North Downs Link – NCN Route 223

On a mild day early in September, I decided to head out on one of the routes over the North Downs from Sustrans‘ excellent book, Cycling in South East England, by John Grimshaw, that I’d been meaning to try out for a while. The route I planned to take ran from Guildford to Horsham in Sussex, a distance of around 18 miles and largely following National Cycle Network route 223. I’ve now ridden many routes on the NCN all over the country and if you’ve never tried one, I urge you to do so. They’re not guaranteed to be traffic free, but they are mostly cycle-friendly and a great way of exploring interesting places on your bike.

I started from the Guildford end of NCN 223, heading south. It took me a couple of attempts to find the correct path, but nothing that caused any significant delays – this was entirely due to me not being terribly familiar with Guildford’s many cycle routes, and the start of the route being located in a park that wasn’t particularly well signposted. Once I was on NCN 223, the route was entirely straightforward, with no real opportunity to get lost on the way.

NCN 223 is a route that varies in surface quality, like many others. I found that the further south I went, the worse it became, and I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on a road bike as this route would largely be considered “off road”. For hybrids and mountain bikes, the route should be easy to tackle, but would get very muddy in wet weather. The route is 95% traffic-free, with only a very short section of main road to be tackled at the end toward’s Christ’s Hospital. However, only the northern end of the route near Guildford is properly tarmacked, with much of the rest of the route being an off-road dirt track that follows the route of the old Cranleigh Railway, part of which ran between Guildford and Horsham. There are a couple of disused stations to see on the route, with the largest being near the beginning at Bramley. The other large station on the way can be found at Baynard’s, but this is now in private hands and photography is strictly controlled around the area, with no access onto the station itself.

Bramley & Wonersh Station, closed in 1965. The cycle route runs to the right of the station along the tarmac, and there is a small display of the station's history on the platform.

Bramley & Wonersh Station, closed in 1965. The cycle route runs to the right of the station along the tarmac, and there is a small display of the station’s history on the platform.

For much of the route heading south, I felt like I was riding in a woodland tunnel, but this was punctuated by occasional views out onto the rolling North Downs and gorgeous countryside, linking the counties of Surrey and Sussex. There were no large hills on the way, apart from one particularly short sharp climb at Baynard’s Tunnel, and being a disused railway line, the route was mostly flat or with gentle inclines. The town of Cranleigh makes an ideal stopping point for cyclists at roughly mid-way along the route and boasts a good range of cafes and pit-stops close to the trail. The route also seemed to be getting a fair bit of use from the locals, all of whom seemed friendly and well-used to cyclists on the path.

If the route has one highlight, it has to be the unusual double-bridge outside Rudgwick crossing the River Arun. This came about during construction of the original railway, after the first bridge built crossing the river was deemed unsuitable by inspectors:

“The Horsham to Guildford line was beset with a number of difficulties when it was being constructed, largely due to local landowners dragging their feet on reaching deals with the railway company.

On 2 May 1865 Bannister reported to the board that the line was finally ready to be inspected by the Board of Trade which duly attended two months later. The Chief Inspecting Officer, Colonel Yolland, was unhappy with the traffic arrangements at Guildford and did not authorise public use of Rudgwick Station, set on a 1 in 80 incline, until it was re-sited on an incline of 1 in 130. As the company was contractually obliged to provide this station for the local landowner, it had no choice but to carry out the works, which also included the raising of an embankment and a bridge over the River Arun by 10 feet (3.0 m). This gave rise to the curious ‘double bridge’ over the River Arun just south of Rudgwick.”

Text courtsey of Paul Willis, the Worthing Wanderer

The route is particularly scenic at this point on the route, with excellent views from high above the river in both directions. I stopped here for a while and had a bit of lunch while other cyclists around me stopped for photos. There is no access onto the lower bridge, which goes absolutely nowhere – it was simply never demolished when the new one was built above it – but there is a steep path down to the river below.

Double Bridge over the River Arun

Double Bridge over the River Arun
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Ron Strutt and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The final point of note is Baynard’s Tunnel, which I had to ride over and not through. The tunnel has been sealed for decades and is now home to a large colony of bats. This provides the only sharp climb of the whole route. It is quite a poor surface to ride on – very rocky – and there is little in the way of direction as you double-back on yourself. The descent down the other side could also be quite treacherous in wet weather and I found myself bumping down the track far faster than I was comfortable with. Those with young children should take care, but it shouldn’t be enough to put you off riding the route.

After the speed of the descent down Baynard’s, the route continues to the south-east for a few more miles until arriving back onto a main road leading to Christ’s Hospital, which has a local station run by Southern Railways back up towards London. I pressed on a little further into neighbouring Horsham, but for those with the inclination to do so, NCN 223 continues all the way south for a further 20 miles (approx) to Shoreham-by-Sea.

This section of NCN 223 is perfectly suitable for less-able cyclists and for those who just wish for a straightforward country ride. It isn’t up there with the best of routes I’ve ridden, but has just about enough landmarks to keep your interest up, combined with a flat (off-road) track and a couple of useful cafe stops on route.

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