Having followed the waymarkers, just, all the way from East Croydon to Warlingham, KEN TOWL got back on the bus bright and early to pick up the Vanguard Way from where he left off, with some a-llama-ing findings along the route
The Vanguard Way is named after a walking group who assumed the name “the Vanguards” after having to return to London in the guard’s van on a journey back from Axminster in April 1965.
Apparently, they consoled themselves with a bottle of Drambuie. I contacted the man behind their website, Colin Saunders to ask if any of these Sixties hellraisers were still around. It turns out that three of them are, and still mobile. He conceded that the waymarkers can “go astray or get overgrown”, but explained that the group relied on volunteers along the route to maintain them.
My first foray on to the Vanguard Way the day before had taught me that it was difficult to follow the route without a map, since you couldn’t rely on the waymarkers.
So I went down to the local internet cafe and printed off the maps of sections 2 to 8 that I planned to walk over the next three days.
This proved to be a little ambitious.
I had originally planned to walk sections 1 and 2 down to Oxted, then get the train back to Croydon and my own bed for the night, before continuing from there on day two.
But I now had three sections to cover before I arrived at my booked Airbnb in Forest Row on the edge of Ashdown Forest and the Weald.
What I was to discover over the next three days was that it is pretty difficult to navigate even with maps. “The worst part is the Ashdown Forest,” Colin had warned, “where the Conservators insist that we cannot instal more posts, so there are some long gaps.”
After a while, it really didn’t matter. Apart from one unfortunate diversion in which I walked for about three miles north when the sun was obscured from view and a half hour spent wandering a Ministry of Defence firing range (which must be so Top Secret that it was not marked on the map!), I managed to make my way in roughly the right direction along a variety of well-maintained Sussex County Council footpaths and a couple of forays along the picturesque Wealdway.
For reasons that will become obvious, I would recommend either staying at Oxted, the end of stage 2, on the way down or, if you want to save a bit of cash, getting the train back from there and returning to re-commence from Oxted Station on day two.
I had lost the trail around the beginning of stage 2 and so had a daunting first day.
The stages tend to range between around seven to 10 miles each, so covering two a day is probably ideal unless you are in the SAS. My plan was to stay at the Blackboys Inn on the far side of the Weald after three days’ walking, and then walk stages 7 and 8 down to Berwick Station, saving stages 9 and 10 for another time, perhaps a time when I might follow up the walk with a trip over to France.
So, this morning, I got off the 403 bus at the Warlingham Sainsbury’s and headed down the B269 Limpsfield Road to pick up the Vanguards Way just after Barnard Road, the second turning on the right.
I lost the way but just carried on heading south. The scenery was beautiful and I was happy.
I was happier still when I found the right path again on Oxted Downs and enjoyed the views south across the M25.
I crossed the M25 via a tunnel rather than the footbridge – again I had lost my way, but I was put back on course by the lovely people at the Kiwi House café, in the picturesque village of Limpsfield. They even printed me a better map of the route through to Limpsfield Chart, the end of stage 2. The tea was good, too.
Refreshed, I made my way south towards Edenbridge via the Kent and Surrey Golf Club.
Despite Colin’s assertion that, “Kent & Surrey Golf and Country Club are supportive, because they too stand to benefit from walkers visiting the clubhouse for refreshment”, I again managed to lose my way due to a lack of waymarkers and got scratched repeatedly by overgrown brambles on the path. Let’s hope that the agreement that “more waymark posts will be installed soon across the course to help with route-finding” comes to fruition.
It was hot and I was tired and I was hungry.
A look at the map suggested that Edenbridge was a good 10 miles from Forest Row. What would you do? I am on holiday, I thought, intent on enjoying the best of rural England, not a pilgrim trying to buy time out of purgatory. I had lunch in Edenbridge and, shocked by the £39 quote from Relyon Cars (“Cars for all occasions”), I took the train back up one stop to Hurst Green, then down to East Grinstead.
From there a taxi to Forest Row was less than £20. I trust you forgive me for this. It was very hot and I was very tired.
Forest Row is a sleepy little town. Its most remarkable feature is a cluster of apparently mutually supportive businesses in one building. You go through a florist’s to ascend into the Hop Yard bar where you can get a pint (carrying it carefully through the crowds of practising salsa dancers if, like me, you are there on a Wednesday evening), out to the yard where you can order a pizza from a hut next to the “yard yoga” outlet and “vegan juice” bar.
The pizza was good; enough broccoli and spinach to appeal to modern dietary preoccupations and enough bacon and blue cheese to make it appetising. While eating, I listened to piped music that would probably be perfectly tolerable to anyone born in the final decade of the 20th century. I do not have such good fortune.
The next day took me on to another golf course, the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club, no less. Here the route is well marked and you can follow it easily until you get into Ashdown Forest itself, where you will almost certainly get lost.
It is, at least, a quite beautiful place to get lost and, as I did, to meet a bunch of deer. That was quite a magical moment.
There were three of them; I reached the top of a slope and there they were, barely 20 or 30 feet away from me. They appeared to size me up, consider whether they could take me. Fortunately, I was wearing a relatively loud Hawaiian shirt and, I think, startled by this, they suddenly bolted.
I found a way up on to the Weald and tried to head due south. Frustrated by long grass and high fences, I cut through a more manicured area that turned out to be a Ministry of Defence training ground.
Fortunately, as I made my way past soldiers’ huts and pontoon bridges, no one was training, but this diversion knocked me off course and when I came to the A22 I went the wrong way for a bit and, retracing my steps, once the sign for “Forest Row Llama Park” had made this obvious.
I wondered at my stupidity, not only because I had added another five miles to my journey, but also because I was now getting soaked, having put my faith in the pre-science mumbo-jumbo of a dry St Swithin’s Day.
Off and on the Vanguard Way and the Weald Way, and briefly on both of them at the same time, I arrived at Blackboys (named after the effect of the local charcoal-burning industry) and the 14th-century Blackboys Inn. A pint of beer has never tasted so good.
I was joined at Blackboys by my friend Ashley and, after a wonderful breakfast of locally sourced ingredients, we descended gradually down towards the coast, mostly through cornfields and wheatfields. It felt like an appropriate way to remember the end of the May premiership.
At Berwick Station that afternoon, we left the Vanguard Way and took the train along to Pevensey and Westham to look at the castle and St Mary’s Church, believed to be the first Norman church in England. It was a fitting way to end the walk that had started so close to St Mary the Virgin church, the oldest one in Surrey.
If, like the waymarkers themselves, I had gone astray a few times, this was of little import. The beauty and the historic interest of the route make it all worthwhile. Go on, take a walk on the weald side.
- Follow in the footsteps of Ken Towl, and thousands of others, on the first stage of the Vanguard Way, the seven miles from East Croydon to Warlingham
- For previous columns, including guided walks around Croydon where he doesn’t get lost quite so much, click here
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