Until a couple weeks ago I thought I lived in Surrey. I moved to England in 2008 and have lived in the village of Ham, beside the river Thames halfway between Kingston and Richmond for most of the last 12 years. And in all that time, I have put ‘Surrey’ at the bottom of my address.
But a couple of weeks ago I discovered that we don’t live in Surrey at all.
My discovery came about because Management at work (which I also thought was in Surrey but it isn’t) asked all staff to think about doing something in August that would challenge us. For me, the word ‘challenge’ means doing something that I don’t know if I will be able to complete, and my first thoughts were that it would need to be a long walk – maybe a walk around Surrey.
My manager told me that the ‘challenge’ didn’t need to be physical, although most of my work colleagues seemed to be choosing challenges such as couch to 5km, running a certain distance in under a certain time, or cycling, rowing, etc. She even said that the ‘challenge’ could be something like baking a cake – I wondered if she was referring to my attempt to bake a Birthday Cake for my wife back in March when I forgot to add the eggs to the cake mixture – but again, my idea of a challenge is something that I don’t know if I can achieve, and I know I can bake a cake if I really want to.
So I decided that my work challenge would be to walk a lap around Surrey, and it was then that I discovered that I didn’t actually live in Surrey!
How could that be? The Surrey County Council offices are in Kingston. I have passed them many times over the years. But Kingston isn’t in Surrey?
Well it turns out that Kingston was ‘moved’ into the county of Greater London in 1965 (55 years ago) but the Surrey County Council decided to remain based in Kingston, and most residents still refer to Kingston as being in Surrey.
So I actually live in Greater London, and not Surrey.
Not to be deterred, I decided that I would still walk a lap around Surrey as my challenge for work and I set about mapping a route that would be suitable. In 2016 and 2017 I walked a lap around the outside of the M25 motorway and my rule for those walks was that I had to walk as close to the motorway as possible, but I couldn’t cross under or over it, and obviously couldn’t walk on the motorway itself. I set a similar rule for the Surrey Circumnavigation – I had to stay on the outside of the Surrey border during the walk, but keep as close as possible to the border throughout. The idea being that I would walk a lap around the outside of Surrey without every crossing into Surrey itself.
As with the mapping of the M25 routes, and some other walks I done over the years, I used MapMyRun.com to plan my route. But this time, I switched the map view to use ‘World Topo’ view which showed me the county boundary lines. I measured an initial route and discovered that there were many other places where I would have to walk many extra miles to avoid what would have been a much shorter walk if I took a shortcut into Surrey, but rules are rules. My initial mapping showed that I would need to walk approximately 209 miles (337km). This would be my longest walk outside of a race, and my 5th longest ever.
I decided I would do the walk during the first weekend of August as a) that met the requirements for our ‘August challenge’ at work, and b) I didn’t have any commitments at work during the first week of August so could take a couple days leave if needed. I booked the Monday off work as annual leave and marked the Tuesday as ‘Annual Leave TBC’ in my calendar in case I needed the Tuesday as well.
I also re-mapped the route I would take, starting at Grayshott which is a small village on the Surrey/Hampshire border, just off the A3 meaning that it would be easy to get to via car. The benefit of starting in Grayshott was that I would be able to meet my wife/sons for a decent feed near Kingston on the Sunday afternoon/evening, and also change clothes, and pick up additional snack food, etc. It also meant that I would have to finish, as I would need to get back to Grayshott to collect the car.
And that was about as much planning as I did – identify a start/finish location, map out a route and download it to my phone, pack the food and equipment I would need for the walk plus additional supplies for when I would meet Ruth on the Sunday, and then wait until the morning of Saturday 1st August 2020 for the walk to begin.
Grayshott to Gatwick:
On the Saturday morning I woke when the alarm went off at 4am, had my normal breakfast of porridge and yoghurt and then drove down to Grayshott, about 40 miles away by car. I found a quiet, safe looking street to park the car and a suitable ‘landmark’ to use as my start/finish line – the Grayshott village hall – and after taking a ‘start’ selfie I headed off on my adventure at 6:35am.
Within two minutes I had missed my first turnoff and had stepped into Surrey! I had downloaded my route to the MapMyRun app on my phone, an app that would be my guide throughout the walk, and when I checked it for the first time I realised that the village hall was closer to the Surrey boundary than I thought. When I mapped my planned route I was going to start nearer the center of the village and walk for a few minutes before the first turning. Additionally, on the phone the map didn’t show the Surrey county border so, unlike the M25 in 2016 and 2017, I was actually circumnavigating something that was invisible. On the assumption that I was in fact now in Surrey (which checking the map while writing this I know I was) I backtracked back to the turnoff I had missed, which was named ‘Boundary Road’ (a bit of a giveaway really) and headed off down the unsealed road.
