83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain

sunset-river-wey-floodplain.jpgThere are stars
In the southern sky
Southward as you go
There is moonlight
And moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road

Sometimes there’s a part of me
Has to turn from here and go
Running like a child from these warm stars
Down the Seven Bridges Road
Eagles – November 1980 (words and music by Steve Young)

A summer’s evening, in spring. It’s a rare gift, and too good to miss.

The late afternoon warmth is still brittle, the low sun still shining through bare trees and fragile blossom. The far edge of an April day.

An easy loop down to the riverside path, across the footbridge by Guildford Rowing Club, then southward as you go.

It’s gentle running as far as the Pilgrim’s Way near the Ship Inn, trotting over a sandy slope alongside Guildford’s golden ford. Alongside the Portsmouth Railway for a while, past St Catherine’s Lock and the lock-keeper’s cottage, and under the steel cantilever bridge of the Redhill line.

A right turn by the World War II pillbox takes me up a steep climb onto the old, disused trackbed of the Southern Railway link, ripped up forty years ago and now sprouting a more erratic line of sentinel trees, causing the path to wiggle around the old track’s smoothly sweeping curve. Giant pools of water below the embankment tell the tale of the winter past – it’s been dry for months, and yet the trees have yet to drink their fill to drain the ground. The grass grows long down there, and lush with soupy sedge, so I stick to the path.

Alongside the steps near the old Artington Halt, the fruits of a modern planning disaster share an uneasy landscape with the floodplain’s calm. The huge Guildway Business Park threatens just across the railway line – its yellow brick office blots looming senselessly and still half-empty five years on. A futile monument to its flawed eco-credentials, this useless architecture sits amidst a vast tarmac park-and-ride wasteland sprawled ‘conservationally’ across the floodplain’s green. It’s the dismantled railway yard we have to blame, which made this a ‘brownfield’ site fit for development, encouraging the tumourous transition from attractively low-built industrial decay into the brutal pointlessness of a commercial desert.

I avert my eyes and plod on. It’s my landscape, and I’ll not let this one blemish darken my love for it yet. More people will find its attractions soon, since in place of the old rutted footpath there’s a new cycle path now, freshly laid on the old trackbed here, which takes me more comfortably along the locomotives’ route beneath the red-bricked bridge of the Godalming Road, and then back to the River Wey a minute beyond. The old railway bridge is long since gone, but the new path points hopefully eastwards across the water, the pinned-up notice recording a planning application in progress to re-invent the crossing. A modern revival of this route, at least for bikes, and feet.

Here on the Wey towpath, it’s a pleasant lope beside meadows and fields, past Catteshall Lock to the arch of Tilthams Heath Bridge, where I cross the river and join the road. A few yards on comes Trunley Bridge, its white-painted railings sweeping elegantly upon a lower profile leaving space for ducks and swans to ply the ancient meander loop below, whilst canal boats follow the navigation channel beside. I glance briefly along Unstead Lane, rising steeply towards the Greensand ridge, and discard that choice. It’s a time for quiet running on the flat, and not for heaving lungs uphill.

There’s no traffic here, just green fields, leafless trees and an empty pastel sky. The moon has risen, or perhaps the fading light has revealed its face, and there’s tranquility all around. One man, one nature, and a quiet evening. Sometimes there’s no better place to be than in these hidden reaches, this forgotten triangle of stillness beyond the southern edges of my adopted town.

A mile goes by, past the old water treatment ponds – now a nature reserve – to join the Horsham Road. There I turn sharp left onto the old railway line once more, its smooth new gravel lighter now than the evening glow, as I run towards a single streetlight on the Godalming Road far beyond. Long before, I reach the river’s bridgeless air and water gap, and double back – the same half mile seen another way.

A brief and anxious scamper beside the main road awaits, an unbroken gradient hiding two more bridges, first the ancient rivercourse again, and then another branch of waterway, the Wey and Arun Canal this time. From here, a darkened track leads me left, through the trees to Stonebridge Wharf, where cargo barges used to trade, and then beside the river to Broadford Bridge. I cross the road, but not the stream, run past some cottages, and the Parrot Inn, and then I’m heading homewards through silent woods of Dagley Lane, past the modern water pumping station and one last bridge beside the copper spire of St Mary’s Church, and into Shalford Park.

It’s cooler here, the chilled air of the valley floor now humid, heavy, and awaiting the fall of night to come. The subtly steepening rise of Pilgrim’s Way offers itself on my right, but remains untrod. The early stars are at my back now, as I choose the level ground of the floodplain and run on down the valley towards the lights of Guildford. Beside the rowing club, I cross the Horsham Road, take a bounding leap up Great Quarry’s ramp, and then stop to breathe. Just two hundred metres left, but they’re killing steep, and so I walk up the hill with spirit fresh.

As I climb, the floodplain stretches ever duskward, far below the southern sky of this April evening, of seven miles, and seven bridges run.

A spring day is closing on this river, this landscape, and this soul at peace.

Related articles:
123. Bridge on the River Wey
96. Jude Law and the Dirty Deed
48. Chaucer’s April
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
58. Running in the North Downs

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