Yomping @NorthDownsWay – 15km with 15kg of (mostly) baby from #Merstham to #Betchworth in glorious sun!

Part 2 of my North Downs Way adventures took place on Monday of last week – the nicest day of the year so far, with the whole walk taking place in pretty scorching (for the beginning of April!) conditions. But what a walk it was! The slight issue was that I was due home to meet Papa (maternal grandfather) as he was staying that night, and we were late leaving (typical 45 minutes of unaccounted baby prep time), which meant I knew I was on a tight deadline to catch a train home without really knowing how long it was going to take, so did it at a fairly punchy pace which meant I perhaps didn’t enjoy all the views I should have.

Setting off from home, we walked to Merstham Cricket Club where the NDW leaves the village. They call themselves “one of the prettiest grounds in the South East”, and they’re not wrong:


The path is then uphill all the way to Gatton Park, about 6 km away. It’s a picturesque route across Reigate Hill golf course then into the Queen Alexandra school grounds before heading up the National Trust part of Gatton Park (the school is based in the old house and Capability Brown gardens), which is mostly woodland – nice shade! At this point I started passing more other walkers already than I had in the whole of my previous walk. Including some runners who clearly weren’t out for a gentle jog…rather them than me, although they may have thought the same about me of course!

At the time I thought I would have preferred a bit less hill at this point, but come the latter stages of the walk I was very glad I’d got the main ascent out of the way early. It was about 180m of total elevation gained, so not steep but fairly relentless.

The next stage was along the Reigate ridge, a path that follows a few decades of military history. First up is the Reigate Hill Fort, actually a very late example, coming from the 1890’s, when there were fears of war with France (how things changed!) – I didn’t go in due to time, but it looks relatively well preserved if empty.


A bit further along the ridge is a more sombre site, the location of a WWII American bomber crash – a story with a lot of family poignancy. My maternal grandfather had been a bomber pilot too, and had an amazing selection of similar near misses. I think they have marked it very sensitively, with two small benches in the shape of plane wings, looking out of the clearing across the countryside and down into Reigate.


At this point I had to stop taking photos with my phone as its battery isn’t up to both tracking such a long walk as well as doing other useful things. I did have my camera, but it was in the backpack and I was nervous of stopping too long to put No.2 down, get the camera out, take the picture and put it all back away again in case I missed the train… This did mean I didn’t take a picture of the stunning view at the end of the ridge out West, with a lovely stone rotunda commanding the view. 

A little bit further along the path I left the NDW to detour via the only public house anywhere near this route, the Sportsman in the fantastically named village of Mogador. One of my favourite books introduced me years to the wonderful exclamation “Well, I’ll be mogadored!”, making visiting this village a personal mission from the moment I first drove past a road sign with it’s name on. While I think “village” was quite a big word for a small collection of houses, the Sportsman was a lovely place to rest. Unlike the previous couple of walks, No.2 was quite happy to come out of the pack-pack, and eat her Ella’s pouch while sat on the pub garden table. And I have to complement the sandwich I had, which was substantial and came with a big helping of salad and homemade coleslaw. And a half (I have learned something!) of Youngs Bitter, which was also very nice. And much needed!

But I knew I couldn’t rest long – while this was past the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure by how much – my tracking app said about 8.5km, and I reckoned it was about 13km in a fairly straight line in total (but knew it would be further in practice). So I set off back for the NDW, which once I rejoined it immediately made a VERY sharp descent from the heights of the ridge down to the plains. I am glad I went in that direction to be honest, as that slope would have been very difficult with the pack-pack. I passed a few young boys near the top who were clearly feeling it, and checking their phones to see how much further there was to go!

The path was then a bit less interesting, as it followed the bottom edge of the woods covering the side of the ridge. This meant that you couldn’t see as much, and also gave me a significant core workout in addition the cardio. The trees were low and over growing the path, and nervous after last time having caused No.2 to cry by catching her with a branch I was bending very low to make sure I didn’t do the same. I think this got me some odd looks from all the groups of older walkers that seemed to be out in force. Until they got level with me and saw her smiling face behind me and then they started cooing over her. Everyone was jealous of her, getting to do the walk without putting the effort in!

