I’ve been reading a book since Christmas about making adventures out of the less obvious things around us. The message of the book really struck a chord with me, as I have always loved the idea of taking something simple like a walk in the woods and turning it into something more. I decided to stop waiting for the right weather or the right weekend, and hop on a train to Caterham (as far South as I can go from my nearest station). From there I would walk to the M25, turn around and find my way home. On the map, the quickest route said 18 miles, but that was walking on main roads which didn’t seem like much fun. I thought instead, I’d just get to my start point and see where the greenest path would take me.
I left my flat just before 9am. The sky was clear and bright blue, a good sign. I walked to the station, through a flock of pigeons. I stopped to buy some apples en route and managed to get a good deed in while I was there by buying some chavvy kids a bottle of milk. They were short on change and I thought I could use some karma for my journey. Feeling pretty positive I hopped on the 9:20 to Caterham.
Arriving in Caterham I realised I hadn’t really thought about how I’d get to the viewpoint. I thought maybe a bus, but it became apparent that the road I needed to go up was not on any bus route. I decided to walk, feeling slightly stupid at moving in the opposite direction from home, therefore adding another two miles onto my walk. I also noticed that there was a thick blanket of fog hanging over Caterham, which would undoubtedly render the viewpoint a point.
On my steep uphill walk into the mist, I found the longest spiders web I had ever seen. It was stretched between a post box and a hedge about 15 feet away. Impressive. Moving on from the web, the pavement vanished and I felt somewhat vulnerable as I headed down a wet, windy country road. I certainly was not in London anymore.
I got to the viewpoint, at least I assume I did. I got to some benches facing what I guess was normally a view. There was a man washing his hair under a tap while his large alsatian sat in the boot barking away. For a moment I thought he might kill me. He got in his car and drove very slowly, like you’d imagine a serial killer might. Then, he drove off into the fog. It was strange. I decided the fog wasn’t going anywhere so I hopped on the North Downs Way and walked into the woods. I didn’t see another person for at least an hour. The path is really well signposted. Looking back at my pictures I clearly liked the signs a lot. I suppose woods all look the same after a while.
I descended a few sets of stairs. As I got lower I began to hear the road. I thought it was the M25, but that turned out to be my awful sense of direction leading my mind astray. I was infact about to cross the A22 on a snazzy footbridge. I watched the traffic for a while, appreciating more and more that I had nowhere to be and could take as long as I liked to not get there. I lost interest in the cars and grew peckish, so found a spot for a snack and a quick coffee.
I grabbed my backpack and carried on down the well signposted path. I saw another human. He was a young Asian chap, power hiking with a huge map unfolded in front of him. I thought it was funny to be looking at a map when on a footpath that only goes forwards or backwards. Just after my encounter with the map chap, I found a car cemetery. A once glorious VW Bus was growing its own ecosystem inside and out. Such a shame, but it made for a nice photograph.
After the cars I was back in the woods. I wouldn’t be out of the woods for another 4 miles or so. I found a really red tree. If anyone can identify it then please do. I met a few other hikers on my way to Woldingham, all of which had jumped on the train out of the sunny city and shared my frustration with the fog. I told one chap that I was walking back to Crystal Palace. He laughed and wished me good luck.
I had seen enough mud and enough misty trees after an hour or so, so found a road to walk on for a bit. My boots had gained about a kilogram of mud, so were glad of the tarmac. I ended up parallel with the North Downs Golf Club where one golfer was kind enough to narrowly miss me with his wayward shot. I thought I’d do him a favour, so I pocketed the ball to stop it narrowly missing anyone else.
After a break from the mud, my feet felt better and I’d covered more ground. I had reached the Great Church Wood, and had no choice but to venture in again. This time the scenery was more interesting. The path took me alongside the biggest house I have ever seen. There was a fire going in one of its many gardens but no-one to be seen. I stood and stared at it for a while, as one does. This was also the first time I had heard parakeets since leaving Crystal Palace. I wonder if Woldingham is as far south as they have decided to venture?
