On the lookout for an early season walk, we had come across an interesting looking route called the Vanguard Way, which starts off in the London suburbs of Croydon and heads south, all the way to the sea. It looked like it took in some good scenery, passing through Oxted Down, Ashdown Forest, Cuckmere Haven, and then finishing off along the coast past Seaford Head. A perfect length to fit into four days too, so we pencilled it in for the end of May.
An early start had us squeezed onto the commuter rush hour train to West Croydon, then we walked across to the start at East Croydon station, with a quick stop for breakfast on the way at Pret. We got going on the route at half past eight. crossing over the tram lines and passing lots of people heading for the station, and for the law courts that were just down the street. Quiet residential streets, and little cuts between streets got us to Lloyd Park, where we found the route blocked by some tall fences that had been erected for a festival. We worked our way round the outside of the fence and found the route at the other side. Aside from the enforced diversion it was a nice park, grassy meadow with some tall trees. From here there was pleasant walking through a selection of forests, Littleheath Woods, Selsdon Wood, through the last remains of the bluebells, and we even joined the London Loop for a little while, before it headed off west. We reached the small church at Farleigh just in time for elevenses. We had been unusually organised and had made a flask of Earl Grey tea and some houmous and beetroot sandwiches before setting off. A black cat came over and joined us on the bench while we were eating.
A little further on was Chelsham, and we crossed cycle route 21, which was signposted to Greenwich in one direction and Gatwick in the other. At Nore Hill was an ancient chalk pinnacle, which sounded interesting on paper but on the ground turned out to be rather underwhelming. After the pinnacle, we crossed a field full of very spiky cattle, with red kites circling on the thermals ahead of us, and looking back we got the final views of the towers and cranes of Croydon. A steep descent with little clumps of pink, blue, white flowers took us past a hang gliding spot, and there were a few wind socks, plus an old caravan with "Flight briefing room" written on the side. Along here the route joined up with the Greewich Meridian Trail for a while, and passed through yellow-tinged fields full of buttercups. The path just skirted the edge of Woldingham before climbing to an antenna and water tower, and then a little further on, arrived at Oxted Down, where superb views of tree covered landscape suddenly opened up, although slightly impaired by the background rumble from the M25 which weaved its way across the vista. It was nice and sunny now, and we sat on the down and had some more tea and sandwiches while we took in the view.
After descending, the route turned and countoured the bottom of the down, joining the North Downs Way for a while, and passing a sign marking the crossing of the Greenwich Meridian. We made a slight mishap after leaving the down, we somehow missed a turning and went under the M25 too early, but a quick map check, and a short section of road back under the M25 got us back on the route. A grassy meadow alongside the motorway took us to the proper M25 crossing, over a bridge, in view of the motorway services. There was a huge sandpit here, with large digging machines at work, and we spotted some L2B stickers on some of the footpath signposts, which apparently marks the route of the London to Brighton ultra run. After a last bit of forest, we popped out at Limpsfield Chart, which was a good stopping point for the first day. We had about forty minutes until the bus to Oxted, so we adjourned to the pub, which we were pleased to find served leaf tea. From Oxted, two trains got us home in reasonable time, through Croydon again.
We were back on the early commuter train to Croydon again in the morning, then another train to Oxted station. Unfortunately the first bus from Oxted to Limpsfield Chart wasn't until half past ten, but the previous evening we had spotted a small taxi rank in the front of the station, and we grabbed a taxi instead. it was a fairly short journey, and we were back enroute again at quarter to nine. The route descended a narrow lane, then across fields, where a farmer and two sheepdogs were busily rounding up a large flock of sheep, although there were a few escapee sheep dotted around the field. A section of road walking led to Haxted Mill, just in time for elevenses, although there didn't seem to be any facilities, so we sat on the wall of the bridge and had a cup of tea and sandwiches. From the mill was a pleasant stretch, following a small brook through a buttercup filled meadow, passing an old pillbox under a tree.
Near Gotwick Manor Farm there was a kilometre of road walking and the instructions warned about busy traffic and blind bends, but it was fine when we got there not too busy. The route passed by some sizeable railway works, where they seemed to be re-building an embankment, and we spotted it again later on the train ride back! Shortly after Starborough Manor was an inscription, written in German, on the side of a house that extoled the benefits of drinking wine. At the ominously-named Wet wood we had another snack stop, sitting beside a table with a sink, which seemed slightly odd in the middle of a forest, although it didn't seem to be actually plumbed in.