After a lot of woods, the NDW descended completely to the plains floor. I now knew both that I was approaching Betchworth, and also was pretty sure I was going to make my train, so was able to relax a little. This meant that when I left the NDW to take a more direct route to the station I actually noticed the scenery. Which was fortunate, as this path went through one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to in this country. A little vale with a farm hamlet along the track that the path followed, with the hills and woods above, and open fields around, with a few animals in them. Then down to and along the railway, passing some houses I lusted after (Kemps Farm and Wildecroft), a tunnel under the trainline and tucked out of site in the corner of the field the gate into the footpath over the cutting that leads to Betchworth station, and a well deserved sit down for me, and get out and play for No.2!

The only disappointing thing was the vintage of my phone meaning that I didn’t have enough battery to either take many photos or track the complete length of the walk – it died short of my destination, meaning I only know that it cut out at 14.85 km, a bit less than half a km short of Betchworth. Gutted. But I did that in 2 hours 41 minutes, and that includes some time at the pub when as usual I forgot to pause it. In total, including pub time it took exactly 3 hours, as I arrived 30 mins before the train. And No.2 was delightful the whole time, and Southern even allowed us to make it home about 5 minutes before Papa arrived! 

A really good day, although I felt the miles the following day!

Out on @NorthDownsWay Pt 1 – a long stroll to the pub from #Merstham inc @the_pilgrimsway

One of the goals for our joint time off was for both Mummy and me to be able to do some more exercise and get back into some semblance of fitness following the intense first 9 months. I think its fair to say that this didn’t go quite as well as hoped, and although some good things happened (my swimming improved, a running club was joined) in the main we are well on the road to hell.

And when doing solo childcare, opportunities are even more limited. In fact as a Dad they are effectively non-existent, as there are no “buggy fit” classes for Dads, and I’m not in a hurry to repeat my yoga experience of last time. So I’m trying to get exercise in other ways – as in my previous post, walking and cycling appear to be the best options. As No.2 has taken to being carried in the pack-pack, I did make good on my intention to set out onto the North Downs Way a few weeks ago for the first time, and again today, taking advantage of the unseasonably fine weather.

The first trip was a linear, there and back from home out of Merstham to a delightful pub higher up the Downs on the way to Caterham, the Harrow on the Hill. The weather was fine and warm, sufficiently warm that the hoodie I wore was too much, with no wind. As No.2 won’t wear a hat, this meant that I had to put the weather hood on the pack-pack to keep the sun off. It worked well, but was a bit of a hazard in among trees as it would catch on any low-hanging branches.

The path from the station heads up over the Merstham Bund that shelters houses (a bit) from the M25 noise and then go straight over the bridge and into trees. Initially uninspiring the path runs along a road for a short way before starting to head into the countryside proper, briefly engaging with civilisation as you go under the M23 (Merstham is nestled between the two, but except for the edges of the town/village it doesn’t have much impact).

Then came my favourite, if hardest, bit of the walk – uphill through a long field to the top ridge, where the North Downs Way meets the Pilgrims Way. This was good enough for a panoramic photo:


Unfortunately my current phone isn’t exactly up to date, so it’s a bit hard to make much out, but this shows the sweep of Merstham, with Redhill, Reigate and Gatwick in the distance. It really was quite stunning, and made me wish for my proper camera.

The NDW now joined the Pilgrims Way (from Winchester to Canterbury, yikes), and we followed the edge of this escarpment all the way into the next set of hills – highlights along the route included a sign from the ages and a garden from Mad Max:

      
After the significant trog up the hill with the extra weight on my back, I was glad that it was mostly flat and well-laid paths and roads. My favourite momentary rest on the walk was at the edge of Park Ham, part of the Quarry Hangers Site of Special Scientific Interest, where there was a warning about the presence of sheep (because they’re pretty scary, right?) and asking for volunteers to be “Urban Shepherds”, something I’ve never heard of before, but which is a real thing – check out the Urban Shepherds NGO! With farming blood in my veins, in the event I ever have spare time again I might revisit this idea, as it appeals. Would also be a conversation starter on a CV!

