34. Lines from the Battle of Guildford

A January day, and my starting point for today’s 12 miler is the New Inn in Send, beside the River Wey. Our family Sunday pub-lunch is, in reality, a mere carbo-loading exercise, and this pub certainly recommended for the largest, soggiest bowl of sausage and mash in the world.

An hour later, brilliant sunshine is fading into dank drizzle as I explore a new route into town through Riverside Park. Picturesquely named, it proves to offer little more than a patch of green, sandwiched uncomfortably under electricity pylons between the tranquility of the river and the deafening A3 road traffic.

german-invasion-of-britain-1940.jpgI slither around a few laps of boardwalk laid across the riverside wetlands, my lunch settling better than the weather. The skies evolve steadily through hail and finally pelting rain as twilight approaches over the aptly-named Guildford suburb of Burpham.

And then, deep in the darkness of the woods beside the river, I stumble across a line of old tank traps lurking on the steep bank behind the Spectrum Leisure Centre. This must be another part of the last line of defence south of London, dating from the Second World War, and linking up with pill boxes south of the town near Shalford and high on St Martha’s Hill.

It’s intriguing to imagine how the desperate efforts in protection of the Home Counties might have panned out. Had Hitler achieved the air superiority denied him in the summer of 1940 by those young and so resolute Battle of Britain pilots, the invasion plan would surely have sprung into action that same autumn.

Fighting doggedly north from the Sussex coast, the invading forces could so easily have reached this spot on a dull winter’s afternoon just like this one. Cresting this darkly wooded river bluff would then have offered a view spanning open flat farmland to the north, terrain perfect for a speedy Panzer assualt on the capital, just 30 miles to the northeast.

The defenders would have known, all along, that once this narrow Downs gap was breached, there was nothing in the way of a full-on assault on London. Captain Mainwaring and his troop would certainly have defended to the last through the desperate scenes of the Battle of Guildford, that heroic battle which mercifully never took place.

It takes my mind off the running, which is good, for there is a hill to climb here and I break shamefully and reflectively to pull a dog-eared and stale digestive biscuit from my pocket. I’ve driven within a 100 metres of this spot, that close, on all three sides and a thousand times, and never seen any of this before. I’ve never read about it in the local history books either, for it’s recording an event which just didn’t happen. All of this is a tribute to the unexpected wonders which can be found by traversing the land on foot, whether running, walking, or even pantingly run-walking.

Back onto the roads again near Stoke Park, and an inconsiderate motorist wakes me from my reverie by ploughing through a large puddle and soaking me from head to foot. I forcefully question his parentage, but it’s pointless, because I’m damp already, and will warm up again very quickly.

A few more miles, quickly spoken but strugglingly experienced, through grimacing run-walks around the Abbotswood estate, and I’m on the doorstep of my daughter’s friends, collecting her from a Drama Party (aren’t they all at the age of 9 ?) Surely the hospitable hosts didn’t have me in mind when they decided to invite the collecting parents in for a gala performance of the afternoon’s workshop piece. Soggy socked, sodden jogging pants, sweating brow and a pool of alluvial mud oozing from my Nike AirMax Tailwinds on the front doormat, I applaud appreciatively as if this were just the best way of experiencing youth theatre.

My daughter and I make our way up the hill together, homeward as the darkness finally falls, and I head for a warm bath.

A couple more staple runs this week, with little to report. These are the five milers ground out through those dark Surrey lanes and grey Crawley lunchtimes. Another puddle-soaking on a country lane somewhere under the Gatwick flightpath near Charlwood. Miles like these which make the basic fodder of any marathon runner’s training. But you just have to do it.

On Friday lunchtime I’m expected at the pub to celebrate a deal at work, but slope off for an unwilling attempt at speedwork. Five minutes warm-up jog, then it’s like knitting: purl one fast and then two slow. Repeat five times and gasp back into the car-park. It does you good, or at least they say it does. It’s an improvement on the walk one, run one, trot two of last week, so I shouldn’t complain, but it does hurt. It does.

Related articles:
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
30. Embarkation Beach: Great South Run 2003
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
95. Going underground – the 7/7 attacks on London
122. Cephallonia dreaming
76. A year of running, rainily
13. A winter night’s fartlek – Guildford town and track


One response to “34. Lines from the Battle of Guildford

  1. Note:
    In the autumn of 1940, after the German invasion of France, the threat of an invasion of Britain (termed Operation Sealion by Hitler’s generals) was both real and imminent.

    Accordingly, a defensive line was built in the hills of southern England with the aim of arresting (or at least slowing down) the advance of an invading German army across the countryside towards London. This GHQ line was part of a wider British plan of anti-invasion defence.

    Many years later, those concrete pillboxes, roadblock constructions and anti-tank defences so hurriedly built then are still abundant in the landscape around Guildford where I live.

    It is both intriguing and distinctly worrying to ponder the likely course of this invasion battle for Britain which fortunately never took place.

    Kenneth Macksey’s book Invasion recounts one alternative history of that event, and provides these interesting maps showing advance from a German beachhead towards London and the eventual breach of the GHQ defensive line to the south of the capital.

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