Sunday 30 June 2019

4. My Kilimanjaro Training : 3 Months In - Guildfords Alice in Wonderland, St Martha's Hill and I'm Peter Finch....


Thank for checking in on my latest training for my challenge of climbing to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa this October. With three months into training and summer well and truly here in the UK, I am taking full advantage of the longer days and was given a great tip-off for a good challenging walk up to the top of St Martha's Hill in the central region of the Surrey Hills in Guildford. I'm paying full attention for my own good to listen out for the magic words of 'steep hills' or 'difficult' in any part of Surrey - so having already done Box Hill and Leith Hill, I armed myself up with my new walking poles (ones that are going to withstand the perils of 8 days of Kilimanjaro terrain) I headed out into the Surrey Hills for a day out of exploration up to St Martha's Hill.

In a really geeky sense, I've always liked train travel and as a kid, my sister and I loved Thomas The Tank Engine and the whole gang. There's something quite adventurous about perpetual train tracks leading off and disappearing into far distant hills and also something so heartbreakingly romantic about them too - recently I saw a couple at Gatwick Airport who once they had said goodbye on the train, the man stayed on the platform with his luggage staring heartbreakingly at his partner through the train window before it pulled away - that even brought a tear to my eye seeing them. You see trains - they're heartbreakers!

Well anyway I caught a little chugger heading out over the beautiful Surrey Hills to the central county town of Guildford which actually means 'Golden Ford'  because at the time it blossomed with sunlike flowers and yellow sand in the legendary medieval days of King Arthur where he and Sir Lancelot are said to have sauntered through Guildford village as they followed the historic 192km Pilgrims Way from Winchester to the Shrine of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury.

Bit of History for you there...if you're into these fun facts on places.

Anyway, having no idea about the surrounding Guildford Area and what I was about to encounter on my exploration - I investigated in finding a way up to this said St Martha's Church on St Martha's Hill and found a great (or what sounded great) 15km (9 mile) circular walk called Guildford Station to the Church-on-the-Hill on a free walks site called Fancy Free Walks.

Train Station. Long Distance. Hill. Perfect.

So arriving at Guildford Station in the morning, I was going to have to rely purely on my own navigation and orienteering skills to get me through the 15km and follow the instructions to get me back to the station before dark - a challenge of self motivation I wanted to take on and with my past explorations not having ventured further than the Guildford Spectrum to go ice skating as a teenager, I was keen to point my feet on a new path and seize the thrill of adventure and my feverish curiosity of a new place. After all, you never get the most out of life if you always do whats safe and comfortable.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained right.

And what cool things you can discover on your travels! Following the banks of the River Wey starting from the western section of the walk, I first stumbled across a bronze sculpture of the opening scene of Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' with Alice (reading the book Alice in Wonderland funny enough) and her sister watching the white rabbit disappear down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Lewis Carroll actually has a lot of significance to Guildford and there's several of these 'Alice' sculptures around town, one more I would come across later on the route. He would spend his holidays living with his sister in Guildford when he wasn't studying at Oxford University and is actually buried there - who knew of a world famous children's author!

'Down the Rabbit Hole'

I never knew there was a river running through Guildford, but there certainly is and not disappearing down the rabbit hole myself, I followed the River Wey away from the town centre, meandering past the boat house swarming with Sunday canoe enthusiasts and along the peaceful meadows of fluttering blue dragon flies, canal boats and river swimmers at the bridge before turning off to join the North Downs Way which I would be following to the half point (so for about 7 km). 

The route away from the town and along the river was too comfortably flat so I was glad I was led into the cover of Chantry Wood which made me feel like I had walked into the The Hunger Games and needed to hide behind a tree. Still there were hilllsssssss and up I went, puffing away.     

I've still been trying to do 3 - 4 mornings in the gym on my lead up to Kili, earning loyalty points on my membership (last month I earnt 2 free fitness tests wahooh!) upper body strength needs serious work but I headed up the slanting woodside just so I could get my hill fix in to test out those legs I've been working away on, intruding on squirrels and bunny rabbits without following them down holes.

But of course, what goes up, must come down though and descending was a different story and I was so glad to have good walking poles and I will thank my future self and I'm sure my knees will to for being sensible!

I eventually get out of the cover of Chantry Woods and back out into the open, unfolding vast meadows and farmland. The breeze was beginning to pick up and I stand and look out in awe onto the slanting hills with their long white crops swaying in the breeze like white waves sluicing across a green ocean. You can't see it in the photo but it was pretty awesome to watch the illusion on the hillside come alive with drifting waves like a choppy sea on a windy day.

So, crossing the meadows breaking into the cover of the trees again, I slowly began making my way up the rising hill towards St Martha's Church, yes the Church is there and ascending to its lofty home felt far from heavenly but walking through the twin pillars of bushes.....

Hallelujah! - made to the Church-on-the-Hill

Here's a little video of me at the top - St Martha's Hill is the 18 highest hill in Surrey at 175 metres on the Greensand Ridge. Sorry for the noise on the top of the hill, it got pretty breezy up there!

If you're any good at lip reading, you may pick up a few of the fuzzy bits.

Apparently on the semi panoramic view you can see as far as 8 counties and across to Blackheath and the Greensand Hills.

This is the aerial view of the church from the Surrey Hills website to give you a better idea of my surroundings....pretty awesome hey!  I can hear a revised version of Ed Sheeran singing 'Over the Church Yard on the Hill' but switching the words from 'castle' to 'church yard' and well...umm...anyway you know what I mean...or maybe you don't if you don't listen to Ed Sheeran...but none the less...

