Three Counties, Five Paths

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by

Robert Frost

This route may seem an odd one. It makes sense in my head – although the logic might not be readily apparent to anyone else.

My attention was initially caught by the River Wey because I am fascinated by these waterways which wind their secret way through built-up areas. I recall our 2019 experience walking a (tarmac) section of the Union Canal on the John Muir Way, hard on the feet but nonetheless idyllic, eyes on the heron and the flag iris and mostly heedless of the uninspiring urban sections of the Central Belt of Scotland. In my imaginings the Wey Navigation to Guildford will be a little like that. And it looked promising on the OS map: ‘Newark Priory (rems of)’ it says in gothic script, and ‘Royal Horticultural Society Garden’ on the other side of the river at Wisley. Upriver of the start of my walk at the Wey’s confluence with the Thames at Weybridge, the river twists a complex green and blue corridor through Surrey: through Byfleet, past Woking, through Guildford and Shalford and Bramley. I am hoping the Navigation tow paths won’t be too hard on my feet, and I’m hoping that the conurbations will be invisible except when I crawl off the path at the end of the day to find my B&Bs. For now I am imagining it all.

The River Wey at Guildford, painted by my mother aged 18 or 19

At Guildford the Navigation ends and I will continue upriver on the Wey South Path, until I reach a walking crossroads with the South Downs Way in Sussex (a four-day section of which I walked before Christmas, from Eastbourne to the River Adur at Upper Beeding). I’ll turn west here and carry on with that route, almost to its end at Winchester. But before I get there I will detour off to the pool near Hinton Ampner which is the source of Hampshire’s River Itchen.

This is a treasure I have been wanting to explore for a while: a rare example of a chalk stream (the Dorset River Wey also rises from a chalk aquifer but that’s not the Wey I will be walking over the next four days). Along with kingfishers, chalk streams are an item I put on my bucket list for this year — so more about these special phenomena when I get there and turn imagination into experience, walking the Itchen Way in two days from source to sea.

Andy Goldsworthy, Hearth Stone (2002), Pallant House, Chichester

At the sea I will take a train back up to Winchester and transfer onto the Clarendon Way, making for Salisbury, to finish the walk with a visit to a dear university friend whom I haven’t seen for a couple of decades.

So that’s the plan! Five paths across three counties, for a total of about 240km over eleven days’ walking.

My reading matter of late has been exclusively a diet of crime fiction, so I have downloaded three detective novels on my phone’s kindle app, one set in each of the counties, beginning with That Yew Tree’s Shade by my grandfather Cyril Hare (set on Surrey’s Box Hill, fictionalised as Yew Hill in Markshire)

I particularly like this cover because it has a path and a walker on it — although I hope to God mine features no dead bodies.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King (in which one Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes who has retired to the Sussex Downs to practise apiculture)

Me in the boscage, exclaiming in delight at the unfurling leaves of early spring

and The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell, like Cyril Hare a novelist of the English Golden Age of detective fiction (it includes mention of the ‘water-creases’, or cresses, which are a feature of the chalk rivers of the book’s Hampshire setting).

not me at all

The Road Less Travelled

Today I travelled three hours by train to Weybridge. The railway line crossed the River Thames several times en route, already a substantial waterway between Oxford and Reading, where I photographed it through the train window. It felt like a meaningful connection to where I would end the train journey today and begin my walk tomorrow, although now I was rushing by, incomparably faster than when I would meet its waters again later in the day.

On arrival, I was beyond delighted to find that my wonderful AirBnB was not only right by the Thames/Wey confluence, but that the garden actually ran down to the Wey itself.

My host Susie could not possibly have been nicer or more generous, and a more auspicious and comfortable start to my journey I cannot imagine.

The weather is due to cloud over thoroughly overnight. Indeed, March is forecast to send me everything it’s got over the next week, from showers to rain to sleet and hail — and perhaps even a day of snow, which if I time it carefully I might manage to make coincide with my rest day in a week’s time. March comes ‘in like a lion’, as the saying goes, and in fact there was a lion, a stone one, in Susie’s garden. I have my fingers crossed that this lion is it, and that he will conjure away any meteorological roaring from my path over the next two weeks.

The early evening sun was too beautiful to waste, though, and I took a short orientation walk out to the very end of the Wey where it scribbles multiple watery lines across the land, its back channels creating several islands lined with boatyards and moorings and slipways.

Beyond its channels and islands, the Wey pours its waters as tribute into the Thames, creating a wide basin with locks and weirs.

Smart boat clubs and craft moored in marinas reflected the sunlight surrounded by early prunus blossom: this far south spring is noticeably much further advanced than it is in Herefordshire.

The Thames felt different to the Wey. Its grander character was conferred not only by its relative breadth but also by its culture: a gate in the air on a graceful arching bridge announced in a sinuous, flowing font that this was Eyot Island, once the private home of theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte. His huge Art Nouveau residence included a ballroom, the scene of famously wild, theatrical parties.

A little further down the Thames Path I started to feel that this was not the path for me on this occasion. It felt too stately, obviously heading for the social hustle and bustle of a capital city. The Thames towpath here was the road obviously more travelled, peopled by families taking young children out after school, couples leaning into each other on benches, a posse of early evening runners, by fishermen, and the homeless.

I stood a while looking downstream ‘as far as I could to where it bent…’ It was very lovely, the air limpid and the winter willows golden and russet in the evening light —

— but I cannot ‘travel both / And be one traveller’. Tomorrow, Wey leading on to Wey, I will take the road less travelled, hopefully one which is ‘grassier, and wanting wear’.

6 thoughts on “Three Counties, Five Paths”

  1. What a coincidence that I’m reading this after mentioning your name yesterday. Jess and I were strolling along just a teeny weeny section of the South West Coast Path when I wondered out loud if you had walked much of it. I think it might be too easy a route for your liking. We are on a short break in Weymouth, so on another River Wey. Have a good day today! X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enjoy Weymouth! I have only walked the section from Land’s End northwards. So much more of this country to explore! I am by no means adverse to easy routes… you will note that the most recent ones have all been pretty flat!


  2. Ah! Here we go! I shall look forward to reading all this. I have actually done a teensy tiny bit of this walk at Guildford, visiting the National Trust at Dapdune Wharf and then walking the dogs along the water for a while. Fare thee well!

    Liked by 1 person

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