THE NORTH DOWNS WAY[Day 1] Farnham to Guildford(11 miles)
First things first. The North Downs are a long ridge of chalk hills⁑ stretching about 100 miles from Farnham to Dover. The North Downs Way is a long distance National Trail, 153 miles in length, following approximately the same route†. It's walkable in about twelve days‡, this task made easier by the proximity of railway stations on lines from London.
⁑ The South Downs are a similar geological feature, but run about 30 miles to the south.
† At its eastern end (beyond the Medway) there's a choice of two routes, but that's a decision for later.
‡ No specific daily start and finish points are set, so that's a decision for later too.
Farnham is the westernmost town in Surrey, 38 miles from London, as a stone milepost in the high street confirms. The heart of the town is historic, with timbered facades and Georgian market halls, plus a renovated castle close by. It all looked worthy of further exploration, next time I'm out this way, but in this case I set myself the single task of buying a North Downs Way guidebook before I set off. Andrew recommends the official Aurum Guide, although I was after the new A-Z Adventure Atlas because I prefer to follow a strip map rather than a series of "at the bottom of the field turn left through the gate over the stream" instructions, and because it's cheaper. Waterstones didn't have a copy, but thankfully WH Smith did, so off I strode.
The North Downs Way begins at a most unprepossessing location, specifically a junction on the busy A31 dual carriageway. I'd missed its significance on the walk from the station, but a recently-installedsculptural sign (facing the other way) makes a much more impressive backdrop for your kick-off selfie. I did not take a kick-off selfie. Initially it seems like a slog of road walking lies ahead, but the path soon diverts off into the trees and I didn't see the A31 again, only heard it. The first mile follows the River Wey (North Branch), skirting meadows and climbing the leafy banks. Oddity 1: HELP YOURSELF TO A COPY OF MY BOOK, it said on a mysterious scrawled sign beside a white box. And presumably people had, because the box was empty. Oddity 2: A carved wooden bench in the shape of something which at first looked potentially rude, but was thankfully an orchid.
Beyond the first significant dip, the hamlet of Moor Park turns out to be a Surrey enclave of stockbroker mansions, sprawled across the estate of the former Waverley Abbey. The Greensand Way divides off here and leads to Mother Ludlam's Hole, allegedly a witch's cavern, which is just one of the many things you won't quite see if you stick to the North Downs Way. Instead there's a steady climb through a nature reserve to begin a section of lane-walking. Public footpaths are thin on the ground around the hamlet of The Sands, thanks to large back gardens, the odd farm and an expansive golf course. Here tweed-capped clubbers begin their rounds, business deals are struck, and ramblers watch intermittently from the periphery. Oddity 3: A laminated sign on a tree, reading simply HORSES LOSE, which of course they sometimes do.
The first "whoa" moment comes at a broad dip of open fields stretching off towards distant wooded slopes beyond. The topsoil has just been ploughed, shading the landscape in deep orangey-brown, and looked remarkably dry as spring 2017's drought conditions continue. It's not been a busy path thus far, indeed I was four miles into my walk before I met the first people going the other way, and six before meeting the next, but that's the joys of midweek excursioning for you. Oddity 4: 'The Fairy Tree', a pretend doorway in the bark of a tree, bedecked with beads, baubles, knitted toys and other trinkets.
At long last the North Downs Way breaks out onto a north-facing slope to reveal the amazing landscape feature that is the Hog's Back. This narrow elongated ridge runs for several miles between Farnham and Guildford, with a drop of 50m to either side and an ancient pathway along the top. You'd think this would be the obvious route for the NDW to follow, but instead the A31 got there first, so better to walk in parallel between trees and bluebells than trudge along a lengthy diesel-rich verge.
One recurring feature along the route is a furrowed footpath, following a narrow channel between wooded earthen banks, and hinting at several centuries of former footfall. Elsewhere the path becomes a bridleway or even a byway, notionally open to traffic, not that I'd expect it's frequently so used. Oddity 5: Just before the tiny hamlet of Little Lascombe, a road sign warns non-existent vehicles of "children ahead". REALLY?, someone's scrawled in the dirt.
The only proper village on today's walk is Puttenham, a linear settlement in the lee of the Hog's Back. It's delightful, and thriving, with much front-garden action and building work going on, and narrow pavements that repeatedly switch sides. The local pub is The Good Intent, where Andrew recommends a lunch stop with a giant ploughman's, which has got to be a better option than the Harvester on the main road beyond. Oddity 6: The bus shelter beside The Good Intent is full of local notices but only one bus timetable, dated 2005, for a twice-weekly bus withdrawn in 2011. Oddity 7: A notice in Puttenham's sole phone box proposes closure due to lack of use, and a six week consultation period, although six months later it's still dormantly operational.
Puttenham's golf course seems to go on forever, past the driving range and the exclusive staff car parking spaces, and an honesty box for rare breed eggs. Follow the copious number of signs to the 10th TEE and you can't go far wrong. The sandy lane continues past a string of outlying cottages and villas, some with pristine lawns outside, others with a collection of rusting tractors. My first thought was how idyllic it must be to live here, but then I remembered road access was solely up a mile-long track, and (worse?) the constant threat of scrutiny by National Trail users rambling past.
After dipping beneath the noisy A3 and its slip road, the North Downs Way scores a direct hit on the Watts Gallery and Artists Village, a tourist nugget which celebrates the work of a leading Victorian painter. If you like Arts and Crafts buildings, portraits, sculpture and landscapes you've hit the jackpot, as confirmed by a throng of retired Surrey men and women (mostly women) enjoying the facilities. I could have stopped for the exhibitions or a cream tea, but I suspect this refined facility deserves a longer sojourn, so contented myself with a rifle through the gift shop. Oddity 8: Where the path passes below the A3 slip road, two crosses on the parapet commemorate this being once part of the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury.
An undulating sandy footpath follows, tracing an eroded gully with shady bluebelled banks. As my adjectives suggest, it's rather pleasant. Eventually the trees clear and it's time for a second-stretch of Hog's-Back-facing, minding the Piccards Farm tractor as you go. The A31 has diverted off the ridgetop by now, but three tall communication masts dominate instead. Consulting my map I decided I'd much rather be walking up there instead, from the Sunnydown Plantation to Henley Fort, but my enforced necessity to remain on the North Downs Way kept me at a distance.
A final farmtrack descends into the valley, past spray-numbered lambs and shuttered outbuildings. At the main road the signs are ambiguous, but don't climb St Catherine's Hill to an outcrop above the river, follow the steeply-descending lane down an ancient holloway. A ferry once crossed the Wey here, long since replaced by a footbridge... which is where the second day of my North Downs Way will begin. In the meantime the towpath walk to Guildford station wasn't far, but was beautiful... and busier by far than all eleven previous miles.