The London Countryway – Day 2

September 1, 1984: Horsley to West Byfleet

The Wey Canal

The Wey Canal

Because we were joined by a novice walker, Janet Lockwood, I again decided to delay completion of the North Downs Way and to undertake, instead, a more modest stretch of the London Countryway. This would also be Harold’s first introduction to Chesterton’s route.

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, without the heat of our last LCW walk, and – much to my surprise – our party was ready to depart at 8:30 on the dot. Bertie needed no prompting and scrambled down the stairs of the Maida Vale tube stop. We did not have a long wait for a train and arrived at Waterloo at 9:10. Tosh and Harold were already drinking coffee. We took a 9:30 Guildford train and 40 minutes later, after many stops, dismounted at Horsley. Here I administered some more Coppertone to my bare legs and we were off at about 10:20.

Once again it was necessary to pay very close attention to the guidebook and it was not long before the compass came out of the pack – and the OS map as well. We left the station road and marched north out of Horsley. The first turnoffs brought us into a delightful woods, with cornfields on one side and a golf course on the other. Bertie, who had plenty of opportunity to run free this day, danced up and down the Blue Ride, a wonderful path under a deep green canopy. I couldn’t help reflecting that these same woods in Michigan would have been incomplete without a compliment of stinging insects.

Janet, wearing her Adidas, was making the longest walk of her life on this occasion, and I was naturally anxious about her progress – since such an outing would provide her with so many opportunities to touch new hypochondriacal depths. Would a touch of rain bring on bronchitis? Would her sun allergy recur? Would too many trailside berries bring on the dicky tummy? In fact, she persevered at this walking business very well and, with the exception of a woebegone litany on the subject of nettles “biting” her bare legs (a song I silenced by loaning her my tan cords) and an early plaint on the subject of the route’s “monotony,” she responded to the rhythms and the pleasures of today’s pilgrimage in very good spirit. This did not prevent me from yelping in pain as a large stick, flung by our fledgling walker for the benefit of the dog, struck me on the right elbow as I neared the crest of the track leading from our woods onto a long eastern trod beneath an avenue of trees.

This canopy, for which no green wedge existed on the OS map, contained many pine trees and this gave the Lees (who were giving up smoking again on this day) the opportunity to squabble over how many they should gather. Dorothy was soon down on all fours and even Janet retrieved a few to make into Christmas tree ornaments. Bertie, who can’t resist stealing them when they appear in the grate or on the windowsill, couldn’t be tempted by a single cone today.

A fringe appeared on Surrey’s top as clouds rolled in to blot out the sun. Indeed, Janet need not have worried about her sun allergy today. It never looked like rain but grey became the dominant color for the day. I was glad; temperatures remained pleasantly warm and we were never bothered by the heat that had taken so much out of us all on the last walk. The immediate menace was a wire strand over our track; some of this had a rubber coating and I was worried that electricity might be lurking within. Tosh boldly grabbed the bare wire and pronounced it dead. Behind it cows spilled over onto our path, one of them groaning a bit, but I tried to bluff it out with a hearty “Hello, girls!” This was not to soothe the cows but to fool Janet, who saw through my subterfuge easily and identified the groaner as a bull. This ring-nosed beast eyed us suspiciously, but let us pass without further objection.

Someone had decorated a tree with two yellow arrows; this was a signal to abandon our track and to follow the woods it had now reached, using a pasture edge to the south. This was the only time I can remember seeing a waymark of any use to walkers today; “no horses” and “public footpath” signs were plentiful but usually where they were not especially helpful to London Countryway walkers. Indeed, after a stile and footbridge and a short woodland stroll, we were about to begin a stretch inhospitable to walkers in the extreme.

First there came 800 meters of road walking on vergeless tarmac, with brewery juggernauts and Brands Hatch dropouts begrudging every inch. As unpleasant as this was, a further dose of such treatment would have been preferable to that which followed our turnoff to May’s Green.

A footpath sign, pointing in the direction of a suburban bedroom, invited us to approach a neatly clipped front lawn. A fence sign warned us that this was a private garden and that we were to keep to the footpath, but it took us some time to agree that a slightly darker stain in the clover, heading for the rear corner of the house, was the footpath. A gate, not the advertised stile, greeted us here, but, using our imagination, it was possible to believe that the narrow vegetation-choked alley between a two rail fence and the high wooden wall behind the house constituted a continuation of the route. Chesterton’s advice to take a quarter left across a field proved most puzzling since it was accompanied by no information on when this maneuver was to be accomplished. A path-like surface did head in the direction of a farm track at the next corner, but unfortunately there was no stile.

A horse, grazing in the adjacent field, was keeping a wary eye on an hysterical Bertie, still bushed from the strains of road walking. Tosh was nominated for a brief reconnoiter on the other side. She climbed the fence and was on her way across the field when she was called off by the hostile “Excuse me!” of an unhelpful horse girl – who seemed more intent on catching her charging dog than in giving useful information about the route. To make matters worse, the trespassing Tosh brought down the top rail as she climbed back into our jungle path; this fell on Bertie’s lead and it took us some time to extricate him. By this time, her nostrils flaring, the righteous ranch hand was upon us – not at all keen to accept Tosh’s contrite apologies. Eventually the former agreed to tell us that, indeed, we were meant to continue knee deep in nettles in a narrow slit between corral and wall – a gap filled with fence supports and obviously unwalked by human legs in some time.

