October 1, 1988: Hurst Green to Merstham
On this lovely warm sunny Saturday morning I began the next-to-last stretch on the London Countryway. My only companion was one of Dorothy’s colleagues from the American College, Mimi Gripberg. This was unexpected, for, until they all backed out, this was to have been an outing with al of the usual suspects. But, for instance, Dorothy had a college function to attend and Toby was recovering from a wound to his ear received in a fight in the park with black Lucky earlier in the week.
I met Mimi at 9:20 at Victoria and we took the 9:36 East Grinstead train. Mimi had just left the college but there were many fine bits of gossip that we could chew over on this day. We also shared a Southern California past, so we had plenty to talk about and she proved, on her first and last outing, an excellent companion and walker.
At Hurst Green I tried to get into the gents but it was locked (at Victoria they had wanted 10p for a pee). Then we walked up the route used by Dorothy, Toby, and me only a few weeks earlier. It was a fine, clear, and bright morning – not at all hot. Indeed, when we had passed a burrowing squirrel and reached the corner of Rockfield Road and Icehouse Wood Road, I paused to take my sweatshirt off. I walked in a t-shirt for the rest of the day.
We descended the Icehouse Wood Road but our turnoff to Three Hedges (opposite Icewood House) came after we had traveled only a fraction of the 700 meters indicated by Chesterton. Our path, a thin muddy slit running between beautiful suburban backyards, afforded me the privacy of a needed tree. At the bottom of the path we continued by road to a marshy area and a millpond full of ducks. There was an inviting route to the North Downs Way just before the pond, but Chesterton specifies a turnoff after the pond, so I persevered and sure enough another wet path lead through a woods on a northerly line.
A lovely donkey (whom we called Eeyore) came rushing up to us and I took his picture receiving some grass from Mimi. Then we continued uphill, munching some juicy ripe berries, and emerged on Oxted’s Springfield Road. After a turn we descended to the High Street at the (open) Old Bell and, without stopping, continued north on Sandy Lane, under the A25. At the Lodge we escaped road walking and pursued a path along the edge of several fields, with a small lake hidden by trees on our left and the quarries on the south face of the North Downs directly ahead of us.
We passed the impressive gates of Barrow Green Court and used a footbridge to cross the M25. We could hear the rush of cars below us for another mile – finally deciding to pretend that it was a river instead of this irksome intrusion of motorized madness. A very muddy path wound up the hill above us – I rolled up the cuffs of my brown cords. Chesterton says, “Climb to top” at this point, but I believe he intends a more northerly line than that taken by the main track, which curves around to the east as it nears the summit road. When we reached the latter I was convinced that we needed to be further west and so we walked along the road for several hundred yards before reaching the intersection with our missed path, on the left, and the obvious continuation on the right. Mimi had wanted to rest as we were climbing our hill but I convinced her it would be more satisfying to get to the top first. She proved easier to bully in such matters than Dorothy, and now we found a nice log just out of sight of the road and sat down in the sun for a nice rest and a snack (an M&S sandwich and some prawn cocktail puffs).
In my haste to get going this morning I had forgotten my compass. I was navigating by instinct and using the position of the sun, and I needed to rely on these methods in the next few minutes because the woods we had entered were full of paths, with nothing quite resembling the directions laid down by Chesterton. I never saw an abandoned adventure playground as we tramped around in the leaves searching for a way forward. Many paths were overgrown and fallen trunks obstructed other routes. I decided we were heading too far to the east and we retreated to the western edge of the woodland where we picked up a good path heading in the desired direction. I was soon rewarded with a wonderful view of the Marden Valley below us, the path now clear all the way down the hillside to the girls school of the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Some frisky cows came out to meet us as we descended.
The convent and its grounds were lovely, though the place seemed abandoned today. We strolled past the tennis courts and I followed Chesterton’s instructions to look for a continuation of our route ten meters after the adjacent fence ended. There was a stone footpath sign here (but I saw no steps). Instead we climbed a grassy bank and found an overgrown path heading back along a contour above the valley in a southerly direction. It was a path no one would use, save for those who had placed their complete trust in Chesterton, but we were rewarded when other promised landmarks appeared – such as barbed wire fences on either side.
We remained in foliage longer than the OS map indicated but the path turned westward before putting us out at the top of a field. The system of stiles described in the guidebook had also broken down, and it wasn’t clear how to continue. I could tell where we were by a cottage on the road below us and I kept us near the top as we pressed around several clumps of trees. Eventually I found another footpath in the woods. I never saw a promised “electric pole” or the “remnants of an old stile,” and I was afraid that the turnoff I wanted was at a stile I was advised to ignore. A left fork, however, seemed to head in too southerly a direction, so we began a descent on a steep path with steps. An old kissing gate encouraged me to believe I had chosen correctly. Because Chesterton’s route coincides from about this spot with the NDW, I told Mimi that I had, in effect, completed the LCW.
Chesterton does attempt a last variation before setting off on the NDW route to Merstham – a walk down the road past the entrance to Quarry Farm and, at a road bend, a stroll past a garage and into a field. We found the first gate mentioned and climbed it, but the second gate was more troublesome and we wandered around in a field full of manure before passing two ponies and climbing a fence to reach the verge of the A22. Here we headed north, pausing for a Coke at a caravan-kiosk parked in a laybay. Cold drinks were advertised – but back in this era the British wanted to believe that anything in a can was by definition cold – our drinks were tepid.
I found a thin cut in the underbrush that we fought our way up in order to reach the bridge over the motorway. On the other side we turned off behind a caravan park and searched in vain for a route up the hillside. Finally I found an earth bank that could have been the one designated. Other directions were useless, and there seemed to be an unmentioned camp at the crest of the ridge now. We kept to a southerly perimeter as we made our way west – I had walked the NDW but none of this was familiar until, after encountering a snapdragon (which I took to be an escapee from some houses on Gravelly Hill), a widening track brought us out to the viewpoint where I had eaten lunch on a bench in 1983.
We continued west on easy paths, chatting about more ACL happenings, and emerging on War Coppice Road. Here we took to the tarmac, disdaining the Harrow pub just off route. It was well past 3:00, but the pub seemed to be open – for me this was the first time that the nation’s new licensing laws could have made a difference to a thirsty walker. We continued west on tracks, pausing for an interrogation on our progress by two motorists parked near the route. Then it was downhill, with Merstham before us. Runners came thundering down behind, thanking us for moving out of the way.
We crossed the M23 and reached Merstham station at 4:15. A poster for a concert of an obscure Schoenberg work greeted us at the station. Ten minutes later we were on our train. Mimi said, “Train travel makes me sleepy. Wake me up at Victoria.” “Sure,” I said. The next thing I remember was Mimi saying, “Wake up – we’re at Victoria.”
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:
Day walks from London:
If you are looking for additional London-based walking opportunities you may want to have a look at our experiences on the following routes:
A Chilterns Hundred
The Chiltern Way
The Green London Way
The Greensand Way
The London Countryway
The London Outer Orbital Path
The North Downs Way
The Ridgeway Path
The Saxon Shore Way
The South Downs Way
The Thames Path
The Vanguard Way