I didn’t have a particularly good journey down to Morden. Like yesterday I awoke and arose really early, creeping out of the house as quietly as possible into the dawn sunlight. Perhaps I kept waking up early because of the excitement of the walk.
There was a stroll through deserted suburban streets and across a park to the underground station, which was overground here. It was closed. I’d simply got up too early! Had to hang around with a few other mad early risers. Never mind, it was another beautiful morning and the wait wasn’t too long.
Then when we were on the train and on our way I thought I’d take a shortcut through the railway and tube network, which became a delay of nearly half an hour between trains: a cold wait because the low angled sun could reach the opposite platform but not the one I was on. The weather report was good so I’d left my pullover behind with the backpack.
At Wimbledon I found there was no train going to Morden so I took a bus.
Never mind again though. A bus through London early on a Sunday morning is not much slower than a train and I soon found that the bus stop I wanted in Morden was close to the station I left from yesterday. So all I had was the minor chore of repeating yesterday’s walk by something like 100 feet and I was in virgin territory.
Then it was pleasant. Morden is bracketed by parks: Morden Hall park to the north and another to the south where the main road straightened out beside it into Stane Street. I’d never actually been into this southern park and instead of being flat like Morden Hall park it was on a low hill. I wandered up it through morning meadows past dark clumps of trees. Morden civic centre was the obvious landmark to the north but far beyond that one could see the Shard Tower and other London landmarks on the horizon. There was cloud above but that was thin and would soon dissipate like sleep does slowly but surely on a Sunday morning. It was a Sunday morning; so that early morning parallel Universe world feeling was lasting longer, and was only inhabited right now by a few dog walkers in the park and myself. No backpack all the way to Dorking either. Freedom.
I rejoined the road by a brook and found a forgotten childhood memory. Just the way the road looked and the houses by it. It hadn’t changed much since I’d seen it now and then ages ago on a bus with my Mum and Dad, and later in the car. I’ve thought that memories are like fossils in the strata of time; laid down and outcropping in areas one has lived in or seen, like the Dinosaur bearing Lower Cretaceous strata on the Isle of Wight. Well now I felt on the edge of a major geological field much older than that in my past. Coal Age? Cambrian? Welcome to the Early Life Age.
There was another hill and I expected more memories; but the strata seemed to disappear. The hill seemed longer and higher than it should be somehow and the shops around the crossroads on top looked more like a Chicago suburb than south London.
The other side I recognised immediately: that dip in the road, a minor valley in fact since there was a brook at the bottom of it; with that low office block and shops on the left. The opposite hill with those trees, the edge of North Cheam itself. A hospital should be up the slope to the right with my old home not far beyond that. The memory deposits were patchy: the library was still there going down on the left but seemed on the opposite side of that side street, the hospital itself had gone and was now a hospice and that old white house the doctors lived in opposite with that lovely big back lawn had been wiped out.
The main geological field was at the top of that hill. The shopping area on both sides of the road was still there. Staines Avenue on the left leading down to the schools I used to go to. Langley Avenue further along on the right. God the sharp angle of that small building on the corner of the avenue had that feel of childhood sensation. That cafe on the opposite corner had gone though; where the Teddy Boys gathered and one of them had taught me how to play pinball, despite my parents warning me not to go in there. I saw a cafe across Stane Street and needed breakfast but I couldn’t stop now!
Langley Avenue was a road of ad hoc residential architecture but verdant now as the trees were bigger, rising up a gentle right hand bend. My childhood home should be a stones throw up on the right. According to Google Earth it still seemed to be standing, despite all the building around it. There were some new houses on the left too. I had a memory of a Roman Catholic School on the right but that had gone or been converted, there was a biggish building there.
There it was! That quirky semi detached house appearing just after that bungalow. The sycamore trees in front had been replaced by a car and the honeysuckle pergola had gone but the house itself was still standing. Along with the old garage! Still standing 50 years on despite what’s become known as ‘garden grabbing:’ selling back gardens for mini housing estates. 2 cul de sacs on both sides and their houses had linked up behind on what was our back garden in a kind of developers frozen pincer movement. The long back gardens with the sand pit, tortoises and raspberries in ours and the bungalow’s back garden with the pile of soot I’d covered myself in had gone, my Early Life strata submerged under Upper Mundania strata, but the semi detached and the bungalow in front of me still seemed to be holding out. In all my travels I’d never come across the same type of semi detached as my first home; so this scene seemed to sum up my life somehow: eccentric values resisting the force of monetary change most people follow.
