My good friend Izzy and I were making some very last minute plans via whatsapp for a weekend microadventure. We often embark on ill prepared (and often ill fated) adventures together.
There was the time we attempted to float the River Arun from source to sea in a rubber dinghy we bought at TK Maxx. Or the time we walked the Cleveland Way and Izzy wore brand new boots and her little toe got infected and exploded (she got the bus most of the way after that).
We decided to try and keep it simple this time to give ourselves every chance of doing the impossible and actually completing an adventure without anything going wrong.
A few months previously I’d spent a couple of days walking a section of the North Downs Way. It was close enough to London that we could get the train there cheaply, plus it regularly passes through towns so we’d easily be able to get the train home after 2 days of walking.
So, early one Friday morning, we met at London Bridge Rail Station and hopped on a train to Merstham in Surrey, where I had finished my previous section hike on the North Downs Way.
We didn’t know a great deal about this section of the trail, but I knew it was well signposted from my previous walk so neither of us were worried about our severe lack of planning.
On the train to Surrey we split food and supplies equally between us and I looked up a blog post on the ‘Rambling Man’ website so we could have a sneak peek at the glorious ‘back to nature’ escape from the city weekend that lay ahead of us.
The first thing I saw as the page loaded was a large photograph of 6 lanes of M25. The first couple of paragraphs go on to detail how closely this section of the North Downs Way comes to some of the South’s largest and busiest roads.
I put my phone on aeroplane mode, shoved it back in my pocket and told Izzy that I didn’t have any signal.
Another reason for me wanting to get out of the city and into the woods was to try out a new hammock I’d recently acquired. I’d never wild camped in a hammock before and was really excited to give it a go – although at this point I was picturing myself slinging the thing up between 2 lampposts on the M25.
We arrived at Merstham and I was surprised to see Oyster Card readers on the gates at the station. It’s even easier to get out here than I thought.
We soon found the trail, which after a short while crossed over some motorways by bridge, under some more motorways by tunnel and, to our relief, headed into some suburban and eventually more rural territory. We walked down wooded pathways, through farmer’s fields and passed a garden containing the remains of a broken down aeroplane and a helicopter.
The motorway was often visible, and even when it wasn’t it could be heard rumbling away in the distance. It didn’t particularly bother me though, and after a while the sound faded into white noise. I actually quite enjoyed walking along the hills looking down at the network of roads and motorways below. It was a reminder of how nice it was to be enjoying the outdoors, rather than hurtling along the motorway or stuck in traffic.
The trail roughly follows a ridgeline with some great panoramic views and some well-placed benches. It dips sporadically in and out of the woods and throughout these wooded sections of trail I noticed the pungent smell of garlic in the air; specifically wild garlic I soon came to realise. We picked a few handfuls each and put them in our bags.
Eventually we began to see less and less of the motorways and finally we entered a large forest where we felt, at last, like we were in the countryside. Signs informed us that we were in Titsey Estate, a privately owned wood overseen by the Woodland Trust.
When I’d finished giggling at the word Titsey, I noticed a smaller side trail off to our right through a gate. We’d done about 10 miles by this point, roughly half way to Otford. I noticed several trees spaced far enough apart for a hammock and the ground was flat enough for Izzy to bivvy. It was perfect.
As we followed the path to find a camping spot we passed a beautiful viewpoint with a bench overlooking a huge valley and the grounds of an impressive manor house called Titsey Place.
My first foray into hammock hanging was a roaring success. Thanks to some handy “tree straps” I bought, I had the thing swinging in 2 minutes flat. I was dead chuffed and eagerly invited Izzy to try it out. Half an hour later I was still sat on the ground while she happily swung away.
I managed to drag Izzy out of my hammock and back to the viewing point to prepare dinner – tomato and wild garlic pasta. As we got our stoves ready, we came to the realisation that we had a very small amount of water between us. Much of this would be used to cook the pasta.
This was more of an issue for me, as I can’t function without a cup of tea at the end of the day and one to kick start me in the morning (and usually a dozen in between).
We’d already checked Google maps to see if there was a pub nearby (naturally) and found nothing. I studied the map some more and noticed a car park a mile or so down the trail. I went for a jog to check it out while Izzy finished preparing the food. Perhaps there’d be be a public toilet there with a tap.
The jog was a lot longer than I had anticipated and I’d already covered at least a mile and a half before I realised this was a really dumb thing to do. I was making myself more tired, thirsty and dehydrated trying to reach a water source that almost certainly didn’t exist. I turned around and started running back.
A split in the trail that I didn’t notice on the way down appeared and I suddenly became very disorientated. A dog walker approached.
“Did you just see a girl cooking a meal on a bench?”
“Yes I did, my dog tried to eat her meal!”
At least I knew I was going the right way, I started running. I had a brainwave and shouted after the lady to see if she knew of any water sources nearby.
She thought about this for a moment and asked me what I meant by near by. I said I’d stretch to a couple of miles for a cup of tea.
“Oh there’s no need to go that far. If you carry on along the North Downs Way for 10 minutes you’ll see the pub just up the road on your left.”
This particular pub was called ‘Botley Hill Farmhouse’. Not a typically pub sounding name, we had scanned over it on Google Maps assuming it to quite literally be a farmer’s house.
I practically skipped back to Izzy to deliver the news that I didn’t have any water, but there would be cold pints of beer for dessert.
When I got to the bench Izzy was sat with a grin on her face and a pile of pasta in the dirt at her feet.
It turned out the helpful lady’s dog had tried really quite hard to get at the pasta and in the process knocked the pan over. Thankfully he didn’t do too much damage and there was plenty of food left. The wild garlic tasted great.
Two hours, 3 pints and a chocolate brownie later, we sat in a beautiful pub garden on top of a large hill surrounded by incredible rolling views of the North Downs. We were treated to an incredible sunset and what could have been a very thirsty and miserable evening in the woods turned out to be the perfect end to a great day.
We walked back to the woods by torchlight with full stomachs and full water bottles. We arrived at our camping spot and made a small fire while the kettle boiled.
I was gently rocked to sleep in my hammock. Izzy, on the other hand, was woken up at 4am by a wild boar! More about that here.
My hammock set up is lightweight, works brilliantly and cost less than £30 in total!
- Click here to check out the hammock
- Click here to check out the tree straps
- And here’s a handy guidebook for the North Downs Way including maps