We reached Forest Row just before three, and adjourned to a cafe for a pot of leaf tea and some food, plus we got a takeaway pasty for later. After Forest Row, the route headed into Ashdown Forest, so we were now in Winnie the Pooh country. Unfortunately the weather had gone downhill, and when we left the cafe at half past three it was drizzling, and we had to stop in a shop doorway to put full waterproofs on. The route skirted a golf course, then went past a bowling green, and then a cricket pitch, to reach Newbridge where the heathland of Ashdown Forest started proper. We gradually climbed, on wide well worn track, before the path took a rather unlikely route through very thick gorse, which was a bit of a squeeze in places, plus we had to duck under low branches a few times. The gorse path came to a slight depression, which was apparently the location of the Heffalump trap in Winnie the Pooh. A bit more gorse took us to up to Gils Lap, where there was an unusually coloured trig point made of red sandstone, and we went into the clump of trees to get some shelter from the drizzle and we had a sit down, and had a cup of tea, and polished off the pasty.
When we emerged from the clump of trees, the rain had got heavier, and now we were up high it was a bit windy too. We pushed on, paralleling a road, and we could hear quite a lot of traffic but couldn't see it. Along here we had to stop and put the route instructions into a plastic bag, as they were starting to turn into papier mache. After passing the car park at Kings Standing it had got quite misty so we couldn't see much of the views, which made navigation a bit tricky, especially as there were no signposts along this bit. In the mist and rain, we got a bit confused with the route along here, and had to stop and puzzle over the instructions for a few minutes. We were considering backtracking, until we spotted that the path junction on the ground seemed to fit a later instruction on the route sheet. We pushed on, and the terrain seemed to continue fit the instructions, taking a long descent that was a bit slippery in places, past small pools, then a climb out the other side. We were slightly relieved to eventually pop out on the Crowborough road exactly where we expected, at Poundgate. It was half past six, which was lucky, as a bus was due in five minutes. A total of two buses, and three trains got us home, a three hour journey!
Another arduous three hour journey, consisting of two trains and one bus, had us back at Poundgate just before ten. From the bus stop we took a pleasant path through grassy meadows and stretches of forest, and we spotted a deer in the trees. We reached a sign warning us of a long term diversion of the Vanguard Way, caused by a land slip, and we took the diversion, which itself turned out to be nice walking. Descending through buttercup-filled meadows towards High Hurstwood, a fox darted across the meadow, and then hid in a patch of long grass. The route turned off into a lane, which climbed uphill to a small church, where lots of lorries were hard at work resurfacing the road. Luckily the route left the road before reaching the resurfacing, and crossed fields with good views back to the small church. Nearing Pound Green, we crossed under a railway line, with vivid orange moss covering the bridge walls, followed by more pleasant buttercup meadows.
At Blackboys, there was an impressive old wooden pub, with tall trees and a lilly pond out front, and we headed inside to escape the sun for a bit, and had a pot of tea. After the pub, there were a few stretches of road walking, although it was on very quiet lanes, and a chap went past in an old open-top two-seater MGB, with a bicycle precariously wedged into the passenger seat, and sticking straight up in the air! Somewhere along here, we started feeling rather hungry, and sat at the side of the path in the shade of a tree and finished off the last of our houmous and beetroot sandwiches. Just before Chiddingly we had some slight navigational confusion, as we overshot a kissing gate in a hedge, but some investigation of the map got us back on track, and on reaching the village we had a short stop on a bench in the churchyard, and had a clif bar and some nuts and raisins.
From Chiddingly, we swished our way through a succession of fields with tall crops, much of the time all the way up to our waists, before popping out at the A22. The instructions warned about a stretch of path that was very boggy, and sure enough it was deep bog hemmed in by hedge, so inescapable. We backtracked and took the alternative route along the verge on the side of the A22, which was a bit grim, but at least the traffic was so busy that it was stationary! We finally arrived at Golden Cross, which was our planned finish point. The pub looked long closed-down, but there was a petrol station with a shop on the other side of the road.
From Golden Cross, we had a cunning plan to avoid our increasingly grueling commutes, which was to jump on a bus to Eastbourne, where there were loads of hotels to choose from. The rather ramshackle bus stop looked like it was about to fall down, and the signpost with the timetable had almost been swallowed by the hedge, but the bus appeared right on time fifteen minutes later, and we jumped on. In Eastbourne, a quick check on the internet, and then a short walk, got us a room in a seafront hotel, and it even had a bath! Although just as we were standing at the front desk checking in, Jill's sunglasses spontaneously fell to pieces, which was a bit unfortunate.
