If you know anything at all about the hills of south-east England, you know about the South Downs. Magnificent, strong scarp slope, striding path along the hundred miles, a worthy national trail. You probably know about the North Downs too, with its Chaucerian associations. And you might well know about the Weald, cradle of the English Iron Age, home to Christopher Robin.

But do you know about the Greensand Ridge? Possibly not. Yet like the others it runs west-east, has a clear scarp slope, at least at the western end, and indeed contains the highest hill of all the south-east, a few feet short of the magical 1000 feet. The Greensand Way discovers this all-but unknown chain, and very fine it is too – a favourite of well-known guide writer Kev Reynolds. I discovered it bit by bit over a couple of years, finishing in summer 2008.

The view from Pitch Hill

Download file for GPS

It’s worth noting that the Greensand Way has a northern counterpoint, the 40-mile Greensand Ridge Walk, running from Leighton Buzzard to Gamlingay in Bedfordshire. It’s not on my to-do list, but it would be interesting to compare the countryside.

See my day-by-day record of walking the Greensand Way.

Defining the ridge

At least for the purposes of the Greensand Way – a geologist might differ – the Greensand ridge of Surrey and Kent comprises five blocks, three higher, two lower, in sequence high-highest-low-highish-lowest. The first reaches well over 250m at Hindhead, near the start at Haslemere, before declining to cross the River Wey, a major tributary of the Thames. There follows the largest single block of high ground, culminating in the 294m of Leith Hill, with descent then to the Mole valley, another Thames tributary, at Dorking.

North Downs

The North Downs from the vicinity of Orme House

From here, through the twin towns of Redhill and Reigate to Oxted, the ridge is a scraggly little thing managing barely 130m west of the A23 and 175m east of it. There is much more consistent high ground around the Surrey/Kent border, with various summits over the 200m mark, although the local high point of 235m is just to the north of the Way. But after crossing the Medway, the great river of Kent, the ridge struggles to reach 150m once more, and beyond Ashford the notion of ‘high ground’ is purely relative.

Transport

Hamstreet station

Hamstreet station

I used public transport to reach the Way from my then home in east London. Many rail routes from London cross the Way in the Surrey stretch: Haslemere, Witley, Dorking, Earlswood and Oxted stations are all either on or very close to the Way, and the Guildford – Redhill – Tonbridge line is often very close too.

Things are less good in Kent. There is a fine link path through Knole Park to Sevenoaks station, which I used, and the Medway valley line is crossed at Yalding station, but that’s it until the major junction of Ashford apart from a link path from Pluckley village (again, which I used) to its small station. The walk ends on platform 2 of the village station at Hamstreet. Not near, or beside, or the other side of the barrier to, but on platform 2. Frequencies at even the smaller stations are never less than hourly in the week but always check before going anywhere by train on a Sunday.

I discovered local bus services as I went along. Guildford is the hub in the western area, with villages like Hascombe having remarkably good links, and Maidstone in the east.

Walking the Greensand Way

Friday 10 November 2006. Haslemere to Hascombe, 14 miles

From Haslemere it’s a backs-of-houses start, but soon you are crossing Hindhead Commons and summiting on Gibbet Hill, its Latin-inscribed cross lending a spooky air.

Haslemere

Haslemere

Gibbett Hill

Gibbet Hill

From here there is a long descent above the Devil’s Punchbowl before crossing arable land to the pretty churchyard at Thursley. A link path of the Way continues to Farnham across Hankley Common. Further along the main trail, the straggly village of Brook has a decent pub, the Dog & Pheasant, just south of the Way.

Over the A283 lies Hambledon, its former workhouse visible to the right. The main village clings to a hillside and feels like it’s out of the 1930s, but I expect the houses, few of which I could afford, all have mains electricity now. Its church has an even more exceptional situation than Thursley. Then on Vann Hill there is the first long section of scarp slope, traversed half way up, with long views south, before entering woodlands of the Hurtwood Estate, which will be a major feature of day two.

