Well, 2007 was a bad year for me. I felt an enormous pressure. I started to look at maps to see where I could go. We live in South West London in a beautiful part of the city, but we had no car because we were buying a small house and saving money. We are environmentally responsible. There are many parks here, but they were no good.
When I scanned the map I noticed that to the south there were forests. And they were near us. A small dotted trail said: North Downs Way. I know about the South Downs Way. We lived in Brighton. It’s lovely. But I love trees and the South Downs way is almost treeless. It has rolling meadows.
The North Downs way looked promising. But if I went, then where would I go? I noticed that near us there was a stretch of the walk that went between Guildford and Dorking.
Guildford to Dorking, Dorking to Guildford
I took the leap and went into Kingston and got on the bus to Guildford. I walked down a long tarmac road to a park and saw the sign to the North Downs Way. I walked through the suburb and came to the entrance of Chantry Wood. The relief was almost immediate.
The entrance to Chantry Wood
I took a picture of the exact place where that feeling of relief began in me. Where I began to feel hope. On one of my many walks along the North Downs Way I took a picture and the light forms a sort of brown cross. A chantry is a place where a monk or nun is paid to pay for peoples’ souls.
My walk carried me through the forest up a sandy hill to a church with a view over the Weald. The Weald was the ancient primeval forest of the island. It was cleared and settled by the time the Romans left. The graves made bumps in the sandy ground and there were barrows at the top of the hill. I understood then that this path, along the North Downs Ridge, was an ancient path indeed. The walk features in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I think St Martha’s Hill is called The Hill of Difficulty. According to Bunyan, on top of St Martha’s is:
the House of the Palace Beautiful, which is a place built by God for the refresh of pilgrims and godly travelers.
The hero, Christian stays there for three days and emerges clothed in the armour of God.
What is, in fact there, is the small church of St. Martha’s. It was probably not named after Mary’s sister Martha. The name of the church comes from the word Martyr. I have been past that church many times and it is always shut. No armour of God for me. Not yet.
Eve found a fossil, it was carved with two eye-slits. I imagined it was very old. I took it to the British Museum with her. They wanted to keep it. Eve said no.
After St Martha’s the walk took me up another hill and I looked down at farms. Through another wood and then to an ancient Yew Grove, from there to Newland’s Corner for a cup of tea. Later, when Tere came with me we went into the Yew grove and it spun us around and out and sent us haring down a hill to a farm and to a wall of stacked cow dung. Tere was not impressed. I don’t blame her.
Newland’s Corner is a biker’s heaven. They drive up in all different kinds of bikes, some in leathers, others in ordinary clothes. How enjoyable. I would like to buy a Royal Enfield Bullet myself and drive from Burford Bridge to Newland’s corner on it. Would Tere be my passenger? I don’t think she would trust me. The walk from Newland’s corner is long, but quite flat. The trees are different, taller, slender, and then you meet the White Downs which go up and down and there are a few pill boxes from the war and places where people used to make charcoal.
After the White Downs there is a turn off, a path that leads to The Silent Pool. After walking the North Downs Way a few times I decided to see the Silent Pool. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a haunted place. In fact there are two pools. The trees overhang and the water is still. The owners of the pool make gin there now. It’s called The Silent Pool gin.
The great thing about the North Downs Way is that it is very long. It’s hard to remember the sequence. Every time you walk it feels fresh. It still surprises. The next part of the walk is to Ranmore Common and to St Barnabas Church.
St Barnabas church offers tea and cake on Sundays. One Sunday I was invited to go bell ringing. The church is Victorian. It isn’t particularly charming. It’s imposing. But it is a welcome milestone.
Then we pass Denbies vinyards. It’s odd to see them here in England, but, apparently, the soil, chalk, is the same as the soil in Champagne itself, and the weather is similar. They have won many prizes.
Farnham to Guildford
After walking with and without family along the way several times, it was the moment to walk more of the North Downs Way. We went up Box Hill across the Mole River, but it was a little difficult for us, steep. And where would we catch the bus or train from in Redhill or Reigate. Better go back. So I decided to explore the road from Farnham. Later Tere and Eve came with me.
Winchester to ….
We tried to walk the whole Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester and carried on until the road ran out after two days. We ended up in a field going in circles looking for the North Downs Way. No dice. The highlights were the river Itchen, and some of the churches along the way, but, in mid summer we met no one else who was walking like us. We went back to Winchester and slept there after the first leg. We arrived just in time for evensong at the cathedral.
Rochester to Aylesford Monastery
The next trip was to walk from Rochester to Aylesford monastery to stay for a weekend as part of a retreat. Sure enough it was very restful. Supper was awful, but breakfast was good. A full English.
The walk felt very long. At some points the path ran out and we had to walk along narrow country lanes in single file. I remember once when I walked across a road from one section of the path to another, a hatchback was coming towards me. It put on its brakes. One of the wheels fell off and it came to a hot, metallic stop two yards from me. No apology came from the man driving. His head was shaved bald. He had his whole family inside the car.
Kit’s Coty, The earth from the burial has eroded away and left the stones exposed. I asked the ancestors;
What is the meaning of life for you?
And they said. For us the meaning of life is to come from somewhere and go back there. When you die you go back home. The meaning of life is a place.
I ate a plum from a tree by the old grave and I thought:
Well, this is the land that has sustained me. I suppose this is my land too. This land is for all the sheep, not just for the old breeds of white sheep. It is a portal to another world.
We all belong.
The last walk was the walk into Canterbury. It is true that we missed parts of the walk, we will do them on other occasions. There are runs at Denbies. There is even a 100 mile run along the North Downs Way. But the walk from Canterbury was nice because all of us were on it, even Jen. The fallen apples were disappointing. There was something industrial about their taste. The path was squeezed between the apple orchards and the barbed wire hidden by bushes and trees. We got a little lost.
To see the majesty of Canterbury cathedral together at the end of the path. To drink and eat, to feel a sense of achievement. To be full of the countryside with our blood flowing unhindered and oxygenated through our veins
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.