Monday 4 February 2013: Farnham to Chilworth, 15 miles (13 on trail)
This is the greensand day, just a bit left over for the next stage. Greensand forms the basis of the other major hill group of the south-east, indeed underpins the area’s high point of Leith Hill, a feature on another fine trail, the Greensand Way. Leaving the station, there’s a brief Wey-side stretch, soon followed by Runfold Wood, regenerating after the storms of 1987 and 1990. A friendly warden warned me about path flooding beyond Furze Hill; I was sceptical till I saw it, and had to deviate to the south. Quite how bad it would have been in February 2014 I shudder to think.
Around Totford Hatch, there are fine open views to the north-west; indeed it would be nice if the Way could have run along the Hog’s Back ridge, but that alas is taken by the A31.It took some resolve to pass the fine pub at Puttenham and instead eat sandwiches in the churchyard. The village has a camping barn too, so will be a popular halt for many starting out. The original Pilgrim’s Way crosses the modern path for the first time around here. Many would stop when the flood plain of the Wey is reached, with the big town of Guildford just around the corner, but I continued up to St Martha’s Hill before heading down to Chilworth station – missing the easy link path, and illegally scampering across the crossing to catch my train.
Monday 18 February 2013: Chilworth to Boxhill station, 12 miles (11 on trail)
One of the best stages. I had a beautiful sunny day too, if a little hazy at first. Soon after St Martha’s Hill, the Way drops down and moves from greensand to chalk, with great views from the delicious Albury Downs south-west to Black Down, the high point of Sussex, and south-east to Leith Hill, high point of Surrey, across the valley of the little Wey tributary the Tilling Bourne. There’s a railway in the valley; it’s barely noticeable, unlike the M25 that will be joined the next day. Almost the whole stage is above the 600ft contour, a significant landmark hereabouts, and above Gomshall the clear woodland tracks allow fast progress. The stage ends with an exemplar of climate change in action, the good side in this case, as you come close to the extensive Denbies vineyards, the largest in England.
Monday 4 March 2013: Boxhill station to Caterham, 14 miles (12 on trail)
The Mole gap was familiar to me for many years of my childhood, as the channel for the south-to-north road and rail routes that took me to West Ham games. Pretty enough even there, but in all that time I had never once made the excellent trip up to Box Hill summit: too good to miss in a lifetime, especially with the chance to cross the Mole by stepping stones. Southwards, the Leith Hill views are receding now, but there are some sharp little climbs north of Reigate, culminating in its eponymous hill. A bit of industrial heritage, the lime works of Betchworth Quarry, lends interest too. For a while the Way skirts the bottom of the escarpment, before making a steep climb up to Colley Hill, with the Inglis memorial – perhaps the most elaborate horse trough of all – a good place for a break. Not far beyond, Reigate Fort is passed, one of a string of 1890s fortifications showing how invasion fears were still real even in late Victorian times.
At Merstham, the M25 and in short order the M23 are both crossed, but wisely the Way makes a bit of a beeline away from both, culminating in Ockley Hill, arable, unlike so many Downs high points so far. After a surprising folly at Tower Farm, pleasant woods take you to Gravelly Hill, where I left the Way for the gentle descent through woods to Caterham station. Warning to the unwary: this stage has over 2,600ft of ascent, ie the same as a decent Lake district fell.
Monday 15 April 2013: Caterham to Oxted, 7 miles (4 on trail)
Why so short? The plan had been Dunton Green. I’d had my boots refurbished, with new insoles, and foolishly hadn’t tested them before I set out. By the time I got back to Gravelly Hill, blistered and limping, I realised something was badly wrong. Simply, the new insoles altered the volume of the boot and the inclination of my feet so much that walking was painful. I pressed on for a bit, glad the paths were easy with little up and down, and checked bus times at the A233, half way. Then I saw a scratched waymark, ‘station’, pointing to Oxted, and I knew what I should do.
Monday 13 May 2013: Oxted to Otford, 13 miles (12 on trail)
Dry enough for trainers, thank goodness. The Way soon climbs by a hollow way to Botley Hill and the escarpment top, and stays there for pretty much the whole stage, a short decline where the A233 cuts through excepted. It was a great day for bluebells in the scrub and woods next to the Way. There’s a brief flirtation with the London/Surrey boundary (a modern affectation I know, but it shows how the capital’s tentacles have spread). Often, especially here and around Knockholt, the Way wanders onto the broad north-heading plateau, until a gradual descent by way of Chevening Park to the Darent valley and Otford village, with its duck pond.Monday 20 May 2013: Otford to Borstal, 17 miles
Time for a big stage: this and the next two formed useful training, extra weight deliberately in pack, before heading to the North-West Highlands of Scotland. As well as the distance, there’s another day well in excess of 2000ft climbing. A misty start though, and it never got better than grey.After soon regaining the ridge, there’s a very nice switchback section north of Kemsing, before heading down onto the ancient Pilgrim’s Way. Yet another motorway, the M20, is crossed at Wrotham, but this will be the last of their influence for a while. Now the Way starts to head away from its due-east bearing, starting to trend north-eastwards instead, initially either above or below the escarpment, until from Holly Hill a quieter, wooded landscape is encountered. The descent to Cuxton has you crossing arable fields, which has not happened for a while. Sting in the tail: the Medway bridge is shared with the M2.
Forward to east of the Medway