Before the afternoons darken and the leaves shrivel, there's still time for a glorious autumnal walk in the Surrey Hills. And where better than the peak of the county's chalk uplands, high on the North Downs, at BoxHill? It's not a much-loved visitor-packed viewpoint for nothing. I visited for the first time last Sunday, in surprisingly decent sunny weather, and found the entire experience wholly uplifting. Follow me.
To the car park of the Burford Bridge Hotel. It's unexpectedly simple to get here, via a range of different means of transport, and I'll tell you how at the end of this post. For the time being however, we're off for a hike. It's this hike here, which you can print out and take with with you when you visit. Look up from the A24 and you can see tiny figures ascending the grassy hillside, high above the trees, just a few hundred metres from where we're standing. That's where we're heading, through that gap between the hotel and a hedge, past the National Trust sign. Come on, there are steps, how tough a climb can it be?
Sheesh, that's tough. This is a mighty steep ascent - not exactly mountaineering conditions but still relentlessly upward. It's probably a good idea to stop for a breather before too long, before your heart explodes. Don't worry, you're already so high up that you can turn round and admire the view without looking like you're merely pausing to catch breath [photo]. And continue. The steps peter out after a while to be replaced by a sheer chalk path, and the rocky surface is unexpectedly slippery even in bone dry weather. You might be better off a few metres higher, walking on firmergrassland, striding higher and higher above the Mole Valley. Damned pretty, innit?
At last the contours thin and the path levels out, still climbing but now far more gradually. To the north, across a deep V-shaped ravine, a narrow zig-zag road can be seen clinging to the hillside. It's a mighty testing ascent for cyclists, and a lot of fun for bikers, and probably quite enjoyable in a car so long as you don't meet anything coming the other way. If we keep walking above the cliff edge we'll meet these vehicular travellers at the top soon enough. Onward and upward, then fork left into the woodland past a highly unlikely defensive fortification - Box HillFort. This low concrete and brick structure was built on the hilltop in 1899 as part of London's southern civil defence. It's seems a ludicrous position to defend because any enemy with any sense would march down the valley instead, but that's Surrey for you.
And then, suddenly, civilisation. We've hit a National Trust tourist hub, featuring gift shop, information point and "servery". That's upper-middle-class for café, of course, and it serves up tea and soup and sponge and stuff. Perfect for dismounted muddy mountain bikers and for spotless families recently disgorged from their 4×4 in the nearby car park. Several downland walks kick off from here, the most popular of which is also the shortest - across to the ice cream van and down a grassy slope to the viewpoint[photo]. A huge expanse of green farmland spreads out beneath you, from the nearby town of Dorking way out towards the South Downs in the hazy distance. Double 99 cornet, anyone?
Now for the descent. The path heads into the woods past John Logie Baird's experimental hideaway (before television there was noctivision), before dropping away down a flight of steps. There are a heck of a lot of steps, and you'll get an increasingly smug feeling as you pass wheezing, grimacing, panting visitors making their way oh so steadily upwards. Look, some have even brought toddlers, and pushchairs, and are lugging both impractically up the hillside. Roll on the day when these kids can finally walk unaided without screaming.
And at the bottom, to complete rural perfection, a set of hexagonalsteppingstones lead across the Mole. Wimps who fear slipping into the water can detour via a recent footbridge, but it's far more fun to tread carefully across the stones (minding any dogs scampering energetically between your legs). Pray you don't meet a coach party coming the other way, else you could be waiting on the riverbank for rather a long time. From here it's only a few yards to the main road in the valley, and then a short walk along the pavement returns us to the Burford Bridge roundabout. There are an awful lot of motorbikes on the dual carriageway, aren't there? I wonder why that should be...
How to gethere: By car: On the A24 between Leatherhead and Dorking. By bike: The very best thing about the Burford Bridge car park is Ryka's restaurant[photo]. It's a homespun burger takeaway with a few tables inside (and lots of picnic tables outside), and it's become the major focal point for hordes of southeastern motorbikers. On a sunny weekend afternoon there'll be hundreds of motorcycles parked in the upper car park, some with reverential crowds around them, others revving up for a buzz round the area. You may have to queue for your cheeseburger and chips, but they beat the organic flapjacks at the top of the hill hands down. If only all roadside caffs were as special as this. By train: There's a regular service down from London to Box Hill & Westhumblestation, taking less than an hour. Very doable. By bus: Believe it or not, you can get to Box Hill on your Oyster card using a London bus. The 465 runs hourly from Kingston on Sundays (every half hour on other days of the week) and drops you off right at the foot of the hill. On foot: Go on, make a day of it. I walked to Box Hill from Leatherhead, following the Mole Gap Trail along the river, across the railway and along a high wooded ridge. Great walk, great views, and envious real estate.