When the BBC Weather page tells you to expect 34 degrees centigrade by mid-afternoon in Merstham, you know you should prepare well before heading out to walk eight miles along the North Downs Way.
The North Downs Way runs for 153 miles from Farnham, Surrey in the west to the English Channel, but I am going to walk just the eight miles between Merstham and Oxted.
I consider myself a prudent man; I pack a bag with Factor 30 sunscreen lotion, a 50cl bottle of ice-cold water, a copy of North Downs Way (British Walking Guide Series), three small oranges, a notebook and a couple of pens. At East Croydon Station, at the moment I board the train to Merstham, I realise that I have forgotten the bag. This was the first but not the only mistake that I made on my North Downs day trip.
The second mistake would be worse.
The North Downs Way is (mostly) well sign-posted, so I won’t bore you with a step by step turn left, turn right break down, but first you need to get on it, so at Merstham take the bridge over to the west-facing side of the station (assuming you have come from East Croydon), go down Station Road, cross the main road and go up the quaintly named Quality Street, presumably where the people of quality used to live, or presumably where they still do.
It is an enviably pretty street of stone-built cottages. At its end, an NDW sign points the way down a footpath to a bridge over the M25 and you are on your way.
You will encounter a series of footpaths, bridlepaths and byways which connect and follow the ridge of the North Downs, as this section more or less runs parallel with the M25 so that, intermittently, the wild bird and farmyard soundtrack of the walk mixes with the rumble of motorway traffic below.
Part of the route follows Pilgrim’s Lane, an indication that you are now also on the ancient route of pilgrimage between Winchester and Canterbury.
Indeed, the North Downs Way will, if you follow it long enough, take you all the way to Canterbury before heading on to Dover. The views to the south are spectacular – you can make out the blue-grey of the South Downs on the horizon. Occasionally, you can make out the skyscrapers of Croydon to the north.
Beware, though, of a missing sign.
Shortly after your journey takes you over a bridge across the A22, you follow a bridleway down through some trees. On the left is a small electricity substation and, just after it a rusting old post and a smaller path to the left. Take it, intrepid traveller, or you will end up down by the M25 prematurely. Get it right and you will be rewarded with views from the steep banks of Oxted Downs and then, where the route snakes around a chalk pit overlooking Oxted, you have the opportunity to end your trip along the NDW for today, a respectable eight miles under your belt.
If like me, you have omitted to bring water, you will also be rewarded with the opportunity to rehydrate by eating blackberries.
You will emerge at Chalk Pit Lane. Follow it to the right and down the hill, and under the M25. Follow it, however, no further than the junction with Gordons Way, an unpromising looking residential side street. Take it, reader, take it; it is the short, direct route into Oxted.
I did not; I followed the road round and round, all the way round Oxted, so that I ended up getting to Oxted from the south-west, adding an extra couple of miles to my hot-weather slog. It was during these final miles that I regretted my decision to wear trainers rather than the boots I normally wear for walking. They look so much better, but we pay a high price, I found out, for vanity.
The one upside to approaching Oxted from the south-west was that I came to Old Oxted, a beautiful street that contains no fewer than four pubs.
I stopped at the first one, The Old Bell, where I think I enjoyed the cold pint of soda water more than the Old Speckled Hen.
The burger, at £6.99 was good, too, even better if you go on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday this month, when the Sunak discount applies.
Two mistakes – but stopping in The Old Bell wasn’t one of them.
- Check out previous Ken Towl walks in and around Croydon, plus his reviews of galleries and restaurants, by clicking here
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