Something that did surprise me was the lack of other walkers – I guess a weekday and an early and surprising first really warm day presumably left many unable to come out. Pilgrims may be a bit more fair-weather these days I guess?

This track eventually brought us to the Harrow pub – which is a proper country pub, despite the customary gastro pretensions (the food is good having been separately). Good beer selection (I had St Austell Tribute, excellent beer, well kept). However my error was again to get a pint – she’d been quiet and contended in the back-pack, having had a nap up the hill and along the ridge, so I foolishly thought stopping for a drink and snack would be what she wanted. Oh no, not at all. I couldn’t take the wriggling and the whinging so left 1/3 of a pint and set off back the way I’d come. The only real difference on the way back was that the view the other direction into London was more emphatic, and so the below poor effort shows what you could see looking into the gleaming spires of London (and the Manhattan of South London, Croydon slightly nearer).


I mistakenly thought this was another gradual extension of No.2’s time in the pack-pack. However it turned out I’d massively underestimated both the distance and the time. In the end it was some 13km taking (not including all of the seemed like 30 second break in the middle!) a smidgen over 2 1/4 hours. Coming back down the hill was a lot quicker and more pleasant, as you saw the view the whole time, not just when I needed a rest!

No.2 did really well, having had a usual 30 minute nap as well as some quiet spells – however the low-hanging branches made an appearance right at the end, and a hawthorn branch kissed her cheek, giving her a shock which meant the final 10 minutes were a bit fraught and noisy. Right as rain when we got home. Having enjoyed it, and been impressed I kept going so long, I was determined to do more NDW, so started plotting my next route – going the other way from Merstham. Which I completed yesterday – an account of that to follow!

Dusting off the pack-pack: trial #walking with No.2 – phew, she likes it! 

Avid readers will recall my excitement at about this stage last time when my LittleLife child carrying backpack turned up, allowing me to head out across Wimbledon Common with Junior. Well, now we’re in the lovely North Downs I decided it was high time to dust it off and prepare to do some more serious walking. 

Our village, Merstham, is one of the stops on the North Downs Way, in fact one relatively few urbanish areas it goes through on this bit of the route. However I decided that heading straight out on the NDW would perhaps be a bit adventurous, given my lack of fitness and No.2’s lack of time in the backpack (endearingly called the “pack-pack” by Junior). 

So last week I did a little warm up on a more familiar path South out of the village and round Mercers Lake, which also doubles as my ~5k running route. However, the ground was definitely not suitable for running as it had rained for a couple of days beforehand (someone did jog past me, I don’t know how they made it round the corners!). This route follows the lake, past the sailing club, doubles back to the pub, then in this case I went round Spynes Mere Nature Reserve for the first time, and back into the village. About 6-6.5km all round (I forgot to put my measuring app on). 


Which all went pretty well, with two notable exceptions: No.2 fell asleep 10 minutes short of the pub, and was not amused by the stop, and the path round Spynes Mere was a complete mud bath in places and it was lucky I had good walking boots on, or we’d both have got very muddy. However there were some nice viewpoints – a mix of seagulls and cormorants on the jetty. I have to say, the way round I went left the best of the Mere to last, to start with its mostly trees. Later on some rabbits dashed across our path. 


The pub was a shame, as the Inn on the Pond is a nice place, albeit possibly just slightly over-modernised, as although it has lots of original country pub features (low beams, high bar, fire nooks) somehow they’ve almost been made to look not real with all the burnished wood. Or maybe they aren’t real and I’m a romantic. However the Whitstable Bay is always good, and it’s passingly pleasant in there.

Fortunately she/I/the pack-pack passed the test, and she slept all the way home from the pub, so seems to enjoy the pack-pack enough that I’ll take her out in it again. I may even break the bike out and test her out in the bike seat with her new and tiny helmet!