First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
It was a golden day on the North Downs, the kind you dream of in the murks of miserable winter, with a bright sun whirling in a silver sky and a light dusting of frost across the Surrey hills. Why kick against such delightful pricks? I downed tools and got the boots on.
The air stung and snapped at my nose as I stepped off the train at Gomshall station – a familiar place to me, hub of many a fabulous North Downs ramble. Today’s was going to be an old favourite, up the escarpment for a treading of the oldest road in Britain, then a return along the hollow way beaten out though the centuries by pilgrims travelling to and from the shrine of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. Medieval religiosity often tipped into outlandishness. In the stop-and-gawp-gorgeous village of Shere I found the little quatrefoil window in St James’s Church through which the 14th-century anchoress Christine Carpenter, incarcerated of her own will, viewed the Mass from her tiny cramped cell. Christine let herself out on one occasion and ‘ran about, being torn to pieces by attacks of the Tempter’, before being shut up again to continue her purgatorial imprisonment.
Up above Shere I was grateful to breathe the free air of the Downs. Under the bushy dark yews and leafless beeches the light fell cold and shadowed. The rutted track of the North Downs Way led west, a deep scar in the woods where men and beasts have been travelling, keeping high and safe from the dangers of the valley mires, since time out of mind – perhaps as long as eight thousand years. At the open gap of Newlands Corner I stopped to take in the prospect over carefully managed woodlands and a broad patchwork of hedged fields. What would the ancients have made of such neatness, such order and discipline, imposed on a landscape they negotiated as wild, tangled and full of hidden hazards?
At the chalky funnel of White Lane I went down the slope and into old coppice woods to meet the Pilgrim’s Way, broad and purposeful under the hazels. I followed it up a knoll to the dark ironstone church dedicated to St Martha – or perhaps originally to the ‘sainted Martyr’ St Thomas – and then let the old pilgrim path carry me back east. Before reaching Shere and the crackling fire in the White Horse, I turned aside to Silent Pool among its trees, to stand and dream of Emma, the woodcutter’s beautiful daughter, who bathed here and drowned while being spied upon by wicked Prince John. Just one of a million tales spun and woven along our ancient ways.
Start & finish: Gomshall station (OS ref TQ 089478)
Walk (10 ½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer 145): From Gomshall Station cross A25; under railway; right down Wonham Way. In 250 yards (250 m), right (087475) at bend. Under railway; left along lane to crossroads (082476); down Gravelpits Lane. In 100 yards (100 m), right by Gravelpits Farmhouse; follow lane across fields. In ⅓ mile (0.6 km), left through gate (076477) to St James’s Church, Shere (074478).
From church, forward; right opposite White Horse PH. Left at T-junction (073479); in 20 yards (20 m) right up recreation ground. Under A25; immediately left up zigzag path, then right up left side of Netley Plantation for ½ mile (0.75 km) to Hollister Farm (073490). Ahead here to road (072494). Right for 10 yards (10 m); left along North Downs Way/NDW (fingerpost) for 1 ¾ miles (2.75 km) to Newlands Corner (044492).
Continue along NDW for ¾ mile (1.2 km) to cross White Lane (033490). Left downhill on path alongside lane. Ahead by Keeper’s Cottage (034486) through wood (NDW); right at NDW junction with Pilgrim’s Way/PW (032484; ‘chapel’ waymarks) to St Martha’s Chapel on hilltop (028483).
Return to NDW/PW junction; ahead along PW for ¼ mile to cross Guildford Lane, ⅔ mile to cross Water Lane (047484), almost a mile to reach A248 (060482).
Left up A248 (footpath on right of hedge) to A25; left for 100 yards (100 m); cross A25 (take great care!) into car park. Follow path to Sherbourne Pond and Silent Pool (061486).
Return to PW. Cross A248; continue across field, through Silver Wood; on across field to cross lane (069478). Follow path for ⅓ mile (0.5 km) to White Horse in Shere; on to Gomshall Station.
Lunch: White Horse, Shere (01483-202518) – log fires; characterful and popular, especially at weekends
NB – Detailed directions, online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk