Tuesday, 14 April 2009

London Countryway 22: Merstham - Dorking


Today's walk veers back towards the North Downs after negotiating the motorways at Merstham and then clings to the ridge pretty much all the way, following the North Downs Way National Trail through some of the most celebrated beauty spots of the Surrey Hills, including Reigate Hill and Box Hill. Unfortunately the weather isn't kind to me -- Easter Sunday dawns mild but misty and the thick veil of water vapour refuses to lift. The view from the ridge, which on a clear day stretches to the South Downs, is little more than a featureless white haze. Still, I remember the first time I walked these paths, on a day in early May in the early 1990s, I got caught in an unseasonal blizzard.

I've already discussed the geology of the chalk ridge when we first encountered it (London Countryway 18: Sole Street - Borough Green). The history of the North Downs Way is less than a blink from the perspective of geological time, but as a long distance walking route, it's ancient. Chalk trackways may have begun as animal tracks, but were undoubtedly in use by humans in the days when you could still walk across land from England to Flanders.The ridges offer long lengths of uninterrupted contours, obvious navigation, well-drained soil, springy turf that seems to shape itself to the passage of feet, and a lofty elevation that makes it harder to be ambushed successfully. They still just feel right to walk on, although the earliest walkers would not have appreciated the views we know today as the hillsides were well wooded in their natural state.

Alongside a growing interest in many other aspects of the natural and historic environment, the desire to identify and document Britain's ancient roads flourished in the Victorian era. It was apparently Ordnance Survey cartographers who first coined the term "Pilgrims' Way" for a specific line of tracks along the North Downs, on the assumption that it would have been used by pilgrims from Winchester Cathedral bound for the shrine of assassinated "turbulent priest" Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, and in the other direction by those aiming to pay their respects to St Swithun. The term was popularised by Hilaire Belloc and became part of folk geography, giving its name to various streets and other features along the route, some of which bear the oyster shell symbol associated with pilgrims on their name boards.

But it now seems the idea of a Pilgrims' Way was a romantic notion with little basis in fact, and has led to a number of misunderstandings. Firstly, it immediately makes most people think of Geoffrey Chaucer's anthology of lengthy narrative poems The Canterbury Tales (c 1400). But Chaucer's fictitious pilgrims set off from Southwark, not Winchester, so would have followed the old Roman road, Watling Street, predecessor of today's A2, which we encountered near the beginning of our journey just south of Gravesend. Secondly, the trackways long predate both Becket and Christianity -- archaeological finds go back to 500BCE and there is every reason to suppose these paths were trodden long before that. A more technical issue is that the idea of there being a specific, designated route reflects a modern reductionist approach to transport topography -- in fact in many places there are several parallel tracks at different heights on the ridge, so Pilgrims' Ways would be slightly more accurate.

The Victorian interest in the outdoor environment became one of the strands in a movement for better access to the countryside for everyone, including working class people in Britain's industrial cities, which achieved a sharp political focus in the inter-war years. Towards the end of World War II, as the vision of an egalitarian and beneficient welfare state for the new peace developed, countryside access was one of many items on the agenda of the government think tanks charged with shaping the post-war world. Two government commissioned reports by committees chaired by John Dower (1945) and Arthur Hobhouse (1947) led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in England and Wales put in place the current framework for the management of public rights of way and led to the creation of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and what were then called Long Distance Paths. The paradigm this act put in place has limitations which have become increasingly evident in the face of social change, particularly as regards exercise -- notably an assumption that the kind of countryside access most worth facilitating is a challenging walk in the hills, of the sort that even in mid-century already held a relatively narrow appeal -- and the process of implementation proved lengthier and more challenging than can possibly have been foreseen in the mood of post-war optimism.

Those Long Distance Paths were a reflection of the shopping list of the outdoor access movement -- their particular founding manifesto is usually taken to be Ramblers General Secretary Tom Stephenson's 1935 article in the Daily Herald calling for a "long green trail" along the Pennines, inspired by the development of wilderness trails in the national parks of the USA. The embryo of today's public rights of way system already existed, but these paths were generally short routes based on local use. The government, argued the walking movement, should also be developing longer routes that link paths together seamlessly with new links where needed, and maintaining them to a high standard to provide hours and days of uninterrupted good walking. The Hobhouse Committee agreed, and so another everyday English phrase sprouted capital initials and came to designate the outcome of a bureaucratic process governed by statute and managed by a government agency.

These days Long Distance Paths have been rebranded as National Trails and fall within the remit (in England) of Natural England, an agency of the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra). NE funds them 75%, the rest picked up by local authorities, and appoints managers to oversee each one. The process for creating them is still governed by the 1949 act and involves a lengthy and expensive process that culminates in the route being signed off by the relevant Secretary of State. Progress since 1949 has been agonisingly slow -- it took 26 years before the first one, the Pennine Way, was opened throughout.

Meanwhile, as the role that recognised, named and signed routes could play in promoting walking, and particularly walking tourism, became more evident, less cumbersome methods of creating non-statutory routes were found, usually through partnerships of local authorities, user groups and, sometimes, land managers, and taking advantage of the powers given to councils in 1968 to waymark rights of way. Thus the confusing situation in Britain where there are now very many named and signed routes -- "promoted routes" as they're known in the trade -- supported by a number of different agencies, but only a handful of National Trails. We've already encountered quite a few -- from well-established and well-signed non-statutory recreational walking routes like the Wealdway and Greensand Way to the short circular walks promoted by the National Trust on their own land.

The Pilgrims' Way was originally on the Hobhouse list but investigation revealed that much of the length of the way originally named on OS maps was now part of the metalled road network and of course it was out of the question that these paths could be reclaimed from traffic. So a route was created making use of sections of various parallel trackways, many of them higher up the ridge, and to save potential confusion and a challenge to the canonical status of the OS route, the new trail was named the North Downs Way, opening in 1978. It follows the line of the Downs from Farnham to Dover, with an additional long loop running via Canterbury. At the western end, for reasons I'm not aware of, the national trail itself falls short of that other pilgrim destination, Winchester, though in recent years Hampshire council have plugged the gap with the St Swithun's Way between Winchester and Farnham. Before the Thames Path was opened the North Downs Way was the closest National Trail to London, actually grazing the boundary in the southern reaches of the London Borough of Bromley, and it's also been designated part of European Path E2, more of which on a later walk.

