Beyond the fringe

PATHFINDING 4: THE NORTH DOWNS WAY; On the edges of suburbia, a half-hour train journey from London, a surreal Surrey time-warp beckons. Martin Wright concludes his walking series
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It lies little more than 30 minutes from central London, but arriving at Westhumble station is enough to take you into a slightly surreal time-warp. Nestled down deep in a Surrey valley, below the huge slump of Box Hill, the station itself is sweetly old-fashioned: all Victorian awnings and white picket fences. What might once have been the booking office is now a cycle and map shop, staffed by an earnest youth in shorts and spectacles. When I arrived, he was locked in conversation with an impeccably-pinstriped businessman, discussing the geology of local swallow holes. "I used to come here with my auntie on half-day holidays," said Pinstripe, "specially to look at them."

Earnest broke off to sell me a guide book, asked if I was walking or cycling and, on hearing it was the former, suggested I leave my bike in the back garden. So I leaned it against a wall under the watchful eye of a guardian gnome. When I returned at the end of the day, the youth was locked in grown-up discussions with a girl in a car, but the bike was still there among the flowerpots.

I set off over the railway bridge, through spacious and sleepy suburbia, then turned on to a path which cut between immaculate back gardens, complete with purring lawnmowers, and out into open country. Here it met the chalky track of the North Downs Way as it climbed up, fringed with cherry blossom, from the floor of the valley. The Way runs the whole length of the Downs, from the white cliffs of Dover to the fat farmlands of Hampshire, over high windswept chalk ridges and along thickly wooded slopes.

Some of it follows the line of ancient trackways, prehistoric trade routes which hugged the high ground to avoid the bogs and tanglewoods below. Where it dives down into the valleys that cut through the chalk, it crosses today's highways, at right-angles to the ancient path. Recently, long stretches of the Downs' southern fringes have been raked by motorways. Heavy with traffic, they send a dirty roar of engine noise rolling up the slopes.

But I had chosen this section because it was free of such spoilers. Instead, there was just the moan of the A24, ebbing away slowly as I followed the track up the hill. To the left rolled the vast acres of Denbies Vineyard. Its incongruous lime-bright vines swathed the hillside, sweeping up the slopes and snaking round the curves.

Beyond, Box Hill heaved its huge bulk over the valley. Its sheer slopes looked far too rugged for the home counties. They seemed almost jungly, with thick knots of trees, some torn by storms, gashes of bare chalk, and here and there a clutch of the shrubby box trees which gave it its name.

The path curved round a shoulder of hill and into a quiet pierced only by skylarks. At the track's edge, a huge snail slumbered in the hazy half- sunshine. Dorking lay beyond the vines, dwarfed by the ridges of the Weald unfolding behind it, and the scarp of the Downs above. A woodpecker glided to a dead beech, froze for a second, gave a couple of exploratory drills at the trunk, then swept off in a bright yellow-green blur. A herd of red does grazed in a hilltop paddock, while their stag posed, haughty against the skyline, in full monarch-of-the-glen mode. On the verges, cowslips glittered their unfeasibly bright yellow - like an egg yolk with too much food colouring.

The Way crested the Downs on to the open plateau of Ranmore Common, and led down a wide lane to the "Church of the North Downs Way" - a rather dull Victorian number, complete with long-converted school house. On this empty spring Friday, it was hard to imagine gaggles of schoolchildren threading their way from crowded cottages to morning lessons. Surrey may be one of the most populous parts of Europe, but there is little human bustle in what's left of its countryside.

I crossed the road on to Steer's Hill, on the edge of the ridge, to a huge view over the open country, with the railway pointing south through the fields to the sea. Here the track slipped under trees, part of the belt of old forest which laps up the slope of the Downs. Occasional views opened out across the soft Surrey countryside, with clusters of farms and prosperous houses tucked into the folds of the Weald. It was gentle on the eye - just a few too many buildings, maybe, but they were soaked up by the folded hills, the big skies, the birdsong. Woodland cloaked the far slopes, purple with the promise of summer.

