Balcombe is a great place to walk - the one stop on the Brighton line that feels truly remote and rural. The moment you leave the station you are in a Wealden wonderland of hills, woods, pasture and hidden farms. These walks also feature Ardingly Reservoir, romantically set between steep hills.
"These walks" because this is in fact two walks - a Winter Walk and a Summer Walk, which intersect each other in two places. This allows you to switch between them at these points - for example, doing part one of the summer walk, part two of the winter walk, and part three of the summer walk, or any such combination that you like.
Both walks are not just circular walks in that they start and end at the same station, but also because they actually circle around Balcombe, departing westwards from the village, and skirting round its southern side to return to the village from the east.
Outlines of the two walks and their constituent parts are as follows:
WINTER WALK (16.2km/10 miles)
This route is suggested for winter because it has a shorter afternoon and includes quite a bit of walking on quiet lanes and dry tracks, so avoiding the worst of the mud. Ardingly Reservoir is also particularly beautiful in low winter sunlight, and the walk should enable you to get to the Balcombe Tea Rooms before they close at 4pm.
PART ONE (2.1km/1.3 miles) follows a quiet and pretty lane from near Balcombe station. It gives a shorter start to the walk than part one of the Summer Walk.
PART TWO (6.7km/4.1 miles) takes you down into the valley and under the Ouse Valley Viaduct - a surprisingly impressive structure, built in 1842 for the London to Brighton Line - before climbing up to Ardingly reservoir and village.
PART THREE (7.4 miles or 4.6 miles) goes from Ardingly village back down to the reservoir and along its edge to Balcombe for tea.
Picnic only option: On the Winter Walk the pub stop is a bit of a dog's leg - that is, you have to go out and back by the same route to get to it. If you plan to have a picnic, there is no point in doing this, so you can simply stay on the path along the reservoir. This saves 3.4km (2.1 miles), making a total walk of 12.8km (7.9 miles).
SUMMER WALK (19.5km/12.1 miles)
The Summer Walk spends more time on footpaths and in fields, but as a result can be very muddy in January or February. This route is also much more hilly than the Winter Route, especially in the afternoon where there are three big climbs and descents. In its first section it has at least two good bluebell woods in late April/early May (and possibly others in the afternoon). The National Trust tea room at Wakehurst Place also provides a convenient tea stop half way through afternoon, so you don't have to rush to finish the walk on long spring and summer evenings.
PART ONE (4.5km/2.8 miles) does a hilly loop on woodland paths and farm tracks as an alternative to the all-tarmac route followed by part one of the winter walk.
PART TWO (5.6km/3.5 miles) is a higher level route to Ardingly than its winter walk counterpart, which has some nice views down onto the reservoir in its latter stages.
PART THREE and FOUR (combined 9.3km/5.8 miles) follow the High Weald Landscape Trail from Ardingly village over hilly territory to Wakehurst Place, owned by the National Trust, but home to Kew's "country garden" and the Millennium Seedbank. From there you cross two more valleys to get back to Balcombe.
Balcombe is on the Brighton line, served twice hourly Mondays to Saturdays and hourly on Sundays by Thameslink trains from St Pancras and London Bridge. Catch the nearest train to 9.30am from London Bridge to get to lunch in time. Note that the rear four carriages of the twelve carriage Thameslink trains do not fit on the southbound platform at Balcombe and the driver sometimes forgets to announce this fact. Be sure to move forward in time to disembark..
The Ardingly Inn (01444 892 214), 8.8km (5.4 miles) into the Winter Walk and 10.1km (6.3 miles) into the Summer Walk, serves a basic menu, but with good quality and hearty portions.
Next door is the Ardingly Cafe (01444 891 113), which serves sandwiches, salads, soups and light meals until 4.30pm Monday to Saturday and 3.30pm on Sundays and bank holidays.
The Gardeners Arms (01444 892328), is an alternative lunch option 8.9km (5.5 miles) into the Winter Walk or 10.2km (6.4 miles) into the Summer Walk. (It is inconveniently sited for the Summer Walk afternoon, however and directions are only given to combine it with part three of the Winter Walk). This is an excellent pub, but is often fully booked at weekends, so you would do well to reserve a table in advance. It does have some outside tables, however, and some walkers have managed to get meals served at these without a reservation. The pub is reached by a diversion off the walk route - see paragraph 44 on page 5 or paragraph 139 on page 9 - which if you are doing part three of the Winter Walk only adds 280 metres to the walk length. Note that this route goes along the edge of the South of England Showground (www.seas.org.uk): on days when there are events at this venue the diversion and pub are probably best avoided.
Picnic spots: There are many benches around Ardingly Reservoir. Part three of the Summer Walk also has some pleasant hillsides in its early stages.
The Balcombe Tea Rooms (01444 811 777) serve great doorstop slabs of homemade cake, as well as doing simple meals such as lasagne or fry-ups. This is the recommended tea stop for the winter walk if you can get there before they close at 4pm.
Wakehurst Place (01444 894066), 14.2km (8.8 miles) into the Summer Walk, has a self-service cafe, the Seed Cafe, which is the recommended tea stop for that walk. It is open until 5.30pm daily from 1 March to 31 October, and 4.15pm from 1 November to 28 February.
The Half Moon Inn in Balcombe is a possible tea stop for both walks. Newly refurbished, it is open all afternoon and now serves tea and (sometimes) cakes. After 6pm it offers hot food, including deserts.