A month or so ago I wrote a post on how I was going to try and have some adventures back in the UK, after six months filled with adventures when I lived in Madrid. I rashly said that I was going to walk the full length of the North Downs Way… 153 miles from Farnham to Dover. Not in one go, of course – my adventures have to be reasonably manageable! Nope, I was going for day trips out of London and that is one of the reasons I picked the North Downs Way. Yes, it might not be as far from civilisation as some of the other National Trails in Britain, but most of it is relatively easy to get to on public transport from where I live in London.
First, a bit of history. The North Downs Way is a National Trail path running along the ridge of the North Downs. It roughly follows the Pilgrims Way – the route taken by pilgrims walking from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. It doesn’t follow the route exactly as the planners decided they wanted to try to take walkers along quiet footpaths and through areas of natural beauty – the pilgrims way was mainly built up and on concreted roads by the time they came to plan the long distance walking route.
Enough history – what was it like? We were up early on Sunday (for us!) and at Clapham Junction in time to catch the 10.15 to Farnham. One direct train, just less than an hour long, and we got off at Farnham station, feeling slightly chilly, backpacks on. Then we didn’t have a clue where to go. I had read that the start of the trail was very near Farnham station, and indeed it was, but not quite so near that you can see it from the station.
Instead, we turned left and walked down the hill towards a large, busy road crossing. If you do that, on your right you will spot the sign marking the start of the North Downs Way (it’s brand new from October 2015!) Somewhat disappointingly, you set off on the route along the side of the A31. My heart fell, wondering how long we would just be walking beside such a busy main road, but luckily it was only a matter of 30 seconds before the path ducked away from the road, behind the trees onto a footpath. We walked along this for a while, the river Wey beside us, the sound of cars muffled by the trees.
The rest of the walk takes you away from the sound of the road, across the sides of fields and through some beautifully wooded areas. There are no real hills to climb on this section, a few little inclines is all, but you still get some beautiful views.
The route runs mostly on footpaths with a few sections on narrow country roads – but these aren’t long and are over quickly. It winds past three golf courses (at least) – the wild of the path crowded with nettles and brambles contrasting with the neat, manicured golf course. The houses we walked past were big and sprawling, rich people’s homes with shiny cars and “Keep Out” signs. James asked “do any poor people live in Surrey?”
We walked through woods carpeted in leaves, the sun peeking its way through the remaining leaves and branches of tall trees. We came across a white box, with a sign telling us to take a copy of a book called “Finding the Way” and come to God. On opening the box, all that was left were a few leaves, lying in muddy rain water. We walked past a fairy tree – a little doorway in the bark of a tree, surrounded by medals and ribbons. Much more interesting!
For most of the walk, the only people we saw were long distance runners, clad in long compression socks and camelbaks, but as we neared Guildford there were more and more dog walkers. Slightly awkward as I quite badly needed a wee when there was a lady with two dogs close behind us. She seemed to follow us – at every turning I hoped that would be the end of her walk or she’d take a different path but no! Eventually we were far enough ahead and there was room for me to duck off the path into the woods. Just in time – as I rejoined the path I spotted her dogs just coming round the corner!
The other thing that happened as we got closer to Guildford is that people got less friendly. When you are out walking, you have to say hello to everyone you walk past. It’s the same when you’re running. (when cycling, you have to at least nod an acknowledgement if a cyclist goes past on the other side of the road, but a raise of the hand off the handlebars and a big smile is better!) We did this throughout the walk, but the replies to our “good afternoon”s and “hello”s got more and more curt the closer we got to Guildford. We had just had a good chat about how we enjoyed doing it even to the most surly of people, to force a response out of politeness from them, when I said “good afternoon” to a gentleman (not a gentleman at all!) probably in his 50s, walking in the opposite direction to us just as we were getting to the end of our walk. He did not acknowledge me in the slightest! No smile, no hello, no nod…. no eye contact even! And he definitely heard me as he was very close to me and there was no other noise around… plus his steely fixed glare ahead showed he was definitely fully ignoring me on purpose! Are people in cities just ruder? Who knows.
We stopped for lunch about 2 and a half hours in, at the Good Intent pub in Puttenham. Puttenham was a lovely little village (people still friendly around here), stone houses covered in flowers, narrow, quiet streets. The pub was an old-fashioned British pub, not too busy but still staffed by some quite stressed looking people! Our food took a very long time to arrive (or so it felt for our hungry bellies) but when it did it was delicious – I had a huge beef and Stilton pie together with a glass of red wine. We were a bit full, slow and quiet when we set off again but soon warmed up and got back in our stride!
The way is pretty well sign-posted but we still managed to get lost twice, a slight issue being the fact that we didn’t have any hard copy map or description of the route and the National Trail website is certainly not optimised for smart phones. The sticking points happen when the road or path the walker is on turns to the left, and another road goes straight on. Twice on occasions like that there was no sign, once on a road and once on a path, and on both occasions I decided the correct route was straight on, and I was wrong.
The first happened relatively close to Farnham on Moor Park Way / Moor Park Lane and after reaching a T-junction with no sign of where to go, we had to retrace our steps. We ended up walking along the side of field, and I decided to take my jumper off, handing the camelbak to James. I took a bit of time fiddling around with all my layers, and discovered when taking the camelbak back that my phone had fallen out of it. Obviously I thought James had hidden it as a joke and insisted on searching all of his pockets before accepting it had obviously fallen out and running back along the path to find it. I came across a mountain biker, who stopped to let me past, and I asked him “Have you seen a phone on the path anywhere?” He started answering in the negative but then said “actually, I’ve just stopped by one!” And there my phone was, lying right beside his front wheel. Phew.
The second getting lost happened towards the end, where taking a different footpath meant we missed a turn off. We ended up walking quite a way down a quiet country road but luckily the route joined the road in the end! It was slightly annoying as by this point we were just thinking about getting home for our roast dinner….
We ended stage one by turning left when we reached the river Wey again, just south of Guildford, instead of crossing a small footbridge over the river. We walked up the river banks and ended up on a huge roundabout, right in the centre of Guildford and right by the train station.
We walked a total of 20.2km in 3 hours 55 minutes, finishing with pretty sore legs but a big sense of achievement. And, on my part at least, eagerness to get out there onto the next stage!