Section 5b, around 7 miles (11 kilometres), September, blue skies but cooler. Solo
There’s a bizarre sound coming from the foot tunnel under the railway at Gomshall. It’s the sound of a robin singing into a megaphone. There’s no robin in there. Either this tunnel is haunted by the ghost of a giant robin, or there’s a very pleasing auditory effect as a live one perches somewhere near the other end of the tunnel. You decide.
Needless to say I don’t have my recording gear with me.
There’s also an ethereal silvery morning rime on the grass as I cross the Tillingbourne stream and almost immediately I am distracted by the cutest looking spotted sheep and go the wrong way. A helpful laminated A4 tells me they are Jacobs and often have four horns, which by my reckoning is either a full horn section or two fifths of the Beast from Revelations.
After a few minutes whistling and feeling at peace with the world I realise I’m nowhere near where I should be and turn around, eyed with suspicion by a man in an Audi as he leaves for work. This keeps happening to me on the PW, particularly at the start, enough to make me wonder if I’m not suited to national trails and should stick to wandering aimlessly.
Before long I’ve reached the clocktower at Abingdon Hammer, named after the water-powered forge that used to be there, powered by the clear waters of the little Tillingbourne which hardly looks more than a dribble now.
The road up into the woods is wonderful. It’s one of those pathways that you step into and realise how ancient it is. The holloway is very deep from the footsteps of hundreds of years, and the beech woodland has been coppiced for centuries from the look of the boles. There are also enormous yews lining the route which I can’t see the importance of until I look it up later; yews were planted along ancient drove roads for shelter and as boundary markers. I guess the drovers would have been thankful as the road rises high up Hackhurst Downs. Hurst means a wooded hill, it’s tempting to think Hack- is about cutting, but it’s more likely to have once been Hook-.
Someone is throwing acorns at me.
The view from the top at Blatchford Down is rather lovely and very English pastoral and a sign at the top tells me it was indeed an ancient drovers road. Today I’m feeling contemplative, it’s been a stressful week and like most people I find walking flips the stress switch. Walking away recombobulates. I’m thinking of drovers and old English hursts, and Deor, the anglo-saxon lament: Thæs ofereode, thisses swa mæg, roughly translated as “time has passed since then, this too shall pass”.
I sit down for my sandwich. Walking for me can be a compulsion, almost an obligation rather than just a desire. I work with people who cannot climb up here even if they want to. It makes me appreciate that I can and I don’t want to waste the opportunity. Maybe it is autumn that is making me feel reflective; Days are getting shorter, time is running out.
Today’s walk stays on the ridge of the downs, for the most part sheltered beneath the trees. It also follows a defensive line of pillboxes from WW2, put there to repel a nazi invasion. Many of them are still here on the ridge.
There are plenty of beech and yew mixed in with other broadleaf trees. Beech I am a big fan of. The way light falls through beech trees is beautiful, think of a beech wood with dappled sunlight on bluebells. Think of the chance of a ghost orchid. Young or coppiced beeches have marcescence, the leaves don’t fall, which is why a beech hedge is often covered in copper leaves all winter. Beech is inscrutable.
Beech woods in autumn are also full of fungi. I know nothing about mushrooms but I’ve just discovered an app that will take a good guess. But don’t take my advice, nor that of the app as it is very quick to point out.
The only one I can confidently identify without help is King Alfred’s Cakes, the ugly looking black ones on decaying wood. I know this one because it makes excellent fire starting tinder. It glows and smoulders when lit. We know from archaeological evidence that neolithic people carried similar fungi to start fires. Just don’t eat it.
At Steers Field I emerge to more panoramic views, then down to Ranmore Common, where there’s an interesting looking church, designed by George Gilbert Scott, of Midland Grand Hotel, St. Pancras fame. I can’t tell you what the inside looks like as it was locked, I hear it is lavish and ornate. It bills itself on several websites as ‘The Church on the North Downs Way’, but as it’s not open to anyone actually walking the NDW perhaps we can take this name off it and give it to a more deserving and welcoming one, there are plenty.
The entrance, unusually, is on the opposite side of the building from the road. Not for reasons of aesthetics, it’s because the entrance is located for the convenient ingress of the Conservative MP, later Baron Ashcroft whose mansion faced the church on the other side. I’m sure god thinks that’s a great idea, if there was one he’d probably throw lightning at it.
The pile is now gone, but the estate has become Denbies Vineyard and the end of todays walk. It’s apparently the largest independent vineyard in Europe. The Romans once produced wine here, but I’d be very surprised if they got away with serving a tiny portion of chips in a cardboard cup for £3.
I guess someone is saving up for a new mansion.
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Other walks on the Pilgrims’ Way
I use The Pilgrims Way by Leigh Hatts as a guidebook, it’s pretty much essential for this walk. You can buy it here or from good independent bookshops.
I also use a GPX file imported from British Pilgrimage Trust into the Ordnance Survey app. It is available from their website and occasionally differs from the book.
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