In the seven miles before lunch, I passed nobody. The closest I came were a couple of sturdy Surrey matrons, walking fat dogs across a field at the edge of the wood. There were more animals than people: a muntjac deer made my heart stop as it suddenly bolted out from behind a fallen tree and off through the underbrush. Squirrels scurried over last year's leaves. Cuckoos echoed through the canopy. The wood wore an air of careful neglect, managed with a light hand which tolerated untidiness. A fallen tree from a recent storm had been left where it crashed across the track, splitting the way into two tiny detours.

After a couple of miles, the woods came to an abrupt halt. Ahead lay steeply sloping scrubland, with the bright white of the blackthorn flowers echoing the patches of chalk exposed on the banks. The path divided, and I made a mistake, choosing a branch which swept me down the slope to the railway line. Realising my error, I decided to cut the corner by climbing straight back up the hillside, and quickly realised just what a scarp slope meant. After a few yards I was puffing up a 1 in 3, scrabbling for a way between tough little thorn trees, tripping over rabbit warrens and sending their inhabitants scampering startled over the turf.

A couple of tumbledown pillboxes were set into earth banks on the edge of the trees. No doubt they were placed to deliver withering fire on any Panzer column or armoured train nosing up the valley. In summer the trees would be perfect cover for guerrilla warfare. But when the leaves fell, any tracks and hideouts would be dangerously exposed, especially from the skies.

In the still air, it was strange to think that, within living memory, there had been the imminent prospect of war through these hills. Vague, unhappy images of Bosnia came to mind as I imagined the woods echoing with the crash of shellfire. The traffic roar I'd detested earlier suddenly seemed like a proof of peace; a noisy benediction.

I swung up away from the woods for lunch at a pub in the middle of nowhere. It was populated entirely by regulars, who had driven there in vehicles with tyres chunky enough to be on tractors, all for the privilege of exchanging dodgy prejudices across a vast expanse of stomachs and chips.

This was dangerously close to being back in the real world. But half a mile down the road I could slip back into the time-warp - a green lane cut through common land, soft green turf beneath the birches, and the hint of dappled shadows as the sun at last began to burn off the haze. It led down into one of the semi-secret valleys which shelter behind the wall of the Downs. There were brick cottages with pleasantly messy gardens, and an appropriately battered old Land Rover - a world away from the gleaming, pointless versions in the pub car park. The rutted lane seemed made for livestock, not commuters. Even the hamlets had agricultural names: Hogden, Pigden.

I climbed up across a sheep-strewn field and paused to take in the view: fluffy brown hedges, sprinkled with blackthorn and cherry blossom, tumbled down steep slopes into tiny streams. Through a hilltop copse I glimpsed a couple of distant turrets. This was Polesdon Lacy, an elegant Elizabethan pile, surprisingly formal in such an informal landscape.

Then it was back into the woods, into a valley so narrow it verged on the ravine. The floor was a rich green of stream-nourished grasses, saxifrage and celandines springing up in shadier patches. Pigeons, cuckoos and a distant single-engined plane barely ruffled the silence. I'd found a sweet and secret world, just 20 miles from the Thames.

Wending my reluctant way back to Westhumble, it was a long slow decline, in height and spirit, the skylarks gradually overwhelmed by the moan of traffic and, nearer, by the puttering lawnmowers on the immaculate lawns. !

TRAVEL NOTES

The North Downs Way is clearly way-marked; look for the little acorn symbol on the signposts. It is crossed by many public footpaths, so it is simple to plan your own circular route. It is mostly easy going, but be prepared for some steep (and slippery) climbs. Wear shoes that grip. This may be Surrey, but there are still long stretches without towns, villages or pubs, so plan accordingly. The Ordnance Survey's North Downs Way guide includes clear maps and much useful information.

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