It was like time travel. I could imagine my earlier self in that front garden meeting my present self on the other side of the old front gate. There’d be so much to tell him about the future and I might try to explain some of it something like: I didn’t become a professor of palaeontology but I’ve worked on Lower Cretaceous Earth, kind of, making a model of it which will be on television on the Isle of Wight where Dinosaurs will be found. I know, where we’ve been on holiday! How did I know what it looked like? It’s a long story. Anyway I’ve worked on other models with the BBC! I’ve worked on other planets too like Mars, flown around this planet, worked on many parts of it one way or another, and had many adventures across Africa, America and Australia, which is where Uncle Alan and family moved to. That’s if you follow a career in Art. Why Art? I know your interests are in the sciences but your talents are in Art, Geography and English. Here’s a warning though: the worst challenge of this life is making money so you should do what you’re talented at and you may have to chose between an adventurous life after Art School and no marriage and children, or a steady job. Maybe mapmaking school or journalism would be better paid and still interesting. Our family? We’ll move to Berkshire, then Mum & Dad will move much later to Cornwall joining Catherine there who will get married and have a son and they’ll live to a ripe old age. But I live in Gosport near Portsmouth, on my own but have friends, still go to parties and even work with children. I take them to school and back which is like having a family without them telling you what to do, going to school without staying there, and being on holiday. Not bad eh? (laughter) And what will happen elsewhere? There won’t be another world war with atom bombs but there’ll be many smaller ones. Later on there’ll be many more people and saving animals and scenery will be a problem. There’ll be more roads and cars and they’ll be better shaped and all colours of the rainbow. There’ll be machines called computers in our homes, more of them than there are televisions now and you’ll be able to do many things on them. You’ll be able to walk around with little telephones too. Our interests? It will be discovered that Dinosaurs died out not because they were stupid but because a comet hit the Earth. We’ll see a comet hitting Jupiter and causing explosions the size of Earth and some people will realise that a comet or asteroid could finish mankind off too. Man will land on the Moon in 1969 but won’t go elsewhere, probably not in our lifetime. However robot spacecraft or satellites will explore the solar system finding no jungles on Venus but a hellish desert, no canals or Martians on Mars but giant volcanoes and canyons instead, more volcanoes on a moon of Jupiter and geysers and subterranean oceans on icy moons. Some scientists think there’s life there because crabs and giant worms will be found around volcanoes at the bottom of our oceans. Best of all planets will be found orbiting other stars. No aliens or bug eyed monsters found in my future though. So far.
If the present occupants had been around maybe I could have explained that I lived here and possibly gained access, but it was still a dead quiet Sunday morning. So I took the photographic record my sister asked for, remembering that the upstairs window was our bedroom window, took a last look at an old neighbours house opposite ours where I’d discovered SF magazines, took a last look up the avenue, verdant with trees bigger than when we were here, and walked back to the main road.
The cafe was modern with a flatscreen TV, the owners looked oriental. I had some much needed coffee and fried breakfast.
Time to walk down the gentle slope of Staines Avenue and survey the rest of the field of memories: the 1930’s housing estate with the roads named after Lower Thames Valley towns and the schools I went to. A decrepit block of mock Tudor flats on the left was the home of one of my schoolfriends. Otherwise the architecture of semi detached housing was the same as where my friends Gerry and Mali lived. More friends had lived down Marlow Drive and Egham crescent to the right.
At the bottom was Henley Avenue. The morning was turning into a brilliantly sunny one by now bringing some of the people who lived here now out of their houses. Multicultural people. Actors change but the stage hadn’t much.
Down at the end of Henley Avenue was the home of my childhood sweetheart on Gander Green Lane. Then again another girlfriend had lived on the other side of Henley Avenue up a small slope on Molesey Drive to the right. I was doing surprisingly well in that department then.
There was St. Oswalds church at the crossroads where Molesey Drive levelled out at a crossroads. More a nondescript chapel than a church it had some real memory fossils: those elocution lessons that ensured I got home just after an SF TV series every time, never mind there would be many more. Admiring the way the girls across the aisle were dressed at those Sunday morning services while trying not to giggle out loud at the jokes my mates were making. Drawing sputniks with them during Sunday school. Confusing the Sunday school teacher utterly by asking him if there were Dinosaurs in Heaven? Maybe he should have remembered that bit in the Bible about ‘In my father’s house there are many mansions.’