National Trails in England and Wales have for decades been waymarked with a standard acorn symbol -- I don't know why it was chosen specifically but it's stylised, easily reproducible and recognisable. The oak is a stereotypically English tree so perhaps this played a part -- oak leaves feature in other logos we've encountered such as the National Trust and Woodland Trust. Perhaps also the creators of the national trail logo were thinking of the proverb "From little acorns...", though a rather unexpected crop of mutant oaks has sprung up from this particular glans.

As previously noted, the London Countryway leaves the national trail temporarily to run through Merstham station and past a tiny fire station that's now been converted for private use.


It soon catches up with the national trail again leaving town via Quality Street, once part of the High Street and offering a particularly fine lineup of historic residential buildings, some of which date back to the 16th century. The Old Forge was the home of actors Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss, celebrated in their day for their performances as leading characters Major and Miss in the West End production of JM Barrie's play Quality Street (1902), and the street was later renamed in their honour, no doubt to the delight of local estate agents. Today the name is more likely to conjure up images of toffees and chocolates consumed to excess at Christmas from large tins. Halifax confectioner Mackintosh (now part of Nestle) referenced the play when it branded its enduring assortment in 1936, though the images of the Major and Miss long featured on the packaging were based on the children of the original brand designer rather than the likenesses of Hicks and Terriss.

From now on the Countryway will stay welded to the North Downs Way to the end of the section, apart from a diversion of my own making. Leaving Quality Street to the ghosts of late Victorian stereotypes, I climb gently but steadily uphill through a golf course, where early bird golfers look suitably ghostly themselves in the thick mist, with the roar of the M25 clearly audible -- the route parallels it for some time. This section of route was also walked by Iain Sinclair in his millennial psychogeographic anticlockwise pedestrian excursion around the motorway recounted in his book London Orbital. Mertsham golf course prompts him to observe drily that "without golf, the M25 would be entirely encicled by smears of oil seed rape, boarding kennels and deconstructed Victorian asylums. Golf stetches the suburban lawn into the motorway landcape; the kiddies' sandpit, the lake that is not to be fished or swum."

The path runs between hedgerows and emerges by the main entrance to the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, where an impressive lodge and gateposts indicate this was once more than simply a school building. In fact it's the gateway to the extensive estate of Gatton Park, originally a manor dating back before Domesday. In the mid-18th century it was owned by the Colebrook family who had the grounds made over by leading landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown. His characteristic rolling green "natural" landscapes are still in evidence, the first example of his work we've encountered. Back then the estate was notoriously one of the "rotten boroughs" where, thanks to mediaeval privileges, a handful of easily paid-off electors had the right to return Members of Parliament while rapidly growing industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham remained disenfranchised. The estate even has a town hall -- a neo-classical folly that must surely have been built as a self-conscious celebration of the abuse of democracy -- now open only on specific days. In 1830 Frederick John Monson bought the estate specifically for its political privileges. Two years later, Parliament abolished them. The last private owners were the Colman family of Norwich mustard fame -- all in all, quite a history.

The school dates back to a charitable institution, a school for orphans established at Hoxton, just outside the City of London, in 1759. Anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who seems to crop up a lot on London walks, was once a governor. In 1948 it merged with another orphan school originally founded in honour of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, and, through a complicated arrangement with Surrey County Council, relocated to Gatton Park, which had been requisitioned from the Colmans during the war. The council's involvement means that though a boarding school, unusually it is also a state school, and charges relatively low fees. The school only occupies part of the original estate -- most of the rest is now in the hands of the National Trust, and the estate management is coordinated by a partnership called the Gatton Trust. As announced on the gateposts, the grounds are managed under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, where land managers receive funds to manage for conservation and to allow access, our first encounter with this category of land.

I don't detour to visit the church and town hall but stick to the signed North Downs Way route which runs past a fine chapel building looking like it dates from the 1960s and past a great piece of public art by a sculptor called Peter Dawson tacked on the end of a building -- I can find out little else about him or the work.


In the mist I also miss the Millennium Stones which bear various religious and philosophical quotations from each of the past ten centuries, including Eliot's prodding for the still point of a turning world. It's odd to be walking so close to school buildings in these paranoid times, although the numerous CCTV cameras are some evidence of the Colditz-style security that these days normally separates schools from public space.

Now in the National Trust section of the estate I pass the first of a number of retro-styled black bollards rather resembling vicious mediaeval weapons that waymark the Discover Gatton walk, a round tour of the estate.


The bollards also indicate the route of the North Downs Way and the "Millennium Trail". As the world must now be littered with Millennium Trails, it's worth pointing out the one in question is the Reigate & Banstead Millennium Trail, which is another of our links to London -- although it doesn't actually cross the boundary, it does link to the London Loop where the latter route makes one of its forays out of London at Banstead Downs. The trail will stay with us now as far as Reigate Hill.

I emerge past information boards on Gatton at Wray Lane car park, a site managed by Reigate and Banstead council that's well known for offering an extensive and panoramic view from the Downs -- except today, where the arrows indicating far landmarks point optimistically at blank nothingness, a fantasy limbo of the sort where Q might transport Captain Picard for a spot of crass moral debate in a Star Trek episode where they were running short of cash for sets. The highlight of the car park is its long-established refreshment kiosk, mentioned by Chesterton, a very welcome sight the day I walked through the unseasonal blizzard and still there today dishing out tea, cakes and sandwiches for consumption on the surrounding picnic seating. There are toilets too. It's not long since breakfast and I don't really need to, but I can't resist buying a cuppa and a slice of Victoria sponge. A few other dog walkers, leisure walkers nad cyclists are out and about despite the mist, also patronising the kiosk. I love finding places like this on walks -- I think I even treasure them more than some of the obvious "heritage" attractions. I hope the kiosk by the pub at High Beach in Epping Forest is still there by the time we get round to it.


A convenient footbridge behind the kiosk takes me across the A217, which zigzags precariously down the chalk ridge here into Reigate. There's a steeper descent, but a more pleasant walk, on a footpath that leaves our route to the left a little way past here if you want to head into Reigate. Otherwise it's back into National Trust land -- making up for last week's Trust-free walk, well over half of today's route must be through Trust property -- past Reigate Fort, one of the best preserved of the London Defence Positions, a chain of forts built along the Downs in the 1890s when Britain feared invasion by France, reinforcing the defensive capacity of this natural wall around London. The forts weren't permanently staffed but designed to be occupied at short notice by mobile contingents. They quickly came to be regarded by the military as obsolete and were sold off in 1907. The Trust had owned this fort in a derelict state since 1932 but at the turn of the millennium got a grant to restore it for public visits -- it's been open free of charge since 2007. It's atmospheric in the mist, but difficult to imagine looking out with your finger on the trigger in the expectation of the French army appearing over the Greensand ridge. Behind the fort a water tower and mobile phone mast loom up dramatically through the trees.


