While doing research on the Canterbury Pilgrimage (a walk I’ve wanted to do for years), I discovered the Camino routes to Santiago which inspired me to organise and walk the Coastal Portuguese Way with a friend. I signed up to a number of Facebook groups, one being the Confraternity of St James, and saw a number of people commenting on the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Cicerone have also just published a new guide book and I soon felt re-inspired to give it a go. The plan was to walk for a week as I knew that I could not afford to do the whole route. I booked some campsites and a few Airbnb rooms as affordable accommodation is almost non-existent on this route. The pilgrimage really lacks the affordable facilities of the Camino and thus may lack the same attraction for pilgrims. Canterbury cathedral’s website does offer a map and an interactive feature to help find accommodation, but mostly expensive hotels that are on offer. This means that I will have to finish the pilgrimage in stages as I did the Thames Path.
Day one – Winchester to Alresford (15km)
I began walking quite late after taking an off-peak train ticket. But with the sun setting so late, it made little difference. I just needed to check into the campsite by 8pm.
I walked through Winchester and paid a visit to the cathedral to collect a pilgrim’s passport which I am meant to have stamped as I travel. There wasn’t really anywhere to get a stamp along the way. This also does not feel like a pilgrimage. Maybe because it’s through familiar countryside and I am alone. I’ve struggled to find affordable accommodation and the way is not well marked. There are no yellow arrows. Plus there is a distinct lack of people calling out ‘bon Camino’.
I didn’t stop walking until I got to Itchin Abbas where I met a man who informed me that the pub was closed. My face must have fallen because he then laughed and pointing in the direction of where it stood. Some men were at the bar, “Is that bag big enough?” One asked. “Do you need help getting it of?” It’s a 70 litres bag, but it’s not actually full. I now know I need a smaller bag, but I’ve yet to find one I like. I can get my tent, mattress, food and extra water all in without too much fuss. “No” I said, “if I can’t manage it then I wouldn’t carry it.” I think I gave them enough sass to leave me alone after that.
Finally, I got to New Alresford where I met a lovely lady on a bicycle who offered me a room. I was tempted, but I had booked a space in the campsite and was looking forward to a bit of space and quiet.
I waited for a bus after grabbing a half pint of lager from the Cricketer pub and found my way to the campsite at the top of a steep hill. The office was already closed. But Jo – the manager – had told me over the phone to just set up where I wanted and put £40 into the honesty box.
The location is not exactly on the route. I’ve had to take buses to get around as I figured camping here for 2 nights would be a lot cheaper. But it’s still very expensive for a small site in an empty campsite. I really should not have to pay more than £10. When I commented on the price I was told that it would have been better to have brought a bigger tent. Like that really would make all the different to my pocket. No. Your pitching price is highway robbery.
Watercress Lodges campsite: £20
Day 2 – Alton (20km)
I began the day early and made my coffee with my super light-weight coffee maker. You just lock the tripod onto your cup and put your ground coffee in the pouch hanging over your cup. Then just pour hot water over it. Hey presto!
I caught a bus back to the Cricketer pub and began my jaunt only stopping when I got to Ropley. Here, the village is picturesque and quiet and the shop is community owned with volunteers managing it. There is a small courtyard in which are placed tables and chairs and they provide instant coffee fixes for just a donation. So I sat there quite happily with a cuppa Joe and a cinnamon pastry before heading out again.
That day, I kept missing the turnings. I should have only done 20km, but must have done about 5km more. My feet hurt. But it was less hot and the butterflies were in force. The wheat fields were golden and smelled amazing. The canola seed pods rattled as I walked through them. I saw a hare hopping just ahead of me and I actually stroked a cow – something I don’t think I have ever done. I have quite a healthy respect for cows and try to vacate their fields as soon as humanly possible. But in one field, the whole herd came up to the fence that I had ever so gracefully scrambled over and wanted some attention.
In another field, I was startled by a pheasant who was in turn startled by me. I turned a corner by a hedge and had a mad flapping creature in my face while it screamed and I screamed. A man walked by laughing.
At the end of the day, I returned to my tent. My legs were blistered and red hot from the socks and heat. But I was feeling pretty satisfied. The next day was to be a shorter day and I was staying at an Airbnb. So I looked forward to hopefully having clean laundered clothes.
There is something incredibly satisfying in sleeping in a tent. The sun sets and the birds call. The wind calms and there’s the heady smell of warm earth while you read your book. There is so much space and quiet. I don’t have to have my phone on or reply to any emails as anyone trying to email me will just get my vacation notice automatically sent to them. I’m on holiday in such a profoundly relaxing way.
Watercress Lodges: £20
Day 3 – Farnham (20km)
I woke at 3am that morning to the sound of snuffling. Jo, who manages the site, had said earlier that if I heard snuffling, it might be a hedgehog. Well I heard it and got out of the tent using my phone to try find it. There was rustling in the grassy embankment by my tent and there it was: my first hedgehog. It was a lot bigger than I expected. It just stood there looking at me as I looked at it. Then it went back into the long grass and I went back into my tent.
