A Long Walk Home – Chapter 1

We’d lost a morning, so got a train to Caterham where I knew we could hitch on to the North Downs Way, a long distance route that runs 153 miles from Dover to Farnham. We quite literally skipped off down a wooded path towards the M25, following a spoiling of signposts. It would be impossible to get lost on the NDW, although impossible not to get lost in its splendour. In fact, it wasn’t until several days later, just outside Farnham that I almost came a cropper, when a malicious dog walker mis-diverted my friend Sam and I into a narrow corridor of nettles.

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We tunnelled under the M25. It felt, even though we’d only walked for an hour or so, as though we’d reached a significant milestone. We had left London. Confusingly, the point at which this happens on the NDW is a spaghetti junction of motorway. We actually crossed and tunneled the M25 and the M23 several times, leaving us disorientated. Were we back in London? No, we were in wheat fields with buzzards circling overhead. At last a rural yomp had begun.

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A yomp it was too. We were in the Surrey Hills and in that first afternoon would summit Reigate Hill, Colley Hill and eventually Box Hill. It wasn’t until somewhere near Reigate that we stopped for our first tipple. Little was I to know that I would consume more ale on this journey than I had consumed in the past several months. Beer, as it happens, is the most wonderful form of sports nutrition. Forget Lucozade or any other sickly sweet nonsense. Beer contains carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol which not only acts as a painkiller, but spurs you on and fills you with confidence. Erdinger, a German brewery, actually market their alcohol free beer at cyclists, although being that the alcohol is the most effective agent, I hardly see the point.

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From the top of Colley Hill we could see the remaining miles we had to cover. Ambitiously, we had given ourselves a few hours to knock out 18 of them. The rest of the afternoon was a race against time. We had to reach Box Hill before dark so that we could find a place to sleep for the night. On flat ground this would have been alright, but the endless undulating hills, spectacular as they are, mounted a full scale assault on our legs. At one point I found myself descending a steep, rocky trail with legs flailing like some possessed puppet. It is funny how your bones seem to turn to rubber after a certain amount of strain.

We emerged, damp with sweat and dirt, from the woods at the top of Box Hill like escaped prisoners of war from a Viet Cong jungle camp, to be welcomed by the unholy site of Smith and Western’s Tex Mex Atrocity. How, I wonder, did Surrey County Council come the conclusion that an enormous, garish, cowboy themed restaurant would fit into the surroundings of National Trust owned woodland? That being said, they did a good chilli and sold beer by the jug so we handed over our cash and filled our stomachs.

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We slept on the hillside with the valley below lit up like candelabra. The night was almost clear with a sky full of stars and Gatwick’s constant stream of air traffic. We drank more beer, did away with our tents and drifted off into a wondrous slumber. That sounds nice doesn’t it? In reality, and once again a state of reduced cognitive function, we had pitched ourselves on a 30 degree slope causing our toes to be crushed into the bottom of our sleeping bags, if we were lucky enough not to be careering off down Box Hill for five minutes. It was a night of scattered sleep, although not the worst I would have by a long shot. In the morning we woke to the sounds of blackbirds singing songs of dial up modem, and the sight of broccoli forests and blue sky. Charlie woke to his pork pie. Both were sights worth not sleeping for.

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The morning was tinged with sadness as I had to say goodbye to my wife for longer than we’d spent apart since we met. Later, Hayley would reveal that although she was sad to leave me, the feeling of pity was stronger, having had a taste of what it might be like every night for the next little while. We didn’t have much time to say goodbye, as we reached the train station minutes before a London bound train arrived. As my wife and brother left, my friend Sam arrived and the next part of the adventure had begun.

Sam had signed up to walk from Box Hill to Farnham with me, all 26 miles of it. He had boastfully told his fiancée that we’d do it in a day. In the slog from Caterham to Box Hill, I had already learned my lesson for pushing to achieve too much too soon. Blisters were already surfacing on my toes. I don’t get blisters. I had broken in my boots, and was therefore furious at having blisters so early on. Blisters, or rather learning to live with them, would soon become the theme of this entire journey.