We're now on Reigate Hill viewpoint, at 220m (the seventh highest point in Surrey) normally offering fine views, with the commuter conurbation of Reigate and Redhill, swollen from the nucleus of an old market town, nestling on the flat ground between the chalk and greensand. A short walk further on and part of the same parcel of land managed for public access is Surrey's sixth highest point, Colley Hill (230m), surmounted by a curious neo-classical temple-style round shelter with a beautiful blue mosaic ceiling depicting the zodiac. It looks like it's escaped from Portmeirion, a Venetian alchemist's fantasy. Stumbling upon it on his M25 walk during a stretch of "the sort of walking guidebooks promote" on the North Downs Way enhanced Sinclair's sense of unreality.


Near here, by a fence, the Millennium Way snakes away downhill on its way to Gatwick, also providing a link to the Greensand Way which runs to the other side of the urban area.

Finally the path along the top of the open slope ends at a gate leading to a wooded space near houses and you feel very much like you've crossed into a new zone. Indeed you have -- this is an old parish boundary now the boundary of Reigate and Banstead Borough and the neighbouring Mole Valley District, and historically it was also one of the boundaries of one version of London, or at least London's influence. The evidence is still there in the form of a white post just past the gate bearing a white shield with a red cross and an upside-down sword, or "argent a cross gules, in the first quarter a sword in pale point upwards of the last", part of the arms of the City of London.


London developed from a cluster of mediaeval urban "cities" and boroughs treasuring their own independence, and surrounding rural areas and villages that fell under traditional counties -- Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and later Essex -- administrated mainly by parishes that combined both civil and religious functions, and until the mid-19th century there was no properly constituted civil authority coordinating what was, from a functional point of view, a single city. The most powerful body in London comparable to a local authority was the City of London Corporation, which could claim a legacy dating back to pre-Norman conquest times and which represented the core of the city and its business interests. And so in the vacuum surrounding it the corporation came to exercise influence and powers way beyond its traditonal boundary, the so-called "one square mile" of the City itself.

The City of London had been exercising powers to tax coal and other commodities entering an extensive area beyond its own boundaries since mediaeval times, powers confirmed in various royal charters and later legislation. In the 19th century the City began staking out its territory with posts and bollards marking the limits of its taxation powers, and in 1861, after a new act consolidated these powers and defined a revised area over which they could be exercised, the City began a programme of marking points where paths, roads, rivers, canals and railways crossed this boundary with standard cast iron posts and plaques which came to be known as "coal posts". Around 200 of these have survived, not all in their original positions. The example here is fairly typical of a wayside post, and there's another one just round the corner, of a slightly different, squatter design. Interestingly, the contemporary boundary of Greater London established in the 1960s occupies a lesser area than the 1861 tax boundary, despite the huge growth in urban development during the intervening century.

Another curiosity by the coalpost is a public footpath that appears to go through a wooden door, presumably into the world of Narnia.


My path now descends sharply downhill on a spongy earth track -- a sign at the top warns of the steep descent and it isn't joking. There are sheer slopes above, partly the result of previous quarrying of chalk and the prized "Reigate stone", and at several points piles of chalk nuggets are piled up against the fence above the path, apparently having cascaded down the hillside. At one point a circular plastic tunnel about 30cm in diameter has been pierced through an earth bank sloping downhill to my right -- whether for drainage or ambulatory animals of some sort I don't know. Heading downhill I finally start to lose the noise of the M25 as both the route and the motorway veer away from each other.


Near the bottom of the slope the North Downs Way turns back along the contour line again, this time only a few metres up from the foot of the ridge, on a trail along the bottom of the National Trust's Juniper Hill. Chesterton really likes this path, which goes on for a good 3km with scrubby slopes to the right and fields to the left, some of them full of what appear to be strangely shaped haystacks despite the season, but in the damp conditions the mix of chalk and clay has formed a sticky, slippery path surface, a bit like walking on bread dough that's been made with too much water.


In places, rainwater mixed with chalk has streamed across the path, forming rutted puddles and staining the grass white, as if someone's gone ape with one of those devices used for marking out sports pitches. It's quite tiring keeping my balance on the narrow path and by the end of it I'm longing for some nice hard tarmac. Part of the route is along a wider track that passes some spectacular tree routes, clinging to the ridge and studded with chalk fragments.


Eventually, to negotiate a road and quarry ahead, the North Downs Way deviates south onto the flat farmland below the ridge. Here Chesterton's verbal description seems to follow the current route of the national trail and doesn't quite correspond to his outline map -- he says changes have been made for safety reasons. I decide to explore an obvious alternative route, about the same distance and giving a direct rail connection at Betchworth station, so I continue on the bridleway that's led me off the Downs, passing some attractive farm buildings and reaching a level crossing, complete with attractive keeper's cottage, at the end of a lane. A pleasant path now hugs the railway line, crossing it (and temporarily leaving the AONB, the southern boundary of which runs along the line here) through its own secluded little tunnel and continuing on the other side up the edge of a railway cutting.

The railway is the North Downs Line between Reading and Gatwick, one of the few in the region that isn't a radial route from London -- it was opened by the South Eastern Railway in 1849 so that passengers travelling from the west to the south could avoid the hassle of changing between London terminals, so it's actually a fragment of a potential orbital line, although it once offered through trains from Reading to Charing Cross via Redhill. In the most recent reshuffle of the private companies that now run Britain's passenger rail services under franchises, it was allocated to First Great Western, whose principal business is operating westwards from Paddington via Reading. Betchworth is a rustic station that makes much of its position as a gateway to the AONB, with a huge Surrey Hills logo and information boards.


Betchworth was also the connection to the national rail network for the extensive system of standard and narrow gauge lines that served adjacent Betchworth Quarry and Brockhole lime pits, and it's round the site of these that I wander next as my walk rejoins the North Downs Way and regains the ridge. Climbing back through the woods I reflect that industry wasn't always something associated with large urban settlements -- primary industries like forestry, mining and quarrying have always taken place out on the land, and the immediate processing of their products, such as charcoal burning and lime making, formerly took place close to the source.

Besides its railway, Betchworth Quarry's other claim to fame is that following its closure in 1960 it became one of those notorious quarry locations chosen by the producers of TV science fiction as a quick fix for an alien landscape in the days before CGI made such things too easy. Both Doctor Who and Blake's 7 were shot here, and in one classic Who story of the T0m Baker era, 'The Deadly Assassin' (1976), the rails featured too, in a nightmare sequence where the Doctor is trapped in the "virtual reality" of the Matrix (decades before Keanu Reeves and the Wachowski Brothers discovered bullet time). In one scene our hero gets his ankle caught in railway points and is about to be run down by a locomotive driven by a mysterious masked assassin. The fact that the loco is a titchy narrow gauge model sadly fails to add to the menace.