The infants school down on the left was hidden by a fence. Memories of that place included kind old Miss Gregory with the funny voice who might have sparked off my career in relief models when she gave me a Readers Digest atlas as a parting gift. I know I liked the colourful relief models displayed there.
On the other hand there was the Headmistress: a dragon of a woman who didn’t like boys and who had a lesbian relationship with the Vice Head.
The Headmaster of the junior school made up for that. Bald headed and almost simian in appearance he was an intelligent man who played classical music at morning assembly and collected Stone Age flint tools. I think he was intrigued by me. I responded by showing him some stones I’d stolen from the flats on Staines Avenue thinking they were fossils, but he declared them to be coral. Then there was that time when he asked assembly if anyone knew what the music was and my proud reply was ‘The Lone Ranger!’ as I was a fan of black and white westerns. His sentiment of ‘nice try David’ took the sting out of being bested by the class knowall who knew it was The William Tell Overture.
A short walk downhill, turn right along Kingston Avenue and there was the junior school on the left, not hidden at all. The boys toilets had been turned into a school extension but the playground and small field beyond where we used to play football was still there. So was the main feature of the school: the glass fronted assembly hall.
Opposite was the alley we scarpered up to play hide and seek or simulated gang warfare during lunchtime in groups of not less than 2 or more than 3, it was decreed by the Head. The alley led to others running through half the estate.
As I said though I was a fan of those old black and white TV westerns, there were so many of them then. So with my imagination – always powerful but never more so than in childhood – it was easy to turn those houses into boulders, my home into a ranch and the shopping centre on the main road into a wild west town. That’s how my childhood patch of 2/3rds of a mile from home to school became the land of Rin Tin Tin, Champion the Wonder Horse, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and of course “HI HO SILVER!” Well it seemed bigger then because I was smaller.
Mum and Dad gave in and gave me a toy six gun with silver bullets, so they said. Though somehow I also became a Red Indian with a tepee in the back garden and even a squaw (sister.)
Much later in life I was destined to see the real thing, including a few of the locations for those westerns.
The deeper geographical and architectural feeling I had for the area though was one of being connected to the rest of them at school by going there daily but destined for different things maybe, living across that long straight main road in a different kind of house, almost favoured because I was living on the highest ground.
Back on the main road I’d forgotten how it kept rising in a gradual but continuous incline. Maybe that’s why I was amazed to see a distant but huge spike lined up with the northward direction of Stane Street when I looked back. God that’s actually the Shard Tower! Logical though. Roman roads are straight and this one started at that tower, 1,016 feet high I could still see it 12 and a half miles out.
The memory field fossils were getting patchy. The triangular gabled building which had been a newsagents I recognised, though it was now inhabited by accountants. The tailor up the road on the right had gone. I was rarely bored as a child but that tailor did it every time. Apart from the irritation of my mother fussing and fiddling with clothes on me every time we went there, the fag of having to take them off and put them on again. I could only survive by achieving total brain wipe out, which didn’t help co-operation with her I suppose. I didn’t miss it. I did miss the cinema on the left though, Saturday morning club and those old Flash Gordon movies where the scenery looked suspiciously like that of The Lone Ranger, plus seeing Kilimanjaro on that huge screen and wondering if I would ever go there? I did. I missed the timber yard on the right where Dad used to buy stuff but have just found it with Google. That restaurant somewhere beyond the cinema had gone though. The one where the waitresses said I had better table manners than some of the businessmen while my sister was hurling food around.
I reached North Cheam crossroads. Some of the architecture I didn’t recognise, some I did. Nonsuch Park was just up the road. Or so I thought. I’d also forgotten about the incline which just continued.
Beyond North Cheam crossroads it really was garden suburb. Big detached houses with plenty of greenery. I took a photo of a seat on the other side of the road where there was a backdrop of nothing but willow trees. I thought I’d reached the park when I reached a strip of sapling woodland through which a path wound alongside the road. I realised I did this as a child but it went on for much longer than I remembered. At last the trees became bigger and there was an opening into the park itself.
