“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Why not take that first step on the North Downs Way. Although not a thousand miles, this 153-mile trail (245 km) winds through some of the most beautiful countryside in the South of England. If you enjoy walking, and especially hill walking, then the North Downs Way is for you. Spanning the two counties of Surrey and Kent, it begins in the town of Farnham in Surrey. It meanders into Kent where it then skirts the coast and loops around through the idyllic, historic city of Canterbury (also the end of the Pilgrims’ Way, a route taken by pilgrims in English ancient history).
1. Box Hill – Sweeping grassy slopes, a fort and the tale of a unique burial
Box Hill, so named after the box woodland that grows on the steep chalky slopes, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to the Olympic road race cycle route that zigzagged up to its 224m (734 ft) highest point. Box Hill has so much to offer, including a snack kiosk, sit-in café and gift shop at its peak. If you don’t quite make it to the top, there’s also a café at the foot of the hill. All around there are walks and views of the Surrey hills to stare off into, especially at the Salomons Memorial viewpoint. From here, if you follow the arrows and look carefully, you can even see planes landing at Gatwick Airport. But that’s not all, there’s also a fort that plays host to a number of colonies of bats (officially protected in the UK). The fort is nestled into the trees at the top of Box Hill next to the visitors centre. Although slightly grungy in appearance, the fort played an important part of London’s defence. You can learn more of its history at one of the information points located near the fort. Before heading down the hill, don’t miss the unusual burial site of the eccentric Major Peter Labelliere who was buried upside down on the hill, his favourite place to stroll. The exact reason for his inverted burial is debatable, but one of the explanations given is that, being a religious man, he was emulating the inverted crucifixion of the apostle Peter. It is said that he actually lost the sight in one of his eyes during a walk on the hill, when he stumbled during a storm and gouged his eye on a branch. Despite this he was not deterred from enjoying the natural thinking space Box Hill offers. Finally, make your way down the 275 steps to the bottom where you can chose between the adventurous stepping stones or sedate bridge to cross the River Mole that traces the edge of the hill.
2. Reigate Hill – Majestic views of Reigate town and the gateway to Gatton Park
Reigate Hill is another high point on the North Downs Way. Served by its kiosk café (Urban Kitchen), Reigate Hill is a great place to visit as a starting point for walks along the North Downs to Colley hill or down to Gatton Park (which is especially beautiful when the bluebells are out). Reigate Fort is a bleak remnant of the British war effort. It fires the imagination to think that as you stroll around the grounds, secret tunnels wind beneath your feet. Parking is limited and it certainly gets very busy at weekends in the summer. Sitting in a sun lounger peering out across the Surrey landscape is a perfect pastime for a lazy afternoon or evening. It is possible to walk down to Reigate town from the car park as well. So go on and get your walking boots on.
3. Colley Hill – Inglis Memorial Folly and grazing cattle
Colley Hill is reached from the same path that begins at Reigate Hill and continues the theme of inspiring panoramas. In a clearing, created by the impact of a B17 aircraft that killed all of its US Army crew, stands a memorial sculpture. On 19th March 1945 the crew were on their return journey to their base in Northamptonshire when it crashed in adverse weather conditions. Walking further along the hill is the main viewing point. Under a cobalt blue mosaic sky, in the Folly known as the Inglis Memorial, is a welcome place to shade in the summer or to shelter from the elements in the winter. While you sip on a flask of coffee or tea, you can also think about the history of the building where it once quenched the thirst of passing horses on their own walks along the hill. Look out for the huge grazing cattle that keep the grass short on this chalky headland, they really do look like a Star Wars Bantha.
4. Newlands Corner – One of the best-unspoilt views of the Surrey hills
At a height of 170m (500 ft), Newlands Corner is almost like the full stop at the end of a long climb by road along the A25. It begins its ascent past the Silent Pool, a crystal clear pool steeped in its own spooky history. As its name suggests, the pool is eerily quiet, almost as if no birds or wildlife care to stop here. From here, a steep walk through the dark yew trees eventually leads out to the open, bustling and very large car park at Newlands Corner which is served by its own snack kiosk, toilets and visitors centre. Looking out at the vast expanse of scenery it’s not hard to believe that 103 hectares (255 acres) of it make up this area of official outstanding natural beauty. With more walking to be done, the only thing to watch out for is stumbling onto one of the greens at the nearby golf course. If you hear someone shout “Fore”, then take cover.
5. St Martha’s Hill – Church perched upon a hill like something out of "Wuthering Heights"
St Martha’s Hill and the church that sits upon it have been there for hundreds of years, and it remains as accessible as it once was. On horseback or on foot, a sandy track rises to the pinnacle at 175m (573 ft). Pine trees surround a postage stamp of short green grass that identifies the church and its grounds. From here you can also look out towards some of the other viewpoints already noted, taking in more than a few of the surrounding counties.
The Surrey Hills; perfect for ramblers, mountain bikers and those with a love of the outdoors
The North Downs Way can either be divided into segments and dipped in and out of at weekends, or can be done in one continuous walk over approximately two weeks, depending on your level of fitness. St Martha’s is the only place listed not served with a café or kiosk so you’d be well advised to take a flask or even a picnic. For the other destinations, if you decide to make the climb up to them, then why not treat yourself to a piece of cake. It’s an English tradition and well, it would be rude not to.
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