Exactly 11am, New Year’s Day, 2013 – that’s when we set off from the car park at High Elms Golf Club to walk the Farnborough Circular Walk.

‘We’ on this occasion consisted of myself and my wife. This was the first walk she had accompanied me on for well over a year. Her 5’4″ frame is usually unable to keep up with the pace I set, but as this is only just over 5 miles I didn’t begrudge slowing myself today. Plus it was New Year’s Day, nobody wants a forced March to start a year.

Starting point: High Elms Golf Course or Country Park, if you drive, or Farnborough High Street if you arrive by 358 bus.

Finishing point: Um, ditto, it’s a circular walk.

Length: Approximately 5 miles (8 kilometres).

In a departure from my usual style you might have noticed that we drove to High Elms, but in accordance with the Walk Around London ethos of promoting routes accessible by public transport we could just as easily have caught the 358 bus from Crystal Palace or Orpington to Farnborough village.

We headed into High Elms Country Park and used the LOOP to reach St. Giles’ church. Which was just as pretty as I remembered it from the same time a year ago.

It was a stunning day for a walk. Chilled air but barely a cloud in the sky so we soon found ourselves unzipping and divesting in the sunshine. Nevertheless the conditions underfoot were treacherous to say the least following weeks of rain and mild temperatures. I nearly slipped over before we even reached the start of the circular walk.

Kristina striding towards St. Giles' Church, Farnborough

The start, and end, of the Farnborough Circular WalkAlong Church Road, past cottages with doors so small that I feel like Gandalf at Bag End, you find an unassuming alley called Tye Lane. The green and yellow blazes of the Farnborough Circular Walk point you West, down this path.

Within seconds we had sheep on our right. The white tips of oast houses beyond them. These strange conical turrets are used to dry hops in preparation for brewing ale, one of Kent’s primary claims to fame. The mud underfoot didn’t slow us too much and the low winter sun streaming through the thin trees created a strobing effect inside my aviators. As we reached the top of the gentle slope the ground began to solidify and we could spend more time looking out over the valley to our left rather than our footing.

New Year’s Day seems to be especially important as a day to go walking. The paths verged on thronging at times, in a way I almost never saw in the whole of 2012. Odd.

The views south were beautiful and wholesome with the sound of whinnying coming from distant paddocks. As we proceeded westwards through a forested tunnel we were fortunate to spot the turn off blazes to our left, well out of anyone’s line of sight. Today I was thankful to be carrying an Ordnance Survey map, the first time I’ve ever used one for navigating around what’s supposed to still be London.

Looking back where we'd come from on the Farnborough Circular Walk

The pedestrian crossing of Shire Lane is pretty hairy as the speed limit is 40 mph, a clear road turns into a fatal road in about 3 seconds. So be careful! Up through the scrubby field we went, the neighs becoming louder. A troop of trainee police horses appeared along the bridleway at the top of the field, which was probably what the paddock residents were responding to. A gent in full country attire nodded to us as he strode by with cheery purpose.

At this point you’re back on section 3 of the London Outer Orbital Path. I only remember this bridleway because of its relative monotony but the views from each breach in the foliage wall are great. Low flying planes buzzed us coming out of Biggin Hill airfield just as we reached Bogey Lane.

This is a short stretch of unwanted road walking. It was quiet today but you can fully imagine it being used by speeding motorists. The excellent view of imposing Holwood Manor up on the hill doesn’t betray its banal purpose as a conference and function venue. The classical frontage glaring out of a gap in the woods.

One final dash back across Shire Lane leads you on narrow paths beside a field signed as a Metropolitan Police dog training site. But it’s just a huge barren field so I’m unsure what exactly they learn to do here…

A tiny cat with a shaved back leg greeted us and joined us for a hundred metres or so, abandoning our route just before Downe Road.

I think this is clematis vitalba, along the Farnborough Circular Walk in winter, near Holwood

We headed 90 degrees right and up the hill. As I noticed the rambling couple behind us were gaining I mentioned that we needed to summit before they did so that we would take control of the bench at Wilberforce Oak, which marks the point where William Wilberforce announced his intention to propose a parliamentary motion abolishing slavery. That was all Kristina needed to hear, and miraculously doubled her pace! It turned out to be a prudent warning because as we sighted the ruin of that symbolic oak we found a crowd of around ten ramblers poking around and taking photos. Luckily for us they were just moving on when we reached the bench and so we swooped upon it to eat Soreen and down cups of searing hot flask tea.

