This one is going to take some explaining.
So this is the fifteenth full length hike for our little band of wanderers. It’s also hike ten, done again! Merstham to Guildford was the continuation of our Pilgrim’s Way walk, which we started with Lenham to Canterbury.
Lenham to Canterbury was the one where I went to all the trouble of getting a pilgrim’s passport, remember? No one stamped it, despite all the places we stopped at. It was pretty sad. Tragic even. Anyway, remember the passport shenanigans, because like a well constructed drama, this is foreshadowing at work.
Mat did what he does best and plotted our route, although then was reminded by John that he’d literally planned the exact same route three years ago for our aborted hike ten. The hike never came to pass because of a certain global pandemic which reduced our scale significantly for a while. This was our chance to finally do it, and it did not disappoint.
Planning for this one goes through a few permutations when we discover this route has vineyards, breweries and distilleries to see. Our ambitious escalate as we try to find a compromise between distance and places to drink.
Logistics take a blow when a series of train strikes are announced. These are quickly undone by the passing of the Queen, and our numbers bounce back… for a while.
Bounce may be a bit strong as our usual pre-hike dropout occurs, almost halving our numbers. The day before the hike we lose Arran, Ruaidhri, Tom, Jim and Graeme. Then Mat gets ill which takes out him, Little Tom and Big Al. (When Mat goes his extended invitees fall, too. The metaphor that comes to mind is like when someone in a war movie shoots the guy holding the flamethrower and he blows up taking out all the guys near him.)
It’s a very early start for many of us given that Merstham is thoroughly inconvenient for everyone other than people who live in Merstham. For my part it involved a generous early morning lift from Rob to his parents house, a walk that recreated my journey to school as a teenager, and then a long taxi ride with half of our crew courtesy of returning hike guest, the Mango Man, once again failing to provide any mangoes. The group meet at the Quality Cafe, a properly authentic greasy spoon that absolutely does the business, even for poxy vegetarians like me.
Our stomachs lined with enough grease and fat to give a buffalo a cardiac event, we do the only thing one should do with this full a belly, and go on a twenty four mile walk.
Our walk starts innocently enough, going through a few fields, throwing a frisbee for a friendly dog, and following the North Downs way through a very posh school that for some reason is open on Saturdays. The grounds are stunning and the weather is fine. Our pace is excellent, despite the abrupt elevation that takes us both up and down until we eventually reach the some stunning views over Surrey.
A gentle revision to the route over the bridge is followed by a gentle revision to that revision through a tree tunnel, which I include only because I like the visual, and Alex’s orange t-shirt.
A short while later our route officially hits the Pilgrims Way, which is of course very exciting for everyone.
Our marching pauses briefly to admire a striking tower that Max tries to climb with little success, and we resume.
We pause briefly to admire the grave of Quick, who by all accounts was… a dog. Quick’s owners were sure about that if nothing else.
Then we’re off, again climbing and descending while testing our legs but never dropping our pace.
Well, for some of us anyway. The inevitable split between the marching hikers and the relaxed wanderers occurs around nine miles in, which is normally fine except we at the back get confused, worrying that we’ve gone awry at a crossroads that leads up a hill, so we turn back when another group of walkers tells us they saw the rest of our group going through an adjacent meadow.
Confusion deepens when the meadow path comes to an end with a fence. In desperation, we turn to Alan for leadership, and he concludes that the path we’ve lost is mere metres below us through the hedge.
The path is indeed revealed to us, which turns into a steep slope downhill. Fortunately someone in the past decided to “help” by cutting steps into the way down. The quote marks are because the steps were clearly only made for elephants to enjoy. They’re brutal.
The two halves of our team are reconciled at the stepping stones that cross the River Mole, and after waiting patiently for everyone on the North Downs way to cross before we can, we proceed as one, Rob making us pause to take advantage of us lined up.
From there, we cross the dual carriageway A-road, using a group of Duke of Edinburgh students as a convenient human shield from the oncoming traffic, and leave the pathway ten miles into our walk to stop at Denbies.
I’m going to admit, I was a bit sceptical of the idea of Denbies. Don’t get me wrong, I love a vineyard, but when it comes to hikes I’m all about a pub stop, and the fact the inside closely resembles a garden centre crossed with a farm shop doesn’t fill me with hope. Anyway, sitting outside we stop for lunch and a drink and things look up. I offer the group some coffee and guava energy blocks I was sent by accident when I was race training and most of the group look at them in horror.
Then a few bottles of wine is drunk and people’s moods improve further.
We liked this a lot. Probably too much…
… because Max thought it would be a great idea to buy twenty pints to carry for the remaining fifteen miles.
This all sounds great in principle, although a logistical issue quickly presents itself because twenty pints of beer is not the most portable of things.
Some utter tomfoolery occurs as our crew desperately try to find a way to carry this thoroughly impractical but immensely appealing gift for us all. Everything about the next fifteen minutes descends into giggling carnage as the team tries to siphon off as much excess as they possibly can in order to fit the sack of hoppy nectar into Max’s hastily emptied bag.
This is probably the worst decision we’ve ever made on a hike. Or the best. Definitely the best. Clyde did say this has probably made it the last hike, and at that point it was hard to fault the logic.
Finally, having managed to gain control over the unruly skin of beverage, we leave the vineyard and rejoin the North Downs way, several liberated pint glasses passing back and forth between the group as we work hard to lighten Max’s load.
The route back on the North Downs Way gives us a fantastic view down on Denbies, and I’d like to say this is the very reason why our pace in these next few miles takes an utter hammering, but you probably won’t buy that.