The lime works closed even earlier, in 1936. When Chesterton visited in 1981 some of the rail system was still in existence and operated as a museum. All this has now gone, although some of the locomotives are now in preservation, including one that featured in Wilbert (Reverend W) Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine books. These days the site is managed as a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest by the Surrey Wildlife Trust, open to the public for free and with many of the lime works buildings still standing. This trust is one of a federation collectively known as the Wildlife Trusts, forming between them one of the country's biggest organisations managing nature reserves, often in partnership with local authorities and government bodies. We caught a glimpse of a neighbouring trust's reserve when overlooking Bough Beech reservoir in a previous walk, but this will be our first visit in London underfoot to a Wildlife Trusts reserve. "People and nature together have created a unique landscape," says the information board.

The path ups and downs bracingly around quarry edges and through mixed woodland, reaching the top of the ridge and quitting the nature reserve near houses and fully fledged grave complete with headstone that turns out to be for a racehorse, Quick, "an English thoroughbred" according to the inscription. We're now back in National Trust territory, in their Box Hill estate, and this isn't the only curious burial in the vicinity -- to the north of our route, near Box Hill fort (another of the London Defence Positions now being restored), is the grave of Major Peter Labelliere (1726-1800), who left a will wishing to be buried upside down, since the world was topsy turvy, and that his youngest son and his landlady's daughter should dance on his coffin -- although it may be this is just a memorial stone, and his remains are elsewhere in a more conventional grave.


Through the woods I soon find myself walking parallel to the obviously named Zigzag Road, near the settlement at the top of the hill that is actually called Box Hill. Several sources, including a 1990s edition of the official North Downs Way guide, mention a Wimpy Bar here. Nostalgia overcomes me for this dowdy 1960s and 1970s British answer to an American fast food chain, once owned by Lyons of Corner House fame, with its formica tables, jam jar lid-size burgers, buns the colour of corduroy flares, and similarly flare-evoking Brown Derby desserts consisting of a tough old ring donut topped with chicken-fat-and-sugar soft ice cream. Wimpy still exists, forever trying to refresh its image, but not at the top of Box Hill -- instead I find the Smith & Western Steak House and Diner, located in a wooden chalet. A group of people wearing cowboy hats have just parked up and are heading for the door.
Box Hill (193m) is the first undisputed 24-carat beauty spot on the route. There are records of its being admired back in the 1650s -- diarist John Evelyn (who has numerous connections to London walks) found it "extremely agreeable" and it was one of the places that pleased the early 19th century Romantic taste for a particular form of apparently natural landscape, at a considerably shorter distance from London than better known Romantic favourites such as the English Lakes. John Keats and Jane Austen praised the place and as transport links to London improved it became a classic bank holiday destination for Londoners looking for some nearby natural beauty. The key areas were donated to the National Trust in 1914, and since then various adjoining parcels of land have been added to the public estate. Its popularity has certainly not decreased with the burgeoning car ownership of the post-war years, and it's also become known as "the best biker destination in the south of England."

So what's inherently special about Box Hill? It's not just the view from the top of the Downs -- there are numerous other points that offer equally wide views -- but also its position on the edge of the Mole Gap, where the river Mole has cut a sheer cliff through the chalk, described by the National Trust as "the finest natural river cliff in the county, if not in southern Britain." The eponymous box trees, along with yew, cling to the cliff. The Mole is the first direct tributary of the London Thames I've so far encountered: rising in the West Sussex Weald and running under the runway at Gatwick, after slicing through the Downs it flows northwest through Surrey suburbia to join the Thames just upriver from the latter's tidal limit at Teddington Lock. Other communication channels have taken advantage of the gap in the downs, notably the Roman road now known as Stane (Stone) Street from London to Chichester, now partly incorporated in the modern A24 trunk road. Dorking, a staging post on the Roman road and later an important market and coaching town, is laid out on the flat land upriver of the Gap, spread out beneath your feet as you stand on the springy turf of the hill.
At least, it is on a day when you can see more than 10m in front of your face. By the time I get to the viewpoint and trig point that are the focus of the site, the mist has lightened slightly -- you can at least see that there's something down there. Despite the mist, there's still a fair number of people out and about, undeterred from their Easter day out, and quite a cluster around the viewpoint.


The path takes me through another band of trees and across another open slope, where a group of young men are enhancing their enjoyment of the hill with sausages fried on a camping gas ring a spliff or two, then down the precipitous descent through woods to the river, rendered more hazardous by damp conditions and sticky mud.
Safely at the bottom, I reach one of the site's other celebrated features, the stepping stones that still cross the stream at a centuries-old ford, although there is the choice of a more accessible footbridge a few metres downstream. When I first read about these stones I imagined some rickety old pebbles worn by centuries of running water, but the current stones are a streamlined, modern interpretation of this ancient method of river crossing, a set of solid, evenly sized and regularly spaced hexagons. And people love them -- one of the attractions of the place, especially for children, is simply to cross and recross the river on the stones. One interesting aspect of them, as well as being a pedestrian-only piece of infrastructure design, is that they are one-way only: each stone is only large enough to accommodate one person at one time, so while several people can move in one direction at once, it's impossible to cross safely in the opposite direction while someone is coming towards you, which requires contact and negotiation with fellow users on the opposite bank. I'm glad the stones survive and haven't fallen victim to the health and safety police.

Emerging from the National Trust car park I reach Stane Street, now the busy dual carriageway of the A24. The Roman road starts at London Bridge and follows what's now the A3 via Elephant, Clapham and Morden, where the modern A3 heads for Portsmouth and the A24 inherits the ancient route to Chichester. And here it is still piggybacking on the Mole's cut through the downs, flat, straight and dualled, with spacious walkways and cycleways. Northwards a short way is the landmark Burford Bridge Hotel, now the Mercure Burford Bridge, where Horatio (Lord) Nelson stayed with his mistress Emma Hamilton before the Battle of Trafalgar. To the left and opposite is Denbies Wine Estate, England's biggest vineyard, which we'll pass through on the next section.
If I'd been following the layout of Keith Chesterton's guide rigorously, we'd have now reached the end of this volume of London underfoot, as the Box Hill Stepping Stones are the landmark at which he starts and ends his description of the London Countryway. As it is, having started at Gravesend, we're about a quarter of the way round, a milestone of sorts but with a considerable distance still to go.
The recommended rail connection for the North Downs Way and London Countryway here is at Boxhill and Westhumble, in a rural setting slightly north of this point, but not much further in the opposite direction, and along those broad footways beside the Roman road, is Dorking, which, I'm surprised to note, has TfL bus stops. Dorking has three stations: there's Dorking Deepdene and the infrequently served Dorking West on the North Downs line, but for London, and nearest to our route, there's just plain Dorking. This is on the Sutton and Mole Valley Lines, a relatively complex network of suburban lines constructed by both the London Brighton and South Coast and the London and South Western railways, with links to three London termini, London Bridge, Victoria and Waterloo. Still today all these terminals are served, with services provided by both Southern and South West Trains. The station was opened in 1867, originally as Dorking North, but was rebuilt in the 1980s: you might need to look twice as it's been completely incorporated into a rather dull office block.

