The North Downs Way

Colin’s book, published by Aurum Press  (an imprint of Quarto), is the definitive guide to the route.  It can be bought or ordered from most bookshops, including Stanfords in London (7 Mercer Walk, Covent Garden, WC2H 9FA) and Bristol (29 Corn Street, BS1 1HT), or through Amazon and other online retailers.  Make sure it’s the latest 2016 edition, as in this image.

Launched in 1978, the North Downs Way national trail is one of England’s most popular walking routes. from Farnham in Surrey to Dover in Kent.  The distance depends on which of two options you choose at the east end.  If you take the southern route past Folkestone, with spectacular views of the chalk cliffs and across the English Channel to France, you’ll walk 125 miles (200 km).  Whereas following the northern loop via Canterbury Cathedral it’s 131 miles (210 km). Of course, you can if you wish walk both loops, though this would make the total distance 153 miles (243 km).

From Farnham the trail goes eastward across southern England, through woodland, downland and farmland, mostly following ancient tracks either along the crest of the North Downs range, or halfway down on a shelf, which it shares with the Pilgrims Way.  Being at altitude most of the time, you have many more grand vistas, sometimes even to the South Downs on a clear day, especially from such places as St Martha’s Hill, Newlands Corner, Ranmore Common, Box Hill, Colley Hill, Ockley Hill, Oxted Downs, the Medway Bridges, Blue Bell Hill, Tolsford Hill, and the famous pilgrims’ first view of Canterbury Cathedral from King’s Wood.

Following a variety of tracks, paths and lanes, sometimes with a very rough surface, or mud after rain, the route rises and falls, often quite steeply, as it alternates between the crest and the shelf, and sometimes descending even further to cross six river valleys.  But the valleys also provide the route with excellent and fast train services, so it’s very practical to cover it in a series of day trips from London, breaking your journey at such places as Guildford, Dorking, Betchworth, Merstham, Oxted, Otford, Cuxton, Rochester, Harrietsham, Lenham, Charing, Ashford, Sandling, Folkestone, Wye,  Chilham, Chartham, Canterbury and Shepherdswell – sometimes with the help of a bus.

The route passes or provides great views of places of cultural and historical interest too: the Watts Gallery, St Catherine’s Chapel, the Godalming Navigation, St Martha’s Church, Denbies Wine Estate, Reigate Fort, Gatton Park, Ranscombe Farm Reserve, Kit’s Coty House (prehistoric standing stones), Thurnham Castle, Marley tile factory, Charing village, St Mary’s Church, Wye Crown, the Channel Tunnel rail terminal, the Battle of Britain Memorial, Samphire Hoe, Shakespeare Cliff, Dover Castle, Dover Harbour, Bigbury Fort, Higham Park, the East Kent Steam Railway – not forgetting Canterbury Cathedral, of course!

On the Canterbury loop, the North Downs Way provides the start of the Via Francigena, an even grander ‘pilgrims way’ to Rome.