Nonsuch Park was big. It looked big to us as children and it looked the same way now. There were fields of grass then – some of it uncut – and plenty of trees. The map showed a pond big enough to be a small lake too, which I don’t remember actually seeing. Now the park seemed just as big but the trees had grown obscuring the views and the mown grass was restricted to swathes for the public to walk along. They were out there too. A couple with a pram in a meadow reminded me of an impressionist painting and the weather was right for the same thing. Nonsuch Park was lush and drowsy with the late morning heat of high summer. It was easy to lose ones sense of direction here but the old grand house poking though the range of trees in a corner of the park could still be seen. Along with the families, old couples and dog handlers. London had woken up and was enjoying a summer Sunday.
London was actually just back up the road from the park. When I lived in Cheam I lived in Surrey, but Surrey had since retreated to Nonsuch Park. It’s border was now on the park’s northern edge and I’d made the first stage of leaving London for greener pastures. There were a few more stages to go.
There was still Nonsuch Palace. A Tudor Palace. My junior school headmaster had played a part in unearthing it. I couldn’t find it though and gave up following a tree lined drive leading more or less in the right direction. No wonder that trip I went on with school friends to catch tadpoles from the far corner of the park seemed such a major safari.
Then it was suburb again and roads now busy with traffic. It was outer edge ribbon development suburb though, through the Surrey satellite towns of Ewell and Epsom. Ewell had retained the feel of a village with sunlit struck gravestones in the churchyard. Epsom had always been more of a town with a hemmed in high street and ornate clock tower at its end. It seemed unchanged since I had lived in Cheam.
Just off the town centre though I found a duck pond and park. Happily my route lay through that as I started uphill toward the North Downs. Along a road on the other side there was another lily covered pond with a seat by it where I could take a break and check the map. I learned on this hike to make use of a seat and appreciate it whenever civic altruism provided it.
By now though I was encountering the ‘stockbroker belt.’ A road towards Epsom Golf Course marked as a suburban street on the map was a ‘PRIVATE ROAD. Residents only’ according to the sign at its entrance. A neighbourhood watch notice under that reinforced the unwelcome. Further along there was more of this. I found the road leading uphill which would rejoin Stane Street but another side street on that reminded me of the same thing. This was verging on being irritating. It was as though the people who lived here felt guilty about something within those verdant green vistas of immaculate lawns and manicured hedges. It seemed I was making my way round the edge of an upmarket ghetto clustered by the golf course. Just as well I hadn’t tried crossing that! Why didn’t they go the whole hog with another notice stating HUMAN RACE KEEP OUT? It was the opposite extreme from the clutter of Tooting where welcome banners festooned its main road.
It was a long slog up the uphill lane but it was into country, past a long flint wall on the left, a sign I was heading into chalk downland. I began to see horses in the fields and Epsom racecourse was on the other side of the golf course so there were signs like ‘Racehorses crossing.’ It wasn’t the only form of racing around. The Olympics were beginning and the local club was out in strength. Hurtling down the lane in were tightly packed bunches of guys on racing bicycles competing in olympic style. This was a hazard I hadn’t thought of. An accident involving this sort of thing probably wouldn’t finish me off like a car would but it would be bad enough and in one sense this hazard was worse. It was easy to hear vehicles coming, but not bicycles. I kept my eyes peeled and got a good photograph.
One couldn’t be too careful. After awhile there was only the odd straggler. Then nothing. The T junction was in sight where Stane Street – now another lane instead of a main road – crossed the lane I was on. I’d made it to the top of the slope. I was on the right side of the lane and paused for breath at the junction.
A indignant squeal one of those hurtling cyclists right in front of me a “f*****g idiot!” As he shot past and was gone! I felt I’d been stung by a garden pest I should have had the sense to avoid! It took time to reconcile myself to what had happened but it could have been a lot worse. Insults aside I’d been warned about being on the right side of a road on blind bends by my driver, it didn’t register that being on the right side of a road meeting a T junction under a hedge might as well be one and I’d thought all those cyclists had gone. Maybe the experience would put me on my mettle tomorrow when there be more main roads.
Fortunately I was now going through country perfect to chill out in. Pyschologically anyway. I’d joined Stane Street just before a crossroads where it turned into a trackway on the other side and there was no traffic at all. Just a tree shaded stroll through woods with occasional views to the north, through mile after mile of rising country to the Dorking gap. No backpack meant it was the most relaxing part of the 65 mile walk.
I say psychologically chilling out because the weather report at Gerry’s had forecast a heatwave with London going through 30 degrees centigrade and it already felt that way where I was. I refused to call anything hot under 30 degrees because of my experience with tropical countries but once it reached that…okay that’s quite definitely hot! 5 degrees cooler could still be uncomfortable to walk in with a backpack. Although I was free of that I was glad to have those trees.
