Motorists rushing along the A31 past Farnham in Surrey barely glance the small roadside noticeboard that marks the start of the best walk in the South East. The 125-mile National Trail carves an entrancing path through the stockbroker belt and the Green Belt, skirting suburban gardens and the Garden of England. You could cover the ground from Farnham to Dover by car in two hours, M25 permitting, while I spent four chilly months trudging muddily to the sea. But at least I went the pretty way.
Prettiness is an abiding feature of the North Downs Way. Its planners have done a neat job. Public rights-of-way, those archaic tangles from an age when highways needed only bear humans and animals, have been knotted together to create a long-distance footpath through the prettier parts of Surrey and Kent. The Way clings tenaciously to the south-facing escarpment of the chalk downs that once ran, like a crooked spine, right through to France. Sleet permitting, you enjoy constantly fine views of the lowland Weald drifting away to the south. And on the odd occasion when the sun shines, it shines on you; to prove this, at one stage you pick your way through a vineyard.
The North Downs Way is designed as much for weekend walkers as for hardy hikers. You could traverse Surrey and Kent in a week, pausing overnight at some absurdly pretty villages (plus one or two scruffy shreds of suburbia). But the region's dense railway network, designed for carrying commuters to the City, works well for the rural rambler too. When a weak link fails, be it legs or light, you are never far from a station. The next weekend you just pick up where you left off, loping around a succession of gentle arcs laced with short, sharp slopes and lots of showers.
Strung out like pearls are some of the finest things England has to offer, the greatest hits of nature and man. The surprises begin on day one. While Radio 5 Live's traffic news warns of problems at the A3/A31 junction in Surrey, a few hundred yards away you can be delayed by the works of George Frederic Watts - "the 19th century's greatest artist". This accolade, it must be said, is firmly attributable to Mrs Watts. The couple lived in the village of Compton, where they built a gallery for his collected works. To this day, it remains open to passers-by. While Watts' paintings and sculptures may be too fussily Victorian for your taste, the hearty soups and calorie-bestowing cakes in the adjoining tea shop are incontrovertibly fine.
It would be unreasonable to say everyone in Surrey is eccentric, but the North Downs Way supplies plenty of corroborating evidence. Follies sometimes seem to outnumber sensible buildings. And when, on the windy slopes of Box Hill, you stumble over Peter Labellieres tombstone, you begin to worry about the people you might meet en route. This good citizen of Reigate insisted on being buried head down, overlooking (if that is the right word) his home town.
Perhaps luckily, then, you meet few people along the Way. Companionship chiefly comprises noisy sheep, scurrying rabbits and, last Sunday, a particularly playful herd of cattle in a field outside Canterbury. The pathmakers have foreseen the desire for human company by running the North Downs Way past numerous strategically located pubs. The best example is at Chartham Hatch on the Kent side, where you work up a thirst ploughing through the hop fields and suddenly find yourself handily falling into the embrace of the Chapter Arms. The old wooden birdhouse in the beer garden mimics the skewed architecture of the oasthouses in the distance.
You do not need a pint of Shepherd Neame to feel inspired about the course you are taking: a half-sense of history will do just as well. Much of the North Downs Way follows the Pilgrims' Way. There are two schools of thought about this. Cynics say that a bored and over-inventive cartographer decided to liven up his patch of the Ordnance Survey by plotting a fanciful cathedral-to-cathedral trail from Winchester to Canterbury and ascribing it to early Christians. But anyone who has ventured this far must by definition be a romantic, and therefore is probably convinced that ancient pilgrims certainly strode through mellow woodlands and across gentle meadows. Before the days of compasses and Ordnance Survey maps, a good way to ensure safe progress was to maintain a height of a few hundred feet above the valley.
Winter walkers are relieved that the trail spends most of its time at altitude; chalk drains well, so much of the Way enjoys a lightness of step despite the heavy rains that have made the last few weekends wet and wearisome; someone with a twisted sense of humour sends the trail across Soakham Downs.
You do not spend all your time in rural (if rainy) bliss. An intimate acquaintance is made with a succession of motorways, to the extent that the North Downs Way sometimes seems a mere sidewalk to the M20, M23 or M25. You and the M2 are obliged to share the Medway Bridge near Rochester, to the satisfaction of neither party. The less fit are weeded out when trying to cross all four lanes of the A225 in Kent; you are constrained by the power of your legs, the traffic merely by the 70mph limit.
For most of its length, the path is "waymarked", which means that little acorn symbols confirm you are on the right track and steer you in the right direction. Follow these rigidly, though, and you find yourself drowning in mud somewhere south of Canterbury. A new highway is being built to impede pilgrims' progress. Asserting right of way can be a thankless task.
One hundred miles into the journey, you suddenly find yourself divided. Speedsters will head straight on to Folkestone and Dover; pilgrims choose the spiritual option via Canterbury cathedral. Writers and masochists do both.
If you have stayed the course so far, you will have passed one of England's most ancient sites, Kit's Coty, a few dozen miles back. This bronze-age barrow is as modest and muted as the Eurotunnel Terminal is big and brazen. Your jaw will drop as deep as the cliff when you see how a chunk of downs has dissolved into a high-tech, high-investment venue for putting cars on trains.
Your spiritual counterpart, meanwhile, has outwitted the dismal signposting and found a way out of Canterbury. He or she is concluding that man and municipality occasionally intervene too heavily; the surface on the stretch of the North Downs Way beside the A2 seems to be mashed-up school playground - a Canterbury Trail that is prosaic, never Chaucerian.
Shakespeare has the final word. If the stiles, sheep and ale haven't got to you, the fact that the North Downs Way becomes a real cliff-hanger might yet stop you in your tracks. The downs themselves reach an abrupt conclusion at the Channel. The last stretch hugs the top of Shakespeare Cliff, an almighty splinter of chalk that looks terrific from Boulogne but terrifying three feet from the edge of a 500-ft drop.
Survive this ordeal, and you soon find yourself tramping through Dover in the general direction of the Leisure Centre. You arrive at the conclusion of the winter's entertainment as you began: a set of traffic lights beside a busy dual-carriageway. The drivers here could reach Farnham in a warm, dry two hours. Unlucky them.
What to read
The Ordnance Survey National Trail Guide to the North Downs Way by Neil Curtis (Aurum Press, pounds 9.99). This official book includes 1:25,000 maps of the route, which are the best you get. You may wish to supplement it with the latest map of the Dover and Folkestone area, where the Eurotunnel terminal and the new A20 have disrupted the trail.
Who to ask
The Countryside Commission, John Dower House, Crescent Place, Cheltenham GL50 3RA (01242 521381).Reuse content