For the love of a long distance walk: a speedy 26-miler in the Surrey Hills

In Hiking

Under the pewter light of an overcast sky, we walked fast through the forest. Eighteen hikers in trail shoes and lightweight backpacks, filling the air with excited chatter. “We’ve only got 12 minutes left,” shouted Hannah, “we cannot be this close and fail. Come on!”. Our pace quickened.

Despite appearances this wasn’t a race. There were no medals to claim, or cheers of supporters waiting at the finish. This was just a regular Saturday for members of a local group of the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) in Surrey, whom I’d joined for a 26-mile “challenge walk”.

At a time when slow travel and mindful walking seem to dominate, the concept of a challenge walk – picking up the pace rather than slowing down, can sound a little strange. For the LDWA – a non-profit, volunteer-led group, holder of several hill walking registers (logging those who have completed all the Wainwrights, among others), and keeper of the largest free database of all 1,600 long-distance paths in Britain – it is actually the main reason they formed 50 years ago. It consists of two key elements: distance and speed.

The walkers hit their stride on the Founders Footpath.
The walkers hit their stride on the Founders Footpath. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

“To be classed as a long-distance walk it’s got to be more than 20 miles,” said Tony Cartwright, a tall, wiry 70-something, and proud member of the Surrey Group who was leading this marathon-length (26 miles) challenge walk. It’s known as the Founders Footpath as it takes in several landmarks key to the association’s beginnings. “And for it to be a challenge it has to be timed. To successfully complete this and qualify for a certificate, we must walk it in under 10 hours.”

Challenge walks are a regular feature in the LDWA’s events calendar, run as group events (for a small fee), or as “anytime challenges” (free to members). I’d opted for the former and had joined this group on this our long, circular stroll from the top of Saint Martha’s Hill, three miles west of Guildford. Within minutes it became clear that the speed element is taken seriously. I quickly had to readjust my usual bimble to a brisk stride.

Public footpath on the North Downs Way sign at St Martha’s Hill.
North Downs Way, St Martha’s Hill. Photograph: Julia Gavin/Alamy

To understand the premise of challenge walks you really need to understand the LDWA’s history. As we made our way, hastily, past the church at Albury built in 1840 for the “imminent” second coming, Tony said: “It started when a local walker called Chris Steer happened upon a notice in Peaslake post office in rural Surrey that said: ‘Tanners Marathon. 30 miles in 10 hours. Write to Alan Blatchford if interested’ Crucially, this was a walking rather than running marathon and so piqued Chris’s interest. Little did he know he was actually walking into history.”

After that meeting, in 1972, Chris and Alan decided to form a national volunteer-run organisation to arrange regular walking challenge events across the country. The idea took hold. At the end of the first year, the association had 355 members.

Tony Cartwright, the guide, and walkers pause at a viewpoint.
Tony Cartwright, the guide, and walkers pause at a viewpoint. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

Things snowballed and by 1980 the LDWA had celebrated many successes: membership had increased to more than 2,000; a regular Hundredevent (48 hours to walk 100 miles) had been introduced; and one of its luminary members, the late, great Ann Sayer had in 1980 set the (still unbroken) records for the fastest ever Land’s End to John o’Groats walk by a woman (13 days, 17 hours and 42 minutes) and in 1979 the fastest climbing and walking between the National Three Peaks taking in Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis (both sexes), walking 420 miles in seven days and 31 minutes.

Sadly, 1980 was also the year when Alan Blatchford died suddenly at the age of 44. Over £3,000 was raised in his memory, which enabled the National Trust to acquire 16 hectares of downland on the North Downs Way to name after him.

Shere village.
Shere village. Photograph: Rob Cole Photography/Alamy

After winding through the pretty village of Shere, over the railway line at Abinger Roughs (visited by Charles Darwin in 1870), we began to ascend a hill and arrived at Blatchford Down.

At the top, near the sign bearing Alan’s surname, we finally took a pause – now over a third of the way through our challenge. The scene was a patchwork of meadows and woodland, crisscrossed by paths offering multiple possibilities. A fitting tribute.

More bridleways took us through thick pockets of trees and past Tanners Hatch Youth Hostel – where the first official group meeting was held and a simple bench commemorates its link to the association.

Abinger Roughs in autumn.
Abinger Roughs in autumn. Photograph: Peter Lane/Alamy

At Steer’s Field – bought in memory of Chris Steer, who died in 1992 – we stopped again, now halfway, and ate our packed lunch on tree trunk benches. “We always knew that Grandpa started this thing called the LDWA, but I don’t think we really understood it,” said Chris’s granddaughter Hannah Brandley, from Cornwall, who had come on the Founders Walk after joining the LDWA last year, when realising that her family’s legacy was reaching a milestone anniversary.

Tony, who had walked and worked closely with Chris, talked about his quiet modesty and his determination to keep the LDWA for walkers rather than runners – though that has changed in more recent times, in an attempt to bolster numbers.

“The membership steadily declined around the end of the 1990s,” said Tony, “and our average age is definitely older on our twice-monthly social walks [still long – over 20 miles, but no timed element]. But in the past few years it has begun to come back and we have some younger members too.” Despite challenges, membership has recently surpassed 10,000 for the first time in its history.
Our route continued past the comely cottages of Westcott, on through pine trees at Holmbury Saint Mary, which is home to one of the first purpose-built youth hostels in England, to the village of Peaslake and the post office that started it all (now a bike shop).

The group outside the post office in Peaslake.
The group outside the former post office in Peaslake, a building that holds special significance for the LDWA. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

We soldiered on the last few miles through Winterfold Forest, Farley Heath and Blackheath with blisters forming and limbs aching. Despite the tiredness we raced towards our finish, climbing each metre as though it was our first. We reached the parking area where we started with 10 minutes to spare. We all cheered.

There was no prize money or medals, just a warm sense of satisfaction, complete with knowing smiles shared by people who have completed a challenge together.

“Next time you’ll do it under nine hours,” said Tony as we parted ways. And spying the look in Hannah’s eyes, I knew that the baton first held by Alan Blatchford and Chris Steer, had well and truly been passed on.

Phoebe Smith is president of the LDWA. Accommodation was provided by the YHA at Holmbury Saint Mary, from £13 a night. The LDWA’s 50thanniversary Founders Challenge, run by the London group, takes place on 1 October 2022, starting from Guildford. There will be 19-mile and 30-mile options. Entry is £15 for members and £23 for non-members (annual membership is £15; on-the-day slots available at an increased price), including route guidance, refreshments (plus light finishers meal) and certificate. The route, plus many others, is also available as a free download for members as an anytime challenge

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