It was a while ago, so you may well have forgotten, but a couple of people got married in April, and as a result we had a bank holiday. I made the most of it. I took the train to Guildford, and then I took another train east, and, while sitting in it, debated whether to get off at Dorking West and head north up something called the Mole Gap Trail, or get off at Dorking Deepdene and head north up the main road, which would still be legit, but shorter. But I hate road walking, so the Mole Gap Trail it was.
Not that it was marked as such. However, it was pretty easy to follow on the map. It came off a residential road, and then went through a vineyard. Yes, I thought. Yes, this is what a pilgrimage is meant to be like. A tramp through a vineyard, cockle shell bouncing against my rucksack (I'd remembered to fix it on this time) and the prospect of a very big hill up ahead. A chap walking his dog asked if I was getting my walk in before the Big Event. Well, sort of.
I wasn't on the route, yet, but I knew the Mole Gap Trail hit the North Downs Way. Somewhere.
The only problem was, the North Downs waymarking failed just at that point. Footpaths, bridleways, rights of way there were in plenty, but it was by no means clear quite which of them I needed to turn right on to. Eventually I went too far, walked through Westhumble (passing, for church music geeks, Cleveland Lodge), and followed my nose east.
There are four significant obstacles on the way east. The first is the railway. Well, I was walking down a lane, and it crossed the railway. The second is the main road. Happily, it seems that all walkers, cyclists, and anyone who's not a motor vehicle, have to cross the main road at the same place, and there's a subway, so in the course of crossing the main road I picked up the North Downs Way.
The third obstacle is the river. You can wuss out and cross this using the footbridge. Or you can keep going in a straight line, and use the stepping stones.
Well, wouldn't you?
And the fourth obstacle is Box Hill. Look at it on the OS map, and you'll see that the contour lines are so close that they merge into a smear of orange. Helpfully (I think) there are planks set into the path all the way up to serve as steps, but I found that I had to sit down several times along the way to recover my breath. And my hip was beginning to complain, already. Annoyingly fit people, twice my age, most of them, overtook me. There was one pair who passed me on their way down, and then overtook me on the way up again. I had to keep reminding myself that it is not, repeat, not, a race. This is one of the perils of making pilgrimage alone: I am very prone to competitiveness.
But let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. There's a heck of a view from the top.
Once at the top of Box Hill, one proceeds for the most part along the contour lines, rather than across them, which is much more dignified. The path is mainly wooded, hazel, yew, oak, sycamore and chestnut in varying proportions. My friend Karen, of whom more anon, claims that the wealth of yews along the Pilgrims' Way is due to the pilgrims of old who ate yew berries to induce penitential bowel discomfort, and excreted the results along the road. Whatever the truth of this, there are certainly plenty of yews, and they are pretty old.
Coming down the other side, it's a lot less steep, but one has the joys of road walking to contend with. I avoided being run over, noted that civilisation was getting on quite happily without me, and celebrating the Royal Wedding, and, pretty much as soon as I'd got off the road and back into the shade, sat down to eat my lunch.
And then I was back among the yews and hazels. A couple of lads on motorbikes passed me, but posed no problem: I'd heard them when they were a long way away, and dodged. The path started to climb again. This was Colley Hill. Nothing like Box Hill, but still hard on my hip.
And I was beginning to think that I knew Colley Hill. As I toiled on up, past more yews, and then a high wire fence with a notice warning of guard dogs, suspicion became certainty. I'd been here before. I'd been here before on a drizzly July day in 2009, on the famous Yomp de la Poulet. My friends have a somewhat idiosyncratic way of doing hen nights, it must be admitted.
This was a cheering realisation, for I knew that if the North Downs Way was going to follow in the way of Le Yomp, and from the map it looked as if it was, it would be easy to track, and sooner or later I would come across a helpful National Trust car park with a loo block, and maybe some ice cream.
