10 of the best things to see on the Pilgrims' Way
PUBLISHED: 18:55 08 December 2016
Following the scarp of the North Downs, the ancient Pilgrims' Way runs from Winchester in Hampshire, right the way through Surrey, ending up at Canterbury in Kent. With the route full of scenic and historic interest, here Doug Kennedy, the author of a new book on the North Downs, picks out a few of the local highlights
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2016
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Farnham Castle & Palace
Sitting in a commanding position above the town, Farnham Castle is a fascinating place to visit. At the front is the distinctive red-brick Bishop’s Palace while directly behind it is the earlier Norman keep, which was largely dismantled following the Civil War. However, what remains of the rest of the building is very impressive. Accessed by a steep medieval stair up to a formidable gateway, the palace precinct contains examples of architecture from the past millennium. Home to the Bishops of Winchester until 1955, today it is a wedding venue and conference centre and open for guided tours on Wednesday afternoons between 2pm and 4pm.
• For further details, see farnhamcastle.com
Watts Gallery Artists’ Village
Just south of Guildford lies the pretty village of Compton where the internationally-renowned Watts Gallery is located with its unique listed chapel. Visitors can tour the home of one of our best Victorian painters, GF Watts, and you can see his and other artists’ work in the lovely gallery pictured below. The wooded grounds are also delightful and there’s an excellent programme of talks, exhibitions and workshops to enjoy too.
• For further details, see wattsgallery.org.uk
The River Wey, Guildford to Shalford
There is a pleasant two-mile walk from Guildford Castle along the River Wey to the village of Shalford. All that remains of the castle today is a Norman keep, but it’s well worth a visit, sitting in attractive parkland and overlooking the river and the town. A path descends to the river, which you cross on a footbridge to the west bank, where there is a good footpath from which you can watch the wildlife and river traffic whilst enjoying views across water meadows to the hills beyond. From here, the path is, in fact, following the Wey Navigation, which was built for river traffic, whilst the natural river winds sinuously through marshy fields to the east. They reunite a mile further on, where the path turns east, along the river, and into Shalford village.
St Martha’s Church
Perched on the top of a hill (574 feet up), a few hundred yards from the nearest road, St Martha’s Church has wonderful views across the rolling Surrey countryside. It is claimed that, on a clear day, eight counties can be seen. There are signs of settlement here going back to the Stone Age and the pretty graveyard is centuries old, though the current church (which appeared briefly in Kenneth Branagh’s film, In the Bleak Midwinter), replaced a ruin in the 19th century. As well as being on a popular section of the Pilgrims’ Way, it’s an idyllic spot to enjoy the beauty of this special landscape.
The Saxon Church at Albury Park
The ancient Church of St Peter and St Paul in Albury Park is known locally as ‘the Saxon Church’ to distinguish it from the parish church in the village of Albury itself. Albury Park is a private estate in a lovely position on the banks of the River Tillingbourne – but, until the 18th century, it was the location of the village of Albury. Now the Saxon Church sits on its own by the river and is open for visitors and also used occasionally for services. Just up the road, the present village of Albury and also Silent Pool are worth a visit too.
Hackhurst Downs and the pillboxes
As you walk along the Pilgrims’ Way through Surrey, you occasionally come across brick and concrete pillboxes. These are what remain of a line of World War Two defences that were part of the GHQ Stop Line that dotted our landscape from Kent to Somerset. Several are hidden deep in woodland, but a few still have lovely views across the Weald to the South Downs, like the one pictured here on Hackhurst Downs. These downs are also brilliant to visit in the spring and summer for the orchids and other wild flowers.
One of the most popular of the National Trust’s properties, Polesden Lacey has a stunning Edwardian mansion, lovely walled garden and spectacular parklands. It sits on a ridge just north of Ranmore Common and is crossed by a number of footpaths, or can be accessed by car from Great Bookham. The beautiful gardens offer glorious views across the rolling Surrey Hills and acres of parkland to explore. Inside, you can marvel at the glittering Gold Room, designed to impress kings and maharajahs, or the extensive collection of art and Fabergé ceramics. Pick up January’s Surrey Life for a special feature on the new reason to visit.
• For further details, see nationaltrust.org.uk/polesden-lacey
Denbies Wine Estate
Between Ranmore Common and Box Hill, the Pilgrims’ Way crosses the vineyards of Denbies Wine Estate, rising gently from the banks of the River Mole. Footpaths traverse the estate from which the views over the vines and countryside, including Box Hill, are just lovely. The autumn is a great time to visit as the vines are laden with ripe grapes and picking is under way. As well as the wine shop, there is a café and a restaurant, and this year visitors can spend the day seeing the vintage being brought in before enjoying lunch in the Conservatory.
• For further details, see denbies.co.uk
The south-facing scarp of the North Downs in Surrey rises steeply from the valleys of Holmesdale and Buckland. Much of the slope is covered in dense forest, but there are gaps where grass and wild flowers thrive on the shallow, dry soils. The turf tends to be springy and makes a luxurious seat on a warm day, but if you look closely, you are sitting on a rich mixture of grasses, herbs and orchids. This is a rare landscape that is highly valued by wildlife trusts and, at the right time of year, the chalk grasslands will be dotted with wildflowers where bees feed and butterflies dance. The easiest spots to reach by car are Albury Downs (from Newlands Corner) and Colley Hill (from the Margery Woods car park above Reigate), but the entire scarp is accessible on foot from the North Downs Way.
Famously the scene of the picnic in the Jane Austen novel Emma, where everybody has “a burst of admiration” on first arriving, Box Hill remains enormously popular, but still one of my favourite places. Rising to 560 feet, the views are great from the grassy picnic spot overlooking Dorking. If you are on foot, try the Mole Valley Stepping Stones, which cross the River Mole, before climbing the steep grassy slopes. On the way up, you can watch cyclists tackle the Zig-Zag Road or just enjoy the view and, in summer, the wild flowers in the meadows. There is a large car park and National Trust restaurant at the top or, on a sunny day, why not take your own picnic?
• For further details, see nationaltrust.org.uk/box-hill
Need to know
The Pilgrims’ Way is an ancient road that was used by people travelling from Winchester to Canterbury and on to Dover, which followed the scarp of the North Downs in Surrey and Kent. From Farnham eastwards, much of the route still exists, having become part of the North Downs Way long-distance walking path.
About the author...
Doug Kennedy is an author and landscape photographer who has recently produced a photo-book called North Downs Landscapes, which is full of beautiful images of the downs from end to end. Published by Windgather Press, it is available from all good bookshops and also online (ISBN: 978 1 909686 588)