Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day


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Route 14: Pilgrims Progress: Rochester to Guildford along the North Downs

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Summary: This ride is an exercise in cycle-geography, following, where it can, ancient pathways, threaded amongst a spaghetti of motorways. Starting from Rochester, with its monumental cathedral, you follow the Medway, then climb to cross the M2 viaduct over the river. You then join the Pilgrim's Way near its original crossing of the Medway at Cuxton. The Way is followed on a mix of off-road tracks and minor roads, crossing the the M20 at Wrotham, and moving on to Otford. Here, it is welcome back to the modern world with a busy stretch of main road, crossing the M25 and climbing to the village of Knockholt Pound. Reasonably quiet roads are now followed along the top of the North Downs, until going off road again above Godstone. Then, broadly following a medley of National Cycle Route 21, the North Downs Way, bridleways, byways and mainly quiet roads, you traverse Gravelly Hill, Reigate Hill and Box Hill and descend the Zig Zag Road, made famous through its inclusion in the 2012 Olympic Cycle Road Race. Rising out of the Mole Valley gap, you climb, with increasingly aching limbs, to Ranmore Common, where you join the North Downs Trackway which takes you ultimately, via Newlands Corner and Pewley Down, back to Guildford. Between Wrotham and Reigate Hill, you are rarely out of hearing of the Motorways, which mixes incongruously with the peace of your immediate environs, and the far reaching views over the Weald. West of Reigate Hill the Motorways are finally left behind, and the Trackway between Ranmore Common and Newlands Corner is through tranquil woodland and plantations (apart from the occasional 4x4 or trail bike!).
Distance/time: 60 miles, with several stretches of off road, so this is definitely a whole day, and a long one at that.
Start/Finish: I describe the route from Rochester to Guildford. From Guildford, take the train to Waterloo, and transfer to Waterloo East (use the lift to reach the footbridge) for direct trains to Rochester. Leaving Guildford around 9.30, you should be able to get to Rochester by around 11:30.

Finish back at Guildford station.

Check train websites for bike restrictions during rush hours, and for delays due to engineering works.

Conditions under the tyre: The off-road sections of this ride were in reasonable condition when I last did this ride (June 2013), but inevitably there are some rough sections, and mud is inevitable outside the summer months and after heavy rain. For this reason a mountain bike is recommended.

There are stretches of busy main road: the A228 south after crossing the M2 Medway bridge, the roads between Otford and Knockholt Pound (either wide of the M25 crossing point) ans Gravelly Bottom between Merstham and Gatton Park. Take special care here.(Sustrans are considering a North Downs Way cycle route and it is to be hoped that they will provide some safer alternatives to these busy roads.)

There is quite a lot of ascent and descent.

Reverse route: Wind direction is an important factor: for an easier ride, chose whichever direction puts the wind behind you.

If you are starting out from Guildford, cycling from Guildford to Rochester probably makes best use of daylight hours. The aforementioned busy stretch between Knockholt Pound and Otford is also probably easier to tackle in descent. Obviously, you will have to adjust routes in Guildford and Rochester to allow for one-way roads.

Route variations: If you wish to shorten the route, or do it in two halves, the obvious point to bail out is to descend to the station at Redhill (trains direct to/from Guildford). Leave the main route at Hilltop lane, East of the M23 underpass, and follow a cycle route to the station.

Whilst it is tempting to follow the North Downs Way itself where it is a footpath, this is not allowed, and in any event (unlike the South Downs Way), the path is not suited to cycling, being narrow, muddy and steep in parts, with many styles, wicket gates and steps.

The route between Gravelly Hill and Rockshaw Road, Merstham follows thew North Downs Way and is quite rough, especially the descent to the M23. On the Google map I show less demanding alternative (this would also be easier in the reverse direction).

