Lesson learned – take maps, even for urban areas.

Today was the culmination of at least three years of wanting to walk the Vanguard Way. Finally I began the 66-mile walk from Croydon to the coast.

My friend Martyn eagerly agreed to walk the route with me and we met in mid-morning at East Croydon railway station. I sized up his pack, evidently smaller than mine but far more ramshackle and resembling a shanty town with various cables, ‘silicon bands’, and fabric doing and supporting whatever they were supposed to be doing. That’s his way though, Mr. Improvise.

Just like that we crossed the tram lines and I was finally off on the Vanguard Way.

Starting Point: East Croydon train station, reachable from Victoria, London Bridge, Brighton, Lewes, Gatwick Airport, New York, Moscow, etc.

Finishing Point: Limpsfield Chart, reachable the 594 bus to Westerham – Monday to Saturday services only, and non-TfL/Oyster.

Length: 16.3 miles (26.2km)

Ordnance Survey Maps route link here

Download the GPX file for this route here Vanguard Way Day 1, Croydon to Limpsfield Chart

East Croydon, the start of the Vanguard Way

Park Hill water tower, Croydon, seen from the Vanguard WayFootpaths and quiet residential roads zig-zag through the outskirts of Croydon, flashing you glimpses of her towers from time to time. It didn’t take long for us to get lost though. Within 15 minutes we were standing in Lloyd Park scratching our heads and abusing our mobile phones’ precious battery life to consult GPS maps. The trail’s blazes took us to the edge of the park, pointed us towards the north-east, and then promptly abandoned us.

I had naively determined that we wouldn’t have any trouble reaching the parts of the London Outer Orbital Path which coincide with the Vanguard Way and which I have walked before. This meant that I had no map or reference for where we were going on this part of the trip. We mooched around some ambiguous and completely unrelated signs and marked posts for a few minutes before taking a compass reading and heading roughly south-east, towards the hills coated by what I assumed to be Coombe Woods.

School Bar, not very niceAfter crossing the Tramlink lines again for the final time we both tried one of Martyn’s pound shop snacks – Fruit Bowl ‘School Bars’. They did taste of raspberry but they look like a cross between reclaimed meat and dog treats. The texture is off-putting and weirdly chalky too, it feels like it’s been squeezed into a rod with the slush left in a smoothie machine. But, one of your five-a-day so – WOO!

Although the Lloyd Park jaunt was wrong we did find ourselves back on the Vanguard Way a few seconds later. Martyn remarked on how rural it felt, so soon after leaving a major conurbation. And he’s right, Croydon frequently doubles for places like Gotham City in Hollywood blockbusters (Delta Point, the BT building was used as Gotham General in Dark Knight Rises). It does get very green, very quickly.

Vanguard Way signage in Littleheath Wood

We found the LOOP and were able to chat away without fear of getting lost around Selsdon. I had predicted that the recent spell of relative dry weather would mean a fairly mud-free walk. As a ‘wise man’ once wrote “Assumption is the brother of all **** ups” (Guy Ritchie) and I hadn’t factored in the pure evil that is horse hooves on bridleways.  Mud carnage ensued. Or, ‘fun’, as Martyn dubbed all mud from now on. He gained a stick to make him feel more like a rambler and although he kept saying ‘You shall not pass’ I wasn’t impressed by his gravitas so I dubbed him Grand Alf instead.

The dawn of Grand Alf near Farleigh, Vanguard Way

As soon as we reached Farleigh we got lost again. Neither of us saw a blaze and for some reason we turned east onto Farleigh Court Road. As soon as we realised our mistake we spent half an hour plumbing odd little footpaths through the woods, following a vague sou’-sou’-westerly direction. Martyn snagged himself on barbed wire whilst avoiding the ‘fun’ below us. I should point out that he wore trainers for the whole four days so although he had much lighter feet he also had to take much more care in the mud. Plus he got some blisters and is able to praise Compeed blister plasters very highly.

A horse dressed like the Queen along the Vanguard Way

The wiggly route did turn out to be pretty accurate and we were soon sitting in Chelsham’s Coach House pub for a refreshing lunchtime beverage.

On we went, following blazes which seemed to take us the wrong way again. I’m not sure what happened but there we were, staring at a signpost with five fingers all pointing in different directions. None of which were marked ‘VGW’ as they usually are. So I guessed, and guessed right. Back on track once more!

All this confusion was costing us time in pondering but it wasn’t adding much to our distances.

We crossed Limpsfield Road and entered Barnard Road as indicated. But then we never found the correct path, probably because we were debating over the best types of sweets. We reached a gate with a sign and barbed wire so we turned around and took a path off of Barnard Road which took us into woods and then provided our first ‘big’ view of the walk, looking down over Woldingham.

Woldingham and the North Downs from the Vanguard Way

Literally the only potential downside to walking with a travel companion is that you sometimes silently delegate blaze-spotting duties, which means that nobody is paying enough attention. I was the person who planned the trip so I soon learned I should have been on top of this at all times.

Grand Alf’s stick suddenly snapped in half but I spotted some likely candidates for a new one, and this lasted for the rest of the Vanguard Way. We descended and saw our first deer fleeing into the hills. We realised we were off-piste when we followed Slines Oak Road along the edge of Woldingham and had to dodge some speedy traffic. Just as we were about to refer to GPS once more we found a VGW blaze and crossed into a field. The path appeared to follow a tractor track up a super-steep hill and along the edge of a field but ten minutes later we came across a No Trespassing sign and crossed west into the woods to get out of this field.

That involved scaling a barbed wire fence. Which is never fun.

Once we were back on track we swallowed up distances quickly. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we were on the right route until we arrived at the top of vertiginous Chalkpit Lane, which snakes down the North Downs towards the M25. Down the side-track we went and found the tremendous view from Oxted Downs towards the High Weald. We sat for a few minutes to admire where we were headed.

The view south from the Vanguard Way at the top of Oxted Downs

The sun was starting to droop so we needed to get a move on if we were to reach somewhere to sleep before dark.

The Plaque of Lies along the Vanguard WayMud gave way to distinctive gault and we moved quickly to the east, joining the North Downs Way for a while. The Plaque of Lies claiming to mark the Meridian Line came and went and we FINALLY came onto the Ordnance Survey maps I brought with me, which was a relief. Only a few minor alterations of course now took us to the bridge carrying the Vanguard Way over the motorway.

This felt like quite a big thing. Even though I crossed the M25 on foot a few weeks ago on the Thames-Down Link this was the first time that I’d stepped out of London with bigger intentions.

Moments later we puzzled over the huge quarry to the west. Apparently it’s called Chalkpit Quarry but it certainly doesn’t look like any chalk I’ve seen before with its orange sandstone tints.

Chalkpit Quarry from the Vanguard Way

Night was racing upon us as we entered the northern edge of Limpsfield Chart. This dense woodland is pleasant walking terrain with clear paths and lots little clearings on each side. As we passed National Trust Jeeps we reached the village of Limpsfield Chart.

The Carpenters Arms is a Westerham Ales pub serving some delicious brews. As my shoulders screamed at me I tried to relax myself with 4 pints of beer. It worked.  They also serve fairly pricey food. My Sea Bass was delicious but Martyn’s hogget stew wasn’t up to much and looked small for the outlay. Nevertheless it was a brilliant place to end a tough first day. Tough because of the frequent concern over our route, not so much because of the terrain.

Pulling a brave face in the Carpenters Arms in Limpsfield Chart despite the aches of the first day of the Vanguard Way

It had been a great first day and on reflection quite an easy start compared to what was still to come.