There are other connections from here too: those cycleways along Stane Street carry National Cycle Network route 22 from Banstead, on the edge of London, to the New Forest. And there are two walking routes, both developed under the aegis of another Surrey countryside partnership project, the Lower Mole Project: the Mole Gap Trail, between Dorking and Leatherhead, and the Thames Down Link, from Kingston to Box Hill. The latter runs along a section of the London Loop and connects the North Downs Way with the Thames Path, so falls well within the scope of London underfoot, and we'll reach Box Hill by it some other day -- hopefully when the mist has lifted.
View a map http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=117966169375523396049.00046414d40d8252e7b70&num=200&start=73&z=11

Route description pdf

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Saturday, 11 April 2009

London Countryway 21: Oxted - Merstham


Last week's lengthy walk along the Greensand Ridge, with its excursions towards the Weald, stretched the definition of a London walk, but this week I'm glad to feel the gravitational pull of the capital is reasserting itself as the London Countryway heads back towards the North Downs. The surroundings on this stretch are more varied too, away from the lengthy succession of admittedly impressive but sometimes dense and oppressive woods and wooded commons that characterised the last walk. Though there's really only one practical break point on the route itself (and that not served by Sunday buses), we're never very far from the large suburban towns and villages of commuter-friendly Surrey, and though there's plenty here to satisfy the country walker, the surroundings feel much less remote.

Thanks to that Sunday bugbear, engineering works, I start today's walk at Oxted rather than last week's end point of Hurst Green -- it's only a little further from our route. As a settlement Oxted dates back at least as far as Domesday and expanded as a coaching point in the 18th century when the east-west road through it was turnpiked. Further expansion arrived with the railway, opened jointly by the London & Brighton and the Southeastern railway in 1884, giving this bucolic spot at the foot of the Downs and near the head of the Eden valley a commuter link to London. The station ended up about 1km northeast of the village, and a new small town grew around it, much of which dates from the interwar years and is a riot of Tudorbethan of the sort that made John Betjeman chuckle, a solid urban building style of one era recycled as the fake rustic idyll of another. Station Approach, a shallow hill with elaborate half-timbered shop and business premises lining the route to the main station entrance, is actually quite impressive -- it certainly has a unified architectural theme.


My route leads from the other side of the railway back down towards Icehouse Lane, but rather than follow the obvious roads I make my habitual detours through back streets and paths, finding a semi-detached suburban cul-de-sac of the sort Ray Davies must have had in mind when he wrote, in Arthur: or, the Decline and Fall of the British Empire:

Here's your reward for working so hard.
Gone are the lavatories in the backyard.
Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car.
You just want to sit in your Shangri-La.
A convenient path between houses leads to East Hill, the former turnpike road that's now the A25, and on the other side a delightful hollow bridleway -- one of those urban discoveries that I suspect even some local residents don't know about -- threads between the backs of houses, emerging on Rockfield Road just short of where I left the route last week.

Rejoining the Countryway and what will be our final short stretch of the Greensand Way, I follow Icehouse Wood, a lane lined by big houses in leafy grounds of the sort once favoured by senior City types, which flattens out at what you can see on the map is a point immediately above the tunnel that takes the railway south from Oxted to Hurst Green and East Grinstead. Here a footpath branches off to the right which, when Keith Chesterton last updated his London Countryway guide in 1981, was accessed via what he notes as a curious wooden turnstile. I had a mental image of the bulky old turnstiles I saw preserved in the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, but sadly I find only a prosaic double tubular barrier of the sort designed to keep out cyclists but also frustrating to buggy pushers and wheelchair users. Next to it is a disused metal gatepost with hinges which I guess is a remnant of this now superceded barrier, a guess confirmed when I spot another one further down the footpath at a point where Chesterton mentions the remains of another turnstile. Otherwise this is another interesting stretch of urban footpath following a hidden route behind gardens -- long may it be kept safe from gating orders.


A short stretch along a lane then brings me to the pretty setting of Oxted Mill or, more correctly, Oxted Middle Mill --plain Oxted Mill was a little way west but has since been demolished. Both sites are beside the upper reaches of the river Eden, here a modest stream which rises up on the Downs near Titsey and flows into the Medway near Penshurst, Kent, its waters thence reaching the Thames estuary. The name of the river is that linguistic curiosity, a back formation. One of the major towns through which it flows, some distance downstream from here, is called Edenbridge, from Eadhelm's Bridge, Eadhelm being a person. But subsequently people assumed the bridge was named after the river, which then became universally known as the Eden. A walking route, the Eden Valley Walk, follows the river from Edenbridge downstream to Tonbridge, linking to the Wealdway, Medway Valley Walk and Vanguard Way. Middle Mill, looking very picturesque next to its millpond, was formerly a corn mill and is now used as offices.


The mill is the point at which the Countryway finally bids farewell to the Greensand Way and strikes northwest towards the North Downs. The Greensand Way, originally proposed by walkers' groups who were successful in getting both county councils covering the Greensand Ridge on their side, was developed in the 1980s and only finalised sometime after Chesterton published his last update to the Countryway, but since both routes aim to follow the ridge, it's not suprising that they choose many of the same paths. The route starts at Ham Street, on the Saxon Shore Way and not far from the south coast, and if you chose to follow the waymarks from Oxted Mill they'd take you as far as Haslemere in Surrey, nigh bang-on the boundaries of Hampshire and Sussex.

There's a pleasant piece of waterside walking beside the mill pond and the Eden and through some damp woodland before rejoining the residential area. Cresting a hill I spot the distinctive brown ridge of the Downs ahead, still recognisable from when I last left it just north of Coldrum longbarrow near Trottiscliffe. The route descends to what's now Old Oxted, the original village, a quiet spot since the main road was diverted a little to the north in the 1960s. At the crossroads is the 15th century Old Bell, an impressively large hall house no doubt much expanded when the road was turnpiked and expanded again several times since, including in the 2000s. Today it's part of the Chef & Brewer pubco, ultimately owned by Heineken.