Route description:
  • Leaving Rochester Station, turn right and after a short distance head across into Rochester High Street: this is one way the other way, so you will have to walk, but this gives a chance to take in the old buildings. After passing the massive Cathedral on your left, the road becomes one way the right way, so cycle on the to turn left along the Medway Esplanade. Stick to the path beside the river and rejoin the road.
  • Follow the road up Shorts Way (Steep uphill), and at the top turn right into Borstal Street, Reach the M2 viaduct, signed on the right. Cross the viaduct on a dedicated cycleway, and at the end descend a hairpin ramp. Turn left on a cycle track beside the A228, crossing over the M2. The cycle track ends just after the recycling facility. Join the busy road (CARE), descend through Cuxton, and shortly fork right (CARE)into Pilgrims Road.
  • After clearing the bungalows to right and left, you emerge into more open country, and pass through Upper Halling. Stay on Pilgrims Road through the village. and after 1.25km, take the track which carries straight on where the road makes a sharp left curving bend. This is the Pilgrims Way track. Shortly ignore a track marked 'Private' forking right, and continue on a good path (but narrow in places) for about 4km, crossing a lane. You emerge onto a tarmac lane (Pilgrims Way. Descend this, and at a T junction turn right, then shortly take a bridleway signed on the left. After 1.2km this again becomes a tarmac road which exits at a roundabout with the A20.
  • Turn left and cross the M20. Then cross the road (CARE) to take a bridleway (this is now the North Downs Way and Pilgrims Way combined). Follow this round the outskirts of Wrotham and out again into open country. (The previous earthen tracks now become more stony chalk.) After a few km, you rejoin tarmac, and follow this lane above Kemsing, to a junction with the A225 at Otford.
  • There is now a stretch on busy roads so pay attention! Turn left, pass Otford station and come to a busy roundabout. Go right into the High Street, which again becomes Pilgrims Way, passing Twitton, and reaching a bridge over the M25. At the end of this bridge, cross the busy A224 and head right and almost immediately duck left to follow a short path to an industrial depot in a chalk-pit. Follow the road out of this to join Starhill Road in a T-junction. Turn right up Starhill Road, and ascend to Knockholt Pound (passing an entrance to the Dstl facility on your right). (This road is busy, fast and uphill - CARE!)
  • Follow Main Road though Knockholt. At a T-junction with The Nower, turn left, then right into Grays Road. Carry on along Grays Road. At a junction with the A233, cross into Tatsfield Lane, but then fork left into Chestnut Avenue, an unmade road at first, then tarmac to a junction with the B2024.Turn right along this road. Cary on to a roundabout with the B269. Bear right then immediately take The Ridge on the left.
  • Follow the Ridge (passing the Woldingham viewpoint car park on your left: there is an informative signboard). Where the road turns sharp right, take Grangers Hill to the left (view over Woldingham Golf Course). Descend this road, and take a bridleway signed off to the right. (This lane is an access road to Woldingham school, and can be busy with parental 4x4s at pick up time.) You reach an entrance gate to the school, and there are signs for the NCN21. Follow these to the left. The route takes you past some cottages, through an industrial depot. Descend from the depot, and shortly bear right up a gravelly sunken lane, then turn left across grass to the dedicated bridge over the A22. Having crossed the bridge, carry on up the lane and shortly turn left onto a bridleway, which follow up to emerge on a grassy area which is the Gravelly Hill viewpoint (or, longer, just stay on the road).
  • Beyond the viewpoint, take the track downhill signed as NCN21, but after 320m, take the fork right signed North Downs Way. (At this point you can take an easier alternative route to Rockshaw Road, see Google map.) This rejoins the Gravelly Hill road, and continues on across a cross-roads into War Coppice Road, which ends at a T junction, with the North Downs Way track immediately opposite. Follow the NDW past a farm, then on across Hilltop Lane (descend from here to Redhill Station if you've had enough). 400m along, the NDW/Pilgrim's Way descends diagonally across the slope (could be rough and muddy - CARE) to an underpass beneath the M23. At the exit, turn left and follow path round to join and follow Rockshaw Road. (The alternative route rejoins here.) Cross the A23 into Gatton Bottom (busy - CARE) and follow this under the M25, then take Rocky Lane on the left. At a sharp left bend turn right into Gatton Park. Pass through the school, and out on a track which rises through woods to the car park for Reigate Hill.
  • Exit the car park over a white bridge, and carry on past Reigate Fort and onto Reigate Hill itself, with the Inglis Memorial rotunda. Continue along this path, which passes between garden fences, then follows the woodland edge. After some down and up, you arrive at a T-junction, where take the track uphill to the right. After 390m a track to the left (West) joins the B2032. Turn left then right onto the B2033, then immediately left onto Box hill Road, which takes you to Box Hill. Descend the Zig-Zag Road, which has probably the best cycling surface in the country following improvements for the Olympics. (The squiggly white graffiti over which you ride is not where a white-line machine went out of control, it was specially commissioned from artist Richard Long: it is called 'Road River'.).
  • At the roundabout with the A24, head South on the pavement and take the underpass to reach West Humble Street. Climb through the village, passing the station, then take Ranmore Common Road to the left. Climb to emerge on Ranmore Common proper, passing the back entrance to the Denbies Vineyard and St Barnabas Church with its distinctive spire near the summit.
  • Stop off at Denbies Hillside for yet another viewpoint if you have the energy. Otherwise continue along Ranmore Common Road for 2.3km, and where the road bears right, head straight on on a trackway. (This is used by 4x4s and gets quite churned.) Cross over White Lane to continue along the trackway through woods, eventually reaching Hollister Farm, where the track bears right to reach Combe Lane. Turn left then immediately right into Staples Lane, then left through a car park, and follow the track on to Newlands Corner (CARE crossing the A25).
  • Pass through the large car park and exit on a trackway through trees. Shortly, bear left through the tree belt to emerge on the open downland, and follow the track parallel to the tree-line, which takes you to a smaller car park and the exit to Guildford Lane, which becomes White Lane, which crosses into Longdown Road, which in turn becomes a path between walls and hedges to emerge onto Pewley Down. Cycle along the Down and exit onto Pewley Hill at the far 'right-hand corner', on which you descend to Castle Street. Descend past the castle, then walk the one way onto Quarry Street and down the bottom of the High Street. Cross at the traffic lights and cross the bridge over the River Wey. From here turn right through the car park, under the town centre gyratory bridge, left up ramps to pass round the inside of the gyratory on the pavement (walk), and take the underpass to Guildford station.
Refreshments:

There are plenty of eateries in Guildford and Rochester High Streets, and several pubs along the way, for example in Otford, Knockholt Pound, Box Hill Village and West Humble.

