We decided to adopt the North Downs Way as a walking project in winter 2020.
Given lockdown conditions, we knew it might be some time before we could return to the South West Coast Path, or even to the farther reaches of the Thames Path.
But the earlier stages of the North Downs Way are more accessible to us, with good public transport connections.
As it turned out though, we couldn’t begin until the restrictions on ‘staying local’ were removed, which didn’t happen until 12 April.
Tracy and I are joined for this journey by our mutual friend Jacqui, who is building her fitness to walk longer distances. She is a golfer, so should prevent me from reacting quite so negatively to the several courses we’ll encounter along the way.
I tried to recruit her as resident expert on either flora and fauna or bridges – having offered similar roles to Tracy on our other expeditions. Neither has accepted, so these posts will continue to be all my own work!
Introducing the North Downs Way
The NDW is one of fifteen National Trails in England and Wales – sixteen if you include the England Coast Path, which is as yet incomplete – as are the South West Coast and Thames Paths.
Opened in 1978, it runs from Farnham in Surrey to Dover on the Kent coast. The full length is 153 miles, but this includes a loop at the Kent end.
Walkers typically choose between the southern route (125 miles), which heads for the coast near Folkestone before following it up to Dover, and the northern route (131 miles), which passes through Canterbury before heading south-east to Dover. We have yet to discuss our preferences.
Parts of the route are shared with the 152-mile Pilgrims’ Way, connecting Winchester and Canterbury. There is some doubt whether many medieval pilgrims actually made this journey, drawn by Thomas a Becket’s shrine.
The route probably owes more to Victorian enthusiasm for faux-Medievalism. Ordnance surveyor Edward Renouard James was influential, publishing his ‘Notes on the Pilgrims’ Way in West Surrey’ in 1871. His lead was followed by Edwardian author Hillaire Belloc, who published ‘The Old Road’ in 1904.
There is of course a much stronger historical foundation for the journey from London to Canterbury taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.
Our walk coinciding with a fine April day, I regaled my companions with the opening lines of the Prologue, having studied it for O Level Eng Lit. I could only remember the first line:
‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.’
By the way, we used the official National Trails Guide to the North Downs Way (2016) written by Colin Saunders and published by Aurum Press at £14.99
We caught a South Western Rail service to Farnham, returning from Shalford via Guildford.
The Guide says the official end point of the first stage is not in Guildford proper, but at the junction of the A281 and Pilgrims Way, more or less midway between Shalford and Guildford. The distance is given as 11 miles.
It would have been possible to double back to the River Wey for the scenic route into central Guildford, but this is already familiar to us from other walks in the vicinity.
We chose not to explore the town of Farnham before starting our walk, though it boasts a Castle, begun in 1138 and the ruins of Waverley Abbey, founded a decade earlier.
Farnham also played a prominent role in the English Civil War and subsequently became a prosperous market town, the birthplace of William Cobbett, best known today as author of ‘Rural Rides’ (1830). The railway arrived at Farnham in 1848.
It is but a short walk downhill from the Station to the 2D metal sign marking the start of the trail. This is located immediately adjacent to the busy Farnham Bypass.
We paused here for the obligatory group selfie before heading up a much quieter, leafier lane. The track soon draws alongside the River Wey, little more than a stream at this point.
It passes the delightfully-named Snayleslynch Farm, parts of which may date from the Fifteenth Century and which was originally the site of a Saxon settlement, as well as a house converted from a hop kiln.
Then the route turns away from the river, under a railway bridge and into a more wooded area where we stopped for an obligatory coffee on the North Downs Way Seat.
This carved wooden bench is said to feature a bee orchid and there is reputedly a companion piece at the end of the route in Dover. This one is badly weathered, frankly, and could do with restoration.
While we were seated, a foursome of far younger walkers caught up with us, having also started the NDW that morning. They very kindly took our photograph lined up on the bench, and we duly reciprocated. We met them again several times during the course of the day.
On resuming, we passed two alpacas in a field and an assortment of crudely constructed buildings.
The path emerges on to Moor Park Lane which soon crosses the Wey and passes the entrance to Moor Park House. Parts of this date from 1630 but it has been much altered over the centuries.
It was bought by Sir William Temple in the 1680s and Temple’s Secretary, Jonathan Swift, wrote ‘A Tale of a Tub’ and ‘The Battle of the Books’ here in 1704.
In January 1897 the so-called Moor Park Riot occurred when the owner, Sir William Rose, attempted to prevent public right of way through the grounds. He employed men to chain and defend the gates, but they were forced open again by a big local crowd.
Moor Park Way leads into Compton Way, described in the Guide as ‘very steep but mercifully short’.
