Sarah Gardner: a national treasure
With London going mad for all things Olympic, I headed out of the city for some peace and tranquillity. All week my mind had been conjuring up visions of wildflower meadows and dappled woodland groves and so, after some consultation with the maps, I settled on the officially-recognised outstanding natural beauty of the Surrey Hills – home of chalk grasslands and diverse wildlife.
The North Downs Way National Trail is a favourite route of mine, not least because it is so accessible from the city by public transport; 40 minutes after leaving London and oppressive grey cloud, I hopped off the train at Woldingham to meet blue sky and open fields. The North Downs Way is a good place to unwind; 153 miles of the most diverse walking habitats, included the Kent and Surrey Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). They boast swathes of chalk grassland that support wildflower, herbs and mosses and rare butterfly, such as the Adonis Blue and the Chalk-hill Blue.
Passing a quiet farm, I turned right off the dirt track, over the railway and onto a tree-lined public bridleway. To my right, sounds of nickering and grass being ripped from the ground draws my attention to a pair of grazing horses, which raise their heads at my approach. I pause by the dappled grey mare and breath in the scent of horse and grass. A powerful sense of relief sweeps through me – I’ve escaped! I fancy I could turn around to see each petty annoyance I felt this morning squashed into the dusty ground and trapped in the imprint of my boot.
Shortly I pass Woldingham School, before passing through a set of impressive iron gates. I half expect the gates to mark the entrance to a stately home, but instead the footpath widens to lime and olive coloured fields, yellow rapeseed and thick clusters of beech in the far distance. Wildflowers sway gracefully in the long grass, and smudges of red poppies bleed over tractor markings. Pausing by a gate, I’m transfixed by the abundance of butterfly, dancing in and out of the flora. A sudden flash of white rump out of the corner of my eye betrays a plump rabbit, which freezes for a short moment and then ups and jumps away. Occasional birdsong drowns out the low hum of distant traffic. I could be alongside Frank the Cabby and his wife Nellie, witnessing the birth of Narnia – all I need is a singing lion.
Eventually I leave Surrey’s version of Eden behind and turn into Marden Park and Great Church Woods. The Woodland Trust now owns both these woods, following a successful local campaign in 1994. Accessible path networks have been created and habitats managed, following the 1987 ‘Great Storm’, with the result that tawny owl, roe deer, woodpecker, wood anemone, bluebell and orchid thrive.
A green-soaked shadowy light gives the strange sensation of being underwater, as moss covered beech twists upwards like seaweed. I half expect Galadriel and her elvish guard to walk out from the trees at any moment. This woodland habitat makes up almost 60 hectares of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and part of the Woldingham and Oxted Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The area is of international importance due to the shaws, old coppice, wooded ghylls, parkland trees, small carrs and conifer, as well as yew and box woodlands.
A short break in the trees gives a clear view across the hills to the streaming traffic far below. White butterfly dance in and out of the shade and bees hover on the sainfoin. Aimlessly I glance up and see a roe deer, staring back at me with huge liquid eyes. For a few strained heartbeats we are united in our stillness and then the snapping of twigs makes the deer bound back into the woods, and a few minutes later a boy cycles past, as shy as the deer.
Like all National Trails, the North Downs Way is extraordinarily well-maintained. The waymarks and signage, aka ‘aids’, is excellent; I hardly even refer to my map. This is entirely deliberate; National Trails are meant to be as easy to use as possible, which is partly why I, and approximately 12 million visitors each year, enjoy them. There are over 2000 ‘aids’ at each path junction on the North Downs Way National Trail alone, each one perfectly maintained. The aids are meant to make the route as accessible as possible, with gates replacing awkward stiles. Rather than clutter the natural beauty, the aids are sensitively installed and blend into the landscape. It’s obvious someone has thought long and hard about all of this.
I cross Three Ways Junction and find myself suddenly overlooking the ridges and wealds of the Oxted Downs, the highest point of the North Downs. A lovely carved bench nestles in long grass and rhododendron; the perfect picnic spot. According to the clean and well-maintained information board, if you are lucky and in the right season, you can spot Hairy Violets, Pyramidal Orchids, Dark Green Fritillaries – and even basking adders! The National Trust and Natural England restored this rich habitat after the chalk grassland had almost been eradicated by scrub. Since 2002 cattle and sheep grazing has been introduced to maintain the stunning wildflower meadows and rare insects supported within it.
Great Church Wood climbs up the valley, a dense mass of ancient coppiced trees. I then take a historical diversion. St Agatha’s church has been in existence since at least the 1300s; not only is it very old, it is also very small, accommodating 40 people up until 1934 when a new parish church took over. The small beautiful script on the doorway reveals that is is still used, welcoming visitors with the words, “This church is open every day for prayer and quiet”. I’m not a person of faith, but it pleases me that I am still welcome to enjoy the peace radiating from the lovely old building. A huge hollowed yew stands by the church door, which is apparently as old as the church.
Leaving the churchyard, I pick up the path again and follow it all the way back to the railway tunnel, which was constructed in the late 1800s and considered to be one of the great engineering feats of the time. I stand on the bridge awhile, breathing in the clean air. The only people I have met on the path today includes a jogger, a vicar and a phantom lumberjack who I heard but couldn’t see. The flora and fauna has been exceptional and I would happily venture that our National Trails are not only a national treasure, but Olympic gold standard.
Find out more:
- National Trails are under threat – read about Ramblers Campaign for National Trails
- Walk the North Downs Way
- Walk the Woldingham Circular
- Walk with Ramblers
- Follow our tweets: @RamblersGB and @Sassgee