Arriving at Guildford, I crossed the Wey South Path and skirted the large town to the south, climbed St Martha’s Hill and arrived at the church bearing the same name. Two stonemasons chipped away at slabs, marrying them up to the slot for which they were intended, before making more adjustments. The sky, a Mediterranean blue, contrasted against clumps of woodland and fields for miles. I let my feet air, splashed water on my face from the tap outside the church and sat on a wooden bench for a light brunch. It had warmed; I squinted at the vista, downed a litre of water and refilled my bottle before setting off down the other side, trying to arrest a light jog.
Past the junction for the Downs Link – which, as the name suggests, is a thirty-six mile track joining the South Downs Way and the North Downs Way – I passed several old defensive structures known as pillboxes. In 1940, the threat of invasion from Germany prompted a hasty defensive building programme all over Britain. Many were built on elevated positions to carry the advantage of height and they formed a line of defence, known as a Stop Line, to foil an invasion. The pillboxes on the North Downs were considered a last line of defence before London, thirty miles north. Many are now ruins, but around half remain, some lost in the undergrowth, others on display only a few hundred feet apart and most still accessible. Peering out through machine gun slots from the inside it was easy to see why they were positioned there. Thankfully, we never had to use them
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I followed a narrow but well-defined trail through shady woods and forests, occasionally emerging to cross meadows of wild flowers as I reached for my sunglasses. A few people dotted the hill flanks enjoying the sun, dogs darted through the grass and mountain bikers nodded at me. I crossed the road at Newlands Corner, grabbed a quick ice cream and escaped once more from the crowds. Bright yellow fields of rape plants caught my eye through gaps in the trees, their vibrant yellow fading to younger, green plants just a few hundred feet higher where the air cooled.
I walked through Merstham and camped in a wood just the other side. Remembering the weather report, which promised a dry night, I chose not to pitch the tent. My noodles rehydrated and I threw in nettles and wild garlic at the last minute. A few joggers ran past, the occasional biker struggled uphill and gradually the sun retired. I could hear the hum of the M25 a short distance away, not one of the NDW’s best features; the motorway is often heard and sometimes seen a couple of miles distant. I totalled the mileage and smiled at a thirty-seven, thinking it a decent buffer to be traded either for a quicker finish or an extra hour’s sleep.
The temperature plummeted the following morning. I awoke cold, figured out that the reason I couldn’t find my jacket was that I already had it on, and sped off to warm up whilst pulling on gloves and hat. Climbing a hill near Parkham Meadow I warmed and watched the rising sun battle with clouds. I observed, mesmerised, as corn fields, still a vibrant green, swayed, swirled and moved around in entrancing patterns as the wind toyed with them I reached Otford, uninspiring at first, but mellowing to the charming village centre. The Crown pub served me up an admirable egg and chips.
“Banana and chocolate pudding perhaps, sir, just made?”
“Oh go on then.”
I resupplied with food at the local shop. Another advantage of the NDW is its proximity to little hamlets, towns and villages along the way. You need never carry more than a day’s worth of provisions, which keeps the pack weight down – and a home-cooked meal is guaranteed at some point. Did I mention beer? There’s beer too.