Under the A25 bypass and along pleasant field paths, now well under the shadow of the chalk ridge, the route passes a dumpy little 9m hillock sprouting a few trees -- Barrow Green Mount, once thought to be an ancient burial site but more likely to be the remains of a Norman motte and bailey that was once incorporated in the parkland of nearby Barrow Green Court, dating from the 17th century.


Barrow Green Court turns out to be today's real curiosity. Chesterton remarks in 1981 that the estate has recently become surrounded by tall fences and protected by guard dogs, and wonders "what secret business can be going on that has to be protected so securely and so hideously." Chesterton didn't have the benefit of the internet: a quick search reveals that the house has been owned for decades by millionaire businessman and Harrods and Fulham FC owner Mohamed Al-Fayed (b1933). Though he's now based in Switzerland, until 2002 this was his principal home, and is the burial place of his son Dodi, boyfriend of Diana Princess of Wales, who died alongside her in a car crash at the Pont d'Alma tunnel, Paris (another spot I've visited on a walk), in August 1997. I'll resist discussing Diana and the cult that has grown up around her here -- I got in enough trouble online the day she died -- but I wasn't expecting to encounter a connection with this particular incident of recent British cultural history on the walk.

Given its owner's well-publicised adherence to conspiracy theories, it's no surprise that the security measures have been enhanced since Chesterton wrote, with CCTV cameras now sprouting over the tall fences. As I walk down the bridleway beside the house, I hear the whirr of servo motors and see that one of the cameras is tracking my progress. I stare right at it, smile and wave. The camera stops, then tips down and up in what is umistakeably intended to be a nod of acknowledgement. No doubt the person operating it considers s/he has a good sense of humour but I feel a shiver down my spine on this sunny early April day and hurry swiftly by.


Having just crossed the A25, I make my first encounter with its motorway namesake, the London orbital M25, the first piece of purpose-built infrastructure we've met that's designed to encircle London. The motorway is the culmination of successive proposals for fast traffic routes round the capital, dating back to 1911 and the earliest proposals for what became the North and South Circulars. As such it's a paradigm case of the "predict and provide" model that has for so long dominated transport planning in Britain: predict how much travel by private motor vehicles is set to grow, and then build the roads to provide for it, without ever questioning the logic of uncontrolled growth or recognising that provision in itself can stimulate demand.

Generations of British drivers far less rabid than Jeremy Clarkson have grown up in the belief that the answer to congestion is simply to build more roads. In practice all that happens is that demand soon outstrips supply, the new roads quickly become choked in their turn. Meanwhile public transport, walking and cycling continue to decline and people are driven even further into car dependency. Thus when the complete circuit of the M25 was completed in 1986, an icon of the Thatcher years officially opened by none other than Margaret Thatcher herself (a woman who once declared that anyone over 30 seen on a bus should be thought a failure in life), it was already inadequate for the levels of traffic that attempted to use it, soon tagged by detractors the world's biggest car park. Since then it has been widened further in many places, but is still often congested.

Historically the M25 wasn't planned as a single orbital -- although plans for a broadly similar route date back to the 1930s, the motorway as it exists was only upgraded to an orbital when ringway schemes through the metropolitan area itself fell through. This section is one of the earliest, dating from 1979, and was originally planned as a relief road for the A25, connecting with the M20, thus its numbering. At one stage the outer ringway to the north of London was designated M16, but the two schemes were combined simply as the M25 in the late 1970s.

Setting aside the practical transport and environmental issues, the M25 has quickly earned a status as a cultural icon, from its role in facilitating wildcat "rave" parties in the late 1980s (from which the band Orbital got its name) through Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit's 1999 psychogeographic pilgrimage to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's reimagining of the road as a giant sigil shaped by demonic forces in Good Omens (1990). I stand watching the traffic shooting past below for some time, thinking of the differences in experience engendered by such extreme differences in speed. The motorway is 100km/h architecture, designed for fast movement and broad brush perception, the driver's eyes fixed on the road ahead, cued by the limited visual vocabulary of lined carriageways and giant signs, further insulated from the landscape by an alignment selected for flatness and cuttings and embankments that elide the natural relief. On foot, wandering over the bridge, you perceive every detail, from the chalk pebble on the path right up to the chalk downs shaping the landscape. The driver's eye view seems a little like an alternative topography superimposed on mine. In the photo I take, I can just about catch a couple of faces in passing cars. I doubt they catch me.


On the other side of the motorway, now back in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I start to climb sharply up the ridge at last, on a rough path now white with chalk underfoot. At the side of the track I notice a small white sign with an Esso logo which, judging by the reference on it to flow direction, marks an underground oil pipeline. As I discover when I get home, thereby hangs another tale. Think of oil and you normally think broad and bleak, like the North Sea, Texas or the Saudi desert, but there are still pockets of black gold even in England, including here under Oxted. It's known as the Palmers Wood oilfield and in 2006 Mohamed Al-Fayed discovered that some of the oil was being extracted from his land, though the company, Star Energy, had attempted to conceal the fact since starting its pumps in 1990. He sued for trespass and in 2008 was awarded a 12.5% stake in the profits. While there's a tempting irony in the story of an Arab businessman cheated of oil in a Surrey backwater, Al-Fayed made his initial fortune from arms dealing, shipping and hotels.


Reaching the crest of the ridge and entering Marden Park Woods, I find myself for the first time on the property of another institutional land manager dedicated to both conservation and public access, the Woodland Trust. Founded in 1972, it's since grown rapidly to an estate of almost 200km2 (though still considerably smaller than the National Trust), and does particularly well from legacies, the thought of leaving a tree (or a wood) behind having a clear appeal to those pondering their mortality. We'll be seeing more of its double oak leaf logo. The top of the ridge sees us meeting again with the North Downs Way National Trail, also part of European route E2, last encountered near Trottiscliffe. Unlike the Greensand Way, this was already established when the London Countryway was devised, and we'll soon be following quite a bit of it -- you could if you wish shave off a couple of kilometres by simply turning left at this point -- but for now Chesterton chooses to keep straight ahead across it, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I find myself following waymarks for the Woldingham Countryside Walk, and with this comes to a link to the roots of London's modern network of walking trails. In 1988, in recognition of the special pressures on the green belt landscapes of these fringes of London and northeast Surrey, the various local authorities formed a partnership, the Downlands Countryside Management Project, to manage them in a more coherent way. The project, which extends over the boundary into the London Borough of Croydon, found a visionary project manager, Alec Baxter-Brown, who is also an advocate of improved access through good quality walking routes, and set about creating a set of circular routes throughout the area. Around the same time, the London Walking Forum was set up largely through the work of Ramblers volunteers, bringing together representatives from the London Boroughs in these post-GLC, pre-GLA days to champion a network of green walking routes. Baxter-Brown, who still manages the project today, was an energetic voice in the Forum and played a role in creating its first flagship project, the London Loop. The Forum was enormously influential, not only in London but nationally and internationally, and I'll have a lot more to say about it when I walk the Loop, but here is an early trail for it in the first Downlands walk we've come across on the Countryway, and a sure sign we're drawing closer to the boundary.

