North Downs Way: From Dorking to Merstham
It’s been weeks since we completed the second part of our great North Downs Way adventure (or “you and James’ ministry of silly walks,” as Morgan calls them*) – from Dorking to Merstham – and I still haven’t got around to posting about it. It’s been a busy month, and in the interim I’ve drunk lots of tea, got a new job and written about bike theft and venue closure.
If I don’t write about it now I never will, so here goes. Gaps in memory will be filled in with creative lying, or magic realism. Whichever is more suitable.
With the clocks going back it was important we got down to Dorking fairly early, so it was with some surprise that we managed to meet at Waterloo at the crazy hour of half past nine in the morning. After the purchase of healthy sustinence such as tea and bacon sandwiches, we got the train, which was mainly populated by mountain bikists escaping to the Surrey Hills (NB: not mountains) to churn up some mud. One got on at Stoneleigh and was already soaked in brown. He looked as happy as a pig in shit, and his friends excitedly discussed how muddy he was, and how muddy they expected to get.
We arrived at Dorking to find some kind of mountain biking convention, but we soon left them behind as we walked past Denbies Wine Estate and towards the helpful sign pointing us on our North Downs Way.
Having looked at a few other descriptions of the trip I knew that the journey started with crossing the River Mole on STEPPING STONES, which was enormously exciting as stepping stones basically = childhood to me. Particularly those in the Isabella Plantation in Ricmond Park and those at Dovedale in the Peak District. I was coming back from Dovedale once when I heard that Forest had lost the post-Hillsborough 1989 FA Cup Semi Final replay against Liverpool. I still haven’t got over that.
Unfortunately due to the Mole being angry, the stepping stones were nowhere to be seen. They were either submerged by her mighty torrent, or had been stolen by some enterprising locals. We took the bridge instead, and made our way up Box Hill.
I’d been to Box Hill once before, with an enterprising ex-girlfriend who had an unlimited free rail pass due to her dad being a train driver. She was able to travel anywhere in the country, using any service available (except the West Highland Ferries, the ticket solemly pointed out. Though I don’t know why they needed to – from what I remember, ferries aren’t trains). I’d receive letters from all sorts of unlikely places. I think an unlimited rail pass would be my dream present, if anyone out there is wondering what to get me for Christmas.
Anyway, back from wondering to wandering: half way up the hill we met some extremely fit lycra types bounding down. Despite my mockery of the mountain bikers earlier, I do love seeing these fit and healthy people pursuing their hobbies that are perfectly decent and understandable and not to the detriment of society at large like watching X Factor is. I just marvel at their energy. Further up we met some dog walking types, and I gave their dog 8/10.
As we walked up the hill we could hear parents shouting at their children during the traditional Saturday morning matches being played on some pitches on the outskirts of Dorking. Someone should go up and down the country, record the kind of things these parents say (FACKING GET RID OF IT! HOOF IT, HOOF IT!), properly collate and contextualise it, and hand it in as evidence as to why England will never again win the football World Cup. We shouldn’t be allowed to host it either, by the way. Why on earth should we be handed the right to host football’s flagship tournament when we’ve spent the past two decades selling our sport wholesale to Rupert Murdoch?
At the top, we saw the usual daytrippers who only see the countryside that’s a few yards from a car park, and stopped at the viewpoint. Slightly further along we spotted the evidence of a fireworks party and also the deritus the curse of out-of-control teenage drinking. Although I remember one of us noting that it was a much nicer spot to flirt, drink cider and be sick in the bushes than our local municipal park.
One of the firework boxes was labelled “The End Of The World,” which seemed ambitious.
As we headed down the other side of the hill, leaving the car park crowd behind us, we noted we were heading into an abandoned quarry, old-school Dr Who style. We got a bit lost and went on a detour through the quarry itself, which was very impressive but would have been even more impressive had it been crawling with monsters made out of tinfoil. The remnants of the old pit were most interesting, however. Abandoned mines are classic Enid Blyton territory, so we quickly attempted to find out way back to the path before we ended up having to waste our afternoon thwarting a sinister plot concerning scar-faced villains and (probably) The Nazis.
After trapsing up an unnecessary hill we found our way back to the path, and headed along by Leigh Hill and lots of woodland. We had a map this time, but this served only to confuse us, and I think we got more lost this time than we did when we just had a bit of paper.
We eventually emerged on Colley Hill, which was most satisfying as it opened up satisfyingly onto downland and we got a chance to look back at the chain of hills we’d CONQUERED since leaving Dorking. This gave us a sense of achievement and made us feel we weren’t totally wasting our time.
On Colley Hill sits a wonderful pavillion, a gift from Lieutenant-Colonel Robert William Inglis to the good people of Reigate. I like to think that he bequeathed it to them in apology for his having deflowered a series of gentleman pig farmers’ daughters. I have no evidence to support my theory, but it seems the most likely explanation.
Further on, we came across a fort. “Ah, this is probably Roman,” said my companion. He was only 1,800 years out – Reigate Fort was built in the late nineteenth century in order to defend against a possible attack by the dastardly French. This was interesting – the first part of our walk was peppered by defences against the Germans. Further along I expect to see defences in preparation for invasion by the Danes, Swedes, and Belgians. And possibly some on the other side of the hill, to protect from Londoners.
I enjoyed its large iron gates.
From here, we made our way into Gatton Park, and from there into the grounds of Gatton Park School. It was odd walking through the school grounds and then through the golf course that followed – the commuter belt was most certainly intruding now. Then we saw the biggest intrusion of all – as we marched across the fairway, the M25 roared away in a cutting to our left, taking cars from the country to the city, from the city to the country, and from the city to other cities. It was a bit of a shock – there are LOADS of cars, you know? I had no idea.
Our walk ended just past the grounds of Merstham cricket club. For completism sake, we followed the path over a pedestrian bridge over the motorway – there were signs to report vandalism, but none for the samaritans, which I found interesting – before heading back over the road bridge to the first Merstham pub that looked suitable for our needs.
* James has since done a much more silly walk – all the way from the outskirts of London to Canterbury. It took him six days. Pics are here.