The London Countryway – Day 1

July 8, 1984: Westhumble to Horsley

Dorothy, Tosh and Bertie on Ranmore Common

Dorothy, Tosh and Bertie on Ranmore Common

Although I still had one day to go to complete the North Downs Way, I chose, on July 8, 1984, to begin work on another route altogether – the London Countryway. One reason for this decision was that Harold Lee was in America, and I didn’t want to complete the NDW without him. On the other hand, Tosh, Dorothy and I wanted to stay in condition for our first Lakeland adventure later in the month. I thought that a nice “easy” nine miles would just fit the bill. London was experiencing a warm spell so we agreed to get our walking over early by starting out on the 8:38 from Victoria. This departure, I had been assured by the chap at telephone enquiries, would lead directly to the Box Hill station without change.

Dorothy and I, accompanied by Bertie the Schnauzer, arrived at Victoria at 8:25. A huge mob was pressing against the ticket windows but fortunately an early Tosh had taken a forward position in the outside queue and here I left Dorothy while I went to check on our departure platform. Much to my chagrin young Bertie took advantage of my inattention to commit a nuisance on the concourse. It was the first of nine such efforts on this day, though the remainder utilized more suitable sites. Meanwhile I lost sight of the girls in the crush and had to circle W. H. Smith several times before a rendezvous was affected.

The announcement board now indicated that we were to change at Epsom, not a good omen, and when we reached this spot we were directed not to another platform but to a bus queue. We were to be transported by bus to Leatherhead – and there propelled forward by a second train: Sunday engineering works were once again mucking about with the schedule. These facts put me out of sorts and so did the exit from Epsom station. My wallet, opened for the retrieval of my tickets, surreptitiously disgorged my credit cards as well. Fortunately another passenger snagged them and returned the cards to me outside. It was already quite warm and the dog was panting before he had done any walking.

At 10:00, about 35 minutes late, we detrained at Westhumble Station, retracing the initial steps of our NDW route to Merstham. Instead of crossing the A24 and descending to the Mole, however, we turned right onto the metaled track on which he had descended from Ranmore Common. The girls went off to find convenient trees and I changed into shorts – the first time I had sported such a garment on an English walk. The odors of my youth on the beaches of Santa Monica returned as I spread Coppertone on my bare white legs.

Then, munching apples, we struck out on our first attempt to make sense of Keith Chesterton’s A Guide To The London Countryway. This volume, which described the author’s personal version of a rural circuit of London using existing rights of way could also, of course, be entitled The Guide to A London Countryway, for the 22-stage route had no official status – only that conveyed by publication of the guidebook to the route (as was true, in those days, of Wainwright’s A Coast To Coast Path). The challenge of pathfinding on a route with no waymarking seemed daunting, but I was keen to see if it could be done without getting our party irretrievably lost. I was encouraged by the fact that I knew much of the early stage of the Way though my NDW experiences two years earlier. Of course I had gotten lost several times on that day too.

We first parted company from the NDW at the end of the metaled track, with Chesterton sending us to the right as the NDW road to Ranmore Common ascended to the left. The direction “and on up to a clearing, where fork right past telegraph pole” caused us some confusion since it wasn’t clear why we were already seeing orange slashes on trees before reaching this fork. We had indeed forgotten all about the telegraph pole as we huffed up the hot hill, but there – to our surprise – it was. We obligingly forked right but my instinct (upon which I was repeatedly forced to rely today) warned me to backtrack after a while and cut to the left as well. Bertie was becoming hysterical at the sight of dozens of horses out for a charity ride at the east end of Ranmore Common.

He had to spend a good deal of time on lead at this point, especially as we made our way through the parking lot with its horse boxes and estate wagons and trotting gentry. I was very relieved to see the spire of the Ranmore church ahead of us; I had gotten us into the right position to continue along the road which, once again, represented both the Countryway and the NDW – a road that Dorothy and I had walked in the opposite direction in 1982. The girls and I quarreled about the propriety of drinking a can of beer in the churchyard on a Sunday morning. No spirits were consumed, as it turned out, but we sat outside the church under a tree and had a rest. Dorothy ate part of her lunch and the dog was given another of the many trailside bowls of water consumed on this day.

When we reached the crossroads we spotted our old friend, the ice cream man, in a nearby parking lot. We walked off route a bit to buy ice lollies. Bertie had an orange one. The vendor, perhaps considering a shift in location, wanted us to estimate the size of the horsey crowd at the other end of the Common. Then it was over two stiles (missed on our last attempt at this section in 1982) and back onto a long level delightful stretch of woods along the NDW. A few drops of rain fell at this point and there was a little high cloud – but the sun soon returned. It was 90 degrees at Heathrow on this day; we were grateful for every moment of shade.

There were many Sunday walkers and their dogs about and Bertie had a good time greeting everybody. At this stage of the journey he still had enough energy to carry large sticks in his mouth. Eventually we began a descent to the Effingham road. I’m not at all certain that we had actually retraced all of the twists in the NDW; on the other hand I remember being puzzled by Surrey’s waymarking last time. Some sections were in the open sun now; other were along overgrown sections that held a number of perils for my bare legs and those of Dorothy. Something snagged me behind the knee and caused a puncture.

