Just back from the first of the longer-distance weekend wanders. It had been planned for a long time and involved wheedling an invitation to stay with some old friends. The wheedling technique deployed – should you ever need such a device – goes: ‘Hi xxx! How are things? Listen, I’m going walking down your way in a few weeks. Can I come and stay?’ A blunt instrument, you might say. Certainly not a polished stealth attack, but equally it’s not as forthright as it could have been. It could have been: ‘Can I pitch up at your house on Saturday afternoon just before sunset, a mud-spattered yeti having o’er-topped my boot in a dreck-filled pothole at the bottom of your road while leaping out of range of a speeding plumber’s van? Cater as if for a baby elephant who likes cake.’ I was only there for three meals, but as I had seconds of everything – that’s EVERYTHING – that surely counts as six, no? Though my hosts are fantastic cooks and their eldest daughter, a slip of a 13-year-old, has a way with a Mary Berry cookbook that tightens a waistband.
It was good to be out with a map and compass again. Packing up the rucksack and catching an early train on Saturday morning to Witley (an unremarkable name but it’s near Haslemere) made me feel like a dog whose owner is putting on a coat and reaching for the lead. Although thanks to assorted weather reports the anticipation was heavily spiced with apprehension. Route-planning was subject to revision even as Woking came and went, my face getting longer and longer as great paddyfields of floodwater slid past the window.
Devoid of anything approaching local knowledge, I did the next best thing and stuck a pin in the map. Not quite, but not far off. I tried to avoid anything whose name featured any element of brook, spring, ford, marsh, bottom, pond or, er, sewage works. Something tells me, for example, that the owners of Smallbrook Farm may no longer consider their property so daintily placed as winterbournes turned into mill races and ducks swam across orchards. Instead I tried to stick to places that incorporated ridge, hill, view, prospect, fair, high or beacon somewhere in their make-up. As an aside, last week I was fact-checking an article about property and saw a lovely house in an Essex town called Thorpe-le-Soken. Still, Le Soken? Sounds like Anglo-Saxon for ‘floods like a bastard’.
The thing is – as I had leisure to conclude having made a noise like a donkey climbing up out of Hindhead golf course and quelling a funny turn at the top – hills is all very well, but the landscape around Haslemere is what geologists call varied, experienced walkers call a bit uppy-downy and I call Jesus God you’re taking the rip. It’s also very sandy soil, unlike the chalk of my homelands, and it makes for heath that is just gorsey, piney, brackeny and unbelievably easy to get lost on. Thank God for the compass. Even so I had to fall on the mercy of a dog walker, a tall, competent-looking gent in his early 60s, who confided as he led me to safety that as a new arrival to the area he’d once got so lost he had to report himself missing to the police. Oh Lord, don’t let that happen.
Anyway, as intimated earlier, for all my nose-tapping cleverness, I still had to platch across marshes, negotiate torrents over slimy rickety plank bridges, crawl under fallen trees and hand-over-hand it along verges past lakes of mud. And let the record show, when your rucksack is 3kg heavier because you’ve filled it with wine and chocolates to thank your hosts, your centre of gravity is all over the place. And yet it was glorious. I can’t wait to get out again – but where to next?


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