A small roe deer sprinted across at the summit, just ahead of us. Here one turns on to a footpath called Wey Hanger which heads into the Runfold Wood Nature Reserve. According to the noticeboard, this is a haven for ‘secretive dormice’
Skirting the village of Runfold, the route takes one along Sands Road, past a business centre with a traction engine parked outside. Shortly afterwards, just before a village called The Sands, it turns left past Farnham Golf Club, the first of two blighting this stage!
Eventually one emerges alongside farmland heading in the broad direction of Seale. We paused here for a second coffee, seated on an upended tree trunk, looking out across the fields.
On seeking a discreet place for my ‘natural break’ I was rudely surprised by a man with a large dog and a larger stick. ‘He’s a gentle giant’ he assured me, as I grimaced with my legs crossed.
Shortly afterwards, we entered the boundary of the 2250-acre Hampton Estate, first established in the 1760s when Hampton Lodge was built by Thomas Parker.
Crossing the road, the track enters a more wooded section known as Payn’s Firs. A door, numbered 4B, marks the entrance to a Fairy Tree. No-one answered my knock.
We soon emerged into a clearing with views across to the Hog’s Back before entering Totford Wood. Here we broke for lunch, seated on another upturned tree, looking out over clumps of bluebells dappled by the spring sunshine filtered through the trees.
Resuming at Totford Hatch, we soon found ourselves on Puttenham Common, still part of the Hampton Estate.
The ramparts of a Bronze Age hill fort lie some distance from the route, which follows a track that wends down towards Puttenham itself, a straggling village laid out along its imaginatively named thoroughfare ‘The Street’.
Puttenham’s pub is called The Good Intent. There is also the Church of St John the Baptist, with late Saxon and Norman features, and a Priory, now said to house Queen drummer Roger Taylor.
There is also a Hedgehog Highway.
It was with some difficulty that we crossed the extremely busy B3000, immediately encountering Puttenham Golf Club on the other side.
A group of elderly male players, perched on a tee some way above us, apparently intended to drive their balls directly over our bridleway. Why on earth couldn’t the tee be placed on the other side?
This track is several times signposted ‘10th tee’. It eventually passes a small vineyard called Greyfriars, planted in 1989, and then Monks Grove, which the Guide describes as: ‘an isolated but seemingly affluent community’.
Some distance further on, the track becomes more of a road, passing under the A3 and also a slip road, the bridge adorned with two crosses to mark Pilgrims’ Way.
Almost immediately one arrives at Down Lane and the entrance to Watts Gallery. This features numerous paintings by Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), once much-lionised but, to my mind, distinctly second rate. It opened just a few months before his death.
Watts married actress Ellen Terry, aged not quite 17, in 1864. But within a year she had eloped, eventually having children with a different man, and they subsequently divorced.
In 1886 he married a second time, to Mary Fraser Tytler, a 30-something potter and designer, and they moved here together. Mary designed the nearby Watts Chapel, built between 1896 and 1898.
Watts was an interesting man and a handful of his paintings are very good.
On this occasion we were far more interested in obtaining coffee and cake from the Tea Shop, but imagine our disappointment in finding the whole place closed because of Covid. (It reopened just two days later.)
We sat outside to consume the last of the coffee from our thermos and a Tunnocks, but it was poor compensation.
Trudging dispiritedly along the path back towards Guildford, we very much enjoyed the vivid yellow of the rapeseed fields below.
Eventually we reached Sandy Lane, alongside the University of Law. Crossing over to Ferry Lane, we descended steeply before arriving once more alongside the River Wey. There was once a ferry here, but it has long been replaced by a footbridge. There is, however, a small ‘Victorian grotto’, complete with ‘pixies’ bridge’.
Instead of heading into Guildford, the route crosses the footbridge – occupied on this occasion by a group of teenagers, one drunken young man standing on the balustrade, wondering aloud whether to jump…
On the other side there is a carved wooden post commemorating the Shalford House Estate. The Tudor building was demolished in 1967. The footpath enters Shalford Park which is crossed to reach the end of the stage, alongside the A281.
We strode, rather footsore, into Shalford. Some claim that John Bunyan lived for a while on Shalford Common, and was inspired to write The Pilgrim’s Progress by the Pilgrims’ Way.
Genesis frontman Phil Collins also bought a house in Shalford in the late 70s but, according to his autobiography, his then wife had an affair with the decorator while he was away touring. This may have been a protest at his decision to head out on tour…
The resultant divorce was a major influence on Collins’s first solo album, Face Value. He recorded the demos for songs such as ‘In the Air Tonight’, ‘I Missed Again’ and ‘If Leaving Me is Easy’ in his lonely Shalford bedroom.
We had hoped to find coffee and cake at The Snooty Fox, but it was already closing, way before 5pm, so we had to settle instead for Magnums from the grocers. We whiled away the minutes until our train watching Shalford Cricket Club demolish their opponents Badshot Lea.
Stage Two will take us from here to Westhumble.