Guildford – Dorking: The North Downs Way
On Saturday I finally did what I’d been threatening to for many moons, and got out of London and went on a bit of a walk. The idea I had was to walk part of the North Downs’ Way*, from Guildford to Dorking in Surrey. It’s the kind of thing that other people would do without much thought, but for me getting out of bed on a Saturday morning and getting out of the city is extremely difficult. London has a very strong gravity and if you stop to faff you find your plan has been reduced to popping to the local shops to buy some cheese. You need to achieve escape velocity.
This achieved, I met my companion at Waterloo station and stocked up on middle class walking foodstuffs such as samosas and stuffed vine leaves. He stuck to the more traditional chocolate bars. We were both wearing sensible footwear, but we hadn’t done anything so ostentatious as buying a map. Instead I had a print-out of the route in finest 1980s text based adventure game tradition: “You are in Guildford station. To your left are dragons. You move forward and find yourself surrounded by dwarves…”.
Oh alright, it wasn’t like that at all. But it was a set of instructions and not a map, so we were expecting to get lost, bewildered and possibly savaged by a bunch of stockbrokers who had ‘gone native’ in the Surrey Hills. It was nearly Halloween, after all.
Our first task was to leave Guildford without being lured into any pubs, and to find out way to the North Downs Way.We made it to the river Wey without incident, and followed it past an inviting pub, a lively collection of ducks, and some slightly confusing statues from Alice in Wonderland. After crossing the wrong bridge and going on an engaging diversion across a meadow, we finally made it to the first acorn-branded route sign that would be our reassuring companion for the rest of the journey.
Soon enough, we began to leave the middle class dwellings behind and instead were surrounded by confusing things like trees, fresh air, fields and horses, as this picture indicates. I took a big breath. The air tasted unusually clean. This was truly God’s own country. In the first outbreak of woodland, other James located himself a walking stick, which was large and knobbly and make him look like a wizard striding across middle earth. All he needed was the beard, enormous hat, and magical powers.
Moving on, we talked of this and that while Surrey revealed its secrets to us, like a shy maiden in the first flush of randy adventure. We found a thatched cottage that looked like the kind of place you’d find a retired rock star; We came across (but not upon – that would be sacrilegious) a wonderful old Norman church on a hill called St Martha’s, from which we gawped at the first gorgeous vista. I was going to sit down and eat my middle class snackfoods, but a threatening-looking cloud intervened. We pushed on.
Next up was Albury Downs, and from there Newslands Corner, which was one of those ‘scenic viewpoint’ spots. You know the kind of thing – a car park, where you can sit and stare out at the view while eating your lunchtime sandwiches, a visitor centre, and a kiosk selling burgers and tea. There was a merry throng of car-bound old people, leathered-up bikers, lycra-ed-up cyclists, and families. It reminded me that England is a nation of hobbyists and day-trippers still.
We stopped for a cup of tea in a cafe across the road, where we enjoyed a local newsletter which was full of interesting things, such as an interview with an apparently-famous psychic (Princess Diana used her to tell her which Parisian underpasses to avoid) and an advert for a book about “The Wasps of Surrey”. We learnt that Surrey has many kinds of wasps; Surrey wasp honey is one of nature’s finest bounties.
Leaving the fine people of Surrey to their fry-ups and lasagnes, we headed onwards. The next bit of the journey was quite heavily wooded, and at one stage we passed a posh farm which comprised sports cars and spoilt ponies. We also passed a mysterious and sinister headlesss statue. We took a downhill detour to visit the silent pool, which is Surrey’s answer to the Spooky Caves. It’s a beautiful spot, which wonderfully clear water due to (so the internet tells me) filtration through the Downs’ chalk bed. On the way down we passed the first of many pillboxes, which were defensive posts built as part of the ‘Stop’ line to repel the mooted Nazi invasion of Britain. It never happened, and the pill boxes still scatter the countryside, as sombre reminders of what might have been. It’s nice to climb inside them, and peer out over the rolling hills and imagine the German Army rolling towards you. And then shit yourself. These days they’re mainly used as dens by cider drinking local teens, and good luck to them.
The prettiest bit of the whole walk came next – Blatchford Down, which you can see looking awesome here. We took a bit of a wrong turn at this point, and I briefly lost my non-map, having to run back up a hill to find it. We went up a path and made it back to the friendly acorns of the North Downs Way, and carried on, past several more WW2 pillboxes.
Darkness was threatening to gather, and the other James cursed his forgetting to bring a torch. The existence of torches hadn’t even occured to me. He recently walked from Canterbury to Dover, and darkness fell as he was walking along the cliffs. Fortunately he found his way without going for an accidental bungee jump without the cord. Our route didn’t contain such perils, but the woods were becoming increasingly spooky. Our first sighting of Dorking came just before dusk, and our first sighting of bats came soon after. We had a chance to leave the route and head down into Dorking for our much-deserved pint, but we felt we needed to do things properly so continued on our way through a Blair Witch forest. The darkness was upon us now, and it was a relief to exit the wood at the other side and witness Dorking’s lights twinkling below us. In front of us was Box Hill, looming in the gloom, our original target but long since abandoned for Dorking’s pubs.
We went through a gate and found ourselves in an enormous vineyard – Denbies Wine Estate – which I’ve since discovered is the largest in England, responsible for a good 10% of the stuff that we dare to call wine. Walking between the vines, in England, in October was a very odd experience. It was like being in a Pork Pie factory in the south of France on midsummer’s eve.
Finally we made it to the first street lamp of civilisation, and other James’ stick was symbolically abandoned at its base. We wandered into town, and stopped in the first civilised-looking pub – appropriately enough, named the Surrey Yeoman. We drank our ale, and from our armchairs we could see the local Wimpy winking at us from across the road.
*Which goes all the way from Farnham in Surrey to Dover in Kent. It’s been used by pilgrims and travellers who can’t be arsed driving for thousands of years