diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 26, 2017

I need to make today's post sound interesting...

Where can you walk a disused railway to the 11th oldest church in England?

...or perhaps this will do it...

The inventor of what weapon is buried here, and what's his connection to The Sound Of Music?

...because if I'd said at the beginning that this was a post about Crawley, I fear you might have switched off.

The Worth Way runs from Three Bridges to East Grinstead in West Sussex, and follows a disused railway track. The line opened in 1855 and initially thrived, but subsequent connections rendered it commercially obsolete and it was closed in 1967. I'd best mention Dr Beeching, or else somebody will in the comments, because he actually lived in East Grinstead but killed off three of its four railway lines.

The trackbed is now bike-and-rambler-friendly, and runs for seven straight-ish miles with stations at both ends, making this a walk it's easy to tackle even in the winter. Here's a website, here's a leaflet, here's a map, here's a Wikpedia page, here's a blogpost and here's a video.

I started at the East Grinstead end so that the walk would end in Crawley, which may not be the optimal direction. The Worth Way starts in a car park, which used to be the station, and heads west in a deep cutting with commuter avenues to either side. A couple of bridges spanning high overhead make it clear you could only be walking along a former railway, and the screen of trees makes it hard to spot when open countryside is reached. Yes, it's a favourite dogwalking route, the number of hounds decreasing as the town slowly recedes.

After a long spell on a woody embankment the Worth Way meets Crawley Down, a village very much disconnected from the town of almost the same name. In the 70s the area around the former railway line was swallowed by housing, obliterating the trackbed, so walkers and cyclists now get to weave through grassy suburban avenues for half a mile instead. A tiny collection of shops has replaced the station, near what used to be the village's only pub but might never be again. And at the top of Old Station Close the footpath suddenly restarts, descending into cutting and out through Hundred Acres Wood.

The only other station on the line was at Rowfant, one of those peculiar halts built solely to appease the original landowner, hence serving almost no population except the manor house of the same name. The station building still stands, but walkers can only divert round the back because a road maintenance company now store machinery on the trackbed and in the former goods yard behind. Then it's on through more woods, dodging the occasional cyclist, and don't worry the Sound Of Music paragraph will be along soon.

At Turners Hill Road the original route disappears, again, because someone built a landfill site, so a diversion is required along the edge of Worthlodge Forest. Another barrier blocking the former railway is the M23, here crossed by a footbridge, and this motorway marks the edge of Crawley proper. A sidetrack finally returns travellers to the railway cutting, then onto an embankment between the new town neighbourhoods of Maidenbower and Pound Hill, ultimate destination Three Bridges station. But if you don't take that sidetrack, and double back into the Worth conservation area, you'll find an unexpected Saxon church.

St Nicholas' has been dated to the mid-10th century, and has a spacious cruciform footprint. It doesn't look its age inside, but that's because of an unfortunate incident in 1986 when workmen repairing the nave accidentally started a fire. The Victorian roof had to be completely replaced, new pews had to be installed, and the walls lengthily redecorated. But the underlying structure remains firm, with glorious stone arches to front and side, and the lofty swoop over the chancel is thought to be one of the largest Saxon arches in existence anywhere.

Look around to find Norman stained glass windows, plaster tombs and a medieval font, plus a Stuart gallery where the organ sits. But this is also very much a working church, its congregation greatly boosted when planners had the forethought to build a new town outside. The rector leads three Sunday morning services - one said, one massy, one messy - and would love to see some fresh blood in the choirstalls. A particularly nice idea is that the parish magazine is printed in handbag size and also enlarged to A4, for those with dodgier eyesight, as are the weekly pewsheets. A full colour history of the church, also in booklet form, is yours for a quid.

And to finally answer my question, that grave outside is the last resting place of Robert Whitehead, inventor of the self-propelled torpedo. In the 1850s he was working in what's now Croatia, on behalf of the Austrian Navy, and impressed everyone with his explosive 11-foot weapon. Without the Whitehead torpedo, early submarines would have had nothing to do. Robert left his fortune to his granddaughter Agathe, who ended up marrying naval officer Georg von Trapp, but she died of scarlet fever and left him rattling around a big house in Salzburg with seven children. 1965's highest-grossing film would never have been made were it not for the man buried by the west door of the 11th oldest church in England.

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