Last autumn I hiked quite a bit of the North Downs Way. My plan was to hike the whole path in day trips out of London – and that still is my plan! It was delayed slightly by the stress of moving house and James preparing to move to a different continent which meant we didn’t really get out of London much for a few months.
But recently I entered the North Downs Way 50 mile ultra marathon and so I had a renewed enthusiasm to get back on the path. I headed out of London one day to Merstham to pick up where Charlotte, James and I had left off a few months ago.
Merstham is so quick to get to from London Bridge. A 30 minute train ride and you are on the North Downs. That’s less than the amount of time I spend on the tube in the morning. Really, if you live in London, you have very little excuse not to get out of the city once in a while and go and explore (the ticket is less than £10). And, when you live in a big city, there is something so great about just gazing upon fields and rolling hills rather than buildings. I think a lot of people just don’t realise how easy it is. So go!
And that’s what I did. I had a bit of a nightmare to start with. I had to be back in London, showered and changed for a film at 5.30pm. So discovering on Saturday evening that I’d left my trainers at work, 45 minutes away, was not a good start, especially given I don’t like early starts on the weekend! I toyed with the idea of not leaving London but in the end decided basically not to be silly and just to get up early.
Trainers on, I was on the train eating a bacon sandwich for breakfast. Not the best fuel for an 18 mile run but I couldn’t find any porridge at London Bridge. Ah yes – run. Previously we’d hiked the NDW but I don’t enjoy hiking so much when I’m by myself, I had a long training run to do for Dublin marathon and, all excited about my entry to the NDW 50, I wanted to run on the trail.
There wasn’t, from Merstham, an easy section of route that was 18 miles to another train station and I didn’t really want to run much further at this stage. So I decided I would run along the trail until just before 18 miles, then find a road and call a taxi to take me to Dunton Green train station which I figured would be the nearest. A few other options are to hike a much shorter day, and leave the trail at Otford, or a slightly longer day, and leave at Oxted. Or the other way around. The names are so similar I’m constantly getting them mixed up.
Anyway – I got off the train at Merstham right behind another group of hikers. If I was walking, this would have really annoyed me as I would have been awkwardly close to them for much of the day. But running, I knew I’d be past in no time.
I feel really sorry for Merstham. Its a very pretty little town, right on the edge of the countryside but also very close to London on the train. Perfect you might think. Except it is also very, very close to the M25 motorway and all you can hear in the town is the loud, constant drone of cars. I crossed over the motorway on my way out of the town about 2 minutes in:
But almost immediately I was running along a narrow wooded path, through a churchyard and then on to a quiet country road. There were a bunch of expensive houses on this road and then it thins out to the left. If you’re running / walking this, keep an eye out for the signpost on the left as it is easily missed!
It came quickly, with some runnable switchbacks set first, followed by a straight path directly up the hill, through the fields. This was not runnable. Or at least – not for me. So instead I focused on hiking up it as quickly as possible and was fully out of breath by the time I turned around to take a picture at the top.
Nothing was really flat, just lots of little gentle inclines and descents as I ran along the road and then along a narrow path beside the road. Beautiful views south at Caterham Viewpoint where the route turned away from the road. Everything was well signposted until I reached this point:
The path then went downhill, crossed over the A22, then I ran up past some huge warehouse hidden in the woods, then past some houses and a vineyard peeking through the bushes to the right. Eventually, the path opened out into the fields with the motorway right below me. I ran down the hill and then along a very narrow path where I was slightly wary of twisting an ankle due to just how narrow the path was.
I had a long hike up a steep hill, hiking straight past a huge family group. Had I been walking, I would have been with this family group for ages. As it was, I power-hiked past them and then ran away from them once I reached the top of the hill! I was then running along a wide gravel track that seemed to stop abruptly with a huge tree across it. I was slightly confused as I didn’t understand where I had gone wrong or what alternative path I could take. Also perhaps given I was running and tired my brain wasn’t working as fast as it would be if I was walking! Anyway, after a few moments of confusion (taking the opportunity to have a break!) I realised I could duck round the tree and the path continued on the other side…
After more forest running, I reached a series of fields. The rest of the run was relatively flat compared to the rest of it but more challenging in terms of navigation. It went through and round the fields and it was quite hard to work out where I should be going – it was not as well signposted as the rest of the route. At one point I did go wrong and had to climb over a fence to reach the road. Finally – at about 17 miles – I came out of the fields onto the edge of the North Downs with stunning views down below me. The path ran along the top and then steeply down and I was absolutely loving it.
Then my phone ran out of battery. My plan had been to get to a road around 18 miles, and then call a taxi to take me to the nearest station. I had a number of taxi numbers saved in my phone. But with it out of battery all that went out of the window. Luckily, my phone died when I was still towards the top of the hill so I was able to see a road and what looked like some buildings down below me. My plan was to run there and find somewhere to charge my phone or call me a taxi. But – when I got to the bottom of the hill I saw a sign for 1 mile to Dunton Green – the train station I wanted to get to. So I just kept running. That last mile, I was still going along the NDW route almost into Dunton Green so my speed picked up. Despite running over 18 miles I still felt good and in no pain.
I reached Dunton Green and went into a pub to ask where the train station was. As I opened the door, everyone in the pub turned around to stare at me. “Are you lost, love?” said a voice. Okay – I know I was dressed in my running kit but I could have come in for a drink! I was given directions to the station – only to get there and find there was a rail replacement bus and nobody knew where it left from. I ran back into the village and popped into a cafe to buy a panini. I waited about 5 minutes for the panini and then tried to run to where I thought the bus would come. My legs had COMPLETELY seized up and I couldn’t run a step! Eventually I managed to flag a bus down and took one bus to Sevenoaks, another to Orpington, and then the train home to Brixton.
It was an incredible day out, leaving my house at 8.15am, returning at 5pm and running 18 miles in between. I love the North Downs Way – I love how close it is to London, how easy and cheap it is to get to. I love trail running – covering more distance than you would walking but over much more interesting terrain. This particular stretch of the NDW is I think perfect for trail running as you can plug the headphones in, drown out the sound of the motorways, and get away from them as quickly as possible!