Friday 12 January 2007. Hascombe to Holmbury St Mary, 10 miles

Wey-South Path

Wey-South Path

A shortish stage dictated by the lack of public transport after Holmbury, but one which packs in plenty of highlights. If you hadn’t had a chance to explore Hascombe, do so now. The village centre has a delightful fountain, but the way crosses past the pub, church and pond, vintage English landscapes. Scenery is then OK but nothing too amazing till the Wey is crossed, and just before it the old Guildford-Horsham railway (now carrying the Wey-South Path) and Wey & Arun canal; after Shamley Green – the fourth case in a few miles of the church being a little away from the main village – it’s back into the woods of the Hurtwood Estate, a stupendous view to the South Downs emerging above Willinghurst House. Spare a moment to thank the Hurt Wood’s owners, who have maintained open access since it was granted by the then owner RA Bray in 1926.

The way then sticks close to the scarp from Winterfold Heath to Pitch Hill; a valley section dominated by the £15,000-a-year Duke of Kent school intrudes before the climb to day’s final hill, Holmbury Hill, topped by an iron age hill fort, and the descent to the eponymous village. Take care though to drop down by the track on the right before the village football pitch, or like me you will come out in the main part of the village by the Royal Oak pub rather than further south by the King’s Head.

Tuesday 8 May 2007. Holmbury St Mary to Reigate, 16 miles

The summit of the whole way, and indeed of any trail in south-east England; but the steady rise up Leith Hill gives little indication of its height. To gain this, and indeed recognition of the status of the hill, you need to climb the 18th century tower on the summit, built to breach the 1000-foot contour; this offers views from St Paul’s to the Channel, but as it’s closed Tuesdays I missed out (along with my son Matthew who was with me today). The hill, which gives its name to the music festival inaugurated by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who lived nearby, is also the last of the high group which have dominated ever since Haslemere.

Northwards now, past a waterfall to Westcott’s little common where the benches serve as an air raid memorial, and the town of Dorking, where we broke for lunch at the Queen’s Head. This whole area is festooned with good pubs – remarkably, Westcott still had four! Climate change note: Dorking is home to England’s biggest vineyard, Denbies.

Betchworth churchyard

Betchworth churchyard

You leave Dorking by diversions around the high ground to its south. Crossing the railway, there’s a major change to valley scenery as the River Mole is followed closely through Brockham to Betchworth and its lovely churchyard. More undulating ground then intervenes, first across parkland to Reigate Heath (ruined by golf course), and then the remarkably unspoiled Reigate Park, which has good views north across the prosperous eponymous town and south across the Mole valley.

Friday 22 June 2007. Reigate to Oxted, 15 miles.

The Met Office had given a severe weather warnings for today, a couple of inches of rain to be fed by strong thunderstorms. In the event, a few distant rumbles and a late light shower. What must one do for some proper weather?

First, across Earlswood Common (I took a wrong turning in Reigate and so went across Redhill Common as well), past a gated community that was formerly an asylum (who said irony was dead?), and some floodplain crossing with the greensand ridge frustratingly distant to the north. But after South Nutfield and the M23, everything changes as the way passes through magnificent parkland leading up to the excellent viewpoint of Castle Hill. I’ve driven the M23 many times without suspecting this marvellous tract; a shame, though, that the motorway is so close.

Bletchingley itself was at the time more pub crawl than village – five pubs, all recommended by the local Camra! I chose and would recommend the Prince Albert; alas it was up for sale in 2015, and indeed by 2021 the five pubs were just two.

Bletchingley

The high quality is maintained after leaving the village, as the way heads east half-way up the scarp slope, unrestrained views south to the Weald and sometimes the South Downs, and in the vicinity of Orme House, thrillingly, the North Downs. The small village of Tandridge somehow gives its name to an entire unit of local government. After Broadham Green, it’s suburbia once more as you enter the prime commuter territory of Oxted and Hurst Green. I tried to cross to its eastern end, to have less to do next time, but got totally confused by identical paths hemmed in by tall fences. Next time, I took a street map.

Friday 28 September 2007. Oxted to Sevenoaks, 16 miles

No severe weather warnings today, but quite a lot of rain. Pretty much incessant in the morning, then after a dry afternoon a proper drenching in Knole park.

Oxted cinema

Oxted cinema

Oxted is one of those towns that seeks an historical veneer courtesy of the half-timbered look, demonstrated heaven help us by a half-timbered cinema. Aided by a trusty street map, and hilariously compass, I navigated through the dead zone ‘twixt here and Hurst Green and finally headed across the wooded Limpsfield Common.