Emerging from the woods I realise why Chesterton judged this dogleg detour from the line of the Downs worthwhile. The landscape opens out onto a lush green valley, the Marden Valley, both sides crowned with trees and a cluster of buildings below. Considering the proximity of suburbia, it's a hidden and peaceful place, with a scattering of people out and about, several of them content to bask on the grassy slopes enjoying the quiet.


I descend to the buildings, passing an old horse trough now overgrown with shrubby trees. The original village was wiped out by the 14th century Black Death, but the house and grounds of Marden Park were occupied as a country estate in the early 18th century. In the 1790s anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce lived here for a while -- we'll meet him again on the Loop. The Society of the Sacred Heart moved its convent school here in 1946 after its site at Roehampton was damaged in air raids, and it remains an independent Catholic girls' boarding school, now known as Woldingham School, its campus occupying the valley floor. There's a modest little cemetery at the bottom of the hill which at first glance looks like a Commonwealth War Grave, but the headstones are mainly those of convent members, each described as a "religious of the sacred heart". An elaborate outdoor crucifix, a rare site in England, presides, reminding me of Belgium again.

Several of the surfaced drives through the campus are open as public paths and cycleways. From here you can continue along the Woldingham Countryside Walk to Woldingham itself, named by the Telegraph in 2007 as the second richest suburb in Britain, but the Countryway tracks for a short distance a section of National Cycle Network Route 21, the Downs and Weald Cycle Route. Part of a network championed by Sustrans, this route starts a short stroll from my flat at Greenwich and in its early sections follows the Ravensbourne and Pool valleys as the Waterlink Way -- much of it is off road and also makes for good walking, so we'll explore it again when I finally get round to the north-south routes across the capital.

Passing the old house itself, a large and impressive red brick building, I cut away from the surfaced track, almost doubling back on myself to climb through a woodland on the opposite side of the valley, a path which in 1981 had, according to Chesterton, only just been cleared but which is now easy to follow and well-waymarked. Emerging from the woods near the top of the slope, there is a superb view south: the valley has driven a gap through the chalk, which humps on each side like rolled back bed covers, framing the Weald beyond. I'm struck by the discrepancy between the mental picture I formed of this area while studying the map and the reality: misled by the jagged smithereen-edged line of the paths, I imagined somewhere sharp, bleak and airy, not these soft slopes and rather intimate sense of peace.

Fields lead back into woods and a steep descent on rough wooden steps. On the other side of a fence I spot some people dressed in faux mediaeval costume, carrying staffs and toy swords, and, curious, I hail them. One of them, Richard, approaches me, wielding a rather anachronistic clipboard, and agrees to a quick interview -- it's live action role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons only in the outdoors and physically acting out the encounters with padded weapons. He knows that I know admitting involvement in such pastimes is potentially embarassing, but makes a good confident go of it, and I wish him a good day's gaming. Actually I approve of the imaginative projection of your own alternative reality onto this landscape, and these ancient woods, which must look much the same as they've done for millennia, provide as good a backdrop as any.

Quarry Lane at the bottom of the hill is more industrial in character. An enclosed building ahead displays a poster for the Wealden Cave and Mine Society, who among other things operate Reigate Caves, as well as exploring the many quarries that riddle this part of the world. I'm not sure if there is a reason why the poster is in this particular spot -- are there caves and mines in the vicinity? There are certainly caves and wines, as just down the hill from here is Godstone vineyard, surely one of the nearest vineyards to London, reminding us that the European wine belt just about creeps this far. It's a shame there isn't actually a vineyard in London -- there's one in Paris, right on top of Montmartre. Since the section after next actually passes through Denbies vineyard near Dorking I'll reserve saying more about English wine until then.
The North Downs Way loops around this section on a path, but I'm temporarily mesmerised by NCN21 signing that points to Greenwich, and follow the hard surfaced track which passes through the yard of a furniture hire company.


On one side are large warehouses with vast loading bays; on the other, an unexpected treat, the company's offices appear to be housed in a smoked glass modernist building shaped like a octagonal toadstool and accessed by a footbridge, faintly reminiscent of John Lautner's Chemosphere and the sort of place where people from the future might hang out in 1970s science fiction TV programmes. Even the company name, Spaceworks, is on message, though the effect is rather spoiled by a couple of stacked portakabins.

Though this section of the London Countryway more-or-less tracks the North Downs Way (and therefore the E2 European route), Chesterton sometimes deliberately detours away from it, aiming, as he says, for variety of landscape rather than purity of line. I notice his description here doesn't correspond to the route of the national trail mapped on the OS Explorer or signed on the ground, but I conclude the differences aren't intentional, and the NDW alignment has been improved since the Countryway guide was published, so I stick to the acorn waymarks. These soon lead to a footbridge across the deeply cut dual carriageways of the next major trunk road to cross, the A22, which peels off the A23 London to Brighton road at Purley heading for Eastbourne. This is still another turnpike road, dating from 1718, although of course it's been realigned and widened -- I suspect the track that takes us north towards the footbridge parallel to the road is an earlier incarnation of it. The section just to the north of here is the Caterham bypass, one of the earliest bypasses in Britain, dating from the 1930s and reputedly haunted by the ghost of a young girl.

