diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 11, 2014

COUNTRY WALKS (Book One, 1971 edition)
Walk 10: Heath and Hill

Tattenham Corner to Walton-on-the-Hill (11 miles)

For my second walk from a 1970s copy of London Transport's Country Walks (30p from all good Underground stations), I've jumped ahead through the book to walk number 10. This time I'm in Surrey, exploring the countryside to the south of Epsom and east of Box Hill. It's not somewhere I'd considered walking before, indeed I'd never even heard of Mogador, but the rural experience turned out to be really rather pleasant. Better still the trip proved fully accessible by Oyster, and therefore cheap, what with the whole of the Tattenham Corner line being in Zone 6. But in 1971 that was British Rail's domain, so instead LT's book directed ramblers to travel by Northern line to Morden and thence by 164A bus, a service long since extinct. I was pleased to discover that the remainder of the instructions remained almost word perfect, which is quite some achievement after 43 years. If you'd like to follow along, I've traced out the route for you on this map.
[12 new-camera photos]

Tattenham Corner is the closest station to Epsom racecourse, so close that if you step across to the grassy slope alongside there's a really good view of the whole thing. It is a really good view, from the final bend on the track across the Downs to the futuristic grandstand plonked brazenly beside the finishing line. And on Sunday it was a particularly strange view, this being the day after the Derby was run, and the detritus of thousands of racegoers still scattered around the course. A huge flock of seagulls had descended, and were wheeling around the sky attempting to make off with anything the human litter pickers hadn't yet removed. Piles of bottles, black plastic bags and discarded Racing Posts remained, even the occasional fold-up chair, so there were easy pickings. And my walk headed straight across the racecourse, through the middle of the lot.

Yes, a public footpath crosses Epsom racecouse, that is so long as racing's not taking place. It sets off from the refreshment kiosk, and very soon you find yourself passing through a gap in the rails and onto the hallowed turf. It was a surreal experience to stand here less than 24 hours after the Derby had trampled through, and 101 years since Emily Davison lost her life just round the corner. I had to dodge the lorries come to collect the remaining portaloos, and step around the occasional Totepool prefab hut, as still the gulls swooped down for easy pickings. Climbing to the far side of the horseshoe the grandstand grew gradually smaller, and the panorama from Woking round to Wembley more distinct. And on the far side, this time generally unobserved, I got a second opportunity to stand in the path of one of the greatest races on the planet. All in all, a great start.

This is horsey country, so what lay ahead was a landscape I can best describe as paddocks and gallops. A sign on the next hillside warned walkers to keep an eye out for oncoming hooves, and right on cue a rider on a white charger came thundering through. The next mile was a treat, gently ascending an enclosed footpath between fields, the hedgerow bursting with verdant life. I met a pair of cyclists treating this narrow track as a minor assault course, and loving it, but other than that it was just me all the way. On Hurst Road I bumped into what seemed like the entire Mid Surrey branch of the Pony Club, hosting a trials event in fields either side of the footpath. A commentator cheered on Harriet and Araminta in the showjumping, numerous proud Dads strode by, and the Red Cross sat around in case any rider had a nasty fall in the cross country.

My book described the next section of the walk as "uninterrupted track", except that sometime after 1971 civil engineers came along and laid the M25. On my last Country Walk this proved problematic, but here they'd threaded the bridleway through a concrete tunnel under the motorway and the only significant intrusion was aural. My book also alerted me to St Mary's Church, its oak spire currently awaiting refurbishment after coming under attack from woodpeckers, which is the sort of thing a Heritage lottery grant helps with these days. And the text then advised me to turn left at the 'Cock', although this 17th century tavern has recently been transformed into the Headley Hills bar and restaurant, because austerity hasn't damaged the stockbroker belt and one needs a damned good dining establishment more than a boozer.

The Surrey Hills have some of the most challenging gradients close to London, and so my walk soon stumbled upon the highest part of 2012 road race circuit. Olympic cyclists sped through Headley village several times on the Box Hill loop, rising up via the legendary Zig Zag Road, then wheeling back via the incline of Lodgebottom Road. I took a slight detour down Tot Hill to watch the weekend contingent of Sky-clad lycranauts pedalling through, testing their stamina and sweating somewhat. And here I was very nearly witness to a potentially nasty accident. A knackered cyclist pulled out, without looking, across the stop line in front of a van descending Leech Lane. The van driver (and the cyclist's partner) looked on aghast as she blundered on, oblivious to imminent danger. But thankfully the vehicle swerved and braked in time, its driver more shocked than angry, and only the woman's pride was damaged.

My Country Walk offered a two mile shortcut at this point, but stuff that I thought, I'm walking all the way round Headley Heath. Good choice. These 500 acres of downland were saved for the nation by the National Trust in 1956, and are a wonderfully diverse (and hilly) habitat for umpteen animals. Squirrels in particular, and butterflies, and the occasional toasted sunbather. I took the wrong path at one point, making a steep climb immediately after a steep descent, although the view across the chalk dip was glorious and no doubt better than the route I was meant to follow. I was less impressed by the muddy path along the southern edge of the Heath, but north and west were lovely... so if you're ever up Box Hill and feeling energetic, do definitely consider the NT's Box Hill Hike.

Next stop, the scarp of the North Downs. A minor footpath led to a lane which tipped down over the edge and into woodland, where I disturbed a roe deer. There followed a wildlife bonanza, including a fox, a particularly pretty orchid and a slowworm, wriggling ineffectively in the middle of the path. I'd taken the wrong route again by this point, failing to convince myself that steep steps up the escarpment were those described in my book, which meant a significant detour, and a particularly tiring sheer ascent later. But I didn't mind because the lower path traced through a magical natural environment, rightly now part of the North Downs Way, should you ever be passing.

If you like Coal Tax Posts, you'll love the rest of the walk. Only 210 of these early Victorian boundary posts survive, and you'll be passing around a dozen of them, starting with the very southernmost. These white iron pillars mark the edge of the City of London's fuel duty zone, originally 20 miles out, but with a pronounced kink here in the Banstead Heath area. More details on this site, and this one, if you're interested.

The lane ahead suddenly crossed a different London pseudo-boundary, the M25, this time via a bridge with two entirely unnecessary pavements. Straight ahead was the hamlet of Mogador, which sounds like it ought to be part of Middle Earth, but is instead one of the highest settlements in southeast England. My book told me not to go to the pub, so I ignored it and went to the Sportsman for an extremely welcome pint. I was not alone, although it looked like everyone else had driven in and brought their dogs. Their canine presence was entirely appropriate as the pub building was once one of Henry VIII's hunting lodges, although I can't say I enjoyed the close presence of two Weimaraners as I drank, nor the empty prattle of their owners.

And finally, a hike up the side of the Walton Heath Golf Course. Keeping to the edge of the fairway made navigation easy, as did the over-supply of coal tax posts every few hundred metres or so. It struck me that I'd spent most of my day watching Surrey at play, first on horseback, then riding bikes and now with clubs. I was pleased to reach the end of the walk beside the big village pond in Walton-on-the-Hill, where a heron perched motionless watching for prey. Here I was told to catch the 80A bus back to Morden, but that no longer runs either, so an extra half mile on to Tadworth station sufficed. And if you're still reading about this walk you will never do, thankyou, as I thank whoever compiled the London Transport book of Country Walks back when I was six.

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