First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Walking the old holloways under the beeches on Henley Common, Jane and I looked out between the trees to see the dull green wall of the South Downs backlit with early light diffused by mist to an apricot glow.
Under recently coppiced sweet chestnuts the light fell cool and grey between the saw-edged leaves. The slender rods of the chestnut stems were footed in thick mosses. I pushed my finger in as far as the second knuckle, and still could not reach the trunk inside the soft moss jacket.
Woolbeding Common fell away from its high viewpoint in a great slump of land, bracken-strewn and thick with silver birch and gorse. Three dogs hared up and bounced around us, tremendously pleased to be lords of all this heathy open space. Lowland heaths are rare commodities these days, thanks to agricultural and housing development, but Woolbeding and Pound Commons are carefully managed by the National Trust for their ground-nesting nightjars, their adders and lizards, the dragonflies and the deadly little hobbies that hunt them.
An old horse came slowly up the track, picking its way very deliberately among the stones, pulling a light two-wheeled gig with a blond-haired woman and her son on board. At that moment it looked the nicest thing in the world, to be jogging at an idle pace behind a stout nag over a common of golden gorse, purple bell heather and fresh green bracken.
We followed the heathery pathways down past handsome Woolhouse Farm. ‘Hammer Wood,’ said the map. ‘Hammer Pond, Hammer Hanger, Hammer Lane.’ Reminders of medieval times when these Wealden woods, the heart of England’s iron-making industry, were loud and smoky with smelting and hammering.
Between the holly stems on Lord’s Common we glimpsed the sharply peaked gables and long red roofs of the King Edward VII Hospital. This great tuberculosis sanatorium, built with its Gertrude Jekyll-designed gardens at the turn of the 20th century, is undergoing conversion to state-of-the-art accommodation. The sanatorium’s star architect, Charles Holden, planned it so as to admit as much daylight and fresh air as possible to the patients – a revolutionary approach at that date.
The midday sun came in through the leaf canopy to brush our faces as we turned for home along hollowed ways tunnelled by badgers since long before these hills knew houses, hammerponds, or humans themselves.
Start: Duke of Cumberland PH, Henley, Midhurst, West Sussex GU27 3HQ (OS ref SU 894258)
Getting there: Bus 70, Guildford-Midhurst.
Road – Henley is signposted off A286, 4 miles north of Midhurst. Ample parking on road verge near pub.
Walk (8 miles, woodland paths and holloways, OS Explorer 133): From pub, right up road. In 200m, right across footbridge (fingerpost/FP, yellow arrow/YA, ‘Serpent trail’/ST), up bank. At drive, right (black arrow/BLA) up bank to cross A268 (893256, FP, ST) – please take care! Follow woodland path (BLA, ST) to Verdley Edge. Pass The Lodge (887260) and turn left (ST). In 30m, fork right (3-finger post, ST); in 100m, fork left uphill off track (ST). Follow ST for 500m to edge of wood (881258); right on track along wood edge.
At gateway into open field (879259), aim for roof in trees ahead, following right-hand edge of field (BLA) to gate. Pass to right of barn (875258); follow track into trees. At T-junction with a track on edge of common, turn right (873258, ‘New Lipchis Way’/NLW). In 250m, left (871260, FP) and follow NLW, ST downhill to cross car park, then lane to reach bench and viewpoint (869260).
Back to lane. Right for 100m, left up gravel track. In 30m fork right on grassy path across common. In 500m, right at track crossing (872255, FP, YA); follow west, soon with wall on right, along edge of common. Follow YA and NLW. In 600m straight across road (866254) and on. In 200m cross larger road and on (NLW). In another 400m, at 3-finger post (861251, NLW), keep ahead past Ivy Cottage and Woolhouse Farm. In 250m, fork right off roadway (862248, 3-finger post). In ⅔ mile NLW forks right (875241), but keep ahead. In 150m, opposite Ash House, bridleway forks right (blue arrow/BA), but keep ahead up path curving left (YA) out of woods.
At Tote Lane (862241), left past Woodgate Farm; in 100m, right (FP) up field edge. Keep hedge on right till track turns right through it; ahead here through woodland to cross road (868242). Ahead (FP, ‘Dene House’) on stony track across Pound Common. In 200m a path forks left (869243), but keep right (ahead). In 150m at crossing of tracks, keep ahead uphill. In 400m track forks (873247); keep to right-hand track (YA) at edge of trees, and cross track to Eastshaw Farm (874247).
On through woods, passing King Edward VII Sanatorium on your left (glimpses through trees). Track bends right (882247), passes a BLA, and in 100m you turn left/north (4-finger post). In 150m fork left, in 350m, at 4-finger post, dogleg left-right up left side of house/garden to cross road (885251). On through trees (FP). In 300m cross Madam’s Farm track (885255, stiles, FP); continue through trees for 500m to descend to Verdley Edge (887260). Turn right and retrace steps to Henley.
Lunch: Duke of Cumberland, Henley (01428-652280, dukeofcumberland.com) – lively, very popular pub with great food. Booking advised!
Accommodation: King’s Arms, Fernhurst GU27 3HA (01428-641165, kingsarmspub.co.uk) – 1 mile.