As it was, when I mapped out the route there were three occasions during the 200+ mile walk when I would have to spend a minute or two in Surrey, and the first was when crossing the A3 at 4 miles where the only safe way to cross the A3 was by following the underpass – about 150 meters of which was in Surrey. In mapping the course I decided that this plus the other two occasions (at approximately 53 and 141 miles into the planned route), which were both less than 50 meters would be acceptable exceptions to my rule of not entering Surrey during the walk.
In mapping the course I had decided against using Google streetview because I wanted a combination of roads and trails and if I had stuck to a route that had streetview, I would have been solely on roads. That said, I did use streetview when the route had me walking on any A roads so that I can check that they looked like they would be safe to walk on. Most were, and if they weren’t I identified a safer route. The only exception to this was a duel carriageway which would have been unwalkable if it wasn’t for the fact that I was walking on it at 1am – but more about that later.
Almost immediately after starting I was into the hills on off-road trails and almost all of the first leg through to Gatwick was either off-road or on narrow country lanes. It wasn’t overly hot, but fortunately I was walking in the shade most of the time. I was carrying 1 ½ litres of water and plenty of snack foods but it wasn’t till I had cover 40 miles that I reached a shop where I could buy some food, and I was lucky with that too as they were in the process of closing up when I arrived.
I passed a few country pubs along the way so if things had been desperate I could have stopped there to get water and food. But on day 1 my intention was to stop as little as possible and I walked for ten hours before my first proper rest which was at Ruspur where I had a small picnic outside the village general store.
After about 30 minutes rest I continued through to Gatwick where I hoped to buy something substantial for dinner.
Arriving at the southern boundary of Gatwick was the first time that my route planning let me down, although it wasn’t anything major. The route I had mapped had me walking along a private road inside the airport boundary, and a sign said that pedestrians would be prosecuted so I backtracked a little and followed an overgrown footpath alongside an A road instead.
As expected, this was the biggest town I had come across so far and I had a selection of takeaway meals to choose from by taking a short detour off my planned route. I chose Pizza and sat down for my second, and longest, break to date – about 45 minutes.
Gatwick to 100 miles:
I was just short of 50 miles when I stopped for dinner, having covered 47.5 miles (76.5km) in exactly 12 hours. And I had already had 920 meters of the expected 3,000 meters of elevation change – a hilly first (just under) quarter. I always walk slower at night but it looked like I would make 100 miles in time for a late breakfast. I was happy with my progress to date.
This leg of the adventure would see me continue east across the bottom of Surrey before turning north and heading up towards Croydon before reaching 100 miles near Old Coulsdon.
It would be fair to say that the walking started to get hard now. I had been walking all day and going into the night it was still warm (20+ degrees). The route for the night section was almost entirely country lanes which was good. No need to try and navigate through trails in the dark, and narrow country lanes are possibly safer at night than during the day because headlights from approaching cars warn you of their arrival before they come around blind corners, giving time to move out of their way.
Just before midnight I reached a small village called Cowden. My water bottles were almost completely empty, and I knew that I couldn’t afford to leave this village without refilling them. The village wasn’t very big and appeared to consist of the road I had followed into town and two roads leaving town. There were a few shops but no sign of life anywhere and no sign of water either. I wandered up the street leaving town that was off to the right, rather than the one I was supposed to take, figuring that I should check that out first in my search for water. But nothing.
I walked back towards where I had come from and turned off to the north – the route that I was supposed to take – and spied an oasis. It was a hose tap on the front of a house below what looked like to be a bedroom window. Given that it was midnight, and I was effectively trespassing on to private property to ‘steel’ some water, I turned off my headtorch and my flashing front safety light and snuck up to the house as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake anyone. I filled three water bottles, drank one, and filled it again, and then snuck back to the road. I could now continue with the knowledge that I had enough water to get me through the night.
I really enjoyed the night. I always enjoy walking at night. I had a full moon lighting the countryside and was mostly listening to music and just having a good time. Occasionally I would see people but mostly I was alone.
And then just before 4am I looked up and saw a sign – “Welcome to Surrey”!
I was in shock. I needed to walk another 100 meters or so before turning right but my rule said that I couldn’t enter Surrey (except for the three exceptions I have already mentioned). I checked my map on my phone. I wasn’t lost. I must have made an error with my route mapping. Or so I thought. I had been awake almost 24 hours and walking for over 21 hours and it never crossed my mind that I might be on a boundary road between two counties. All I knew is that I couldn’t enter Surrey. I walked back a few meters looking at the map on my phone to identify where I was.
There was a vineyard beside me and the map indicated that maybe I could walk through the vineyard and out on to the road that I wanted to be on. The other option was to backtrack what looked like a mile or so. I went with the vineyard option.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked on the map though. I managed to get into the middle of the vineyard but then found that I needed to jump down and over a small ditch – a one way option because I don’t think I would have been able to get back up the bank if I had had to. I walked alongside some vines for a while and eventually made it to the road. The only problem being that there was a tall blackberry and bramble hedge between me and the road. I decided to follow the hedge for a while hoping to find a gap that would allow me to get through to the road, and that is eventually what I managed to do. Reviewing my journey via Strava it appears that I was only in the vineyard for about 1,000 meters. Much better than backtracking to find another road, but completely unnecessary if I had thought to myself that it was a boundary road and I could have continued along my mapped route. But it was all a part of the adventure and gives me something to write about.
Soon after the vineyard incident I was looking for water again. It was 5am and I in Biggin Hill looking for hose taps and again I found one under what looked like someone’s bedroom window. I didn’t desperately need water but I figured that it would be better to get some now while I could steel it from someone’s hose tap than to run out when back out on country lanes. I still had about 18 or 19 miles until my next planned rest, which would be when I reached 100 miles – now likely to be around 27’ish hours into my adventure.
Water bottles refilled, I was on my way again. For the next few hours, through until I reached 100 miles, I really started to struggle. The route was still very hilly, and I wasn’t enjoying the walk as much as yesterday. I was tired and wasn’t looking forward to what promised to be a long day. I always forget in these events, the second day of any multi-day race/walk is always the hardest.
I finally reached 100 miles just as I was entering Old Coulsdon and took that as an opportunity to stop for only my third decent rest.
Old Coulsdon to Kingston:
The direct route between Old Coulsdon and Kingston is only 13 miles. Only a half marathon. But for me it would be a very slow and painful 33 miles (53km) that would take almost 12 hours. As I said above, the second day is always the hardest.
I only rested for about 30 minutes in Old Coulsdon before heading off on sore feet. I can’t actually remember a huge amount about the Sunday other than that my feet hurt and I was very slow. I maintained reasonable progress in that I didn’t stop along the way, but it was slow. Throughout the day I averaged a pace of about 3 ½ miles (5.7km) per hour. It was still hilly and at times pedestrians out for a Sunday afternoon stroll would pass me!
My intention had been to arrive in Kingston sometime between late afternoon and early evening to meet Ruth and Jarrad and/or Zac for food. But I realised early on that that wouldn’t happen and made arrangements to meet them in Chessington at around 5pm as I thought a decent feed of macaroni cheese might be just what I needed. As 5pm approached I realised that I wouldn’t make it to Chessington in time either and called Ruth to change our meeting area to Tolworth. I’ve been through Tolworth hundreds of times over the years, both in the car and by bike and walking, but I was so tired and struggling to think that I couldn’t comprehend where I was arranging to meet them. In the end, I found a side street just off the road I was walking along and sat down outside a garden centre. I called Ruth and asked her to find the garden centre on Google maps and said I would be there.
Ruth and Jarrad arrived after I had been resting for 15 to 20 minutes. Ruth had made macaroni cheese as promised and had also brought some hot water and facecloths to enable me to have a bit of a wash. I also repaired my feet, popped and taped a couple blisters, and changed socks and shoes.
After a total break of just over 1 ½ hours I headed off again. And I felt great! For about 20 minutes.
It took me almost an hour to get through to Chessington at which stage I had to turn left for the long out and back stretch down towards the M25 onramp which was just over the Surrey border. My plan was always to keep as close as possible to Surrey without crossing in to it, and as tired as I was, I stuck to my plan walking a pointless 4.7 miles (7.5km) return trip down to the M25 and back.