After quick baths, we went to an Italian restaurant for tea, then searched round town for some replacement sunglasses. Amazingly we found a cheap pair in a small supermarket, plus some snacks for tomorrow. To ensure a swift getaway in the morning, we also went and found the bus stop, quite a good job we did, as lots of diversions through town for roadworks meant that it was quite hard to locate. After all the back and forth, it was quite late by the time we got to bed.
We were packed up and down at breakfast nice and early, so that we could make the most of the hotel buffet breakfast, and then walked back to the bus stop for ten past eight. By the time we arrived back at Golden Cross, and did the short walk back to the path, it was twenty past nine. We started off through easy sheep fields, passing an old farmhouse dwarfed by a huge oak tree, and with a sundial on the wall. Shortly after was a long straight byway through impressive tall trees. At May's Farm, the path took us through cereal fields, to arrive at Berwick Station, and across the railway line on the level crossing. After the station was a nice stretch of grass path, flanked by bushes and hedge, and half way along we sat down for a snack and cup of tea, and enjoyed the views of the South Downs. In the distance we could see the spire of Berwick Church.
The instructions warned about crossing the busy A27, but a gap appeared literally the second we arrived, so we didn't have to wait around. Berwick Church had a rather gleaming spire, and a very three dimensional churchyard, which was apparently an old Saxon burial mound. A long rolling straight path through fields took us away from the church to the rather quaint village of Alfriston, where we were pleased to find that the small cafe we had visited while doing the South Downs Way was still there, and we got soup and a pot of leaf tea, plus some fig and ginger cake to take away. Leaving Alfriston, we passed an elaborate insect hotel, then walked along the Cuckmere River, following the South Downs Way. After Litlington, pleasant walking through trees, and a couple of long sets of steps took us through Friston Forest to pop out on grass hillside overlooking the meanders of the Cuckmere River heading down to the sea. Four people with large rucksacs had a pan out and were brewing up some tea.
We descended to the visitor centre at Exceat, the road seemed very busy, the bridge is only wide enough for one car, so large queues of traffic had built up on both sides. We walked along the traffic queue to arrive at the Cuckmere pub where we got another pot of tea. Easy walking took us down to Cuckmere Haven, where there was an old hut, which used to be a cable station for the undersea telegraph cable to France. The path climbed up towards Seaford Head, and looking back there were superb views of the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, gleaming white in the sun, although we could only count six of them. As we walked along Seaford Head, a series of vintage aircraft flew overhead in formation. Further on, superb views opened up of the Seaford seafront laid out beneath us, and we could even see all the way along the coast to Brighton.
After descending from Seaford Head, there was a long stretch along the promenade. It was easy going, past a Martello tower, where we stopped for a couple of cups of tea, and past rows of new looking beach huts. As we reached the end of Seaford, the path left the seafront and took a grassy embankment, past a campsite where a few touring cyclists were pitched up, As we walked along, a huge ferry sailed out of Newhaven. Eventually we reached the ruins of some old tidal mills, then followed the muddy flats of a river, with birds walking about leaving trails of footprints. We soon arrived at Newhaven Harbour, where the route went into the dock, which seemed improbable but the chap on the security booth waved us through, and pointed us in the direction of the railway track. We walked over the level crossing to reach the end of the Vanguard Way at Newhaven Harbour station, and just in time for the half past six train.
All in all the Vanguard Way was a very enjoyable route, nothing too arduous, and a bit of everything - forests, chalk downs, heathland, small villages, rivers, sea cliffs, and promenade. There is also something rather satisfying about starting off in the outskirts of London and walking all the way to the coast. The last day in particular was excellent, what with the views of the South Downs, the quaint village of Alfriston, the Cuckmere River, views of the Seven Sisters, and the walk along Seaford Head. We did very well with the weather, it was mostly dry, apart from Ashdown Forest, and lots of sunshine. On the last day we had the added bonus of multiple vintage aircraft fly-bys, which was very spectacular. Stats were as follows:
Instructions for each stage are freely available on the internet, they are very well written, with clearer instructions than some paid-for guidebooks! We just missed it, but there is a brand new version for 2019, which seems to make quite a few improvements to the routing. They also include a separate commentary with lots of interesting information about the various sights that you pass. If you are a budding guidebook author then you could do a lot worse than reading these to see how to write clear instructions.