After a couple of meetings in London, I spent the night at the Premier Inn portion of London County Hall, a building which once housed the GLC and is now sharecropped by assorted hotels, shops and Zen-themed food-and-beverage outlets.
I was sleeping as close to the London Eye as I have ever been, which was somewhat disconcerting – like being a tiny visitor to an oversized funfair.
In the morning, having enjoyed the bizarreness of being woken by the actual Big Ben, I transformed from work-mode to walking-mode. Having worn a suit that I judged to be past its best I decided to leave it in the bin rather than carry it on a long walk. I justified this outrage to recycling by conceiving it as a symbolic ritual, a sort of Reggie-Perrin-like shedding of identity.
From Waterloo I took a train to Guildford and resumed the walk. I decided to head up to the Cathedral, last seen on a family trip when I was a child. After a cup of tea I went inside, where I was suitably awestruck at the incredibly high vertical white-stone lines. Over the door as I left I read LET EVERY LIVING THING THAT HAS BREATH PRAISE THE LORD, bringing a flashback to that morning’s meditation practice, noting breaths whilst gazing at a hotel wall. It promised to be a wet day but I resolved to see the wetness as some kind of good thing (living water) rather than an inconvenience.
I walked down towards the town, straying into the campus of the University of Surrey – the fifth campus to be encountered on this walk. After a while I was back on the River Wey, and a mile or so later I picked up the Pilgrim’s Way.
It has been suggested (eg in Eric Parker’s Surrey in the County Books series) that the Pilgrim’s Way may never have been extensively used by pilgrims. Whatever the case may be, the idea of an ‘ancient trackway between Winchester and Canterbury’ is a compelling one. Having assumed a ‘pilgrim’ role myself it seemed important to walk some of it. After crossing an A-road remembered from childhood pre-M25 drives and climbing a street with a house called Narnia, I ascended the Chantries wooded hill. The North Downs are unknown territory to me. As a citizen of the South Downs they always sounded like a copy, and thus irrelevant to actually visit. In practice I found them enchanting and full of surprises.
From the top of the Chantries I looked back towards Shalford Common, dimly seen through branches and rain, onetime site of an enormous Fair, possibly the model for Vanity Fair itself, as John Bunyan may have lived there. At this distance, I could not see ‘such things sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not’ or for that matter ‘jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind’. Neither will I claim to be walking to the Celestial City – though I did climb the next steep hill to St Martha’s-on-the-Hill.
From there I walked down a path turned into a sluice by the rain. More hills and woods in increasing gloom took me to Peaslake, where I stayed the night in the Hurtwood Inn. (Here I left a jumper in the bin, one that I bought in Florida. Another layer of identity shed. At this rate I will arrive in Brighton naked, like an early Quaker prophet, ‘going naked for a sign’.)
The next day’s walking was undertaken at a rush, as I had a specific train to catch and along way to go, around another 14 miles. I had hoped to climb the Coneyhurst Hill I had read about in S.P.B Mais Hills of the South but instead saw it as a shadowy shape through trees.
After a hike through Ewhurst I joined the Downs Link trail, which consists mostly of disused railway and which will eventually take me the bulk of the way home. On aching legs I ate up the miles. While I crouched hobbit-like by the road to eat a sandwich, riders passed by. Perhaps the London Eye had been that Eye of Sauron and this was Lord of the Rings… or at least a story of a return my own ‘Shire’.
Which came soon enough. After three years and perhaps 300 miles of digression and diversion, I walked through the border into Sussex. Crossed the Arun and saw chalk ground for the first time on the journey.
Took a little piece with which to draw something, one day. Maybe sketch a heart run though with borderlines on to some wall in the suburbs of the City, and leave it to wash away in the rain. Maybe write my name on an exposed chalk cliff stratum, white on white, leave it hidden in plain view.