Well, that’s probably the worst title for one of these I’ve managed to do so far. It can only get better from here.
We prefer a shorter hike over Christmas. We tend to just invite people who are local (not in a League of Gentlemen way), mostly because so many people are away or busy. Rob gets final say over the route, because it often coincides with his birthday, which is on the 30th December and is quite frankly a rubbish day to have a birthday. You probably know all this already, this being our fourth one.
Rob intended for us to do the last stretch of Hike XV this time, specifically from Gomshall to Guildford, because we’d been forced to power through it last time in the dark, with many of us a bit too drunk, some unwell, and no one really able to appreciate it. It was all a bit of a glorious disaster, and would be nice to do properly (and actually see it.) The route didn’t require much in the way of planning seeing as we’d done it before, and turns out the trains were not too much of a nightmare for all of us.
Well, except it was 2022, which was not a good year for train journeys. At all. The outlook seemed bleak, so we decided to cut our losses and stay local. We’ve (in my opinion) absolutely rinsed the Crowthorne area for walks, to the extent I think I’m on a first name basis with most of the trees that line the Blackwater River near the Big Tesco at the Meadows, but we had one option left, which was to re-do the interesting bits from Hike X, the controversial outing which John didn’t make back then but could now. Given that the main appeal of this hike was to have a chance to again visit the Wheatsheaf in Heatherside, but this time in non-Covid settings, we didn’t need much convincing. The route was lightly amended to shorten it owing to winter light, we settled on a date, and we were good to go.
Arriving at the Costa on Crowthorne High Street (I don’t remember that being there when I was growing up in the 90’s) I find that we’ve already lost John, who’s popped back home when he realised how unruly his enormous parka was going to be. Rob’s dad, Jim, and his brother Sam join soon after – they previously joined us for the first stretch of one of our other Christmas hikes, and are planning on doing a similar thing here. John returns, we gather our things and leave.
By the end of Crowthorne High Street we’ve already cracked open Mat’s homemade whisky mac. (It’s 8:15am by this point. The sun has barely risen. It’s a strong indicator of the sort of day we’re likely to have.)
Not long after we start along the Devil’s Highway, past the infamous Broadmoor estate, and into Swinley Forest, a place we’ve spent a phenomenal amount of time walking through.
Swatty also kindly answers all my questions about public footpaths; how new ones are set up, how some can be (rarely) decommissioned, things like that. If you’ve any questions like this, drop a comment on the blog and we’ll send them on, he’s good like that.
Not long after this (I think, time loses meaning in Swinley) we emerge in Bagshot. We walk around a new and intimidatingly large Waitrose and enter Earlswood Park, where, upon reviewing our progress, we realise something that had been troubling me for quite a while: if we keep on at this healthy pace, we will arrive at the Wheatsheaf long before it’s due to open.
This is a grim awakening for us all as we search for alternatives to pad the route out. Unfortunately the only suggestion that seems even remotely reasonable comes from Alan (“Why don’t we just go behind that bush and drink for a bit?”) and rejecting his sage advice, we decide to risk it, and just take our time a little more.
We cross the M3 (always a pleasure) and enter Lightwater Country Park, taking our time to stop at the magnificent viewpoint on Curley Hill, where we can just about make out London on the horizon. Sadly unlike last time no hologram/ghost of a helpful tour guide appears and then vanishes to give us an overview of the, um, view, but we are familiar enough with it now to muddle by.
Perhaps this is why he didn’t appear.
A tactical decision is made to eat our lunch now to pad time out, (it’s about 10:30am at this point) and a few hip flasks are dipped into. Can you tell how eager we are to have the full Wheatsheaf experience?
As before, our route from Curley Hill to the Wheatsheaf took us via Wellingtonia Avenue in Heatherside, which is notable for being lined with scores of stunning Redwoods (218 of them, according to RedwoodWorld.co.uk). The link has some good local history, but for those of you afraid to drag your eyes from this blog, the TLDR rundown is they were planted by instruction of Augustus Mongredien (great name) as part of the estate including Heatherside House in the mid-nineteenth century. Most of this estate is now housing, but the avenue still runs, uninterrupted and awe inspiring, towering over the nearby houses.
This time around, however, we noticed something a little more unsettling…
Walking until the redwoods’ end, we meander around the local housing estate (I mistakenly compare it to Edgcumbe Park, for which Alan chastises me accordingly) until finally, only five minutes before its noon opening time, we reach the Wheatsheaf. (They let us in early, even if they wouldn’t serve us ’til 12.) As expected, Jim and Sam bid us farewell once we enter. It was a delight having them along.
