North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way, Farnham to Guildford

Frazzled after a gig, I took myself off for a walk. Many years ago, I attempted to walk the full North Downs way with a now ex-friend. But for reasons I no longer recall, we started at Guildford, rather than the actual start point of Farnham.

And so, a decade later, but still feeling early somehow, I made it to the beginning.

We might get there one day.

Farnham station is separated from the town centre by a fast bypass, which takes ages to cross as cars are prioritised. The town itself is little better: the climate crisis has not make it to Surrey, if this market town filled with pensioners hemmed in on tiny pavements waiting forlornly for a gap in the traffic is anything to go by.

This town could be so beautiful.

I bought a sandwich for my walk and had a chat with lovely Jack in the town hall, who explained that this was once very much a brewing town, and that her partner used to organise raves in the abandoned lido back in the eighties. This is now a pretty walled garden, and a welcome respite from the gyratory.

Time to go. I headed out along the river Wey, hoping to connect with the NDW path. But the overgrown footpath spewed me out on to the hard shoulder of the busy bypass, with no crossing. Grumpily, I headed my way back into town, and then out again back towards the station.

Things improved as I left Farnham and its contempt for pedestrians behind. Heading under the railway and reuniting with the river, I passed some idyllic farmhouses as I relaxed into the walk.

I had vague plans to swim in the river if I found a secluded spot, but the waters looked decidedly brown. Privatised water companies have been dumping sewage at an unprecedented rate this summer, so I decided not to go through the motions.

Pausing on a country road trying to figure out where to go next, a fast-paced woman passed me. Catching her up ten minutes later at a gate, she asked me if I was doing the North Downs Way. She explained that she was doing the Pilgrims Way, and had come from Winchester.

A pilgrim! In my mind, big sections of the NDW and the pilgrim route were interchangeable, but there were, it turned out, more deviations than I had realised. As seems obvious in hindsight, this is mainly due to churches: there aren’t many up on the ridge of chalk passing through southern England, so the latter passes more villages and historical sites of habitation.

We fell into step, and got talking. Her name was Amy, and she was a teacher, and religious [1]; I am a gigging comedian and layabout. We got on well, and when the pilgrims way and the NDW divided, I turned left and joined her.

One awesome and very Japanese thing about walking pilgrim routes is each church has its own stamp. I loved Amy’s stamp book and excitement at heading inside cool and hitherto unexplored churches.

The only slight drawback to taking the Pilgrims’ Way was more time spent on the verges of roads; the company and the conversation more than made up for this. It meant, for example, we could both enjoy mysterious sights and signs, like this non-denominational tribute to the five pillars of Surrey.

When will there be a Harvester for the world?

Eventually, the two long-distanced walking routes merged again, and we headed up onto the chalk ridge before descending down into the busy Guildford streets, the station, and home.

We did not see a single other walker all day.

Amy will eventually reach Canterbury. I don’t know where I am heading yet, but I am enjoying the journey.

[1] You don’t have to believe in God to be a pilgrim, but it helps.

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