How the Meon Valley Trail is putting Wickham on the cycling map
- Credit: Archant
The transformation of the 10-mile Meon Valley Trail is putting Wickham on the cycling map, providing accessibility for all and creating a link straight into the heart of the South Downs. Natalie French finds out more
Thanks to £3.81 million funding from the Department for Transport’s ‘Linking Community’ fund, the Meon Valley Trail has been undergoing a major renovation, explains David Deane, Cycling Officer for the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA).
“Led by SDNPA, in partnership with regional highway authorities, including Hampshire County Council, we have been given an opportunity to improve the Meon Valley Trail. It is part of a £5 millon investment in a network of core multi-user routes into and around the South Downs National Park.”
This 10 mile stretch from Wickham to West Meon, due to officially re-open this month, runs along a disused railway bed and features rare chalk streams, resident otters and a rich history. Wild flowers flourish here - as does the bird life, and you may be lucky enough to spot kingfishers, red kites and buzzards. Another fantastic advantage for hard-core cyclists is the fact the trail links up with the UK’s newest National Park: The South Downs. Yet unlike the South Downs Way, renowned for its hilly landscapes, The Meon Valley Trail aims to allow access to all: walkers, cyclists, horse riders and even those with mobility issues.
Young families will also be able to set off from Wickham Station and enjoy a sliver of Hampshire countryside without the buggy getting bogged down in excess mud. New signage will point weary walkers to the nearest pub, whilst children can run loose for vast stretches.
“The route is relatively flat and is a significant feat of engineering,” says David. “It was deliberately built without a single level crossing, which means that the trail today, which runs as far as West Meon, is almost completely traffic free with just two road crossings of quiet lanes.”
However, the renovation has met some criticism, with campaigners concerned that the work has been ‘insensitive to the environment’ and with many horse riders preferring the wet muddy surface to canter and gallop on.
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Although David assures me, “The broad aim of the project is to improve the Meon Valley Trail so that it becomes a safe, high quality, family friendly multi-user route. To do this a number of issues are being addressed, including the poor surface and drainage; safety concerns of unstable trees - there were 78 instances of trees or large branches blocking the trail in 2013/14; lack of chalk download habitats; limited visibility of surrounding countryside caused by overgrown vegetation; improved information and interpretation of the history, geography and ecology around the trail.”
With the route starting on their doorstep, what does this mean for Wickham residents? “The new multi-user route should bring with it many benefits,” says David. “The local community will have access to an improved route that connects directly with the South Downs Way, as well as a bridleway that runs from Eastbourne to Winchester - representing a fantastic potential resource for people to enjoy the beautiful South Downs countryside.
“Increased numbers of users should help boost the local economy, bringing more trade to the businesses in the town.”
One such business excited by the project is B+B Wickham - a privately owned, cycle-friendly, boutique bed & breakfast that has recently taken over The Old House in Wickham’s village square. Keen to promote the village’s link to The Meon Valley Trail, the B+B offers a free bike hire service for its residence.
“Guests are free to borrow ‘his and hers’ modern push bikes with helmets and locks to head out and explore,” says owner Emma Carter. “The Meon Valley Trail starts just behind the property and is a firm favourite. The opening of the Trail is truly wonderful for Wickham, creating a green lifeline, carefully maintained and easy to follow.”
Whilst staying at the property, Emma has been running the Trail early in the morning, starting at The Old Mill.
“I have met many local dog walkers who appreciate the serenity of the walkway, whilst being so close to the town. It’s wonderful to be so close to nature and to soak up the history of the route. It is important for a community to understand its past, and the opening up of the Meon Valley Trail goes a long way to achieving this for Wickham.”
And what a rich past it has! Originally built and opened on June 1 1903 by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), the Meon Valley Railway was a 22.5 mile, cross-country, railway that ran between Alton and Fareham, closely following the course of the Meon River. Whilst its passenger service ceased in 1955, the line was used for freight until 1968. Being such an agricultural hotspot, the bulk of traffic came from the transportation of local produce, from watercress and strawberries, to cattle and milk.
The trail’s most significant point can be found at Droxford Station, where in June 1944, Winston Churchill met with his war cabinet, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle, in a secluded siding to finalise plans for the biggest invasion force ever massed by the British military – the D-Day landings. Tens of thousands of troops were camped throughout the area and the leaders went on a morale boosting tour before returning to the train.
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“The South Downs National Park is the UK’s newest National Park and has just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It has the highest population of any National Park in the country, as well as a massive population just beyond its borders. Often people think of Sussex (particularly places like the Seven Sisters, Ditchling Beacon and Devil’s Dyke,) when they think of the South Downs, but around one third of the South Downs National Park is in Hampshire, with Wickham sitting on the southern border. Being designated a National Park, the South Downs joins an illustrious line up of places protected due to their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage - including the Lake District and of course the New Forest. Internationally, National Parks include the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Kruger, Kakadu, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands. So it is wonderful, particularly for residents of Wickham, to think that we live on the edge of a rural area that has such a status,” says David.
The Meon Valley Trail provides a habitat to a number of species including butterflies, birds and primroses. Otters also dwell along the Meon River and have been captured on the river bank, just north of Wickham, by night vision trail camera. In a bid to encourage these beautiful creatures to stay in the area the South Downs National Park Authority volunteers have been busy building otter holts, using the natural material that has been collected from path clearances.
Another creature, you may soon be lucky to spot is the water vole. Whilst The River Meon’s water vole population is believed to be extinct due to the presence of mink, a project to reintroduce a viable and sustainable population into the Meon is underway. Operation ‘bring back Ratty’ is the largest scale water vole release attempt to date.
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