A roaring hum of traffic became obvious ahead. That must be the M25. No problem. A bridge took me high over this tension ridden canyon of traffic slicing up into the downs. Another stage reached in leaving London.
There was the occasional lane crossing the track. The map showed that a ‘B’ road was ahead too. ‘B’ roads are death traps if you’re on foot. They’re country lanes converted into an attempt at a main road with a similar density of traffic. Unlike main roads where one can see further and there’s usually some sort of verge ‘B’ roads often have none and are full of blind bends. I worked my way up one near Winchester once like infantry did in Normandy during World War 2: look carefully for a recess of hedgerow out of the line of fire or some other cover, make sure the coast is clear, a quick dash there, look again for the next refuge revealed by that minimal progress, keep moving like that.
This one was only to be crossed though and when I got there I could see a large building a short way up the hill. It looked the sort of place where I might be able to get a drink. It turned out to be a golf club with a sports shop. Not being exclusive the staff were friendly enough and I was able to get ‘Lucozade Sport!’ Just the job for someone with a physical challenge to meet and a real life saver in the heat. I relaxed with it while there was the sound of social chatter from the club terrace above and the sight of the golf course receding up the next hill into the heat haze like some strange stylised park.
Not far beyond that the view of the golf course and any other sort of view vanished and I was in woodland. Now and then I came across mudbaths left over from the wet weather and had done since the crossroads. They were limited in extent so all it took was a short pause for deliberation and one easily bypass them. Much later it occurred to me though that if the weather had been typical of what turned out to be the wettest summer in 100 years they would have been more of a problem.
Despite being on porous chalk. I was now on the North Downs. Chalk dated from the late Cretaceous when for some reason unknown the worlds sea levels rose by 300 metres. If such a thing happened now the whole of the Midlands and Southern England would be gone apart from the moors of Devon and Cornwall. It took millions of years though back then, restricting the freedom of Dinosaurs but expanding that for marine saurians such as the insanely long necked Elasmosaurus and the Mosasaurs, the closest thing to giant sea serpents ever to inhabit this planet.
Chalk formation needed that kind of time; for a museum curator asked me to imagine how long it would take for a swimming pool to congeal and become solid if flour was steadily sprinkled into it, so I could get the feel of the process.
Now the formation of the Alps had warped land far to the north of that range so the chalk had risen into the vast hump of an anticline while eroding away on the inside, forming the steep southern slopes of the North Downs. The North and South Downs marked the edges of the anticline.
I came to a kink where there was a twisted crossroads of tracks. There I met a couple who’d relied on internet instructions and were way off course. After setting them right I carried on and soon had proof that my mapreading was up to par.
There was a steep slope and there was a view of the verdant Dorking Gap off to the right where the River Mole had eroded clean through the chalk hills. I continued down the track that had become a semi gully and then I was back on a minor road that I knew would come out at a pub come hotel.
It was a huge place and popular. Eventually I tried an entrance but was confronted by an old guy dressed up in a uniform like a penguin. There was about to be a marriage and I thought I was going to be barred but he only wanted to point out cheerfully that there was a bar I could use near the other entrance. After happily obliging and wandering through there to the rear I came across a swimming pool full of people, mostly children it seemed. Sometimes I feel children have more innate sense than adults do. It looked so obvious that under all this blue sky and heat it was the only cool place to be. A bar and a cold lager or 2 wouldn’t be a bad 2nd though and after establishing that nobody minded my appearance – everywhere looked spotless – I was able to find the bar and chat with the barman about my adventure.
I left as the wedding arrived. The main road had a pavement and there was a wine farm on the other side receding up to the hills. Some time ago I’d wondered if global warming was going to bring the climate of the Loire valley up to Southern England. Later I heard that some scientists held that view and now it really seemed to be happening what with the sight of that farm in this kind of weather!
A short way from there was a roundabout with directions to a trading estate neatly laid out under some pines and before long I was at the station at Dorking. Although I was going back to London tonight I’d reached what I felt was its outermost limit. A final childhood memory was Box Hill. Where the chalk escarpment did a sudden right angled turn into the gap, hence the name. When we had a car my family would occasionally bring me out here and we’d climb it. The chalk scar where we’d gone up was now hidden by trees and the whole hill was a wooded mass, but it was the southern outpost of the memories I’d been walking through.
© D. Angus 11 12