Image result for St Martha's Hill

So... having now reached the highest point of the walk I had to go back down the hill again like the Grand Old Duke of York marching up to the top of the hill and damming back down again (without the ten thousand men of course). I try to carry about 3 litres of water on my back which was the recommended advice I got about training for Kilimanjaro so I can get used to carrying a weight walking or climbing long distances. Going down the hill was good practice for steep descents down a sandy bank back level into the cover of the woodland.

So pushing on, I eventually came out onto the great open hillside of the North Downs adjoining Newlands Corner with a fabulous view all the way to the South Downs with the green hills stretching away across the valley to continue following the North Downs Way.  

And then I as I reached Newlands Corner I came across this man...

'I'm Peter Finch' he says wiping his mouth on a scrunched napkin not quite removing the dot of brown sauce on the corner of his lips. I actually remember seeing him briefly on the hilltop at St Martha's where he asked me if I knew where the water tap was before walking off to navigate around the church walls. I recognised him on one of the wooden benches eating out of a brown paper bag with a black canvas backpack strapped to a yellow trolley a metre or so away from him. I jokingly mentioned we were following each other but he was going much further than me...he was on his second day into walking the 156 miles long North Downs Way, from Farnham to the white cliffs of Dover. Once wild camping wherever he could and relying on the kindness of strangers. Once he got there, he would go back to London, catch a bus to Scotland and walk the highland trails from Fort William.

I was lost for words.

Peter was an 80 year old great grandfather from Gosport (and was a very proud one, ripping out is wallet to show me the unfolding photographs tumbling out of his wallet). His wife had recently died and decided that 'you have two choices, you either sit in front of the TV, alone, drinking beer, or you get out into the world and make the most of the time you have left'. So that's what he did, a pocket guide to the NDW, had a custom canvas backpack made and got himself, what I think is a heavy duty Dutch/German trolley to strap it onto and pull the whole way to Dover.

'If anyone see's the Emergency Lions green sticker on something' he began, 'then you know their medication inside it the same for your house, if they see it in the window they know its in your fridge'. Good to know. I was amazed of his attitude to life, he had survived a stroke, on three different types of medication, had no feeling in one hand and still was out taking on these huge adventures, having already done the Ridgeway Walk, Britain's oldest road and the length of the Thames Path.

I stayed with him a good while that afternoon before he needed to make the most of the Newlands Corner public toilets and wash himself off before setting off on the next leg of his journey.

'One thing that people should not do is retire' he told me, 'because work gives you the discipline to stay involved in life and if you haven't got discipline not to retire from life well...' he trailed off. He had also ridden around Europe with a motorbike club and believed high heartingly in not giving up on life when you reach a certain age.

'I would swap my bus pass, for your youth' he told me when I said it was cool to have free travel. 

My encounter with Peter was very inspiring and telling him my intention of climbing Kilimanjaro, 'You'll be fine' he said, 'and you'll have the memories and experience, which can never be taken from you'. I do hope so, if an 80 year old great grandfather with sicknesses can be doing what he's doing, I must be able to take on the biggest mountain in Africa. If not so its motivated me even more.

I was quite teary-eyed to say goodbye to Peter and wish him well on the rest of his journey and beyond - its not everyday you meet an 80 year old with such faith and enthusiasm or even courage to bite the bullet and get out in the world when he still had the chance.

And so we parted ways and I continued now on the second half of my circular walk through the bracken and narrow paths down into the tree hooded valley of Walnut Tree Bottom.

which was slightly odd because most of the trees were mainly oak but oh well, the warbling sounds of the birds flicking between them was just beautiful to listen and set adrift to the soothing energy of the forest.

and some of those trees were the most knotted and gnarly I'd ever seen, like squid or octopus tentacles creeping down to the ground and coated with a layer of green moss. Navigating a fantastical forest with paper instructions felt like traversing through a story book of the Hobbit with many tortuous paths and forks.     

Yes, a pink house! You never quite know whats round the corner on explorations, peeking over the wall at the sound of loud squawking to discover a pheasant, ruffling its feathers on the wobbly fence line of a Pheasant farm.

and....eventually coming out onto the 18th hole of a golf course, I hadn't taken a wrong turn but the trail had me sweeping around the green and out onto the grassy space of Merrow Downs overlooking the view of Woking.

and the big smoke.....London! 

The breeze had now picked up to passing farms and small brick cottages with a view over North Guildford, I knew I was nearly there to the 15km almost deafening by this point, but the most stunning part of the whole walk for me was coming out through a gap in the trees onto this spectacular vista from Pewley Down with a view of the hills of southwest Surrey and a little glimpse of Sussex.   

So after musing on the hillside for a while, being practically blown away by the strong breeze - I followed the lush green edge of the downs and back down into Guildford town centre and I come across a castle - a great finish to a long hike!

...... complete with well manicured gardens with winding steep hills for skateboarding practice. Its actually called Guilford Palace and was built in the 11th Century as a luxury resident for medieval kings and later became a prison - who knew Guildford had a castle on the hill briefly bronzed in summer evening light  - now Ed Sheerans talkin' with that Castle-on-the-Hill.

And low and behold - the final piece of the journey in the Castle's Alice Garden containing a  sculpture of Alice Through The Looking Glass near the boarding house Lewis Carroll would stay in during his uni holidays in Guildford.

And training walk done, 15km on a pretty adventurous route - a pretty cool way to spend a Sunday.

Thanks for reading and if you would like to offer a donation of anything you could afford to my Just Giving page to help charity 'Action for M.E' and sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that would be ace!

Real People. Real Disease. Real M.E

Training Walk : 15km (9 miles) 

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