The hills were now finished (for the time being) and it was all downhill through Surbiton to the river, and then up to Kingston to the bridge over the Thames. But I was extremely tired now. I had been walking for 38 hours and even going downhill my average speed was about 19 minutes per mile (11:45/km). Additionally, going through Surbiton I found myself wandering all over the roads, and missing turnoffs.
I got to the Kingston Bridge a couple minutes before 10pm but decided that I would continue past the bridge and walk an additional 2 miles downriver to home where I would have some sleep. My original plan had been to walk through to at least 150 miles before sleeping because in races such as the Thames Ring 250 and Lan Las Ultra the first decent checkpoint for sleeping in at 150 miles, and I thought I would use this adventure as preparation for those events next year. My justification (in my exhausted state) for walking home to sleep rather than just sleeping on the side of the road was that if I stopped now I would get cold very quickly, so I either needed to keep walking or get indoors for a sleep.
That last 2 ¼ miles from Kingston Bridge to home took me 48 minutes! I was really struggling.
Once home, I told Ruth that I was going to have a shower and go to bed for a few hours and that I wasn’t going to set my alarm. I would just get up and go again when I was ready. If I was ready.
Kingston to Aldershot:
I ended up sleeping for 9 hours, and when I after waking I took my time before heading out again. I had porridge and yoghurt for breakfast again, and then spent ages sorting out my stuff, fixing my feet again, and generally mucking around avoiding what was coming up. At one stage I made a comment to Ruth along the lines of “can you tell that I am putting it off” and she replied something like “well, it’s not a race” and that was all I needed to remind me that I was doing this for fun and adventure, and it didn’t matter how long I took (to complete the walk).
I finally restarted a little after 11am and took 36 minutes to walk back to Kingston Bridge. My ‘detour’ has taken a total of 13 ¾ hours.
The rest was just what I needed though, and whilst I was still walking at a relatively slow pace of a little under 4 miles (6.4km) per hour I was really enjoying myself. I walked for 6 hours before stopping beside the M25 at Wraysbury to eat a white chocolate magnum. I sat in the sun for about half an hour thinking how lucky I was to be able to do this. A year ago, I was just out of hospital after suffering from two blood clots and a lung infection, and now I was walking something in excess of 200 miles just because I can.
An hour or so after restarting I reached Datchet and bought a sausage and chips for dinner, and then at 7:30pm I turned into Windsor Great Park. I had walked through Windsor Great Park before but hadn’t realised just how big it was. It took about 1 ½ hours to walk from one side to the other, although at the pace I was walking, that was only about 5 miles.
By the time I exited the park it was getting dark and as the night went on it got quite cold – down to 12 degrees if that could be called cold. I found myself shivering and put all my spare clothes on, which wasn’t a lot. I had a thermal top and a light rain jacket, and also a buff that I put on my head. I knew that I couldn’t afford to stop walking though because if I stopped, I would cool down very quickly. As always, just in case anything did go wrong, I was carrying a foil space blanket. I had learnt just how valuable this piece of emergency equipment was when I had to stop in the middle of the final night of the TR250 last year, and I always carry a space blanket when doing long overnight walks now.
Around 1am’ish I turned on to the A322 which turned out to be a duel carriageway with no shoulder, and it was two miles long! I was walking towards the traffic which was very light with one or two vehicles every 30 seconds to three minutes, but it meant that every time a vehicle came towards me I had to step up on to the grass beside the road and wait to for the vehicle/s to pass. It wasn’t easy to walk on the grass which was long and uneven, but if I had been walking on this road during daylight, with heavier traffic, that would have been my only option.
After this section the rest of the night was relatively uneventful. I wasn’t going fast, but I was enjoying things the best I could. My feet were sore and it would have been nice to stop, but stopping wasn’t an option as I needed to keep moving to keep warm.
It was a battle of mind over body and the mind was winning easily.
One of the things that people often say about long distance running/walking is that you need to know your “Why”, and my Why was that I had to complete this walk to get to my car. Stopping wasn’t an option and as such, negative thoughts never entered my mind.
During my long walks and races I have become known for stopping at any McDonalds that I pass along the way, but this walk had been largely along country lanes following closely to the Surrey border, and it wasn’t until I arrived in Aldershot on Tuesday morning that I came across my first McDonalds. Just in time for breakfast.
I bought a couple Bacon and Egg McMuffin’s, a hash brown, and an orange juice and went and sat in the sun across the road for one last rest before the final leg through to the finish.