I had planned a stop at Limpsfield Chart, but it was full of Oxted school students, of whom the teacher leader kindly explained no photographs, as I hadn’t parental permissions. So on through Crockamhill Common with glimpses of Churchill’s Chartwell to the south, and after miles of woodland, finally into the open at the hamlet of French Street. The lunch-stop village of Ide Hill is Kent’s highest point; note that the Serpent Trail and Greensand Way link the high points of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The village itself sits on a broad common, where a shelter has some of the most unusual remembrance plaques I have ever seen.

The second half is much less wooded than the first, though the best views are through the trees of Hanging Bank, south to Bough Beech reservoir with the Weald and South Downs beyond. There are contesting derivations of the name ‘Hanging Bank’ – local sign boards explain it as a place where trees hang down the slope, the Cock pub at Ide Hill has it as a remnant of the mediaeval fish-smoking industry, and the local Council plump for ancient gallows.

Bough Beech reservoir

Bough Beech reservoir

The inappropriately-named village of Weald had a half-hourly bus to Sevenoaks, but I pressed on under the A21, missed the crossing of the A225 so walked too far above it on its left, and then into the deer park (with real deer) at Knole. There are two official link paths into Sevenoaks from here, but I chose a middle way with next time in mind and the fact that my new waterproof top was getting an industry-standard testing.

Friday 7 December 2007. Sevenoaks to Yalding, 12 miles

The bus came past the station at the right time, which cut out the long walk through Sevenoaks town, and the way back through Knole Park was far more pleasant (because drier) than before. It’s a good start, overall, as the way descends the scarp slope slowly with the continuing grand views south that one is becoming used to but never dulled by. The 14th century manor house of Ightham Mote is a good excuse for a first stop, but the visitor entrance is off path to the north: one for another day perhaps.

Beyond Shipbourne and its broad green by the main road, there is a passage through orchards, something Kent can still do well, before descending to the headwaters of Medway tributary the Bourne. Here, the high ground is occupied by the dense Mereworth Woods, through which the Wealdway passes; the two paths meet for a mile or so into West Peckham.

Orchard beyond Shipbourne

Orchard beyond Shipbourne

West Peckham

West Peckham

West Peckham is a quintessential English village: church, pub and a few houses grouped round the village cricket ground. What better spot to view England’s summer game, with pint in hand. Alas this was December, so pint was in pub – but the Swan brews its own beer, so this is little hardship. Luckily I had set myself a short stage beyond the village, given the early dusk; it meanders past East Peckham church, a long way from its own village, before all of a sudden there is a surprising vista of boats on the Medway. Yalding is being developed now, or should one say re-developed, for clearly the railway once brought industry here.

Saturday 12 January 2008. Yalding to Ulcombe, 13 miles.

Orchard city. After the brief initial climb out of the charming large village of Yalding, this glorious walk stays firmly to the greensand ridge, just below the highest point on the southern side. And for mile after mile you walk through acres of Kent’s orchards, entrancing enough in what passes for deepest winter but surely worth timing for England’s spring. The gently shelving south-facing slope gives fine fruit-growing conditions, even in some cases in January, but this is a landscape in transition; arable fields were once hop fields, as the oasts at Buston Manor attest; and one day vine-growers might turn their attention here. Meanwhile, enjoy the view down the combe before Linton, and across to the village too, and the deer park at Boughton Monchelsea house, where there is a simple diversion north to the very good Cock pub.

Medway at Yalding

Medway at Yalding

West Peckham is a quintessential English village: church, pub and a few houses grouped round the village cricket ground. What better spot to view England’s summer game, with pint in hand. Alas this was December, so pint was in pub – but the Swan brews its own beer, so this is little hardship. Luckily I had set myself a short stage beyond the village, given the early dusk; it meanders past East Peckham church, a long way from its own village, before all of a sudden there is a surprising vista of boats on the Medway. Yalding is being developed now, or should one say re-developed, for clearly the railway once brought industry here.

Saturday 12 January 2008. Yalding to Ulcombe, 13 miles.