I liked those woods. I left them, crossing a railway line. As I got to the other side I was greeted by an enormous steaming pile of horse shit. I didn’t realise how much it steams when the air is cold. I half expected it to burst into flames. Moving away from the steam, I found the horses. They came over to the fence for a few selfies, strictly for hip ironic Twitter posts of course. In the middle of a photoshoot with one horse, a friend came to join it. I managed to capture a real moment of tenderness between them that made me feel all fuzzy, or something like that.
Leaving the horses, I found a map, showing me the walk I had just completed. I then decided to walk to Warlingham in search of some lunch. En route I found a garden centre with a very posh cafe. I got as far as the entrance before checking myself, realising I was covered in mud, bearded, and that the combined age of the people on the other side of the glass must have been close to 10,000. It appeared to be a rather smart establishment, so I kept walking.
I didn’t like the sound of ‘Long Hill’ so I opted for ‘Bug Hill’ instead. It was long all the same, and ridiculously steep. I began level with some golfers and finished towering above them in the clouds.
At the top of Bug Hill I saw million pound house after million pound house. You’d think that would mean the nearest town, Warlingham, would be full of great pubs and cafes. I ate a horrible tuna baguette for an over the odds price. Warlingham may have more to it than what met my eye, but I won’t be hurrying back.
Leaving Warlingham, I began my most boring stretch of the walk. I found myself on a busy main road covered in luminous plastic, pedestrian obstacles. I tried to find a way out on my phone, but Riddlesdown common, my nearest green space, would take me in the wrong direction. I made do with a small pond full of gulls and geese.
The beer was absolutely crucial at this point. I was about to walk my usual commute to work. Strangely, this was the first time I managed to get lost all day, walking the route I drive everyday. I suppose that’s what you get when you try to take a short cut and forget that you have no sense of direction. By this point my phone had run out of juice, and with it my map. I had brought a charger pack thing, but failed to bring the right cable to plug it in. Must invest in an actual map next time. I headed into Littleheath Woods with a boost of enthusiasm, or alcohol possibly. I stuck on my trapper hat as I was beginning to feel a chill. I thought I’d take a selfie to document the occasion. At this time a family of 4 foxes scuttled out from their dens and began to play. Of course I missed the whole thing with my camera as I was too busy taking stupid pictures of myself.
I popped out of the woods and grabbed a boost for some energy. That rubbish tuna sandwich was beginning to wear off. Then, I crossed the tram tracks and headed into Shirley Hills. This is where I got lost… in the dark. I must have added half an hour and probably a mile or so onto my walk by trying to travel as the crow flies. This is only doable when you are a bird as houses tend to get in the way.
I’d been walking for many, many hours by the time it got dark. I’d spent most of the day in the woods. I’d seen enough trees and enough mud to last a lifetime. I was, infact, quite glad when I reached the main road again and saw the dazzling lights of the cars. I always imagine roads at night to look like fireworks, knowing full well they don’t. I thought I’d make the most of being a night walker and try to create the pictures I have in my head, with my camera.
In the darkness, everything lit jumps out. A church with amazing stained glass windows was brightly lit inside, causing the glass to glow like a beacon. I assume that’s the point. I am not a religious man, but those windows were pretty.
From here it was a painful trudge along the main road, through South Norwood and finally home. South Norwood doesn’t have much going for it. The surrounding parts are lovely: the lake, the country park. However, the town itself is horrible. Shops are mostly boarded up. The ones that aren’t, serve as doorway hangouts for drunks and those with little prospects. I noticed a sign that I thought must be a joke. A passerby assured me it wasn’t.
My legs had stopped working properly about a mile from my flat, which made the last stretch take a lot longer than it should have. I’m glad I pushed myself. I’m glad I didn’t just jump on a train in Woldingham. Adventures can be whatever and whenever you want them to be. Go and have one.