A stroll through woods on the other side takes me along a chalky ridge track typical of the North Downs Way, rounding an earthwork of some kind that appears on the map as Pilgrim Fort, though I can find no further information about it. I soon emerge on an open green with wide views below -- Tandridge council's Caterham Viewpoint site, where I sit on a bench and eat my lunch. The view is truly spectacular, with the M25 down in the dip, the Greensand Ridge rising up on the other side, the Weald beyond and, further still, a faint smudge that must be the South Downs, some 4okm away. Various people are about, quietly and modestly enjoying the space. Several walkers pass, a man and a boy cycle past on off-road bikes, an older couple sit holding hands, a young and very healthy looking woman in a tracksuit strides past, power walking with weights. Two young men and a young woman, speaking Polish, kick a ball about, and one of the men obligingly takes his shirt off.
Back into the woods, NCN21 finally leaves our route at a fork, heading for Redhill and Gatwick Airport. Further on the track climbs through woods to emerge on the outermost residential edge of Caterham, on the curiously named War Coppice Road, named after a house that once stood here. The route follows this quiet road for some distance, a stretch that's just outside the official boundary of the AONB, passing the site of an Iron Age hillfort on the left with a view to Leith Hill and, just before the end, a crumbling tower standing alone in a field which, with its white stone and flint, at first glance might be the tower of an abandoned church but lacks any gothic detailing. It turns out to be a folly, White Hill Tower, built at this high vantage point by a certain Jeremiah Long in 1862.

Reaching the junction with Whitehill and Stanstead Road, with the historic Harrow pub just off to the right and heritage dating back to neolithic times nearby, I'm gratified to spot signing for a branch of one of the first Downlands Project walks, the Downlands Circular Walk, a route that actually straddles the boundary and links to the London Loop. Following it back into the AONB down a clear farm track that descends White Hill and then climbs to anther chalk ridge, there is much more explicit evidence London's proximity -- there, on the horizon off to the right, is the unmistakeable shape of the cluster of buildings that now make up Canary Wharf, with the pyramid shaped crown of the original tower clearly visible, though I'm too far away to catch the flashing light on top. Looking more closely I spot other landmarks -- just to the left I can see Tower 42 (the NatWest tower) and the St Mary Axe gherkin, and isn't that Centre Point a bit further over, with Parliament Hill and Highgate Hill behind? Canary Wharf, that eruption of a US downtown miraculously transported to Docklands, has now become such a dominating landmark of the capital you could imagine an alternative London boundary based on its sightlines. Finally I feel I've climbed to the crest of that chalky wall round London and am looking down on the the other side. As the Docklands view disappears behind trees I wonder when I'll see it again.


The track bends past the schoolboy snigger-inducing Willey Park Farm, with several dismantled sections of gliders in the farmhouse garden, and reaches a curious two-storey flint barn. Here there are more connections: a branch of the Socratic Trail, a largely unsigned route between Old Coulsdon and Brighton devised by the late Maurice Hencke of the Croydon-based Socratic Walkers, heads south here.


A little further on, past a horse paddock that for some reason is flying a third of the Confederate flag (I hope it's nothing more dubious than a complement to the Western look of the wooden corral, or perhaps they're Lynryd Skynryd fans), is a fingerpost marked Three Way, where a northward branch of the Downlands Circular Walk makes the most convenient connection yet with the London Loop. This is one of the closest points that the Countryway approaches the Greater London boundary, with a southwards-jutting tooth of Croydon only around 1.5km away.
I don't turn north, however, but continue west along the North Downs Way, which, as a wooden fingerpost soon reminds us, is also at this point tracking the historic route of the Pilgrims Way. Soon, off to the left I catch a fine view of Merstham and Redhill beyond, dramatically framed by a tree bough. Then the national trail emerges from the enclosed track, where another northward stretch of the Downlands Circular goes ahead and off right to Tollsworth Manor. My route strikes off diagonally across a field, tacking the hillside on a steepish descent. A short way along, though with nothing to notice on the ground, we cross the boundary between Tandridge District and Reigate & Banstead Borough.

Merstham, as you can plainly see from the slope, nestles beside a large knot of motorway where the M25 meets the M23, taking London traffic southward to Brighton. Both motorway sections were built in the early 1970s and originally the M23 was planned to stretch far into south London, thus the size of the three tier junction, one of only three of this design in the UK. The northernmost part of the scheme was later cancelled, and the M23 remains a long-deferred relief for traffic that's plodded stopping and starting through Brixton, Streatham and Coulsdon, but the big knot remains. A scrubby area of what feels like waste ground comes next, no doubt "blighted" by the motorway and left as a rather attractive marginal space, with the motorway itself crossed in a tunnel.

On the other side is more waste ground on the site of an old quarry, where the track heading off to the right is a legacy of an earlier form of mechanised transport, as it follows the alignment of the Surrey Iron Railway, Britain's first working stretch of public permanent way. Originally planned as a canal, the horse-drawn 1270mm (4' 2") gauge line was opened in 1802 between Wandsworth, Mitcham and Croydon and extended to the quarries at Merstham in 1805, though this section closed in 1838 and very little evidence remains, while parts of other sections are still in operation as the Croydon Tramlink.


A short walk brings us to residential Merstham and a street of largish houses -- a sprawling piece of mock Tudor reminding me of our starting point at Oxted and, further down, a Dutch-style farmhouse hiding under low eaves like a pulled-down hat. Just before this, and now out of the AONB again, the Countryway leaves the North Downs Way briefly, picking up another urban footpath threading between gardens and through another patch of scrub to make its crossing of the M25 -- the last we'll see of it until we get all the way round to Waltham Abbey, as from now on the route runs outside it. Chesterton admires the curvature of the footbridge at this point but the bridge he used must have fallen victim to a widening scheme, as the current bridge is a chunky girder affair, not unpleasant but exhibiting no elegant curves.

On the other side the right of way cuts purposefully down an embankment and across an urban green space, Radstock Way Open Space, facing social housing, while zigzagging surfaced paths take a gentler but longer route. Here we lose the Socratic Trail, which keeps ahead through the recreation ground opposite, while the Countryway heads under a railway bridge and arrives almost immediately at the station, passing right through on the footbridge between platforms.

The line was opened in 1841 as part of the London & Brighton Railway's route to the south coast, but the government of the day insisted it was developed jointly with the South Eastern railway's route to Dover. The original LBR station was some distance south of the present one, but was closed in an effort to frustrate the competition by making it inconvenient for passengers to change between the two companies. The current station is the SER one, opened in 1844 although the current pleasantly rustic low-rise building and the footbridge date from 1905. Today it's served mainly by trains on the Brighton route, although only local ones that don't venture further south of East Grinstead or Horsham, and trade under the name Southern.


And though outside the GLA area, Merstham is in the outer reaches of TfL territory, with red buses providing two or three services an hour to Croydon from London-style bus stops complete with TfL roundel, though Oyster cards aren't valid. With time to kill before my train, I also find a pretty village centre with war memorial, and a greasy spoon caff that's open for cups of tea on a Sunday. A fine place to finish a London walk.

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