Orchard city. After the brief initial climb out of the charming large village of Yalding, this glorious walk stays firmly to the greensand ridge, just below the highest point on the southern side. And for mile after mile you walk through acres of Kent’s orchards, entrancing enough in what passes for deepest winter but surely worth timing for England’s spring. The gently shelving south-facing slope gives fine fruit-growing conditions, even in some cases in January, but this is a landscape in transition; arable fields were once hop fields, as the oasts at Buston Manor attest; and one day vine-growers might turn their attention here. Meanwhile, enjoy the view down the combe before Linton, and across to the village too, and the deer park at Boughton Monchelsea house, where there is a simple diversion north to the very good Cock pub.

January fruit

January fruit

Linton

Linton

Woods near Boughton Monchelsea

Woods near Boughton Monchelsea

Barbara met me at the pub for the afternoon section, and we soon regained the Way at a rare patch of woodland. As the ridge begins its slow decline, there’s something of a sense of the end of country. The hills are lower too across the vale, and the ridge begins to straggle and wiggle; who knows, a sea could lie beyond … The principal settlement is Sutton Valence, with many fine houses and a well-known private school. It’s easy to miss East Sutton women’s prison, housed in a former manor house, so blending in to the local vernacular more than most of its peers. There’s a rare dip into a stream system soon after, before this stage ends at Ulcombe church; if like us one needs to return to the car at the pub, there is (or at least was then) a late-afternoon bus – one of five in the day – that conveniently does just that.

Friday 25 April 2008. Harrietsham to Pluckley, 11 miles

There was no morning bus to Ulcombe, so we took the train to Harrietsham and walked up the muddy northern slope of the ridge from there. (Matthew joined me for this stage.) It’s clear that the ridge is declining, but there’s still enough elevation in its 200ft-or-so above the plain to maintain the views south. If January brought orchards, April did too, in nearly the same number. The blossom was starting to form, though not in the profusion I was expecting, so below is a picture of some bluebells instead. These were in a very pretty and intricate little section (with a short stretch of boardwalk) just beyond Boughton Malherbe (= bad grass!), beyond a dull stretch of prairie below the hamlet, as the trail rises back up again to the village of Egerton, an enterprising place with its own music festival. Here the George formed our lunch stop.

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods near Harrietsham

Approaching Pluckley

Approaching Pluckley

Beyond here the path clings to a little patch of escarpment curving left, silaged and partly tilled thank you farmer, then crossing open fields up to Pluckley, allegedly the most haunted village in England if you go in for that sort of thing. On entering the village though, we turned sharp right to head by the official link path to Pluckley’s little station, which boasts the oldest passenger station building still in use in the UK (1842). En route there was another ploughed field to cross – it will be interesting to see if it’s reinstated when I return in a few weeks’ time for the final stage.

Friday 27 June 2008. Pluckley to Hamstreet, 16 miles

A sketchy path has been left through the crops on the link route, but I manage to lose the path before arriving back in Pluckley village. From here you leave through the last of the orchards, dodging crop-spraying today.

Orchards beyond Pluckley

Orchards beyond Pluckley

The Greensand Way then drops into the valley of the Great Stour. Why cross over the river, and hence leave the greensand? The loop seems to make no sense, until you encounter Hothfield Common. The map shows it as wooded, but nowadays it’s mostly scrub, and very reminiscent of the Sussex commons on the Serpent Trail. The Way exits through a little boggy area. Well worth the detour.

The growing town of Ashford soon starts to dominate however, and you skirt round the back of modern housing before heading back over the Great Stour through parkland and up into Great Chart. The village still has its own identity, despite the proximity of Ashford, and (then) two pubs for lunch. Barbara met me and we chose the Swan – closed when I was in the village in 2014.

Over the A28 and the map can’t keep up with the new housing. There’s another open stretch though through Chilmington Green, before a wide open field leads you into Kingsnorth. Its great glory is the last of the sandstone churches along the way. From here the way turns south, through a caravan park before a desolate little sheep-strewn stretch past the derelict Lone Barn Farm, almost northern in character.

Take care soon after as the Way is routed on the busy A2020 for a couple of hundred yards. The section immediately beyond was badly overgrown in this damp summer, but there’s a super finish, if quite atypical of the Way as a whole, through the ancient Hamstreet Woods. Here you are coincident with the Saxon Shore Way for a while, before a remarkable little link that leads you directly on to Platform 2 of Hamstreet station. Well done, it was worth it.

Hothfield Bogs

Hothfield Bogs

Kingsnorth church

Hamstreet woods

Hamstreet woods