THE NORTH DOWNS WAY[Day 4] Merstham to Westerham(10 miles)
If this stretch of the North Downs Way were shifted 15 miles further north, it'd be the same as walking from Victoria to Woolwich. Instead it covers the same distance through northeast Surrey, sometimes along the top of a hilly ridge, sometimes below, and sometimes swapping breathlessly between the two. Not as good as Day Three but better than Day Two, I'd say, assuming you're dividing up the route the same as me.
Merstham's an easy village to reach from London, either by train or on the number 405 bus. The North Downs Way takes the scenic route out of the centre, following the charming cul-de-sac of QualityStreet past its chocolate box 16th-century-plus houses. Parishioners would once have been able to reach St Katharine's by following a quiet path north, but Church Meadows has long since been wiped away by the M25 in a nine-lane cutting, and a thin footbridge now performs the same task. Passing through the churchyard makes for a very pleasant minute on what is otherwise an unnecessary detour circling back to cross the A23.
The next half mile climbs Rockshaw Road, an unaffordable residential street where BMWs and Mercs with matching personalised numberplates are the norm. It's a pleasure to finally break free and tumble down a meadow brimming with brambles, buddleia and butterflies, even if the 'treat' at the bottom is a boxy tunnel under another motorway. This is the M23, a short distance away from the massive cloverleaf junction with the M25 which devoured most of Furzefield Wood. Try to ignore that, because the view as you ascend through the ripening wheat on the opposite side is glorious, stretching south for miles and miles. Enjoy it by turning round repeatedly on the way up, or from the trig point atop the ridge.
The village of Chaldon is only just not in London. The North Downs Way follows an old byway along the southern edge of the parish, past stables, a few isolated homes, chalk grassland and a man with a strimmer (one of which was likely only temporary). Of the view to the south there are only intermittent hints, then at Quarry Hangers Farm the northern treeline suddenly opens up and there's the Wembley Arch, Shard, Gherkin and Canary Wharf in all their distant urban glory. The track heads on to Tower Farm, named after a lone decrepit tower rising topless behind security gates, then follows the oddly named War Coppice Road. Follows it for too long, to be frank.
For those who prefer footpaths to roads, this section south of Caterham is a disappointment. It's never fun following a slightly-busy winding country lane, but land ownership and some very large back gardens have conspired to minimise the number of public rights of way hereabouts. It's a relief after a mile of tarmac to finally slip off into the trees, past the bottoms of some very large back gardens, and immediately above some steep shady slopes. Only at the Gravelly Hill viewpoint does the green screen clear, with roadside benches offering sight of tiny planes taking off at Gatwick... and police notices warning of regular patrols to dissuade dogging.
After a spin around what's left of Fosterdown Fort, mainly nothing, the path descends wooden steps ready to cross the A22 dual carriageway. A footbridge has been provided, before you worry. Each of the cottages on Quarry Road has a Beware of the Dog sign out front, as if the residents share feelings of collective isolation, then comes a surreal trot across the forecourt of a Britannia Removals depot, tucked into what was presumably once the quarry. On Winders Hill the path traces the top edge of a vineyard, then, as if to reconfirm this is still Surrey, crosses the mile long drive of a private girls' school.
On the brow of a small hill the chalk meadow swarms with butterfiles and is dotted with pink orchids. The ground cover is less sensational in the upcoming woods, where the carpet of wild garlic is yellowing and dying as summer draws on. At Tandridge Hill comes what passes for a cycle lane round here - a country lane used by cyclists - puffing up a 1 in 7 ascent while ramblers get their own segregated lane on a footpath above. There are other North Downs Way users too, as I discovered on a narrow bridleway when I heard shouts behind me and whipped my earphones out. The horse rider who'd been forced to dawdle for several minutes while I listened to Radio 4 was somewhat sarky as I let her pass, then diverted almost immediately up a completely different path.
Oxted Downs are glorious, as the National Trust have clearly recognised. This lengthy chalk grassland has recently been revived through scrub clearance and grazing, and has become abundantly flower-rich. Immediately above the Oxted railway tunnel a set of 80 steps drops steeply down the escarpment, which must be hellish to negotiate in the opposite direction, although there is a convenient bench halfway. An unnecessarily narrow path weaves across the top of the lower field, overgrown and hemmed in by barbed wire, but with verdant views across the valley worth every moment. And on the far side of the meadow the path descends again, to round a quarry, past occasional poppies in the ripening wheat. A delight, but for every descent on the North Downs Way there's always payback...
The path skirts a large field sliced in two by the M25, then joins up with the Vanguard Way to follow the edge of a dense plantation - look out for a plaque marking the point where the Greenwich Meridian is crossed. Ahead lies Titsey Park and its 16th century manor house - one of near-London's least well-known (visitable) stately homes. To avoid entering the estate the waymarked route climbs the forest bowl up Pitchfont Way, and climbs, and climbs. If you're breathless by the top there is a reason - at 267m Botley Hill is the highest point on the North Downs Way. I reached the upper car park a broken man.
The only way from here is down, but only gently, along a leafy path shadowing the ratrun of Titsey Hill. Unfortunately I missed the sign on the steps where I was supposed to turn off and strode purposefully downhill for five minutes before realising I'd made an error, and it took nearer ten to climb back up. Crossing open fields again, and desperately getting my breath back, I considered whether it was time to call it a day. Most North Downs Way walkers pause way back at Oxted, even though the station's nowhere near, but I had my eye on catching a London bus from Tatsfield. There again, it was only a mile and a half further on to another bus at Westerham Hill, so I persuaded my feet it was worth giving that a try.
Beyond Tatsfield the North Downs Way passes seamlessly from Surrey into Kent and enters the realm of the extremely exclusive home. Few tycoons could ever afford one of the sparse mansions on Chestnut Avenue, while even fewer are dotted along The Avenue, each hidden away within a veil of personal woodland. A tradesman's van approached me here, struggling along the unmade private road, the driver pausing to ask for validation of his satnav's rogue directions before bumping gingerly on. I was much more interested in the special North Downs Way milestone placed at the county boundary, confirming Farnham was now 48 miles behind with Dover 77 miles in front. I'll get there... but first I got the bus.