There are snack bars at Reigate Hill Car Park, Box Hill (NT Visitor Centre) and Newlands Corner (close around 1700).

Points of Interest: At the start of the ride, Rochester has an olde-worlde High Street, a monumental Cathedral and massive castle. 2km upstream is a monumental construction of our own age: the M2 Medway Viaduct is 1km long and is 116ft above the river. The original bridge was opened in 1962. A second bridge was added in 2003, along with the HS1 railway viaduct. A footway was provided on each side of the original bridge to carry the North Downs Way (that on the western side was closed when the second bridge was built). There are great views over the Medway estuary to Rochester as you cross.

The ride is something of a motorway fest, crossing a collective noun of Motorways: M2, M20, M25 - twice- and M23. From the crossing of the M20 at Wrotham till you peel away from the M25 west of Reigate Hill, you are never far from the sound (or sight) of the motorways. The route follows the North Downs Way and Pilgrims Way in a rather fragmentary way. There have probably been several trackways linking Kent to the chalklands of Central England since ancient times. There is one route following the base of the chalk escarpment generally referred to as the Pilgrim's Way, since it served as a pilgrimage route linking Canterbury to the shine of St Swithun at Winchester, then, after Becket's murder, in the other direction. There was also probably a parallel route along the chalk ridge. The modern national trail, the North Downs Way from Farnham to Dover, is something of a hybrid of the two. Only limited sections of the trail are accessible to cyclists, and Sustrans has been commissioned to assess how the route might be opened up to cyclists where suitable.

Cuxton was the original point where the Pilgrims Way crossed the Medway. Beyond here, the route from Upper Halling to Otford generally follows the lower trail; views whilst not far reaching are generally over open country to the south. Near Trottiscliffe is the remarkable 3,000 year old Coldrum Long Barrow (in the care of the National Trust, free access), reached by a bridleway heading south from the point where the Pilgrims Way track becomes a tarmac lane. It comprises a mound, burial chamber and sarsen stones. It is one of several megaliths in the Medway valley: two others are accessible from the North Downs Way further East - Kits Coty House and the Countless Stones.

When you reach the top of the escarpment at Knockholt Pound, in contrast to the South Downs Way, the views to the south - and to the north over London - are limited by the fact that the roads are set back from the edge, and enclosed by many more trees and hedges, particularly on the eastern half. To the West, there are however several excellent viewpoints, including (from East to West) Woldingham, Gravelly Hill, Reigate Hill, Box Hill, Denbies Hillside, Newlands Corner and Pewley Down.

340 acres of the 600 acre Gatton Park Estate are owned by the National Trust, the other 260 acres by the Gatton Trust. The Park was landscaped between 1762 and 1766 by Lancelot 'Capability Brown', and is now home to the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a co-educational state school with Boarding and Day Boarding for pupils aged 7 to 18. The Millennium Stones sculpture - a set of upright stones - is passed in a field as you begin the ascent to Reigate Hill. These stones were created by Richard Kindersley during 1998 to 1999 to mark the double millennium from AD1 to AD2000. The first stone in the series is inscribed with the words from St John’s Gospel, “in the beginning the word was …”. The subsequent nine stones are carved with quotations contemporary with each 200 year segment, ending with the words of T S Eliot.

Reigate Fort (National Trust) was built in 1898 as a defensive structure to protect London from potential French invasion. It was actually a "Mobilisation Centre' rather than a Fort, its main role being to house engineering equipment (tools etc). The Fort is accessible between dawn and dusk, though one may only enter the buildings on a guided tour.

A bit further along, Colley Hill is also owned by the NT, with open downland and "The Inglis Folly", a sort of Greek style rotunda, donated by Lieutenant Colonel Inglis in 1909. It was originally a drinking fountain but now houses a direction indicator.

On Ranmore Common, Denbies Hillside (open access) is managed by the National Trust. As well as panoramic views southwards, this is an excellent location for downland flora and butterflies in summer.

Netley Heath on the North Downs Trackway nearing Newlands Corner is part of the Shere Woodlands managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. During late 1943 the area was billeted with thousands of Canadian troops as the allies prepared for the Normandy landings in June 1944. The woodlands contain many concrete roads, water tanks and the brick footings of military buildings which were used by the Canadian forces. A concrete circular water tank is passed on the route.

The ride ends as it began, in a town with an olde-worlde high street, a castle and a cathedral.

Finding your way This is a bespoke route, so there is no dedicated signing. Those segments on the North Downs Way/Pilgrims Way are signed as such. Supplement my Google map on this page with the relevant OS Explorer map sheets 145, 146, 147 and 148.. Also, check out the latest OS Explorer mapping online at Bing maps: make sure you select 'Ordnance Survey' from the drop down, and zoom in till 1:25K Explorer mapping appears.