News & views

Leading the group along the North Downs Way

By: Phil Whelan

At the tail end of 2016, I decided to embark on a new adventure - leading the North Downs Way as a series for the Met Walkers, armed only with a National Trail guidebook.

So, on 7th January, 2017, I hopped off at Farnham to be greeted by the sight of a large crowd of my fellow members, eager to dust off their walking boots for the 11-mile hike to Guildford. After the obligatory photo shoot at the start of the trail, I was off into uncharted territory - I had led walks for the group before, but never previously without recce-ing. My nerves jangled as I asked myself the questions no walk leader wants to face: What if I get lost? What if my book is out of date? What if we never make it to the pub!?

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Fortunately my fears were unfounded: the North Downs Way, like all marked trails (both National Trails, and major local paths such as the Greensand Way, Vanguard Way and Saxon Shore Way) is very well way marked - and all of us made it to Guildford intact, and able to enjoy the delights of the local Wetherspoons.

So began an odyssey which eventually spanned the whole of 2017 - one NDW stage in every calendar month. The journey carried us over 131 official miles (plus many more, if one includes the walks to and from train stations and pubs!) The series encompassed a variety of terrain: the Surrey Hills (with the famous Box Hill stepping stones); the woods, oast houses and quaint villages of Kent; the Medway Estuary; the historic cathedral city of Canterbury; and finally, the approach to the port of Dover, with its view across to the continent. There were so many great walking memories that it's difficult to choose a favourite, but leading the fast-paced Stage 2, featuring the sandy St Martha's Hill, a lunch stop at Gomshall and strolling past Denbigh's vineyard, would probably top the list.

Of course, there was amusement along the way. When a normally reliable pub in Oxted took two hours to serve our meals, a certain vociferous Welsh group member was able to obtain a few extra free bottles of wine for our party. There was much debate over the relative merits of the M25 (one lunch stop featured especially great views of the London orbital road) and the M2 (a very experienced walk leader questioned the sanity of walking for a mile next to this motorway along the Medway Bridge). Nearing the end of the series, I teased the NDW 'completists' - many of whom had done catch up stages in their own time to ensure they finished the route in 2017 - that any minor transgressions would lead to them receiving yellow and red cards, and thus loss of their prized certificates.

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However, now to the (semi-)serious part. Leading the series enabled me to explore and appreciate the countryside of the South-East in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. Better yet, I was able to lead the whole series without the need to recce any stage, which brings me on to probably the most important message of this article. If you would like to lead a walk but are nervous about navigation, there is no better place to start than by leading part of a marked trail. As mentioned previously, there are numerous marked local paths throughout London and the South East, as well as a few National Trails within easy reach of the capital. The experiences and laughter you'll have along the way will make it all worthwhile.

So, when's your next adventure?

Please contact Andrew or Ratul if you're considering leading a National Trail path but have concerns re logistics / group sizes / which pubs to go to etc...