I researched my cycle holiday in the North Downs using a map of hostels and bunkhouses in the South East of England.
Setting off my first impressions were of Hop gardens. Draped in verdant green, obscured beneath a tumbling contortion of branches and leaves, row upon row of giant fifteen foot wooden frames and wires extend far up the hillside towards the chalky Hogs Back ridge on the North Downs. It looked like grapes at first.
The tall ironwork sign on the left of the road (just before the first house in the village) reads Puttenham. Behind it a well trodden, grassy bridal way traverses the fields and up the south-facing slope. I lay down my bike on the grass verge, walked a short way along the path and into the field for a closer look. It is not a vineyard but a hops field, I had never seen them being grown before. I thought that they disappeared from the area long ago, once the competition between independent brewers and large multi-national companies became too fierce.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Surrey hops grown on the North Downs were in great demand throughout England. This 14 acre field is the last vestige of a forgotten crop, kept alive by a recent shift in consumer demands for more sophisticated and complex ales. The local Hogs Back Brewery, on the other side of the ridge (which opened in 1992 with dreams of reviving the areas glory days) now brews over 57,000 pints each week. This field contains the Fuggles hop variety and will be harvested in the first week of September.
The last couple of miles from Seale have been very pleasant cycling. Quiet roads, green and yellow rapeseed fields, cows going about their business behind the hedgerows, and the occasional walker. I have wanted to cycle the route from Farnham to Guildford for a long time, it follows part of the North Downs Way, but also part of an old pilgrimage route between Winchester and Canterbury known as the Pilgrims Way. It is only a ten mile section and can be covered by bike in a couple of hours, but there are a few interesting stops along the way that could easily extend the journey into a leisurely two day affair.
The route can be picked up in various places but a useful starting point is Farnham train station. Travelling in the opposite direction is possible, but some nasty uphill sections out of Guildford and Puttenham make for a more arduous ride. If starting at Farnham station the trail guides you amongst beech and oak trees, past Moor Park, a large house and grounds dating from 1630 that has seen various owners and uses throughout history. There is no option to explore the property as redevelopment into upscale apartments has proved the only viable model for its preservation, but its air of history can lend some intrigue to the surroundings as you peddle through the Beech trees. Waverley Abbey the first Cistercian Abbey in England, dating from 1128, is also a short detour from here and well worth a stop to explore the stone ruins and view the mansion house.
Once out of Farnham you pass Barfield School and the old Jolly Farmer Pub, now home to the rather incongruous Keis Peking Restaurant. The Hogs Back Brewery (check website for tour and shop times) is a further five minutes riding time along this road, but the North Downs Way makes a right turn at the junction (signposted Sustrans Cycle Route 22), and heads through the village of Seale. The route soon becomes a bit more rural as you enter the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Beech and oak give way to pine forests and fields, this is Robin Hood country – not according to legend but in the opinion of famed Hollywood Director, Ridley Scott and his 2010 epic (some of the scenes were shot near here and also Bourne Wood). At the end of Seale lane is WyndyMilla bike shop, a useful pit stop if you are already in need of some bike maintenance and some refreshments. The route continues along quiet roads on the North Downs all the way to Puttenham and includes a nice section of downhill after you pass the Seale and Sands church of St Laurence.
Leaving the hop fields behind I peddle into Puttenham and past the Good Intent Pub. Further along, opposite the church is PUTTENHAM ECO CAMPING BARN I had never seen a camping barn before, it is huge from the outside, although only a small part is actually converted for use as accommodation. I follow the stone track around the back and spot the familiar YHA sign.
‘Welcome! Cup of tea?’, I hear from behind the stable door as I park my bike. Chris was expecting me. He insists that the offer of a hot drink upon arrival is customary for all visitors. The barn is run entirely by volunteers in support of the Project Oasis North Downs charity, that leases it from Guildford Borough Council. It saw 219 visitors last year and over half that so far this year. It is mostly cyclists and walkers on one of the many long distance routes that pass through the village who use the facilities. It took about £120,000 to restore the barn sufficiently for use as accommodation. It opened 23 June, 2005.
This is a purely self-catering option for visitors but the kitchen and dining area is well appointed and kept spotless by the team of wardens. “I am not sure if you have had breakfast, but there is some fruit salad in the fridge, left over from last night’s meal if you would like some ” offers Chris. Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea feels particularly homely, and Chris chats openly with me about the camping barn and his role as a volunteer warden.
A genuine concern for the environment is visible through out the property, and in the people who care for it. There is no heating, hot water is solar powered when the sun shines and electricity is fuelled by a couple of photovoltaic cells on the the roof of the bike shed in the garden. Rainwater is also collected and used to flush the toilets. A few informative posters explain the technical workings in simple terms, helping guests to connect with the care that has been taken during renovations of the barn. Sleeping arrangements are simple: A raised, padded platform has been divided into several sections and provides a dry, clean and comfortable place to lay out a sleeping bag. A single shared toilet and shower is accessed from the sleeping area.
A short distance from the barn, across the B6000 the North Downs Way turns left down a bumpy dirt track, passing the Puttenham Cricket Club and cutting through the golf course. The trail eventually enters a small wooded area before spitting you out across the road from the Watts Gallery. The gallery opened in 1904 to showcase the work of George Frederic Watts, his most famous painting, Hope, is said to be one of Barack Obama’s favourites–and was recently renovated to the tune of £10m. There is a popular and typically village tea shop attached that makes its own jams and chutneys (Tues-Sun 10:30-17:00).
From here it is a road ride again and the most challenging uphill section of the route, taking you up to the Hogs Back. The final stretch is a quiet but rough, stony bridleway that runs parallel to the A31, offering some incredible views–Guildford Cathedral and the town on one side, and fields on the other. The bridaway opens out onto The Mound which dips steeply down into the centre of Guildford town. A short pedal along the canal takes you to the station where trains run back to Farnham (20 mins) or into London Waterloo (1 hour).