The latest leg of the walk, done over two days, has taken me from Staines to Guildford – about 17 miles. Walking mostly beside water, both days have had very changeable weather, with sunshine turning to heavy rain and back several times. Layers and sunglasses have come on and off in a sort of mobile quick-change artistry. The swiftly-passing weather reminded me of the rush of days flickering past the Time Traveller, creation of sometime Woking-resident H.G.Wells.
I have now reached Surrey, just one county away from my Sussex destination. As is often the case with near-neighbours, I know little about the place. Probing beyond the image of Surrey as affluent stockbroker-belt, I have found a literature of regret at the passing of time. Writers through the centuries seem to mourn the destruction of Surrey as it was. In the 1800s ‘the sight of the dear old familiar paths’ brought tears to the eyes of Fanny Kemble, ‘stripped of their trees and robbed of their beauty’ as a result of some project on the Oatlands estate at Brooklands. A century later, Eric Parker found that ‘what was country has vanished’ in a favourite spot, and viewed with alarm the damage and changes wrought under the threat of ‘wings hideous’ during the war. More recently, Iain Sinclair pointed out the irony of St Georges Hill, site of the Levellers’ social experiment in radical agriculture, having become a gated community for the wealthy. So I entered Surrey on the lookout for sad evidence of past times. There were some – occasional objects dropped like erratics by a retreating glacier – a red phone box in a garden, an old shield-logo BP petrol pump used as an entrance-pillar, a DIY stone circle.
Less tangible evidence came in the form of the grieving women with a pop bottle containing flowers by Chertsey Bridge, and the generally unsettling experience of repeatedly crossing and recrossing water with wet willow branches stroking one’s face – like walking in an unmade landscape.
After many miles of detached villas with whimsical names (Lowlands, Shalimar, Upstream) I reached Weybridge. For the second time on the journey, I used a ferry to cross a major river. The first had been the Mersey. Now a small skiff took me across the Thames with two dog walkers. (Looking back 2.5 years, I justified the first ferry trip on the basis that the route to it was more interesting than a long walk to Runcorn, and that I didn’t pay a fare. This time I had to walk further to get to the ferry, but it cost me £2.)
Skirting a private island I headed towards West Byfleet, where the houses were less splendid, with weeds growing on the driveway much as they do on mine. I passed once again under the M25, and ended the day’s walk at West Byfleet station.
We stayed in Guildford’s not-unpleasant Travelodge, which had an advantage of being sited just yards from the Wey Navigation towpath. Early the following morning I walked to Guildford station through an industrial estate. (Barrett Homes would build a home ‘around me’, whilst a printer could give me my photos in assorted sizes.) At the station I fed a £20 note into a machine and got a jackpot of change, warm and slightly moist as if from a human hand. An early train took me back to West Byfleet, from where I walked to Pyrford.
Here, the narrator of The War of the Worlds had seen a Martian cylinder land… ‘I saw that the driving clouds had been pierced as it were by a thread of green fire, suddenly lighting their confusion and falling into the field to my left. It was the third falling star!’.
From here I rejoined the Wey Navigation, for miles of waterside walking. I have done a lot of this, quiet hours accompanied only by the occasional canoeist or heron. This was pleasant day of more of the same. More than pleasant: a black dog can make sporadic appearances in the life of the post-major-operative person, often once everything has calmed down; this has been my experience recently. But over these two days I outwalked it…
…and arrived at Astolat, home of the lily-pure maid, ‘half-sick of shadows’…
Here’s a Flickr map with pictures from the first day – battery failed in the GPS device on day two, sadly.