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A North Downs Way Diary
The year started brightly, glorious blue skies bringing out many walkers keen to shake of the hangover from the previous nights celebrations however we had decided to pop up the M25 to do a bit of shopping in the sales but not before stopping briefly at the Oxted Steps.
If you happen to be travelling along the M25 between junctions 5 and 6 look up towards the north, you should be able to make out the line of the North Downs Way on the ridge above.
Without knowing it you will have just gone past, or are about to go past the Oxted Railway Tunnel, depending of course on your direction of travel.
At this point the North Downs Way temporarily leaves the top of the wooded escarpment to head down a flight of wooden steps in line with the rail tracks that shoot off towards the south. If you walk along the trail it is worth stopping at this point and resting for a while on the terrace erected by the Downlands Trust to take in the view and reflect on some of the local history.
Just below you in the valley between the base of the steps and the M25 is, allegedly, the original route of the Pilgrims Way, like the motorway, the old trackway stuck to the low ground wherever possible and would have passed just in front of the railway tunnel. In his attempt to trace and search for the line of this ancient trackway, the Victorian author Hilaire Belloc reached this spot at nightfall in the days before Petzl head torches and was forced to scramble down the embankment and then follow the railway line in the hope of finding lodgings for the night.
Nowadays this part of the trackway is no longer a right of way but you don't have to look hard enough to see a tempting line heading East to West below the official footpath. This line is so tempting in fact that, in addition to a few walkers obviously determined to walk the actual route of 'The Pilgrim's Way', we have seen quite a few people, including groups of DOE'rs, scrambling back up the slope and through the brambles to rejoin the NDW, having missed the well marked turn.
Kev often sits on the bench thinking that it would be ironic if the actual line of the Pilgrim's Way now lay buried under the M25.
Anyway, back to the tunnel which although it was started in 1865 no trains were to pass through for at least another 15 years! The original franchise ran into financial problems and went bankrupt, probably not helped by a riot amongst workers.
The railway company used a Belgian workforce ( the return of the Cantiaci? ) who became involved in an affray with some local English workers in the Belgian's shanty town' bar.
What exactly caused the riot appears uncertain but the bar and quite a few of the shanty houses were destroyed in the fighting. The local authorities at the time came up with quite a novel solution to stop the rioting, bribe them with beer, great idea leave them to get completely hammered and then go in and pick up the pieces. Two of the arrested Belgians later escaped, running naked into nearby woods, it isn't clear why they were in a state of undress.
Once the trains started running the wealthy socialites and leading intellectuals of the time realised that they could leave the old dirty crowded City of London, live in the country and still be able to pop back for the odd social engagement in town.
Villages like Oxted started to expand. The new elite moved into their fashionable designer houses built in a mock Tudor style with staged interior designs, no doubt holding trendy, fashionable, literary evenings for their A list guests.
Ah... the good old days ... seems that very little has changed. Isn't history great!
After a week away in sunny Austria watching the snow rapidly melting around us we arrived back in the UK to 99 mile an hour gales. It appears that the weather is going mad all over Europe.
The gales have caused quite a bit of damage in most of the woodland areas on this section of the North Downs Way with fallen branches and in the worst cases uprooted trees blocking the path. Thankfully nothing quite like the damage caused by the 'Great Storm of 1987' which caused widespread destruction throughout the South East.
Perhaps now that we have Barney with us we are more approachable to the dog walkers.
A very enthusiastic lady in wellies with two equally enthusiastic dogs came up to us to ask where the path went, we were tempted to say Farnham but that may have been a bit too much for her to handle in one day. Unfortunately one of the things Kev didn't repack in the rucksack after our skiing trip was the local Ordnance Survey map, so we weren't really able to advise her about any paths nearby to get her back to where she had parked the car.
The few centimetres of snow that fell over parts of the south east during the week causing chaos to the rail network had gone by the weekend, well almost, the sad remains of someone's snowman was the only evidence that it had snowed on the downs.
The days are getting longer and setting off on a walk early has it's bonuses not only are there very few other people about but you also have more opportunity to see some of the wildlife, this herd of deer were grazing on the other side of the hill as we approached the North Downs Way from Cudham.
Farmers have started to move livestock back to graze in the fields, unfortunately a herd of cattle and slightly sodden ground doesn't mix very well resulting in a few churned up gateways and paths, it's amazing how the cows always manage to choose a gateway or stile to congregate around, turning the land into a bog when they have a whole field available.
Despite a chill in the air there is a definite uplifting atmosphere out in the countryside and a feeling that the shackles of winter are being thrown off. Snowdrops are already in flower in the woods a few weeks earlier than might be expected we noticed ladybirds and even a Red Admiral butterfly flying about - no doubt somewhat confused by their premature appearance. Spring is on it's way.