The final leg – Aldershot to Grayshott:
One of the issues I had had from the beginning was that every time I charged my Garmin, the stopwatch would stop recording and couldn’t be restarted while the watch was charging. I’m sure that I used to be able to recharge it whilst in use, but for some reason that was no longer possible. As a result, I had recharged the watch while eating dinner at Gatwick on Saturday night, at my 100 mile rest on Sunday morning, at Tolworth on Sunday night and again at home on Sunday night, and now while having breakfast on Tuesday morning. This time I worked out that at the most I needed 40% charge in the watch to get through to the finish. I could probably finish with less than 30% but I didn’t want to take the risk so I rested until the watch was back up to 40% charge and then set off on the final 24 miles (38.5km) just after 8am, after a 1 hour rest.
Normally, even at a slow training pace, 24 miles wouldn’t take anything more than 5 ½ hours but this 24 miles was after I had already walked 195 miles (314km) in the previous 73 hours, and it also contained another 500 meters of elevation change.
I was still enjoying it and I was seeing countryside that most people will never visit. This was probably the best adventure I have ever had.
As much as I was enjoying it though, I was struggling. I was managing to walk about 3 ¼ miles (a little over 5km) an hour and was walking an even pace without needing to stop.
After just over 6 ½ hours I worked out that I had about 5km to go – only a parkrun to go. I wasn’t sure of the exact distance but when I crossed the A31 a couple hours earlier I knew that I had roughly 11 miles (18km) to go, and that was 8 miles ago.
It was just after 2:35pm on Tuesday afternoon, just over 80 hours since I started on Saturday morning. I figured that if I pushed the pace a little, I could ensure that I would finish in under 81 hours – because finishing ‘under’ x hours would be that much better than finishing ‘over’ x hours.
I picked up the pace the best I could, not realising at the time that I actually had 5.7km to go and that whole 5.7km was up hill!
I was feeling strong though. As strong as one can feel after almost 220 miles of walking, and the kilometers passed quickly. Coming in to Grayshott I still has five minutes left before 81 hours would be up. There was still probably 500 meters to go and it was all up hill.
I kept walking as hard and as fast as my legs would go. I arrived at the village hall and took my ‘finisher’s selfie’. The time; 3:34pm. 80 hours, 59 minutes and 14 seconds since I left the hall on Saturday morning. Total distance: 352km, 219 miles.
Surrey Circumnavigation completed.
Some final thoughts:
Throughout the walk I relied heavily on the route I had mapped out using MapMyRun. Using the MayMyRun app on my phone I could see where I was relative to my planned route. I couldn’t have done this walk without this technology, especially given that I was effectively circumnavigating an invisible line.
In order to keep my phone charged throughout the walk, Zac had lent me his powerful USB charger. It weighed almost 500 grams but was probably the most important piece of equipment I carried other than my phone itself. I was using the phone so much that the battery would only last six hours without charging, and for a lot of the walk I just kept the phone charging while walking. The USB charge contained enough power to recharge both my phone and watch every time I needed it, although I did recharge the charger whilst at home on the Sunday night.
According to Strava analysis, actual walking time was 65 ½ hours.
Before starting, I had initially thought that I might have been able to complete the whole walk in around 65 hours, which would have seen me finishing late on Monday night. I think that if I had kept my Sunday night sleep to a minimum then I could probably have finished in under 75 hours. If I had managed things better and slept rough rather than taking the detour home, then that would have saved another 1 ½ or more.
Total distance walked was 352km/219 miles. When I measured the route on MapMyRun, it was 337km/209 miles. Approximately 50% of the difference was due to my detour to home, and the rest was due to miscellaneous course changes, getting lost, etc. Overall, I think I did pretty well keeping the actual mileage as close as I did to the planned mileage.
When I started on Saturday morning, I needed 350km to complete the double crossing of the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee which I started on 1st May. During the Surrey Circumnavigation I moved from 715th place in Tennessee up to 320th, which was about the same place I was in when I completed the first crossing of Tennessee back in June.
One of the things I hadn’t realised when planning the route for this walk was just how few shops I would pass along the way. This was especially the case on the first day. I was carrying plenty of food through the walk though, and it was only water that I was ever concerned about running out of.
Total elevation change for the 352km/219 miles was 3,846 meters.
I wish I knew. Races are still being cancelled although some races are now starting up with social distancing rules. I enjoyed this adventure so much though that I am thinking I might do another county circumnavigation before the summer is over.
2 thoughts on “Surrey Circumnavigation – Walking a lap around Surrey County”
One word… Uber