Walking the Surrey stretch of the North Downs Way
- Credit: Chris Howard
Lace-up your sturdiest walking boots and get set for an epic four-day walk along the Surrey stretch of this much-loved national trail. Here's some inspiration for how to best to experience it. Words and photos Chris Howard & Ken Bare
If you’re a seasoned rambler or are simply looking for your next big outdoors adventure, walking the 43-mile Surrey leg of the North Downs Way (NDW), which runs from Farnham to Oxted, is a great goal to add to your wish list. You’ll need to make sure you have a pair of sturdy walking boots and an efficiently packed overnight bag that you can sling over your shoulders, as it typically takes four days conquer, depending on how much sightseeing you want to do along the way.
It's advisable to break it down into four sections, tackling one per day, with each day's walk ranging from nine to 13 miles. Confident ramblers will be pleased to know that the route is well signposted with an acorn logo marking it as a national trail. However, it’s always a great idea to join a guided tour. There are trained North Downs Way Ambassadors and other trail companies ready to whisk you off on an adventure. Another way to sample the route is thanks to Farnham Walking Festival in May and Guildford Walkfest in September, which both feature walks along the NDW as part of their offering.
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As well as being a brilliant way of getting out and about in the great outdoors, walking the NDW is sure to be a memorable experience. It’s one of 16 trails in the UK that have been specially designated, with extra funding from the government to maintain and protect them. The Surrey trail is an extremely ancient trackway, which some people suggest may have been used by pilgrims travelling between Winchester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. Today, it draws tourists near and far and offers the perfect excuse to quite literally step away from the stresses of everyday life.
Although the walk takes around four days, on average, you may want to factor in an extra couple of days to explore the ancient market towns, vineyards and other interesting things along the way, such as the abandoned gunpowder works in the Tillingbourne valley.
Day 1: Farnham to Guildford (approximately 11 miles)
The trail starts in Farnham (there's a sculpture that marks the start) and runs right across our county, through the middle of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As you follow the trail alongside the Hogs Back, you will be close to hop gardens famous for the Fuggles hop (a brewer’s favourite for its distinctive flavour). Further along you will come to the picturesque ruin of St Catherine Chapel before arriving at the attractive market town of Guildford.
You could easily spend a day exploring the historic High Street and the many independent shops hidden in all the tiny side streets.
There are also the remains of a Norman castle and pretty gardens, as well as Tudor buildings such as Guildford House Gallery. You may also like to enjoy a visit to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre or G Live to take in a show.
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Day 2: Guildford to Dorking (approximately 13 miles)
Back on the trail, you cross over Shalford Meadows and on to the stunning views at St Martha’s Church. Here you could drop down into the valley to explore the historic ruins of Chilworth Gunpowder Mills before pressing on upwards to Newlands Corner – one of Surrey’s most famous beauty spots with its café ideal for a pitstop.
A little further on you could do a short detour to visit Albury Organic Vineyard and a cluster of other local producers, including Silent Pool Gin, Norbury Blue Cheese and Mandira’s Kitchen.
The day continues along the high chalk ridge across to Ranmore Common and down into one of the largest vineyards in England at Denbies, near Dorking.
The historic market town is another great place to enjoy a day off, exploring the antique shops of West Street, or sampling one of the many cafés and restaurants available in this attractive coaching town. The Dorking Halls offers entertainment for your evening, unless the lure of Sorrel, an award-winning one-Michelin-star restaurant owned by Steve Drake proves a greater temptation.
Day 3: Dorking to Reigate (approximately 9 miles)
The next stage takes you to one of the most visited viewpoints in the county at Box Hill and the challenge of the Stepping Stones over the River Mole. The climb up to the viewpoint at Salomons Memorial is one of the great challenges of the trail, but well worth it for the view at top. There is also a National Trust café and toilets available here.
Moving on along the trail, you traverse sharp chalk cliff edges carved out by extensive mining in previous generations. The stark ruined tower of the old lime kilns at Brockham remind us of the area’s industrial past.
Towards the end of the day you will pass the famous viewpoint by the Inglis Memorial on Colley Hill. It is also worth taking some time to explore the 19th century fort at Reigate Hill.
From Wray Lane car park, you can head down the hill to enjoy another historic market town at Reigate. Here, you could take a day off and explore Reigate castle, the caves and museum.
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Day 4: Reigate to Oxted (approximately 10 miles)
On the final day of your trek you will re-join the trail and continue on through the attractive countryside at Gatton Park. This estate used to be owned by the Colman family who made their money from producing Colman's Mustard. The grounds were extensively remodelled by famous 18th century landscape architect Capability Brown. The estate is now divided up and one section is now the Royal Alexandra and Albert state boarding school. The other sections are managed by the National Trust and Gatton Trust. While on the trail here you will also encounter the Millennium standing stones placed in the park by the Jerusalem Trust. Each stone represents 200 years in time.
As the day progresses it becomes apparent that you are getting closer to an urban environment and from time to time you will be able to spot the M25. After passing through Merstham, with its attractive 13th century church, there is the opportunity to enjoy lunch at The Harrow pub near Chaldon – very popular with walkers.
In the afternoon you will pass the derelict White Tower. This folly was built by Jeremiah Long, a local farmer, in 1862 as a memorial to his son, who was lost at sea. Further along you will take in the vista from Caterham viewpoint, on Gravelly Hill. The route then passes tantalisingly close to Godstone Vineyard, which could make an interesting detour, before continuing on over Oxted Downs.
You will then need to leave the trail to head into Oxted, a town that is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, but is now a busy commuter town. It has good rail connections to London and the south coast so that you can bid a warm ‘farewell’ to your North Downs Way adventure.
To find out more, see nationaltrail.co.uk
Start: Farnham Railway Station.
Postcode for Sat Nav: GU9 5AG.
Grid ref: SU844 465.
What3 words: ///burden.bets.proven
Length of walk: Between nine and 13 miles each day. Allow four days.
Public transport: Good rail links along the entire route.
Food and drink: Various cafés and loo stops along the route but you need to plan your stops carefully and picnics may be needed on some longer sections.
Join Chris Howard, Ken Bare and the Surrey Hills Society on a free guided walk on the first Sunday of the month – see surreyhillssociety.org for details. If you're quick you can still book onto the Surrey Day Natural History Hike and Cream Tea guided walk on Surrey Day on 7 May 2022, from 2pm-6pm. £25 per person.