking the 10 mile alert, so had to restart a new tracker for the return leg – luckily Neil had his app going too (a contingency as we’ve had app issues before) so I’d still have the full 20 mile log.
The consistent flat path meant we had a really good pace going. It wasn’t deliberate it just naturally picked up and was partly motivated by the never ending trail visible in front.
The trails were also quieter again and we started passing familiar faces who were also making their return journeys. In fact on the walk back although we passed many people, there were only one or two new faces. There was a sense of camaraderie as we all said hello again.
We started ticking off the mile markers quickly on the return leg. It seemed no time at all til we reached Forest Row and then Hartfield appeared quickly.
The forest gradually thinned out and we were almost back at Groombridge where we had started the trail. The paths were a bit narrower here, but we pretty much had them to ourselves. This return part didn’t feel as fresh as the walk out had . We were retracing steps on the narrow tracks and it now seemed very familiar. This is undoubtedly a lovely walk. The constantly changing views and sights really help motivate you on long walks like this, so I will really look forward to picking up those long linear walks again at some point.
So there we were, back at the start of the trail – still half a mile to clock up for the full 20, and even with the walk to the car we were still going to be a quarter mile short – how does that always happen?!
So as usual we could see the car, we could touch the car, but we walked 3 laps of the park next to the car park to hit the magic 20 mile marker.
Walk 9 DONE! No migraine, no flashy eyes and a great pace and time.
Almost now at the half way point for this challenge. There are still 11 walks to plan and complete, and I hope that I can start getting friends and family to join me again too. I’ve missed your company but appreciate all your ongoing support.
As always, here is the reminder that I am undertaking these walks as a fundraising challenge for The Macular Society. Later this month is Macular Awareness Week, and I’ll be sharing more about the work this organisation does to support those affected by Macular Disease and the research for treatments that they fund.
If you would like to make a donation to support my challenge and the Macular Society you can simply click here: