First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Riddlesdown rises opposite Kenley railway station, a steep slope of rough grassland dotted with buttercups and speedwell, and scrub woods thick with yew, oak and ash. Wrens whirr, blackcaps flute, squirrels scuttle up the tree trunks. A rutted chalk track winds up the slope and vanishes over the crest. Walkers stride the grassy paths of Riddlesdown as though they own the place – and in effect, that’s just what they do.
If the Corporation of the City of London hadn’t bought the ‘Coulsdon Commons’ – Riddlesdown and its neighbouring ‘wastes’ of Kenley Common, Coulsdon Common and Farthing Downs – for £7,000 in 1883 (nearly £1 million today), there’s little doubt what would have happened. All four high green open spaces would have been gobbled up in London’s inexorable southward expansion. As it was, the City of London dedicated the 350 acres of Coulsdon Commons, ‘fine, open, breezy downs, already largely used for purposes of recreation by the public, and now for all time secured for those purposes.’
Along the crest of Riddlesdown I followed a flinty track among dog walkers, strollers and kids dashing hither and yon. It was a shock to descend from the open countryside to find the A22 snarling and stinking in the valley bottom. A minute’s wrestling with this monster and I had left the houses behind, climbing up through woods again to the yellow buttercups and blue speedwell drifts of Kenley Common. The occasional rattle of a train came up from the valley, but the birds in the woods along the common were far louder.
A pint of Lancaster Bomber in the Wattenden Arms, whose panelled walls were hung with wartime photographs of fresh-faced fighter aces from nearby Kenley aerodrome who used to drink here in between aerial duels with their German counterparts. Then I moved on, dipping down into suburbia at Old Coulsdon, rising again to the tangled woodland paths on Coulsdon Common.
The local landowner’s enclosure of portions of Coulsdon Common in the 1870s provoked two brothers into taking him to court. Lobbying and legal advice from the newly formed Commons Preservation Society helped the pair to win their case, and pressurised the Corporation of London into making its philanthropic move. The CPS (now called OSS, the Open Spaces Society), is 150 years old this year, and still working to preserve our open green spaces. What would we do without campaigners like these?
I crossed the steep-sided combes of Happy Valley where children were running and yelling through the hay meadows – a sight that would have gladdened the hearts of those public-spirited Victorian aldermen. Then a last long descent through the buttercups and fairy flax of Farthing Downs with the outlandish monoliths of 21st-century London rising on the northern skyline like a nightmare warning of what might have been done with our green spaces – what could still be done – without the vigilance of the OSS and others like them.
Start: Kenley station, Kenley Lane, Surrey, CR8 5JA (OS ref TQ 324601)
Getting there: Rail to Kenley.
Bus 434 (Coulsdon-Whyteleafe)
Road – Kenley station signposted off A22 between Purley and Whyteleafe (M25, Jct 6)
Walk (7 miles, moderate, some steep steps. OS Explorer 161. NB: Detailed directions, online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Down station approach; right to cross A22; up steps and hill path opposite. In ¼ mile, at clearing with 4 gates (327603), go through uppermost gate. Bear right on grass path to join main gravel track, Riddlesdown Road. In ½ mile London Loop path (‘LL’) joins, before track crosses railway and descends to A22 (336593). Left along road; in 50m, right across A22 (LL), across railway, and up New Barn Lane, then up steps through wood (LL, ‘Hayes Lane’). By Kenley Common notice at top (333590) ahead with wood edge on right.
In 150m, into wood (332589). Ahead over path crossing, past Kenley Common notice, on through wood. In 250m, main path bends right (330588); but keep ahead on lesser path to reach open field. Diagonally left across field to fenceless gate and fingerpost in far corner (329585). Ahead (‘Hayes Lane’) past bench; follow path through wood. In 100m, right along lane (LL, ‘Hayes Lane’) for 300m to road (325583). Right (LL); in 150m, left (LL, ‘Old Lodge Lane’) and follow LL signs through corner of Betts Mead and on to road (323582).
To visit Wattenden Arms PH, turn left for 100m. To continue walk, cross road; bear left (LL) along left edge of field. Across next paddock to stile (LL); ahead along lane (‘Waterhouse Lane’ fingerpost). At T-junction, right (323578, LL). Descend to cross Caterham Drive (323576); on up Rydons Lane for 500m to cross road (321571). Ahead (LL, ‘Coulsdon Road’) to cross B2030 (319569). Ahead down Fox Lane. At Fox Inn, bear right round sports field and past Happy Valley notice (317568, LL, ‘Farthing Downs’).
Follow lane along right side of field. In 400m pass bench at corner (313566); on through woodland. Bear right along side of next grassland valley; through neck of woodland; descend slope of next open valley (‘Happy Valley’) diagonally right to bottom (308568). Keep same direction up far slope to top right corner (306569; LL, ‘Farthing Downs’). Ahead on track through Devilsden Wood (LL) to emerge by notice on Farthing Down (302572). Bear right; follow path parallel with road north for 1 mile towards Coulsdon. Where it joins B276, turn left along Reddown Road (300590). In 150m, right across railway to Coulsdon South station.
Return to Kenley by rail via Purley station; or District Cars taxi from Coulsdon South station (0208-668-9000; £7 approx).
Lunch: Wattenden Arms, Kenley (0208-660-4926; thewattendenarmskenley.co.uk) – cheerful place with wartime memorabilia
London Loop: Download leaflet guides at https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/loop-walk; or follow directions in ‘The London Loop’ by David Sharp with Colin Saunders (Aurum Press).
Open Spaces Society: oss.org.uk, 01491-573535