THE NORTH DOWNS WAY[Day 3] Westhumble to Merstham(10 miles)
Here's a ten mile stretch of the North Downs Way which isn't in London, but both ends of which you can reach by London bus. Inbetween are the glories of Box Hill, the glories of Reigate Hill and the glories of Gatton Park, on what's definitely the best walk yet. It even starts at a bus stop called North Downs Way.
Barely a couple of minutes from the bus stop, through the trees, your adventure begins. Seventeen famous stepping stones cross the Mole, and you can too if you tread really carefully and the river's not in flood. One family I met here demonstrated that this was just the right amount of adventure for an intrepid six year-old, while another ummed and ahhed and then retreated to take the five minute detour into the woods and over the footbridge.
And that was the easy bit. What follows is a relentless ascent up the western flank of Box Hill, where one zigzagging flight of wooden treads follows another follows another. In winter it's a proper mudbath, but at this time of year the only enemy is your lungs, so feel free to pause awhile if the climb gets too much, and expect compassionate looks from those striding past on the way down. The view from the summit is always worth it, though, with a broad green panorama across the Weald spread out below the Salomon's Memorial. A National Trust cafe is hiding behind the treeline if the hike's already defeated you.
However busy the top of Box Hill may be, the North Downs Way finds a quiet path to slip away. A shady track follows the top of the escarpment, at one point passing a lone gravestone inscribed to "an English thoroughbred" (1936-1944). Eventually it breaks out around the top of a huge chalk quarry gouged out for the production of lime, before descending gently below the rim of a second. Betchworth's quarries were once a mainstay for the filming of Doctor Who and Blake's Seven, but the alien landscapes where Sarah Jane and Servalan held sway have long since been covered with landfill and nature is regaining control.
A few post-industrial remnants later, the path becomes a lane lined by an appealing row of cottages. According to the village noticeboard D'Arcy Trinkwon will be giving an organ recital at St Michael's on the 24th, and an alarmist poster urges Betchworth's residents to ring the Counter Terrorist Hotline if they see or hear something that could be suspicious. Best move on quickly before you're shopped for looking out of place. A short stretch of pavement bashing swiftly diverts up a parallel wooded path, then breaks off across fields to return to the foot of the scarp, a line which the next mile and a half dutifully follows.
I first walked this stretch three years ago, and it was here I first decided I ought to give the North Downs Way a go. One particular clearing beneath a chalky slope inspired me, where I stumbled upon a slowworm on the path and a host of tiny purple orchids on the bank. No slowworm this time, but the orchids were again resplendent, and I got to play the timeless game of How Close Can You Get To The Rabbit? Entranced beneath the early summer sun, my decision to walk the full 153 miles now seemed entirely vindicated. What I'd forgotten was the subsequent need to return to the top of the North Downs, which meant another breathless ascent of a seemingly never-ending hill, the second of the day.
I was looking forward to traversing Colley Hill and Reigate Hill, because the views are ace, but soon found myself walking behind a stooped lady with an unpredictably misbehaving dog. I held back to avoid getting too close, correctly as it turned out, aghast as the dog located a group of cattle and barked frantically for a full minute while the owner ignored their plight. It then bounded off to the grassy slopes ahead where several families had settled with picnics, selecting one of these and running off with their coolbag, followed by a particularly angry mother. The dog's owner refused to accept anything was amiss and berated the picnickers instead, and so an irate stalemate ensued. End result - the dog dropped its chewed prey and nosed off elsewhere, the grumpy owner spluttered off, and the victimised family folded up their picnic blanket and packed prematurely for home. When the National Trust advises "please keep your dog under control", there is a reason.
The M25 runs unnervingly close to the North Downs Way along parts of this hilltop, often heard but never seen. On the unspoiled flank are a Victorian fort, an Edwardiandrinking fountain and two wingtips marking the crash site of a US wartime bomber. England's oldest reinforced concrete footbridge crosses high above the A217, with a set of steps either side to allow horseriders to dismount. On the far side is the car park used by non-ramblers, surrounded by benches with a view and individual deckchairs, plus the Junction 8 refreshment kiosk and the entrance to Gatton Park.
Gatton Park is a 250 acre estate landscaped by Capability Brown for an ancestral line long since terminated, part owned by the National Trust and a gorgeous spot for a wander. For maximum access to all the gorgeous corners, come on the first Sunday of the month. Accessible at any time are the Millennium Stones, a circle of ten Caithness flagstones each inscribed with a quotation lifted from 200 years of Christianity. Away from the park and gardens a large part of the site is now home to a boarding school, so the North Downs Way gets to weave past dorms and tennis courts and the chapel. Amusingly it also passes an electronic sign which informed me I was approaching at 3mph, which I suspect counts as close to speeding around here.
To finish; a gatehouse, a residential lane, a leafy track, a golf course and a cricket pitch, plus sweeping views of the next hill to be ascended on Day 4. But Merstham is the place to stop for now, a commuter village which grew up where the road and railway to Brighton cut through the Downs. It's also where to catch the 405 bus back to Croydon, if you've opted for the Oyster-to-Oyster variant of the walk. This comes highly recommended.