I am not at all eager to accept blame for an incident like this. There is obviously a public right of way here and if Surrey County Council can’t be bothered to maintain it then, in their own self-interest, the local landowners could easily escape all intrusions with a few well-placed arrows. Too often the opposite seems to be the rule. Make no concession to the public right of way and then pretend outrage when the confused walker wanders into your space.

In the present instance, after a few more twists and turns, we reached a tarmac road and followed it to the west, past our next turn-off, and on an additional 400 meters to the Black Swan pub at Martyr’s Green. Less than five minutes of additional road walking would have brought us to the same spot without all the unpleasantness of the May’s Green detour detailed in Chesterton.

It was grey but unthreatening so we decided to occupy a table in the garden of the pub. Harold had a sandwich and Dorothy, Janet, and I ordered meals. Two other dogs and many small children inhabited the garden and we kept Bertie on lead. (I was also concerned that he would wander onto the crossroads or into the pub.) We were seated for about half an hour and at 12:40 we began to retrace our steps to the bridleway. A train of horses which had earlier required some fierce barking, had long ago disappeared, but one or two were left in the lane, getting a grooming. Although we inconvenienced no one, the riders of the beasts, a snotty deb and her portly mum, looked on our presence with the same distaste as that expressed by the impatient drivers of the previous hour.

Following the text closely we had our last glimpse of Hatchford Park School and left the lane for a woodland path choked with nettles. We of the bare legs began to vie with one another over who was suffering most. I was more scratched by vines than stung, but my legs tingled until bedtime. Janet, still complaining of nettle “bites,” now put on my spare trousers to get through this patch.

We walked through a parking lot and onto an access road opposite the windsurfers on Boulder Mere. At the end of this road the metal fences along the dual carriageway of the A3 prevented a direct approach to the opposite side and we had to detour over a footbridge (with mounting blocks at either end for riders). I discovered paths that would lead us back to our route; indeed we rejoined it at a turnoff and proceeded up a track to the top of a hill. The continuation, however, was not clear and the steep descent was pretty much guesswork. I think I lead us down a dry streambed, Dorothy holding on to my knapsack. “Where’s Bertie?” she asked at one point. “Never mind,” I replied, thinking of his recent scrambling triumphs in Lakeland, “He can take care of himself.”

At the bottom there was a firebreak, which we followed in a southwesterly direction around a bend. Direction was a problem today. I had my compass handy but Chesterton does not always observe the usual map-making convention of using the top of the page as north. I had trouble with my bearings on a number of occasions because of this. Paths were overgrown on Wisely Common and instructions about proceeding to a T-junction again proved confusing because Chesterton never tells us which section of the “T” we are walking on or joining.

We continued along a wide northern track in bracken and heather. There were no landmarks and the expected turnoff did not materialize. Finally I felt we had gone far enough and used the opportunity of another parking lot to do some scouting on the nearby road. I left the others at a second lunch while I did this, but I was not gone long. By luck or intuition I discovered we were only a hundred yards from where we belonged, just at the turnoff to the R.H.S. Gardens at the Wisley town limits. An ancient arthritic Irish setter was being unloaded in the car park and Janet was spraying everyone with a new can of beer as I reached our party on the path. Two dirigibles from the Farnborough Air Show were maneuvering nearby.

After our rest we walked on a fenced path through the Gardens. Why the fence? To keep cheapskate walkers from a free peek? To keep garden visitors from invading the privacy of walkers? We had the satisfaction of taking in some free hydrangeas and heather vistas and a Millais-like stretch of the Wey before leaving the enclosed path for a trod through two fields and thence to Ockham Mill.

The Mill House was very attractive and the setting quite wonderful. As we were leaving it I noticed an ominous sign about the Wey bridge being closed. Sure enough, after a stroll along a track in the direction of the river, we came up to anglers fishing next to a derelict footbridge. A piece of orange string was tied across the entrance and beyond it there was a large gap where several slats in the bridge had disappeared. But one could still scramble over the missing parts of this structure by edging along the side struts and clinging to the rail. Not wanting to begin a detour of who knows how long I therefore proposed that we give it a try.

I crossed the gap and someone handed the dog to me. Harold followed and helped Dorothy over, then Janet and Tosh scrambled onto the bridge as well. We had to repeat this process at the other end, where another gap appeared, but everyone did very well, especially Dorothy. This perilous crossing gave us access to the Wey canal towpath, which we followed for over a mile in a northerly direction. Longboats chugged slowly up and down and trippers were abundant. We were actually walking faster than the boats and succeeded in overtaking most of them at the Anchor pub. We were by no means rushing; indeed at the next bridge we began to look for a place to sit down for a last rest – nothing convenient presented itself so we sat down on the trail. I ate a luscious peach.

We passed through two fields, with Bertie under attack from a cantankerous bitch named Precious. (I thought the owner of the latter had a unique way of parting the two scrapping dogs. He thrust the baby’s stroller between them – with the baby in it!) When we reached the West Byfleet Road we waited for Dorothy to catch up. She had been dawdling with her face held to the Western sky – the sun had at last made another appearance. Janet petted a pony; Bertie was not pleased.

Harold had forgotten to bring sheet 186 and we had walked off 187 at our last rest stop but Chesterton’s directions were quite sufficient to get us into West Byfleet. The first sign of returning civilization was a stamp collectors store! Janet, who had done very well on our ten-mile jaunt, brightened visibly at the sight of shops, but there wasn’t time to stop because I wanted us to make the 4:49 train. We reached the station at 4:40 and had a brief wait before boarding our train. It was soon overrun at Esher by gloomy punters ­– returning from a day’s disappointment at Sandown. We were back in Paddington Rec by 6:10.

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

Day 3: West Byfleet to Sunningdale