10 November 2006. Haslemere to Hascombe, 14 miles.
From Haslemere it’s a backs-of-houses start, but soon you are crossing Hindhead Commons and summiting on Gibbet Hill, its Latin-inscribed cross lending a spooky air. From here there is a long descent above the Devil’s Punchbowl before crossing arable land to the pretty churchyard at Thursley. A link path of the Way continues to Farnham across Hankley Common. Further along the main trail, the straggly village of Brook has a decent pub, the Dog & Pheasant, just south of the Way.
Over the A283 lies Hambledon, its former workhouse visible to the right. The main village clings to a hillside and feels like it’s out of the 1930s, but I expect the houses, few of which I could afford, all have mains electricity now. Its church has an even more exceptional situation than Thursley. Then on Vann Hill there is the first long section of scarp slope, traversed half way up, with long views south, before entering woodlands of the Hurtwood Estate, which will be a major feature of day two.
12 January 2007. Hascombe to Holmbury St Mary, 10 miles.
A shortish stage dictated by the lack of public transport after Holmbury, but one which packs in plenty of highlights. If you hadn’t had a chance to explore Hascombe, do so now. The village centre has a delightful fountain, but the way crosses past the pub, church and pond, vintage English landscapes. Scenery is then OK but nothing too amazing till the Wey is crossed, and just before it the old Guildford-Horsham railway (now carrying the Wey-South Path) and Wey & Arun canal; after Shamley Green – the fourth case in a few miles of the church being a little away from the main village – it’s back into the woods of the Hurtwood Estate, a stupendous view to the South Downs emerging above Willinghurst House. Spare a moment to thank the Hurt Wood’s owners, who have maintained open access since it was granted by the then owner RA Bray in 1926.
The way then sticks close to the scarp from Winterfold Heath to Pitch Hill; a valley section dominated by the £15,000-a-year Duke of Kent school intrudes before the climb to day’s final hill, Holmbury Hill, topped by an iron age hill fort, and the descent to the eponymous village. Take care though to drop down by the track on the right before the village football pitch, or like me you will come out in the main part of the village by the Royal Oak pub rather than further south by the King’s Head.
8 May 2007. Holmbury St Mary to Reigate, 16 miles.
The summit of the whole way, and indeed of any trail in south-east England; but the steady rise up Leith Hill gives little indication of its height. To gain this, and indeed recognition of the status of the hill, you need to climb the 18th century tower on the summit, built to breach the 1000-foot contour; this offers views from St Paul’s to the Channel, but as it’s closed Tuesdays I missed out (along with my son Matthew who was with me today). The hill, which gives its name to the music festival inaugurated by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who lived nearby, is also the last of the high group which have dominated ever since Haslemere. Northwards now, past a waterfall to Westcott’s little common where the benches serve as an air raid memorial, and the town of Dorking, where we broke for lunch at the Queen’s Head. This whole area is festooned with good pubs – remarkably, Westcott still had four! Climate change note: Dorking is home to England’s biggest vineyard, Denbies.
You leave Dorking by diversions around the high ground to its south. Crossing the railway, there’s a major change to valley scenery as the River Mole is followed closely through Brockham to Betchworth and its lovely churchyard. More undulating ground then intervenes, first across parkland to Reigate Heath (ruined by golf course), and then the remarkably unspoiled Reigate Park, which has good views north across the prosperous eponymous town and south across the Mole valley.
22 June 2007. Reigate to Oxted, 15 miles.
The Met Office had given a severe weather warnings for today, a couple of inches of rain to be fed by strong thunderstorms. In the event, a few distant rumbles and a late light shower. What must one do for some proper weather?
First, across Earlswood Common (I took a wrong turning in Reigate and so went across Redhill Common as well), past a gated community that was formerly an asylum (who said irony was dead?), and some floodplain crossing with the greensand ridge frustratingly distant to the north. But after South Nutfield and the M23, everything changes as the way passes through magnificent parkland leading up to the excellent viewpoint of Castle Hill. I’ve driven the M23 many times without suspecting this marvellous tract; a shame, though, that the motorway is so close. Bletchingley itself was at the time more pub crawl than village – five pubs, all recommended by the local Camra! I chose and would recommend the Prince Albert; alas it was up for sale in 2015.
The high quality is maintained after leaving the village, as the way heads east half-way up the scarp slope, unrestrained views south to the Weald and sometimes the South Downs, and in the vicinity of Orme House, thrillingly, the North Downs. The small village of Tandridge somehow gives its name to an entire unit of local government. After Broadham Green, it’s suburbia once more as you enter the prime commuter territory of Oxted and Hurst Green. I tried to cross to its eastern end, to have less to do next time, but got totally confused by identical paths hemmed in by tall fences. Next time, I took a street map.
28 September 2007. Oxted to Sevenoaks, 16 miles.
No severe weather warnings today, but quite a lot of rain. Pretty much incessant in the morning, then after a dry afternoon a proper drenching in Knole park.
Oxted is one of those towns that seeks an historical veneer courtesy of the half-timbered look, demonstrated heaven help us by a half-timbered cinema. Aided by a trusty street map, and hilariously compass, I navigated through the dead zone ‘twixt here and Hurst Green and finally headed across the wooded Limpsfield Common. I had planned a stop at Limpsfield Chart, but it was full of Oxted school students, of whom the teacher leader kindly explained no photographs, as I hadn’t parental permissions. So on through Crockamhill Common with glimpses of Churchill’s Chartwell to the south, and after miles of woodland, finally into the open at the hamlet of French Street. The lunch-stop village of Ide Hill is Kent’s highest point; note that the Serpent Trail and Greensand Way link the high points of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The village itself sits on a broad common, where a shelter has some of the most unusual remembrance plaques I have ever seen.
The second half is much less wooded than the first, though the best views are through the trees of Hanging Bank, south to Bough Beech reservoir with the Weald and South Downs beyond. There are contesting derivations of the name ‘Hanging Bank’ – local sign boards explain it as a place where trees hang down the slope, the Cock pub at Ide Hill has it as a remnant of the mediaeval fish-smoking industry, and the local Council plump for ancient gallows. The inappropriately-named village of Weald has a half-hourly bus to Sevenoaks, but I pressed on under the A21, missed the crossing of the A225 so walked too far above it on its left, and then into the deer park (with real deer) at Knole. There are two official link paths into Sevenoaks from here, but I chose a middle way with next time in mind and the fact that my new waterproof top was getting an industry-standard testing.