Late last Autumn, having spent far too much time staring at bright screens and cramming myself onto packed tube trains like a disheveled Tetris block, I decided that my laptop had been getting far too much attention and that it was my batteries that needed recharging.
Having made this decision, five minutes later, miraculously, I had organized an entire weekend adventure complete with transport and accommodation – it takes me longer than that to plan my route to work in the morning.
I had 3 criteria to fulfill:
1. Easy to get to by train from London.
2. Wild camping or cheap accommodation.
and most importantly…
3. Fresh air and trees!
The National Trails website, the Youth Hostel Association website and a train ticket site were the first and only sites I visited and they just so happened to tick each of my three boxes.
And thus, early one Saturday morning in mid November, I found myself stepping off of a train in Guildford and onto the North Downs Way.
I have always loved the National Trails. I walked the entirety of the Cleveland Way in Yorkshire a few years ago and often go for walks on the South Downs Way with my girlfriend and a cocker spaniel; we plan to walk the whole thing later this year.
Having read a few blogs and articles, I was led to believe that the North Downs Way was a far inferior rip off of its Southerly sibling with more towns and less views. With torrential November rain on the forecast, I set out with an open mind, hoping to prove the haters wrong.
I was on the trail within minutes of leaving Guildford Station and after crossing a bridge over the River Wey I entered a damp dense forest with a carpet of golden leaves and colourful funghi dotted around the place like some sort of mushroom museum. The path wound uphill through the woods and eventually I popped out into a large open field looking out over a beautiful valley.
The clouds broke and the sun shone so warmly that I had the luxury of hiking in a t-shirt for an hour or so – in the middle of November!
World War 2 pillboxes sit in immaculate condition all along the hilltop. I poked my head inside one thinking it would make an ideal spot to wild camp for a night. Bonfire remains and empty beer cans suggested someone else got there first.
The trail descended back into woodland and eventually I reached a National Trust car park. This, according to instructions sent to me by the YHA was where I had to find a separate trailhead that would lead me to Tanner’s Hatch; a once ruined cottage only accessible by foot, that was discovered by a YHA worker and restored into a beautiful hostel that opened in 1946.
Believing I had found the correct path, I walked down a narrow road past a beautiful church and turned onto a public footpath. The clouds were starting to give way at this point. Let the rain come, I just felt pleased that I had stayed dry for this long and was only an hour from the hostel.
Then the footpath hit a dead end. This wasn’t right. I checked my instructions and couldn’t work out where I went wrong. The rain really started to come down. Time for plan B. I got my phone out to see if Google maps could help me.
I could see the hostel on the map but there weren’t any footpaths leading to it from where I was. I didn’t want to turn around and go back in the wrong direction. There was only one thing for it – follow that little blue arrow while climbing over, skirting around and scrambling under any obstacles blocking my path.
As I delved deeper into the forest, the sky above darkened and I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. My phone was getting wet as I followed that little blue arrow. The battery icon flashed a dangerous red.
According to the arrow, the hostel was uphill through thick woodland. I ploughed on and almost jumped out of my prune-like skin as a deer burst out of the trees and almost landed on top of me. He seemed just as startled as I was and bolted off down the hill, disappearing in seconds.
I had to crawl under thick pine trees that felt like they wanted to grab hold of my rucksack and pull me back down the hill.
Slowly, my little blue arrow edged closer to the red dot that represented Tanner’s Hatch.
After what felt like hours, soggy and caked in mud, I emerged onto a wide pathway. The pathway I should have strolled along in the first place. In the distance, a cottage, salvation.
Somehow I arrived at the hostel an hour before check-in; nobody was around. Rain was still pouring and having stopped still I began to feel the November chill. I tried the doors and to my relief the shower block was open. Perfect.
After a long hot shower and a picnic in the shelter of the cubicle it was time to check in.
Tanner’s Hatch is the best YHA hostel I’ve ever stayed at (click here if you want to check it out/book a stay). It’s a small cottage with a pretty garden surrounding it. One side looks out over a wide, picturesque valley and on the other side is the forest that I just crawled through.
The living room has a massive open fireplace and a generously stocked wood basket.
I checked in with the hostel warden who stays in a small hut a few metres away from the main building. She informed me that I was the only person staying that night and would have just the hooting owls for company… and hoot they did. Another person may have found the whole experience a bit creepy, but as spooky as it was I had a wonderful stay at Tanner’s Hatch.
I cooked my dinner and spent most of the night reading my book, relaxing by the roaring fire as it dried out my clothes.
The following day I had a 10-mile hike to Merstham ahead of me that included a steep climb up Box Hill. I woke early and took my time getting ready, stoking the fire remnants while enjoying some breakfast.
I went and spoke to the warden who put me back on the correct path to rejoin the North Downs Way. I felt a little foolish walking down the very blatant path that I should have followed to the hostel the previous evening.
The woods were eerily quiet, that was until I started walking. I must have been the first person to pass through that morning and my footsteps acted like a bird alarm clock. Every few steps, I would wake another flock, sending them flying off in every direction, creating a Mexican wave effect as I walked.
I rejoined the trail and followed it through Denbies Wine Estate, the largest vineyard in England. It wasn’t long before I was back in the woods and came to a rather wide section of the River Mole, helpfully dotted with hexagonal stepping-stones.
The path steepened and I climbed some steps, 275 of them to be precise. This was the beginning of the climb up Box Hill. An infamous challenge revered and feared by cyclists. It was hard work on foot and I felt like I earned the view at the top.
Back on level ground the walk was far less taxing, the sun was out and it no longer felt like a cold November hike but more a light summer stroll through the hills. I walked through a field dotted with longhaired cows that would have looked more at home in the Scottish Highlands.
Throughout this walk, I came across a number of World War 2 artifacts and memorials. The most striking of these was on Reigate Hill. Two strangely shaped wooden benches sit facing each other at either end of a large clearing in the trees. An information board told me the clearing was created in March 1945 when a ‘Flying Fortress’ aircraft crashed into the side of the hill, killing all 9 members of US Air Force Crew on board. The benches are replicas of the wing tips of the plane, placed in the exact spot that it crashed.
This was not a walk on the South Downs Way; it was very different. But it had hills, it had dense forest, it felt wild, rugged and eerie at points and steeped in history in others. I spent peaceful hours without crossing a single other person and found this part of the North Downs Way to be just as beautiful as any other National Trail I have stepped foot on – and so easy to get to.
I arrived at Merstham Station, there was a train leaving for London in 3 minutes. In an hour and a half I was home with a cup of tea.
I’d had a little walk in the woods, been away for one night and yet I had the exact same buzz as when I cycled a thousand miles from John O’Groats to Lands End.
My batteries were well and truly recharged – and I wouldn’t be letting them get quite so run down again in a hurry.