The London Countryway – Day 22

March 30, 1989: Merstham to Westhumble

I hand Toby to Tosh as we cross the Mole.

I hand Toby to Tosh as we cross the Mole.

The day came at last for the twenty-second and very last stage of the the London Countryway. It was a beautiful early spring morning during the first week of my Easter holiday. With Dorothy at work, however, only Toby and the Lees would accompany me on this special occasion. We met the latter shortly before 8:30 at Victoria, bought our tickets and sandwiches, and had a cup of coffee while waiting for the 8:47 to Merstham.

Tosh, on sabbatical, pumped me for school gossip for the thirty minutes or so it took us to reach our destination. I noted that the last time I had set out to do a day’s walk from Merstham (my last solo walk, in May of 1982) I had returned to London in time to attend a party at the Lees ­– undoubtedly the first time I had met Harold.

Merstham station was undergoing reconstruction but the Lees persevered in their search for the loos while Toby and I waited out front. Then we walked out to the highway, crossed it at the Feathers, and rejoined lovely Quality Street.

With only two exceptions all of today’s route coincided with the Box Hill to Merstham section of the North Downs Way. As a consequence, Dorothy and I had walked much of this stretch, though in the opposite direction, and it was strange for me to come across remembered sites, though often bathed in an unfamiliar light, or to pass through territory that ought to have registered – but did not.

We passed the cricket field and climbed a hill where a solitary gardener downed his hoe to beg a match. We had none. Then we reached a road, turned left, and soon entered the grounds of the Royal Albert and Alexandra School. This time I lead us on a brief tour to see Gatton Town Hall and the town house and church of this once famous rotten borough. Dorothy and I had been too tired to see this last time (and too late, having gotten lost on top of Juniper Hill). Today there were no kids about so there was plenty of time to stroll around and take pictures.

We continued through the grounds of the school. I could see a chap put several Dobermans behind bars as we approached. We climbed up the back drive of the establishment and took an ascending track. The National Trust had its arrows about today and they would have been useful in taking the right fork when our track split. I kept to the left but as we approached the next road I had to put us on higher ground. I did some scouting to make sure of this, with Toby keeping the Lees in touch by galloping back and forth between us.

Our destination, which soon became evident, was the car park adjacent to the kiosk on Reigate Hill. Here Tosh and Harold had to have a snack and a cup of coffee. Harold, unique among my friends and family, said he wanted to put on five pounds! I gave Toby some water as we sat on some benches among the lorry drivers. Then we headed up the hill to have a look at the monument on Colley Hill. There was a working faucet, in spite of what Chesterton says, and Toby had a second drink. It was warm and sunny throughout this day – with temperatures in the low ’70′s, I would guess. But a breeze meant it never got too hot either ­– just a wonderful day for March.

Wild flowers blossomed at our feet as we made our way westward on Colley Hill, keeping to the grass and following some paths. When we reached scrubland I found an NT sign, but I was a bit uncertain about Chesterton’s suggestions – since they clearly deviated from the NDW route I remembered from 1982. I decided to keep to the south-facing path and this soon began the steep descent described in the guidebook. We came out precisely at the bottom of Juniper Hill – I could still hear Dorothy complaining about the rutted grassy ascent to the top from this point – had I only known of this shortcut we would never have gone wrong at the hairpin on top.

We could now continue westward at the foot of the slope, just above the fields on our left – with the faces of the Betchworth quarries serving as beacons ahead. It was very easy walking, with a mixture of sun and shade provided by the first leaves of a young forest. I took off my sweatshirt and walked for the rest of the day in my M.S.U. Rosebowl t-shirt. Toby flushed some pheasants here.

We passed the shady juniper bower, where Dorothy and I had lunch in 1982, and turned south. At our first emergence into full sunlight we sat down at the field edge and had our lunch (or one part of it – the Lees continued eating all day.) Toby had an egg and some biscuits and a bowl of water. Down the hill, with a stick in his mouth, came a friendly black dog named Rollo, but Toby was jealous of the attentions paid to this visitor. Rollo was accompanied by a mother and her grown son. “My son wouldn’t be caught dead walking with me,” Tosh commented wryly.

We turned right to walk along a strip of woodland, emerging on the Betchworth road. Toby, who had been surreptitiously slurping from a cowpie, went on lead here. Fortunately there was pavement and/or side path all the way to our turnoff. I remembered Dorothy talking to some of the householders hereabouts on the state of their gardens. These were beautiful again today.

