Ancient castles, churches and settlements rub shoulders with high-tech modern architecture: people have lived in this gentle countryside along the River Wey for a very long time. Roaming through this Downs landscape, you encounter living history and remnants of the past at every turn, whilst high tech businesses and fast roads point into the future.
So far in my exploration of the North Downs, I have covered most of the northern section, from Guildford in the west to Rochester in the east. I now realise that the North Downs continue south east from Rochester, through Canterbury and on to the coast at Folkestone, and that the Kent section is larger than the Surrey one! That is a lot of land to cover, and it is further away, so I’m undecided as to how to approach it: I already have a lot of material, and there is a lot more from Canterbury to the south coast. Of course without it the job is really only half done. If you have any suggestions or comments on this dilemma they would be very welcome.
Anyway, today’s exploration covers the final stretch of the northern ‘wing’ of the North Downs that runs west from Guildford to Farnham (where the North Downs Way starts). It isn’t very far, but from the west bank of the River Wey at Guildford, the geology is quite different being a softish sandstone called ‘greensand’ rather than white chalk and flint. This creates a somewhat different countryside, with fewer steep gradients and lots of pine forests and very high bracken. It was also noticeable that the surface of footpaths that I walked on was mostly packed sand which is a bit softer than chalk and more ‘grippy’ underfoot.
Farnham is a delightful town on the banks of the River Wey, which is much smaller than it is in Guildford only 12 miles downstream as the Wey splits into two forks at Tilford. There have been settlements here right back to the stone age, and it’s position half way between Winchester and London made it an important staging post for kings and bishops, and it’s hill upon which the castle sits made it defendable. So it has a lot of history
I had decided to explore the town of Farnham, then walk to Guildford via Waverley Abbey ruins, a distance of about 25 kilometres, using trains to get me there and back. Although the town has developed a surburbia, particularly to the south, the centre is full of history and character, especially around the Parish Church of St Andrews and the charming high street.
Most buildings are red brick interspersed with older half-timbered structures and others from all periods, many of them very graceful. The old rectory is right adjacent to and a little below the churchyard, the outlook providing a constant reminder of our mortality.
Walking up towards the castle, I passed The University for the Creative Arts (UCA) with its modern buildings and sculpture park, right opposite the supermarket and car park. A lane took me steeply uphill to the castle entrance and I was surprised to find that you can walk around the entire place free of charge, and it is well set up with explanatory boards, pleasant gardens and good footpaths. There is a huge round keep, built in the 11th century, but attached to this is the bishop’s palace which is very stately and architecturally varied. It is still owned and used by the Church of England.
Walking down Castle Street, I stopped in the attractive Nelson Arms Tavern, which is an example of the ideal olde English hostelry, not at all modernised but apparently well run and serving nice food and local ale. I love pubs like this, which are authentic and unpretentious and am not the only one who misses them when abroad.
I walked along the Wey in the sunshine, with butterflies dancing around the wildflowers on its banks and people on lunch break enjoying lounging on the grass: something that would have been impossible in last year’s rain.
I then crossed the busy A31 and had a delightful walk through the wooded countryside past Moor Park House to Waverley Abbey ruins.
Only fragments of wall and chapels remain of this substantial 11th century Cistercian abbey, which was one of many destroyed by Henry VIII in his efforts to reduce the power and influence of the church, and transfer it to himself. Waverley House, an 18th century mansion, has been built in the grounds with a lake, the banks of which were shimmering with butterflies and bees. Then I spied a pair of herons who, very considerately, posed for me whilst I took a series of photos.
I then crossed over Crooksbury Hill with its fine views, and rejoined the North Downs Way. From here, it is a gentle walk on the sandy path that stays fairly level, running parallel to The Hogs Back (a long rounded hill running between Farnham Guildford and topped by the A31 dual carriageway). The route is very ancient, being the old Pilgrim’s Way, and is often wide enough for a cart to pass but sunken through the passage of countless feet. The pretty village of Puttenham is over half way to Guildford after which the Way passes through the middle of a golf course, with repeated signs to the 10th Tee. I then came across a hamlet of houses and a farm under Monkgrove Copse that are ranged along the dirt track, seemingly remote but only a few miles from Guildford!
Passing through head-high bracken and some woodland, you cross under the A3 dual carriageway (built about 20 years ago) and then under the B3000, which is the old A3 route, and on the parapet on each side is a tall cross, to remind travellers of the sacred nature of The Pilgrim’s Way.
I was then passing through very large fields, full of poisonous ragwort but one of which also contained a large herd of black-and-white horses: why would someone want to have so many?
The evening sun came out as I entered Loseley Park, giving everything a golden glow, and it was an easy stroll from there down into Guildford and my train home.
I’d had a great walk, seen much of interest and taken a lot of photos during the day, so it was very successful; and in addition, 25 Kms on foot is a good bit of exercise!