I caught the bus to Alton and had a lovely cooked breakfast at a cafe on the high street. Then I continued on my way, stopping at some pubs to refresh. It was so hot! I met a couple who were walking a route that they had marked out for a community walk to raise awareness and funds for a charity set up in memory of their son who had killed himself. It’s to be a four day walk of 10 miles a day. I was shaken by the encounter. What a terrible thing to happen to a family. It was heart breaking speaking to them. How does a person come to terms with such a tragedy? Their resilience was incredible. They had channelled their pain into something productive and positive that would hopefully provide the means to help other people like their son.
The walk was only meant to be 15km today but was actually 20. I saw that I could walk straight down a road to get to my booked room. But the road was so dangerous. I was really scared. Plus I was really desperate for the toilet. I went into a small business park and saw an open door. I peered in and begged a couple of men if I could use their loo. Thankfully they said yes as the lager I’d had earlier was only rented. They suggested a safer route via a footpath and I made my dangerous way to it. Thank goodness it was not far. I was about ready to cry from terror of that road.
I finally made it to the Airbnb where I was welcomed. The host and her friend were both so welcoming as were her lodgers. The host took us to Waitrose where I was able to get some food to add to my noodles. Then we came back and I had dinner. We chatted a bit and I went to bed.
But it was not as early a night as I would have liked. England was playing Croatia in the world cup semi finals in Russia. The neighbours ensured that I could hear every near goal. Finally, all was quiet after England lost and I tried to get some sleep. But the curtains didn’t cover the windows and I had to rig something with the blankets. Then the dogs were locked up in the kitchen next to my room and were barking and whining to be let out. Then one of the lodgers came back from watching the game in the pub and had a loud conversation with the other lodger. I really do not think that that room was worth the price. I didn’t even have access to the kitchen because I’d disturb the dogs.
Day 4 – Guildford (20km)
My host offered me breakfast which consisted of toast, butter and marmalade. She put the bread slices into an ancient oven and promptly forgot about them until we could smell them burning.
‘Oops. I’ve burnt your toast. Is that OK?’
I hesitated, weighing up my options. What I wanted to say was? ‘No. That’s not ok. In what universe is it ok to serve burnt toast to a paying guest?’ but instead I said, ‘No…It’s fine. I’ll just scrape off the burnt bits.’ Which I then did in the sink. We sat outside drinking coffee and eating charred toast with bitter marmalade, all the while I was twitching to get going.
Finally, I packed my bag and went to the castle. I walked to the entrance and in horror saw a rather lush and expensive restaurant at the entrance with shiny wine glasses and white tablecloths. I was very aware of the fact that I probably looked and smelled terrible (having not had access to the washing machine) and I had a large bag on back which was liable to knock off those beautiful glasses and mar the pristine whiteness of the tablecloths. So I turned around and left.
I returned to the trail and decided to ignore the Pilgrims Way guide and just follow the North Downs Trail. I stopped in Puttenham and had a very substantial ploughman’s platter under an umbrella where my food was admired by a black Labrador and I was entertained by the antics of customers plagued by wasps.
The next part of the walk was forested which kept me cooler. But walking in that humidity was really difficult and I realised then that it is time to upgrade my bag to something a bit smaller and lighter. I’ve done some research since and saw that the Osprey Exos 48 is only 1.17kg. Osprey also do a Kestrel 48 which is about 600 grams. I wish the UK had better access to the awesome American brands: Zpacks and Ultra Light.
As I was coming into Guildford, there was a couple having a picnic in a bench overlooking a valley full of meadows and farms.
‘Beautiful spot for a picnic.’ I said as I passed them
‘Looks like you need one of these.’ the woman replied lifting her wine glass.
Didn’t I just, I thought
I finally arrived on the outskirts of Guildford and there was a pub. I dropped my things by a bench and table and went to the pub’s door. But it was closed! The manager came out saying that they were getting ready for the evening’s gig and I explained about my walk. He then offered me a drink regardless of being closed. He wouldn’t take any money but insisted I relax on the bench outside and enjoy my half-lager. Later, his wife came out, offering me another half-lager and asked about my walk. When I was leaving, I thanked them and once again offered to pay them, but they refused and wished me well on my walk. With my faith in humanity once again restored, I made my tipsy way back onto the trail and continued into Guildford to find my accommodation, only stopping at a Tesco to add to my noodles.
My Airbnb room was up a really long hill but it was well worth the climb. The hostess and room were so warm and welcoming. I should have asked to do my laundry there, but the host was using the machine for her linen. I had a shower, had dinner and went to bed. My host was also a singing teacher and had an old cat and a mini grand piano in her lounge. I felt right at home.