We walked over a bridge and through the outlying reaches of the quarries, with arrows helping us to orient ourselves. The quarries seemed to be as much a dumpsite as a stone source today, but there was a lot of activity (motorcycles, etc.) going on below us. We entered a woods and wound around to the right, beginning a gradual but prolonged rise up to the top of the hill at Quick’s grave. The cardiovascular system got a good workout on this section – good preparation for the four day trek on the Southwest Peninsula Coast Path scheduled for the following Monday. We sat on Quick’s grave (“English thoroughbred 1936-1944”) and had some liquid.

Then it was steeply downhill again before a steep ascent up steps. I remembered all these ups and downs from 1982 (and Dorothy’s complaints about them) but they were better, it seemed, taken from east to west. We could now see the crowds on the brow of Boxhill itself, but it wasn’t easy knowing which was the best route to reach them. Chesterton admits that it is hard to describe this last section, but I think we did what he required, sloping steeply upward to cross a hollow, via a stile, as we continued both up and west. Everywhere there were daytrippers sunbathing. A group of four teenaged louts shuffled by, spitting. Toby briefly disappeared here – but he came up behind us when he was called.

We knew we were getting close to Solomon’s viewpoint when the little old ladies started shuffling by. We threaded our way through the picnickers, pausing to view the sparkling Mole below us. Then the last descent, the knee-jarring journey to the bottom. It was sunnier than I had expected, for here too many of the trees had come down during the famous hurricane. Smoking teenagers with tattoos, obese moms with their toddlers, swimming-suit clad kids – all were huffing up the hill as we breezed down.

At the bottom dozens of people crowded both sides of the Mole. Some were picnicking, some were swimming, most were attempting to get across on the famous stepping stones – with one broken stone requiring a large leap or a foothold on its submerged stump. Harold was left behind to take pictures. Tosh went first, then I followed with the dog. Especially because of the missing step I knew I had to carry him. His muddy paws stippled my white t-shirt with brown spots. When I got to the gap in the middle of the river I had to call Tosh back so that I could hand him over to her. In the middle of this perilous transfer I heard the click of the camera behind us.

Harold had some difficulty getting his turn on the stones as all the traffic was heading in the opposite direction for a while. When we were reassembled we walked up the highway where I could see, on the opposite side, the track where this trek had begun in 1984. I had walked the entire London Countryway.

We crossed the highway and headed up to the Westhumble turnoff. The Stepping Stones pub was closed ­– just as well, as it didn’t want dogs or dirty footwear. The train station was also undergoing reconstruction – so Tosh had to use the gents while Harold stood guard. It was 3:45.

At 3:52 the Waterloo train chugged in. A tired Toby settled into Tosh’s lap. We finished the last of the food and arrived at Waterloo at 4:35. We had to buy our tickets here so it took us some time to make our way through the crowd to the Bakerloo Line. Made nervous by announcements of delays on this line (something veterans of Bakerloo service were used to in those days), the Lees abandoned us for the Northern Line. A bereft Toby grabbed my leg to make certain that I wouldn’t abandon him too. Never mind, quite a few people fussed over him on our return to Maida Vale. We were home shortly after 5:00.

I had found the London Countryway to be unrivalled in the challenges it posed for the London-based walker. The twenty-two stages needed to complete it even surpassed by one day those needed to complete the Pennine Way itself – though its 215 miles were well short of the PW’s 288 (and the South West Coast Path would eventually almost triple the LCW’s number of stages too). It had taken me five years to complete this route and in the process I had been accompanied by fifteen human and two canine companions. I was sad to have reached its conclusion – its route finding challenges and countryside wonders had made for a grand adventure.

Footpath Index:

England: A Chilterns Hundred | The Chiltern Way | The Cleveland Way | The Coast-to-Coast Path | The Coleridge Way | The Cotswold Way | The Cumberland Way | The Cumbria Way | The Dales Way | The Furness Way | The Green London Way | The Greensand Way | The Isle of Wight Coast Path | The London Countryway | The London Outer Orbital Path | The Norfolk Coast Path | The North Downs Way | The Northumberland Coast Path | The Peddars Way | The Pennine Way | The Ridgeway Path | The Roman Way | The Saxon Shore Way | The South Downs Way | The South West Coast Path | The Thames Path | The Two Moors Way | The Vanguard Way | The Wealdway | The Westmorland Way | The White Peak Way | The Yorkshire Wolds Way