We came out correctly at the road and descended to the NDW continuation, with cars whizzing by every moment. Bertie was made to jump up the steep roadbanks to escape this menace. Chesterton’s instructions, “Left again, where track swings right up to another pillbox,” written perhaps when there was less foliage to obstruct the view, was not altogether useful. It seemed to invite a steep climb up to a pillbox – in order to be convinced that this was the track you didn’t want to take. I had crossed a stile on what I believed to be the NDW (as usual, acorn markers were a rarity on this stretch) but before letting the others cross I decided it was time to consider the OS map I had bought for this trip. So I climbed back and we crossed the track and went into some woods for lunch. I was feeling a bit faint as I cracked open a can of John Smith Bitter, giving the dog a shower. We ate most of our lunch, ducked behind useful trees, and after about half an hour we headed off into the stupefying sun again.

Progress was much slower than usual today, not only because of the heat but because time was lost with wrong turnings and in study – as I poured over my maps, trying to figure out where I was. Chesterton had added two maps to his guidebook at the stage we had now reached but the first of these was not much use to us as we marched westward. A lefthand fork, not mentioned in the text or waymarked on the ground, invited us to continue forward into the shade of the forest. We had progressed for some ten minutes under this canopy when I decided we were simply not attaining sufficient altitude to reach the top of Hackhurst Downs. So we had to retrace our steps (hefting the heavy, struggling dog over two more stiles) in order to try our luck with the right-hand fork.

This required a short hot sprint up to a track, which must have been the right way after all. Once again Hackhurst Downs was proving my undoing and I think I took a wrong turn on top as well. Perhaps I was mesmerized by the sight of two reddening English couples having cocktails in a bower. At any rate I made the correct adjustments on the downtop track and began searching for the “junction of six paths” at Blindoak Gate. Opposite what I thought was our correct turning point I threw off my pack in order to consult my map. Bertie and I then did a little reconnaissance. The track was buzzing with activity: flies, attracted by the many horses, other walkers, Bertie himself excited by all the equine intruders.

I now had a compass in my hand and with it I walked part of the way down the narrow path I had decided was the likely continuation of our route to Honeysuckle Bottom. The six paths certainly did not meet so it was not certain that I was choosing one of them. Finally I decided to take the plunge. I retrieved the girls and we began our descent on a westerly line. The thought of having to re-climb the hill if I should be proven wrong was unacceptable. Nevertheless the wild conifer plantation country through which we walked was lovely: hard to believe that so remote a woodland was so close to the metropolis.

Our reward came at the bottom when the advertised forester’s lean-to appeared – as expected. In some relief we sat down in foxglove-dotted shade at Honeysuckle Bottom. Here I belatedly added some more sun cream and opened a second can of beer – again soaking myself and the dog in an explosive cloud of foam. After our rest we were required to make a short but steep climb up a stony path. I couldn’t see any entry from the left at a spot where a T-junction was promised but I took the path to the right along the edge of a heath. A few late blooming rhododendrons were still in evidence. Again it was with relief that we reached a road to East Horsley at Green Dene Croft.

Two almost parallel routes lead to the north, one an open wide track suitable for vehicles, another, on the right, a bridelway through the adjacent woods. I chose the latter, after trying out both options and throwing off my pack so that I could consult my OS map again. Our progress through Sheepleas was also full of puzzles but I knew it would all come out okay if I kept a generally northern line. This I did with compass in hand, feeling a bit foolish to need this aid in suburban Surrey. Finally I decided on another northwesterly path over a large open patch, giving up the comforts of the shady woods. To my relief this lead to a road out to St. Mary’s church. The tombstones of the churchyard, the first evidence that I had guessed right, were as welcome to me as the forester’s lean-to at Honeysuckle Bottom.

Chesterton required us to go through a swing gate opposite the church – but it had disappeared in favor of a stile. We again paused to reflect on this problem in the shade of a tree. Several paths lead through the thigh high grain and before plunging into the hot open field before us I wanted to make sure we were following the right line.

Poor Bertie was near collapse at this point; he had drunk nearly a canteen full of water but the sun on his little dark body must have been intolerable. At one point he lay down to have an impromptu rest and Dorothy actually carried him for a few steps. It was obvious that we had little chance of making the 5:05 from Horsley (after missing out on the 3:05 and the 4:05 as well) so I suggested a long rest for all of us, but Tosh was becoming compulsive about returning to the nest ­– having left young Amy this morning on the heels of a row.

I’m not certain if I made a correct turn at the stile leading into the last field before the railway – “left by stile in left hedge” not conveying sufficiently whether we were to use the stile or not. Left we did go, on an overgrown track but another right-hand turn seemed to be required to get us into a driveway of a house in West Horsley. I asked the gardening proprietor how long it would take us to get to Horsley station and his answer did not seem to be encouraging.

I wanted us to have another long rest but Tosh was still eager to give the 5:05 a try and she now lead a corking charge along the tarmac path to Horsley. There was shade along this path and Bertie seemed to have staged a remarkable recovery. How disappointing, therefore, to hear our train pass us by just as we neared the town. We would now have to spend 55 minutes on the platform – a time we spent washing up a bit, sipping soft drinks, and listening to an unattended burglar alarm jangling at the nearby off-license. Surely we had walked at least ten miles today.

I was knackered and my right foot was throbbing as we boarded the 6:05. My stomach was upset, my back hurt, my legs were scarlet and bloody and I had been walking all day, I now discovered, on a raised hillock on my right insole. A new sliding door train picked us up but we gave the carriage a bad review: ugly, scratchy green and yellow plaid fabric, not enough space from seat to floor or enough width to the seats, no ventilation on a hot day, and a winkle-pickered punk whose footsteps (still dogging ours all the way to Paddington Rec) reminded Bertie of that horrible sound of hooves on cobblestone.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 2: Horsley to West Byfleet