It also gave me some helpful landmarks to look out for, as previously pointed out by Karen. I'd seen plenty of Pilgrim Yews, but I could still find the Huggy Trees (except the North Downs Way cuts that corner off, so I couldn't) -
- the Furry Cows, looking much the same in 2011 as they had two years ago -
- and the little temple thing with the mosaic ceiling -
and, eventually, the footbridge over the main road, and the car park. I'd half hoped that I'd find another Roman snail, but it was hardly the weather for them. I sent Karen a text to let her know how I was doing; she and her husband Nicholas live in Merstham, beautifully close to the Pilgrims' Way, and had generously agreed to put me up for the night, assuming that I didn't mind their house being in chaos. I didn't mind.
The loo block was still there. The little cafe next it had gone seriously upmarket and offered lattes and smoothies and stuff like that. All I really wanted was a Twister. Happily, hiding among their pretentious organic sorbets or whatever, there was one. I sat and ate it, and enjoyed the view over Reigate.
Next I was walking through Gatton Park, one of Capability Brown's masterworks - although, it must be said, not entirely a pleasant walking experience due to the unevenness of the paths. Usually that sort of thing wouldn't worry me, but every time I tripped over a stone or a root it jarred my hip. At the bottom of the hill I found a field of goats, wandering around some standing stones. These, it transpired, were put up for the year 2000, and each featured a spiritual thought by a giant of literature or theology, one for every two centuries.
Having found my way out of Gatton Park, I discovered that I was in the grounds of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School. It seemed that this was deliberate, though there were stern notices here and there about not leaving the path. This would have been fine, had it only been evident where the path actually was. It turned out it was the road, so that was easy. I plodded on along it.
Then I crossed a golf course, watching diligently for flying golf balls, and found myself approaching Merstham. I phoned Karen to see if I had to cross the motorway or not. Not, was the answer. But I had to find my way to Camilla's house, Karen and Nicholas both being at Camilla's Royal Wedding party.
Camilla had never seen me before in her life, nor I her, but this seemed to be no barrier to my attending the party. I got there just as the royal couple were making there way to (or from?) Buckingham Palace in a convertible, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden with tea, scones, cream, jam, etc. It was most pleasant.
A night in Karen and Nicholas' front room, on the airbed, which, we discovered too late, had a leak in above and beyond the leak we'd already found and duck-taped. Still, a pilgrim must expect less than optimal accommodation. I slept pretty well despite it, and set off the next morning to cross two motorways and head towards - though not quite into - Kent. For the first time, I moved inside the M25, and the distant roar was my companion for the rest of the day.
I climbed to the top of the ridge, and found some honest to goodness Pilgrims' Way, with a sign and everything.
For the next mile or so the way consisted mainly of farm tracks, looking out alternatively across fields or protected downland. Pesky buzzy things buzzed around me, but didn't seem inclined to bite. Small mercies, and all that.
There was more road walking at the end of that, but it was a fair bit quieter, and on the whole reasonably pleasant. My main problem was what to do about lunch. I'd waved off Karen's offer of sandwiches, being sure that I'd find something, somewhere, but I was beginning to have my doubts.
Another main road, another bridge across it. I had hopes of this main road. The map showed a car park, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, where there was a car park there might be a burger van, or a loo. I don't know, because I never found it, but, stomping down the byway to reach the road, I saw a sign to a vineyard. The sign mentioned a coffee shop. Where there are coffee shops, there is often food, and there are always loos.
Lunch, it turned out, was a very pleasant cheese and broccoli bake, with pear juice from the vineyard's own pear trees.
Rejoining the North Downs Way after Godstone Vineyard involved some Up. The North Downs Way involved some more Up. Then some down. And my hip was protesting more and more. I thought about leaving the path, saving a kilometre or so, and heading straight to the station at Oxted, but it looked confusing, and I really couldn't face getting lost.
A chap overtook me while I was having a rather miserable sit-down. I contemplated calling Anne, my former pilgrimage partner, and asking her to persuade me to go on. I thought about it some more, and concluded that actually I had no intention of sitting there all night, so I went on of my own accord. I caught up with the chap at a viewpoint, and overtook him. Some short while later he overtook me; we exchanged brief comments about the possibility of cutting corners, but both decided against it.
And, finally, a steep descent from the ridge (with the railway tunnel directly beneath, which is mildly surreal), an unfairly windy meadow, a footbridge back over the M25, and plodding into and through Oxted until I found a coffee shop, and a train home.
Next up: an interlude, a revisit.