A couple of weeks ago, I walked part of the North Downs Way with a friend. Not a particularly unusual event, normally, but many of us have had rapidly to adjust our expectations of normal over the past months. I had wandered through the fields around my home almost every day since lockdown, charting Spring through the greening hedgerows, the emergence of butterflies, and the increasing birdsong. The hills were calling, though, and I was looking forward to sharing a walk.
We had chosen the meeting point and decided on a direction, but other than that had no plans other than to walk, talk and enjoy the glorious weather. We set off through Denbies Vineyard where the young vines were starting to climb and coil around the wireframes. Following the North Downs Way westwards, we climbed up through beech woods, past a small flock of sheep in a fenced off-field, and past Ranmore Common church, a sacred slice of Gothic Revival architecture appearing rather incongruous amongst the trees. The ground was parched from lack of rain, and there were deep ruts from where a vehicle had made a manoeuvre. We looked out across the valley and the tree-lined horizon with Leith Hill Tower ahead. Crowds were beginning to trickle in from the hill-top car-park, and I felt the need to press on, to discover, to step away from the every day and become an intrepid explorer. We welcomed the shade as the North Downs Way led us through a gate and into an arboreal tunnel where the temperature, though still pleasant, dropped slightly and the sound of people’s voices was replaced with birdsong. A speckled wood fluttered towards us and hurried past, seeking the sunlight, perhaps, in a woodland glade.
The path followed the contour of the hillside and was fairly level, with just the odd tree root to cause us to be mindful of our step. We passed an old WW2 bunker, a concrete cube with a small narrow entrance leading into its dark depths. We didn’t venture in, looking out instead at the views, which could be glimpsed only intermittently through the trees. Now and then, the track opened out onto grassy areas where, amongst prickly stems of field-rose, common spotted orchids grew in delicate splendour. When my stomach began to make rumbling noises, we trod carefully over the bank in search of a lunch stop, trying to avoid plonking ourselves on a bramble or, worse still, an orchid. I munched a sandwich and mentally paused; looking into the green woodland of young oaks was deeply calming.
It was around this point that we made an error of navigation, for sometime after lunch we noticed the terrain becoming unfamiliar. At the start, I’d intended to walk some distance along the North Downs Way, then turn right and amble back through the woodland alongside Ranmore Common Road, and back down the hill to the vineyard. Neither of us recognised the scenery now and when we climbed through a meadow to read the sign at the top, it confirmed we weren’t exactly where we’d thought: Blatchford Down. On the North Downs Way, but rather further along than I’d anticipated. There was quite a walk back, but the weather was glorious, the views equally so, and we had water. We tramped through the woods once more until we reached the gate where the trees ended and the grassy down began. Passing through the gate I felt rather as I imagined Lucy to feel on stepping back into real life after her trip to Narnia: the sun was still high in the sky, picnickers were still out on the hill-side, and children with ice-creams were trailing parents up the slope. We walked down into the vineyard and back to the cars. It had been a glorious walk and freedom was slowing opening up. I resolved one day to trek the whole route from Farnham to the sea. But I would need to use the map, this time.