We set off from the quaint village of Westhumble and soon plunged back into woodland and rolling hills. Woodland paths are scenic to say the least, but they give you a false sense of distance, especially when teamed with steep ascents. We walked along a ridge that looked down over Denby’s Wine Estate, and feeling as though we’d covered some distance, checked the map. Unless you’re really flying, don’t check the map for at least two hours. We had barely moved, although we must have climbed several hundred feet. Still, the sun was shining and the picturesque surroundings of hills for miles and miles were enough to keep our spirits high and optimistic.

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The stretch of forest covered ridge that the NDW straddles in Surrey, is peppered with world war two pillboxes. The first we noticed was down a steep slope. It is amazing to think that there was ever such a real danger of being invaded. The sunken pill boxes were designed to provide a last line of defence between the south coast and London. At one time there were 28,000 pillboxes in Britain. That’s a lot of bricks, especially when you consider that not a single one has ever seen a second of action. It is of course a good thing these structures proved unnecessary, but I can’t help think their commissioner, Major-General G. B. O. Taylor, might have been a little disappointed. From inside one of these pillboxes, the thought of being faced with an approaching army sent a shiver down my spine.

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We sat atop one of the better preserved structures and ate lunch. As we did so, a hobbyist pilot gave us an aerial display of loop the loops, turning my stomach a little. Having fortified ourselves, we pushed on towards Guildford. We left the hills behind, descending into a network of forest paths. Butterflies were out in force, enjoying the sunshine, providing me with an opportunity to impart some knowledge. In return, Sam discovered a wealth of wild comestibles and we dined on wild raspberries, after removing the caterpillars of course.

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It was a splendid afternoon stroll, or at least it would have been if it weren’t for my 20kg rucksack doing its best to part my shoulders from the rest of my body. I had spent a long time choosing the perfect rucksack for the trip, eventually settling on a 50 litre from Decathlon with more adjusters than I knew what to do with. I thought I’d have it fitting like a tortoise shell with the weight dispersed perfectly. By Lyme Regis, this might have been true, but the first few days were spent pulling at togs and releasing catches transferring pain from shoulders, to hips, to the lower back and back to my shoulders. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.

The woodlands stopped being woodlands and turned into forests with a surreal sand floor. At first I thought perhaps some rich, Surrey dwelling horse fancier had imported the sand so that they could ride, mud free through the forest. Then the sand continued and the thought became ridiculous. On top of a very sandy hill, surely the gateway to Guildford, we thought, we came to a church curiously filled with lady vicars. We met three of them as they were beginning their descent and asked them how far to Guildford.

“Oh, another hour I should think,” replied the eldest of the three. Another hour? We thought we were there! Off we went, over the hill and steeply down the other side through Chantry Wood. We eventually emerged from the shadows to find the main road into Guildford cutting straight across our path. Beyond it, on top of a distant hill stood a most tempting site. St Catherine’s Chapel, or rather the ruins of it, looks over Guildford and the winding river that leads into it. We had talked about the possibility of sleeping in an abandoned building merely moments before, and this seemed almost too perfect. That was it, our minds were made up. We would find some food in town, and then, under a cover of darkness, make our way to the chapel, scaling walls if we had to. When we got there we found the gate left open and a soft bed of well trampled grass inside. A most inviting, slightly terrifying spot to spend the night.

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Our elation quickly turned to misery as the chapel proved a less than ideal place to sleep. We had failed to notice, in the dying light, that underneath the hill which we lay on, ran a railway line. Every hour or so the ground would rumble ferociously, waking us up if we weren’t already. It was a balmy 23 degrees and the walls of our chapel stopped any breeze from reaching us. To add to the fun, it rained, lightly but somewhat continuously throughout the night. How mistaken we were.

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We rose at around 5am, keen to get as far away from St Catherine’s as possible. The next 10 miles were across the Hog’s Back. Jane Austen once wrote, ‘Upon the whole it was an excellent journey & very thoroughly enjoyed by me; the weather was delightful the greatest part of the day. Henry found it too warm, & talked of its being close sometimes, but to my capacity it was perfection. I never saw the country from the Hogsback so advantageously.‘ Well I don’t know what she was on about. The 10 mile stretch from Guildford, all the way to Farnham was straight as an arrow and dull as dishwater. Farmland for as far as the eye can see does nothing for me I’m afraid. Having hardly slept for two nights, I was keen to see the end of it. I had walked from London, into Surrey and was now about to enter Hampshire. I said goodbye to Sam at the train station and was, for the first time, alone.


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