Wilberforce Oak along the LOOP and Farnborough Circular Walk

Several minutes later the following couple reached the oak but opted not to squeeze in next to us on the bench. Their loss, we thought.

By now our boots were caked in muck. The treads were completely concealed. After heading north into Keston Common we took advantage of Caesar’s Spring (or was it Well?) to wash the mud away. Temporarily.

Man fishing in the lake below Caesar's Well, the source of the River Ravensbourne, on the Farnborough Circular WalkThis spring marks the source of the River Ravensbourne, a Thames tributary which flows past my house, enables the Waterlink Way walking route, and then flows all the way to Deptford Creek near Greenwich. The spring apparently got its name when Caesar’s Roman army approached London from the south. They had been unable to find sufficient fresh water until they heard clouds of ravens gathering in a part of the forest. They turned out to be bathing and drinking from the spring, and so came the name of the River from the ravens’ assistance. Or so the story goes…

Freshly bathed boots took us out of Keston Common and North along the A233. We nipped east down a boring alley but soon came to a halt.

Somebody keeps a traditional red telephone box in their garden along the Farnborough Circular Walk

A massive and deceptively deep puddle blocked the path. No verges to balance on. Thick undergrowth to the right. A fence to the left. I chanced a crossing, despite Kristina’s protestations.

At first it went well as I picked my way along a ridge. But suddenly I started to sink. Muddy water overflowed my boots and climbed up my thigh. I tried to pull my leg free but deeper I sank. Never wrestle against quicksand, they say. But in the panicked heat of the moment many people forget that advice. Kristina tried to throw me a branch but I inexorably sank deeper and deeper. Two other walkers had come up behind Kristina and we’re running around looking for a rope, anything, screaming. My chest was now halfway under the mud and I was still dropping. Just as the black water began to enter my mouth I reached her branch and she pulled me towards her. Adrenaline fueling her superhuman strength. I collapsed on the sodden, disintegrating leaves, coughing up mud.


I saw the puddle, tried to cross, got a little too close to a boot overflow, and announced ‘sod it’ to Kristina and the two other walkers. As we thanked the fact I’d brought an OS map we headed back to the main road and moved in an arc north of the actual path. The other two walkers followed us into the realm of ‘The Other Half’ that is Keston Park.

Completely boggy and impassable along the Farnborough Circular Walk, north of Holwood Estate

With personalised number plates and houses named Greenwood or Rivendell (a travesty based on what the house actually looked like) this was a poncy area indeed. We were on a private road, I should add, but because of the flood we seemed to have little choice. Signs everywhere pointed out that a private security firm monitored this private road but I resolved to just forge ahead. New Year’s Day – probably not paying much attention today. I hoped.

Converted oast houses in FarnboroughThe OS map indicated a footpath, and it didn’t let us down when we emerged from rich person land into a strange road full of people jogging or walking dogs (Holwood Park Avenue). At the south end of this I was delighted to find that we could rejoin the flooded alley far beyond the blockage.

Emerging onto the A21 was not fun. Loud and whizzy. We passed another 358 bus stop and turned right onto Farnborough High Street, which possesses the oast houses from earlier. We turned up Pleasant View and promptly lost the rest of the blazes. I guessed that it wanted us to go back down the muddy path we’d started from but we wanted to avoid coating  the inside of the car with mud so we walked alongside some football pitches until we got to the clubhouse. With the gate locked we scrambled through the tree fence and back onto the road.

Kristina scrambling free of the dead end in Farnborough

Farnborough village is quaint. But somehow I don’t like it. Where’s the soul? There are several pretty buildings but there is an air of death about the whole place. I can’t quite put my finger on why but it might be something to do with all the closed shops. Obviously New Year’s Day means most would be shut but I got the same vibe the last time I was here, and that wasn’t a holiday.

The old forge in Farnborough

A quick nod to the start of the circular walk, and a swing back past St. Giles’ and we were back in the car park scraping our boots clean. It was a lovely way to start the year. The Farnborough Circular Walk provides a very good summary of this part of Bromley and it is even better than the LOOP route that passes through here, though obviously there is a lot of overlap. It’s possibly the best short walk I’ve done in London, though this does stretch the definition of London to its limit.