THE NORTH DOWNS WAY[Day 2] Guildford to Westhumble(13 miles)
There are no designated start/finish points on the North Downs Way, but walking Day2 from the Wey valley to the Mole valley is pretty much a given. It's also, I'm afraid, a bit dull. Not totally, there are some excellent bits, but far too much of the walk is through woodland without much of an overview of where you actually are. That's good news on a blisteringly hot day, like the one I had, because you can hide from the sun for most of the walk. There were a couple of times when I nearly stopped to slap on some sunblock, but then the path sidled back under cover and my cream would have been entirely unnecessary. For thirteen long long miles.
From the Wey footbridge, and cattle lumbering by the waterside, the path wiggles off across the marshes to reach a recreation ground and a residential road called Pilgrims Way. This (and the path that extends beyond) follows an ancient track used by the Canterbury-bound, rutted and rising slowly between birches and pine. During a brief break from woodland a hawk flies above, ponies graze and a man with a low-slung OS map strides past. A geological sign that we're on the Greensand Ridge is underfoot, the path resembling an orange sandpit as it climbs to a stunning contoured hilltop. The sole building up here is St Martha's Church, an 18th century rebuild now used as a wedding venue - hopefully the semi-panoramic views make up for difficulties in getting the guests up and down.
With this ticked off, the North Downs Way nips across Wealden fields to join the North Downs proper. The view from Albury Downs is splendid, the path crossing a stretch of grassy scarp from which successive sweeps of southern hills retreat into the distance in pastel shades. The increasing presence of picnickers and dogwalkers hints at the existence of a car park behind the trees, and there it is, plus a visitors centre and cafe counter to serve them all. It was here at Newlands Corner in 1926 that Agatha Christie famously abandoned her car and disappeared, whereas today you're more likely to find motorbikers, horseriders, cyclists, even firemen dropping in for a break and a burger lunch.
Almost nobody heads across the A247 to follow the drove track into the trees, because there's nowhere to spread out a rug or sprawl, merely four miles of forest-walking ahead. During this time the only people I pass are two young hikers at opposite ends of the muscle spectrum, and a quartet of school-age boys with sleeping bags poking out of their rucksacks, enjoying a little light techno to fill the time. The villages of Shere and Gomshall go entirely unnoticed at the foot of the slope, bar a couple of lone fingerposts, while the occasional sign reveals that the National Trust lay claim to the upland. I don't usually mind walking in woodland, but insufficient variety caused this section to drag somewhat.
At last the path descends slightly and narrows, opening out onto Blatchford Down for a much-missed vista across tumbling chalk grassland. Here too are cattle, hopefully out of sight but potentially massing stubbornly on the upper path as if to dare you to approach. Keep an eye open for a succession of abandoned pill boxes, of the wartime kind, and for other walkers... I went a full hour without seeing a single one. At White Down Lease the NDW crosses its first public road for three miles, a narrow empty lane barely wide enough for a car, and a reminder of how completely the scarp of the North Downs inhibits transport links. All the main routes run parallel down below, including the Dorking-Guildford railway which interrupts the birdsong backdrop twice an hour.
The path clings to the 190m contour over gnarled birch roots and an intermittent carpet of tiny blue and yellow woodland flowers. At one point I came face to face with a deer on the track, which stared briefly and then withdrew into the foliage to stare some more, before engaging full retreat. At the foot of Ranmore Common a brief break in the treeline reveals the glorious view that deciduous cover hasn't previously allowed you to see. The town of Dorking spreads out ahead, the spire of its parish church appealingly dominant, while across the valley on the Greensand Ridge a tower in a forest clearing marks the top of Leith Hill, the Home Counties' highest peak.
Ranmore is the first settlement resembling a village in over ten miles, though technically a collection of buildings to support the local mansion, Denbies, which has been artfully hidden behind a screen of topiary. Its most impressive hanger-on is the church of St Barnabas, a scaled-down 'cathedral' in High Victorian Gothic designed by George Gilbert Scott. The Denbies estate now supports one of England's largest vineyards, and for a brief spell the North Downs Way follows a private track immediately above descending trellises of emergent grapes. But only brief, as the final descent into Westhumble alas eschews the winery and visitor centre for another shielded woodland path.
Day 3, I can assure you, is a much more satisfying hike.