Bike ride: Cuckoo Trail, Sussex

This Sussex cycle trail is best explored in mid-spring, when its broad, bushy verges billow with wildflowers and its overhanging woodland canopies resound with birdsong

Cycling on an old railway line
Published: March 15th, 2021 at 11:43 am
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Had you attended the Heathfield Fair in days of yore, you’d have witnessed the old Sussex tradition of releasing a single cuckoo. Today, that custom is recalled in the name of a fetching cycle path, 11 miles of which lie along the former ‘Cuckoo Line’ railway between Heathfield and Polegate.


The railway line opened in 1880 only to close in 1968, a victim of Dr Beeching’s axe. However, since the route passed through such appealing countryside – open grassland, broadleaf woods and arable fields – the trail has been popular with visitors since it was converted in the 1990s.

Disused railway path goes through some dense woods
The Cuckoo Trail descends 122m from north to south (Heathfield to Polegate), offering a gentle downhill ride for young kids and delightful countryside views/Credit: Alamy

Cycling on the Cuckoo Trail

The tarmac pathway is flat and almost completely traffic-free, making it perfect for families with novice cyclists. Children can have fun spotting the metal sculptures created for the path by local artist Hamish Black and the wooden artworks carved by Steve Geliot from oak trees tumbled by the famous storm of 1987. Steve has also produced some wooden seats, which are dotted along the way for picnickers.

Bird in tree
True to its name, the trail offers visitors the chance to take part in that time-honoured spring ritual: listening for the first cuckoos/Credit: Getty

Close by is the family-friendly Michelham Priory. Set in seven acres of attractive gardens, the priory is guarded by England’s longest water-filled medieval moat and sports interactive displays, a playground, café and loos.

The Cuckoo Trail in spring

If 11 miles is likely to prove too arduous, the trail can be shortened by joining at one of the picturesque villages along the way. However, for those up for a longer trip, the path heads off the former railway for a further three miles to Hampden Park, famous for its bluebells, daffodils and crocuses and aromatic herb garden.

The entire path is also accessible to walkers and wheelchair users, with some stretches suitable for horseriders, too. And if you don’t have your own bike, you can hire one on the trail at Horam (


Cycle the route in spring and you’ll find the ground thick with wildflowers and the air heavy with the evocative scent of wild garlic as you glide through woods ringing with the sound of green woodpeckers. And true to its name, the trail offers visitors the chance to take part in that time-honoured spring ritual: listening for the first cuckoo.


Dixe Wills is the author of a shelf-wearying host of books about Britain including The Z-Z of Great Britain, Tiny Islands and Tiny Churches.


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