As I turn left off the main A25, uncharted territory lies ahead. The narrow lane rises in front of me, and I neither walk, nor confidently run, but somehow cobble together an unheroic if effective mix of both until the gradient flattens.
The ancient pasture land of Abinger Roughs lies to my left, that name describing quite well my personal symptoms of oxygen deficit and lingering virus.
It’ll only get harder from here, and so it’s just the ideal time to spy a couple of puzzled walkers standing by the roadside with their map.
The perfect excuse to stop for directions.
I’m looking for the North Downs Way. I know it must head off left, somewhere up the hill ahead. And so I ask.“Ah, yes, it heads off left, somewhere up the hill ahead,” they inform me, helpfully. “Are you running it ?” they enquire.
“Yes, I am,” I cheerfully lie, thrusting out my chest and smiling modestly, whilst trying not to choke, the longed-for part of seasoned hill runner finally falling unexpectedly into my lap at last.
“It gets jolly steep up there, you know,” they confide, their brows furrowing in instant and instinctively accurate assessment of the true capabilities of this dishevelled, heaving-chested and snot-dribbling lunatic who stands before them.
I wave farewell, and trot gamely on, over the railway bridge of the North Downs line, and into the climb. Then when I’m safely out of sight, I walk.
And when I hit the hill, it’s hard – it’s truly hard. The road rounds a hairpin and then ascends in earnest. My head is down now, and I’m looking at defiant black tarmac, rising. The roadsign tells of an 18% gradient, and even walking isn’t easy. I think of my friend Sweder’s repeated recent reconquistas of the South Downs, the mirror images of these hills. And I keep walking.
Four or five minutes go by. I pass the time with panting, and protracted musings on such problematical and pragmatic acceptance of my fallibility. I risk occasional half-hearted glances at the climb, continuing up ahead for ever. I knew it would. It does.
There’s a brick pillbox above the road on my left now, forming part of the defensive line built against the feared German invasion of 1940. If the Second World War Sturmtrüppen were as slow as me, they’d have been dispatched much faster even by the Abinger Home Guard, I’m sure.
Finally I see the footpath. The road ascends further, and I ponder following it to the top, just for the hell of it. And then half a nanosecond later I turn left along the path. That way rises too, but soon descends into a thick pool of squidgy mud, rounds a corner, and starts a more measured climb which more closely follows the contours towards the highest crest above.
I can manage this, I know. Alright then, maybe intermittently. Whenever the path turns right, into the hill, it steepens, and so I walk. When it flattens off again, I run. I always knew this section would be gruelling, but I’ve whimpered my way through too many marathon raceday walls to give up simply because I can’t run any more. It’s inconvenient to plod-walk my way up here, but I know it’ll get me home.
There’s another pillbox just below the path. It’s at least a mile from the road, and must have been placed to catch those invaders who decided not to risk the perils of the sunken lane, taking their chances instead along this muddy path. I can’t imagine anyone forcing a tank up here, and even multiple-marathon running footsoldiers would have made easy pickings for Private Pike at this point.
This modern long-distance path, the North Downs Way, runs close to the crest of the Downs from Farnham to Dover. It more or less follows the ancient course of the much older Pilgrim’s Way which mediaeval travellers used in the middle ages. For hundreds of years, religious folk passed through here from all across England, drawn to pay homage at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas à Becket was slain by Henry II’s knights in 1170.
A pilgrimage offered a kind of tourism in those days. It wasn’t all piety and religion – and the romance and risk of travel was certainly laced with occasional debauchery along the way. That combination is precisely how Chaucer paints his picture of a pilgrimage from London in his Canterbury Tales. The more southerly route, running from Winchester along the North Downs here, may likewise have inspired Bunyan’s great allegory about the journey, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
But in fact the path’s romantic name was never used in Bunyan’s day, appearing first on Victorian maps – and in many ways it’s more a concept than a hard and fast reality. And yet the route itself dates back much further still, carrying Stone Age travellers, Celts, Romans and pilgrims across the sands and chalk of these hills since time immemorial. As late as the seventeenth century, many a traveller and pilgrim would have used this maze of criss-crossing paths along the scarp face. And it’s certain that exhausted souls would have sought food and lodgings to break their journey, in each of the villages and hamlets along the route, including Bunyan’s Shalford, if he ever really lived there.
I’ve been climbing slowly for quite a while, and despite my torpor I’ve left the Tilling Bourne some way behind. The drizzle is stronger as the trees open up on Hackhurst Down, the cloud hanging dejectedly on the ridge above my head. The views must be wonderful on a clear day, and even now there’s a kind of gloomy splendour. The green of the valley floor is far away, and all faded out from here, with only the splodges of conifer on St Martha’s Hill to break up the greys with shades of black. Beside me, the scrubby beech has long since given way to ash and wattle fences, hawthorn, gorse, and finally to ancient yew.
There’s a damp and gentle breeze blowing in my face now, and the fine raindrops are melting softly on my face. It’s an elemental kind of feeling, running all alone on this deserted track. As I follow in the footsteps of travellers long ago, not a single road is visible through the murk, no houses or people, no trace of the modern world at all. It’s just me and the hillside.
I look up the muddy slope to the treeline, hoping to glimpse how much further remains to climb. Not that far. Some gorse ahead, a stile, more mud and a sign pointing left and down the hill this time. A brief respite, another short slope up to a crossing of paths, and finally I turn onto a well-made track, blissfully flat as it heads off into the trees. This is the ancient Drove Road, used by herders to move their sheep across the county, to new grazing and to market. And I know it’ll carry me all the way back to Guildford, as yet unglimpsed ahead through six miles more of yew and Down.
I’ve never run this stretch of hillside before. There’s no reason why I should have, lying as it does up this God-forsaken and deserted muddy slope. It’s been hard running, this route of valley, hill and ridgeway home. As I run the final hour back to town, the yew trees drift slowly by, standing and watching silently beside the path, just as they have done for centuries. And I think about it. This journey.
There’ll be more runs ahead, and a climb or two in the Alps next week, I’m sure. A few more gentle plods before London, and a fantastic race to come.
But now, as I near the end of this longest of training runs, across all the pathways of those who have travelled this landscape before me, I can feel a circle closing gently in my mind. Because somewhere deep inside, I’m suddenly and surprisingly sure.
There’ll never be another journey quite like this one – not for me.
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
109. Happiness, more or less
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles