Pilgrims’ Way, Box Hill to Merstham

Section 6 around 10 miles (16 kilometres) Sunny, September. Solo

I am staring at stepping stones over the River Mole. I’m not sure how spatey the river needs to be before you’re supposed to use the bridge but it looks absolutely fine to me. I forget that my balance has gone to hell in a handcart since I had covid. I start confidently, and halfway across I remember and freeze.

The brain is a curious animal. As soon as I remember, my legs are mush. It doesn’t help the stepping stones are annoyingly spaced so I couldn’t stride confidently if I wanted. So like a man in the midst of a midlife crisis at circus school, I walk across like I’m twenty metres up on a highwire and I’m regretting my life decisions. Good job there’s no one to see me. Then I’m embarrassed by how easy it was. Thanks brain.

I’m at the foot of Box Hill, despite the guidebook’s pronouncement that all the box trees have been felled, I’m surrounded by them. Buxus is a lovely tree, and one that sadly you don’t often see au naturel. Usually it is clipped tight and prim into cones and balls, and very occasionally something more impressive but as a naturally growing shrub or tree it is much better. It’s the kind of tree that wants to be neat but finds life has other ideas. I can relate.

Buxus sempervirens

It’s very slow growing and so dense that its wood doesn’t float. I know a few spoon carvers who covet a nice bit of box. It has been used in the treatment of HIV, and to make bagpipes and other instruments; I guess it can bear a lot of strain. It is also apparently used to deter witches. Witches like to count the leaves on trees and because it has so many they lose count and forget to cast spells on your allotment. I know, seems very unlikely, I’ve never met a witch who was distracted by counting leaves. Besides, why not curse your neighbour’s carrots first and then count the box leaves? I can only assume Box Hill is not a popular meeting spot for the Dorking coven.

There’s the glorious smell of woodsmoke in the air and Box Hill feels steep. I start dreaming of bonfire toffee and baked potatoes. I’m miles away, huffing up the hill and getting distracted by an Airedale terrier so I miss the turning and unnecessarily go up two more flights of stairs and have to come back down again. Pah.

Box Hill eventually opens out and I’m under a line of buzzing pylons, looming and striding over me. Pylons have a modern mythology around them, people see ghosts under them and our minds can be haunted by them: think 1970s public information films warning you to keep away, or think of the macabre fictional town of Scarfolk. Pylons have the power both to enhance the architecture of and electrocute the soul of a landscape. They make me uncomfortable and yet I need them. That’s when I see a murder. A murder of crows. They’re crawking and swirling and generally having a riotous time but each time I move near they relocate a little further away, cackling with laughter. They sometimes come to rest, one per fence post, staring in a line, a cordon of black security guards. Then amongst them I see a leucistic crow, partly white. I’ve only ever seen one before on Lundy Island. I feel lucky.

Then I’m back where I belong, under the yews. Much of the old woodland is fenced off here, but the fence has been trampled, I like to think by militant badgers. I find more King Alfred’s Cake mushrooms, the tinder fungus. There’s a lot of superstition about yews and death, but for many years yew clippings were collected from stately homes and colleges to turn into cancer fighting chemotherapy drugs. Now they are synthetically made or grown commercially. You can’t be negative about a tree like that. It brings a chance of life.

I lose my stamp book near the Lime Kilns, so I traipse back to find it, cursing myself. The pied crow brought me luck and I find it after a few minutes. Thanks Mister crow.

There’s an unexpected view from the hill above Betchworth, a huge lime kiln tower looming over the valley. The whole lime quarry area is managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust and this tower is home to several rare bat roosts. I’m tempted to revisit on a summer evening with the bat detector. I bet there are glow worms with all this chalk around too.

I can hear woodpeckers along this woodland, one of the few I can confidently recognise. Chuck chuck chuck.

There are also plenty of interesting looking side paths, an occupational hazard on the PW. Before long I’m in National Trust country.

At the top of Reigate Hill (peak bagged, believe it or not) there’s a busy walkers’ café and I’m tempted by the menu.

But I settle for a tea and a take a look at the nearby orientation pillar. It’s an outstanding view and I learn I’m not yet even half way.

The truth is, because I was forced to postpone this stage, when I reach Merstham I’ll have completed much further, 91 miles out of the total 138 in fact. This must be what time travelling feels like. I’m both here and elsewhere. I wave to myself.

Gatton Park is nice and I was happy (if not a little confused for the time of year) to see a helleborine orchid. But there’s a weird bit where you are walking through a school. I was in the middle of a cross country race which brought back long buried nightmares. There’s a church just off the path that is usually locked but the local guide happened to be inside and explained most of the ornate wood carvings had come from Europe. He seemed quite annoyed the NDW and PW runs past. Then I remembered I’m still in parochial Surrey.

And toward Merstham where the station is conveniently placed right by Quality Street and the PW. How about this for a path to guide me home:

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Other walks on the Pilgrims’ Way

Walk Info

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.

One response to “Pilgrims’ Way, Box Hill to Merstham”

  1. I too have never met a witch who was distracted by counting leaves. Kudos to Mr. Crow – well done. I would definitely try that Bangkok Bad Boy Wrap. Love that orientation pillar. That is quite the homeward path.

    Liked by 1 person

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