We pause to check the route when the road forks and some of the team take a moment to collect themselves.
Continuing west we reach Ranmore Common and its stunning old church. Churches are, as you know, a hike staple, so we decide to approach, cunningly hiding our beers outside and pretending to be sober.
“Are you here for tea and cake?” asks a very nice member of the church, and we explain that we’re hiking to Guildford from Merstham along the Pilgrim’s Way. “Oh!” she says, “You must get your Pilgrim’s Passport signed!”
Well. Flashing back hard to our failed attempts in our Canterbury hike, we shoot round to the other side of the church and enter, any hope of properly regaining our pace well and truly lost by this point. My Pilgrim’s Passport lost by this point, they offer to just stamp a piece of paper with their brand new stamp, which I gratefully accept.
We lose even more time admiring the church, but that seemed well justified as it was pretty stunning.
The problem is, the more enthusiastic we seem about the church (beer fuelled, although it was lovely and we do love a church), the more enthusiastic the people in the church get, clearly delighted to have a group of engaged and handsome young men to discuss it with. They were lovely though. Surprisingly dry sense of humour, too.
Having been urged to sign the guest book, we bid farewell, pausing to admire one final gravestone and reclaiming our concealed beers.
Now, you’re probably thinking this has got a bit wholesome, or that the blog is getting a bit tonally inconsistent. I can’t say I blame you, but don’t worry, things get a bit silly again now.
As mentioned above, somehow over the years I’ve managed to include lots of pics in the blog of John relieving himself, for illustrative purposes. He cottoned on to this recently, so, concerned I might not get any this time, I decided to get an insurance policy:
A short while later we reach an old Second World War pill box, something we see a surprising amount of on these hikes.
The views from it are superb and we end up spending far too long on it.
Our attempts to regain some movement prove to be in vain until Pete releases some truly putrid gas which forces everyone to hastily clear out.
It’s quickly becoming apparent at this point that we have many miles to make up and not a lot of time to do it in. Looking at the elevation in Mat’s route, we decided to descend as quickly as we can in an attempt to get as flat a route as possible for a while, pausing briefly to check the route and get another group shot.
Now, despite being aware of the day getting on, we’ve walked far enough to get in one final pub stop before the last push. You can either believe this is because we want more beer, having polished off the twenty pint skin on top of the pill box, or because we need to get in a sock change and review the route, I leave it up to you.
The Compasses is a charming pub in Gomshall situated over a shallow stream. The beer does the business and the staff kindly refill our water bottles for us.
Some of us decide to use the time more constructively than others.
As we’re leaving, Pete sees an old boy (Richard’s description) getting into his car. They lock eyes. The look of shock on the older gent’s face as he struggles to process Pete wearing his John mask is an absolute picture, so Pete does the sensible thing here…
The next ten minutes are spent laughing so hard at this that we’re all tripping on endorphins but eventually we collect ourselves and follow the stream towards Shere. The light is waning as the sun’s set continues, and we’ve six miles to go. Things could get a bit hairy.
We cross a ford, which Alex decides to walk through despite having a perfectly reasonable footpath to use.
The sun finally sets around 7:30, and the head torches make their inevitable appearance.
We walk in single file under Newlands Corner, the head torch I patiently spent hours charging quickly proving itself pathetic compared to the lightsabers Tristram, Alex and Max all brought.
I spend a good while marching up the last main hill behind Tristram, cheekily stealing whatever light I can.
We pass by St Martha’s Church, cutting through the graveyard in true goth fashion, pausing in the darkness near the car park of St Martha’s Hill to check our route. In principle every path should lead us west to Guildford, but at this point we dare not take the risk. Energy levels are so low that several of the team even consume some of my (presumably horrible) coffee energy blocks, anything to make things go quicker.
Speed, however is not on our side as we ascend St Martha’s Hill. This final hill is steep and hard to climb in the dark, but worse still for some reason it’s also covered in dense sand, slowing us down and making our exhausted legs work even harder than before. (Will thought we’d got lost and were approaching the sea.)
At the peak of the hill we collect ourselves one final time, turning the torches off for a minute to admire the clear sky. The lights of Guildford beckon us on.
Then we’re off for the last push back to civilisation, funnelled into a single file track between two fields that goes (mercifully) gently downhill for the last mile or so, the only sound that of a dog in the distance hearing the sound of twelve pairs of feet slowly dying and mourning them.
It was around this point somewhere that Rob tells me he was pretty sure he saw the Grim Reaper watching him from one of the fields.
Finally, we leave the woodlands behind for good, emerging onto Fort Road, a remarkably posh road in Guildford’s south east corner where Alan summed up how everyone was feeling in expressive dance:
A few more roads lead us to the edge of Guildford town centre and we make the executive decision to finish at the first pub we see, The March Hare, which was wonderful and a pub I’d like to visit earlier in the day and with properly working limbs.
A kindly pub patron offers to take a photo of the group so we’re all in shot for once. This would be great for Rob as he always takes these pictures, except he’s only got about an hour left until the Angel of Death claims him.
Standard issue victory pints ensue, although given the late hour many of our group depart before this in order to get home, their parting gift the promise of stiff legs the next day.
A small contingent go on to consume a well deserved meal out, and we part knowing we’ve overcome but thoroughly satisfying day out.
And this concludes Merstham to Guildford, our third longest hike to date. I’ll leave you with two pictures which I think summarise the day nicely:
Walking Idiots, disassembled for now.