Day 5 – Dorking (22km)
By this point, the heat and humidity and the size of my pack was getting to me. My note taking became more erratic and the walk was more about putting one foot in front of the other and wiping the sweat from my eyes. It became very hard to remain motivated. Coupled with this were the constant messages from my Airbnb host asking for a more specific arrival time. This frustrated me and made me feel quite resentful. I was on holiday, struggling to get to Dorking, suffering from the worst heat rash on my legs that I’d ever experienced and now was feeling the stress of an anxious host. Pinning down when I was going to arrive at her front door was not something that I could easily do. Plus I didn’t want to be pinned down by clocks and such non-holiday restrictions.
Along the trail, some of the signposts were broken and I had to guess which way the North Downs went. At one such point, I took an unexpected detour. After realising that I had gone the wrong way, I brought out my phone to check my adjusted route back onto the North Downs. But luckily a local woman appeared with her dog and directed me back past an old lime mill.
I came out of the woods onto Ranmore Common where I was able to spread out on a bench and eat a soft serve and chase it with a cold coke. While sitting there with my shoes and socks off and my core-temperature returning to a more average range, a woman came and sat next to me. She told me that she had been an avid walker and missed not venturing out as much as she used to. We chatted for a while about our ramblings before she got up and entered the woods with a wave. I put my socks and shoes back on and continued, eventually walking through Denbies Wine Estate and into Dorking.
I exited a lane and found my way onto a busy road with a pub on the corner. There I sat, refusing to look at my phone, and had a half pint before using Google maps to locate my Airbnb. I knocked on the door and the host opened saying, ‘I’ve been waiting. I need to take my pupil up to Box Hill for an art lesson. I’ll show you your room, but I’ll only be in late.’ I never saw her again.
Well, at least I was able to use the washing and drying machines. Finally, my clothes were clean and it felt so good! I seemed to have the whole house to myself. I showered, ordered a Dominos pizza and read my book. The house was cluttered with bric-a-brac and smelled a little funny. The bathroom was carpeted and had roses on the shower curtain. My pizza arrived and I ate it in the room before having an early night.
Day 6 – Merstham (20km)
I woke quite early and stiffly and could hear the hostess going to the toilet and return to her room. I then ventured downstairs with my drip tripod and ziploc of filter coffee in hand to find the kitchen. The kitchen was a cluttered and smelly mess. All of the mugs were deeply stained and looked unwashed. I went back to my room and returned with my concertina silicone mug in which I made my coffee before returning to my room where I enjoyed my morning Joe and finished packing my rucksack. On going back downstairs, I heard the TV. I looked into the lounge expecting to see my hostess. But no. It was actually her adolescent son. I hadn’t even known that there was a boy in the house and thought back to when I had been wondering around the house in just a towel! I was a little flustered just thinking how awkward that would have been. I wished him good morning and he just grunted before continuing with his action game on the TV. I closed the front door behind me, relieved to be free of the strange house.
The first part of the trail led me up Box Hill. It’s a beautiful hike, but rather steep. I would love to climb it another day. It begins at a river crossing where you skip over stepping stones and onto the trail which then proceeds up and up and up. Finally, it tops out and the view really is amazing. I sat on a bench and had a snack before shouldering my bag and continuing. Much of the day was climbing hot steep chalk hills. I was really struggling. The day was a blur of pain and heat-fog. I wanted to enjoy myself but struggled in the humidity. What a relief to finished in Merstham! I entered a pub, sweating and gross, and exclaimed to the man behind the bar, ‘Well, aren’t you are a sight for sore eyes!’
He just looked at me and asked, ‘What can I get you.’ Deadpan and unimpressed. Such a completely different experience to being on the Camino.
Well, that killed the moment and I just ordered a beer and burger before retiring to a table where I devoured the food, poured the lager down my throat and chased it with a pint of icy water. I finally left, full and refreshed, bought some wine and food from the petrol station and caught a bus to where I was able to walk to my campsite.
While enjoying my meal and drinking my wine, a man arrived and started pitching his tent. He was smiling, pleased as punch to be adventuring and asked a family pitched nearby for a tent peg mallet. He then proceeded to try pitch his tent and spent ages struggling. It kept falling over and there he was sitting in the dirt, scratching his head. Finally, my reservations about intruding overcome, I went over and asked if I could help. We looked at the instructions and threaded the poles through the correct slots and he was able to get his tent up. I wished him well and went back to my picnic table before retreating into my tent and having an early night. The family pitched nearby were clearly experts at family camping. They had their deck chairs and disposable BBQ along with the children’s bikes. They even had a kettle that whistled.
Aldershead Campsite: £12
Day 7 – Home
The next morning, I woke up, had a granola and lay in my tent already sweating in the heat. The plan was to continue for another 12 miles. But I could not bring myself to feel excited. This was the point that I decided that I had had enough and I just wanted to go home. With no sense of guilt or disappointment I packed up my gear, walked to a bus station and took a train home, happy to know that I would complete the North Downs trail another time.