We didn’t really get a chance to enjoy the Wheatsheaf properly in 2020. Owing to the way the world was in lockdown, it was table service only, a one way system, and we were sat outside, so we had all of about two minutes to soak it all in before we were ferried through and out to the benches amidst a flurry of hastily imposed rules and Covid-anxiety.
It’s not really much to look at on the outside, a bit unusual perhaps, but it’s hardly the rustic village country pub you’d expect to get excited over in winter. But inside…
I’ve said this a load but it’s sort of like a Clockwork Orange/70’s brutalist thing if applied to the interior of the Tardis. The whole thing is riddled with small nooks and spaces, as well as mezzanines and sub levels. It also reminded me of a tiny Barbican, which is almost entirely inaccurate.
I tried to find some interesting stuff out about this one, but all I got was it was built in the 1970’s by a prominent church architect and that due to the eccentricity of the design, the site was given listed status in 2018. You’ll have to make up your own narrative.
Unfortunately the dialogue shared among us in the pub was somewhat cruder than the setting, and the only thing worth sharing is that the boys noticed how badly I’d split the crotch on my hiking trousers. Naturally I styled it out like a pro, even if my bright blue running shorts were now clearly visible.
Regardless, our pints downed, we made the tough yet probably sensible decision to not stay there all day, and departed, our route taking us into the woods around Pine Ridge Golf Club. Last time we lost about 20 minutes helping someone search for a lost dog, which fortunately did not happen this time.
The downside of having padded out the start of the hike to get to the Wheatsheaf after 12 was that we were now conscious of light and finishing in darkness, which is never fun. We had adjusted the route to go a slightly different way than before which included a pleasant stream
(Which we had to pose on)
And then a particularly sharp hill that we had to climb and then descend, stopping at the top where we almost had some of our snacks pinched by a very friendly dog (not the lost one from last time, as far as I remember.)
Shortly after this we emerge in Frimley. I wouldn’t have thought there’s much of interest to share about Frimley (no offence, Frimleans) but there was a pretty amazing series of houses on Apex Drive that are worth a mention.
Apex Drive was designed by Laurie Abbott in 1966. Abbott was an instrumental figure on some of the most significant architectural achievements of the 20th century, including the Pompidou Centre and Lloyd’s of London, so this was quite a find (thanks, modernistestates.com)
As we progress through Frimley, we spy The White Hart, which has just the right amount of rustic looking charm/is a pub, to entice us. Well, it entices John, who heads in, then comes back to fetch us when we don’t follow. Some alpha level tension ensues as Mat is adamant (adaMat?) that we don’t have time owing to when his app says we’ll now finish and how dark it’ll be, not to mention the fact we’ve not long stopped, and a bit of a standoff follows until Rob suggests a compromise of a swift half lasting no more than 20 minutes. (It wasn’t that tense really, I’m just dramatising to make this interesting, go with me here.)
The White Hart is a far more conventional sort of pub than the Wheatsheaf. It’s got low ceilings, wooden beams, and (paraphrasing John) the bar staff had just the right amount of resentment towards us to serve us even slower than the locals (which didn’t help our 20 minute compromise.) We drink our beers and off we go again.
As tends to happen on these things, our group naturally splits into segments, with Mat and Swatty leading the way, Tristram, Rob and myself somewhere in the middle, and John and Alan languishing in the rear (they stopped at an off licence to get more beers.) It’s like this from Frimley, over the bypass, and along a stretch of the now-very-familiar Blackwater River.
We briefly reconvene as a group at a point along the river where Mat realises his app hadn’t updated properly, and our 6-something finish time is now more likely closer to quarter to five, so we’re fine now. Oh how we laughed.
We set off for the final stretch. I now join John and Alan at the back, helping them to drink their beers, which are quite heavy and need to be reduced in weight. The three of us definitely don’t get into a mock play fight like we did years ago on Hike V, nor do we all definitely not cross any bridges unsuitable for crossing.
The last few miles are more of the same; reducing unhelpful beer weight, spouting nonsense, and continuing to walk as the light diminishes.
We finish several metres shy of 16 miles at The White Swan in Sandhurst, which is fit for purpose and at least leans towards that wood panelled pub aesthetic, if nothing else.
We sink a few more beers there and start planning our next great, epic hike (here’s hoping, as long as we can pull it off it’ll be a doozy) before going off in search of a curry.
I definitely do not get so drunk I get hiccups. And even if I did, it’s not part of the hike, so it’s not getting blogged…