Ahh, Surrey. The commuter belt county – a paved Mecca for London’s cycling hardcore and weekend hobbyists, a place about which Jeremy Clarkson famously remarked “If Kent is the Garden of England, then Surrey is the patio.”
Perhaps this is true, but he’s forgetting one important thing: The divide that signals the end of London and the beginning of the southeast, the Metropolitan Green Belt. While it is without doubt wonderful to cycle around (even if there is an element of local resistance – NSFW!), for me the real treasure is to be found on foot – along with the Chilterns, it is surely the most accessible area for proper trail running to London.
The highest point within the Surrey Hills is Leith Hill. Standing atop its wooded peak at 294m above sea level is an 18th century Gothic tower, built by the local landowner to push the summit above 1,000ft (305m). It is a very popular area for walkers and tourists with easy access from a car park near the top.
So that’s it… an easy two mile jog, right? If you wish. But if you want something longer – shady wooded trails, open farmland, winding uphills, and fast, technical descents, let me introduce you to my new favourite run within an hour of London.
The route begins in the hamlet of Holmbury St. Mary, on the village square opposite The Royal Oak pub. Head south up the small lane by the church, into the trees and steeply uphill, crossing the football field at the top. Join the Greensand Way heading SE and follow it all the way to the trig point at Holmbury Hill.
It’s a beautiful, cloudless early July afternoon and the temperature is perfect for a summer run – around 23 degrees, so no vest needed today. My legs feel strong and powerful, like coiled springs, and carry me with ease up the short and steep climb from the village. As the trail twists its way up to the first viewpoint, my heart rate stays low but I resist the urge to push on, knowing what’s to be tackled later in the day. The unpleasant undertones of my polite conversation with a local resident regarding cyclists fade from my memory, the birds sing, and the radiant sun warms my soul.
Continue heading south straight down the steep escarpment. There are two options here, a hidden overgrown path or a well-trodden bridleway. At the road turn right, and then take the first left onto Three Mile Road to continue down the hill. Pick up the bridleway on the left opposite Lukyns and follow this east, across Cotton Row and onto the footpath to the intersection at Little Birketts.
The undergrowth is thick in places, full of nettles at this time of year, and for a moment I rue the decision to leave my vest in the car. But I emerge, upper body unscathed, at the foot of the knoll that stands between me and Cotton Row, and can hardly hear myself think as I glide through a grassy field alive with the chirp of a thousand crickets.
At Little Birketts, pick up the footpath heading south, and go across the road toward Waterland Farm. Enter the woods and cross the small footbridge, then follow the edge of the field round to the left, crossing a stile and picking up the farm track east towards Forest Green.
Now go straight over the main road and through a small horse field to emerge onto the bridleway east towards Gosterwood Manor Farm, and take the footpath that passes Volvens Farm to Mole Street.
I love the ever-changing nature of this run, I think to myself. You never seem to be on the same surface or have the same view for more than a few hundred metres. I’m still feeling fresh, and full of the joys of summer.
After crossing Mole Street and passing quickly through Kissing Copse, the path emerges into a wide field. Keep the fence on your left and stay high, crossing the style at Jayes Park and jogging through Home Farm to Forest Green Road. Turn left here and follow the road, taking the footpath on the right just round the corner.
I’ve had Leith Hill’s iconic tower in my sights for a few miles now and can’t wait to get going on the long climb to the top.
Along this farm track there is a barn and a footpath to the right, where the climb begins. Head north, first on the same track then round the field and into the trees. Keep right onto the flint path which climbs steeply up, across the road and through Windy Gap car park. From here the steep, stepped path is well marked and will take you to the summit.
I try to keep a lid on my heart rate in the gentle initial stage, along the track between the hedgerows and into the next field. It’s steeper now, and I pass a young couple deep in conversation as they continue their own journey skywards. The slope begins to bite, but I know there’s much more to come as I enter the woods and enjoy some welcome relief from the mid-afternoon sun. I’m heading straight up the side now, the gradient nudging 20%.
A brief respite through the car park sets up the grand finale. There’s a sign at the trailhead warning of steep gradients and multiple steps, but I attack the climb with everything I’ve got as my Garmin registers a 34% incline. Round the switchback, heart pounding and lungs near to bursting through my ribs, up the leg-sapping rocky staircase at my absolute limit, and into the garden of the tower to the glorious respite of the trig point.
Once I’ve caught my breath, I turn and admire the view. The farm buildings marking the start of my ascent lay what feels like a mile below, and I can see as far as the English Channel over the green ridge of the South Downs, Ditchling Beacon and the High Weald off to my left. The pain melts away, quickly as butter in a pan.
To find the correct way back from the top, first head down the hill to the west on the main track and take the first path you see on the right, after around 100m. Follow this short singletrack and try to keep straight after another path goes away to your left. You’ll end up on a bridleway (look for evidence of horseshoes in the mud) going NW towards High Ashes Farm. Cross the road here, and continue NNW on the bridleway another kilometre or so downhill to Park House Farm.
This is fun. Climbing more or less done with, I can let myself go and allow my legs and feet to feel their way over the rough, stony ground, gradually down and down on the fast, straight singletrack. The path splits into a gully but I stay high, giving the sensation of flying across the springy, leafy mulch.
From here simply pick up the footpath west, turn left up the minor road then take a right at Belmont School. Keep to the left when the bridleway splits for the final descent back to Holmbury St. Mary.
My legs are tired now and each uphill seems harder than the last, but I’m still keeping a decent pace and can push on now I’m nearly done. I give it everything down the final twisting, rocky descent through the woods, leaping from wall to wall of the banked sides of this dried-up winter stream. The wind is in my hair and my eyes are streaming as I finally reach the road and the warm down jog back to the car.
Two hours to myself. Two big climbs, and two of England’s finest views. The peace and quiet. Connecting with nature, flowing from path to path, field to field, through the woodland. Just me and my thoughts, under the summer sun. A perfect Sunday afternoon.