The Vanguard Way somewhat conveniently starts at East Croydon train station. We caught the 06:05 from Brighton, which meant we were up at some ungodly hour and even the seagulls eyed us suspiciously as we shuffled to the station and availed ourselves of hot caffeine beverages from the terminally perky chap at the kiosk slap bang in the middle of the waiting area. I admire his enthusiasm, I consider myself a morning person these days, I think it just kind of happens when you flail reluctantly into your 40’s, but even I was struggling to form sentences.
We pulled into East Croydon just as rush hour was getting warmed up. Tarrant attempted to jump start her brain with a Starbucks on the platform, I grabbed the biggest Red Bull I could find from the Sainsbury’s outside the station and, clutching our respective socially acceptable drugs, we stumbled through East Croydon, dodging commuters who clearly weren’t expecting to encounter two bleary-eyed lesbians with backpacks strapped to their torsos.
A lot of the named trails we’d been doing recently had made a fun game out of making us guess where we were meant to be going. Well I say “guess”, obviously we have maps, but the Vanguard Way is signposted right out of Croydon. It sent us through a park though which argued with where our maps said we should be going, I think the sign has been turned slightly so we started our journey on the Vanguard Way slightly west of the Vanguard Way but I’m not going back and doing it again so it’ll have to do. As we were turning around in circles looking like massive tourists, trying to work out where we were in relation to where we were meant to be, a bloke asked us if we were alright and needed help. He was lovely. See? Who says all Londoners are miserable, people-hating wankers? (Yeah okay, it’s me. I say that).
The walk out of town is actually surprisingly lovely, I was expecting to be dealing with suburbs for hours. There is, of course, a bit of urban walking involved but it’s not long before the trail encases you in woodland which is probably my favourite kind of autumn walking. You get the low sunlight streaming through the trees onto discarded chestnut shells and golden leaves. I mean, everything’s dead. The leaves are dead and the chestnut shells are dead but as dead things go they’re very photogenic. Also, fun fact: when you kneel down with your backpack on to take a low POV photo of the corpse-strewn fairytale scene before you it’ll become rapidly apparent that your knees never agreed to this, and when you push yourself up off the floor chestnut shells will embed themselves in your hand and it will fucking hurt. Spiky little shits.
Another thing we walked along a lot of today was bridleways which doesn’t sound too bad until you remember that horses are huge and have hooves and, after a spot of rain, will churn up any path that has the audacity to consist slightly of dirt. Day one and we were already ankle deep in mud, sidling our way around the edge of the trail, trying not to stack it. I felt like mud would be a large part of our lives over the next few days, we should probably just embrace it. Walk through it. Let it get in our shoes. Keep it forever as a memento of our time on the Vanguard Way.
We settled down by a pond in Chelsham for a spot of lunch then popped to a large Sainsbury’s to grab some extra provisions and to use the toilet. A wise woman always goes when she has the opportunity. Sometimes you can definitely have a wee even when you don’t feel like you do, especially at my age, usually when you sneeze. By the looks of the map, toilets were in short supply on this trail. I’ve no problem having nature wees, you get used to the odd errant bit of grass tickling your arsehole as you squat (you never get used to the nettle you failed you see though), it’s shitting in a hole I have an issue with. I was going to have to resort to some pro level bowel coaxing if I didn’t want to carry five day’s worth of meals around with me, post-digestion.
We carried on with our day and eventually the flat trails and woodland finished, we gasped our way up a little hill and were rewarded with a lovely view. This also meant we could see the sky and oh hello, ominous, black cloud. What the fuck are you doing over there? The terrain does get a bit more undulating around these parts, we made our way up and down before emerging at the top of a very steep slope overlooking the M25. The mighty London Orbital. Everyone’s favourite motorway. Or carpark, depending where you are at what time of day. We knew we were approaching it, you can hear the roar of the traffic for miles. Okay, maybe not miles. Metres. But a lot of them.
That was definitely rain over yonder though, we stared at it and tried to work out which way it was going until some chunky drops of sky water started to hit us so we got our full waterproofs on. The rain got heavier with every layer of Gore-tex we applied to ourselves until us and our devices were safely encased and we made our way carefully down the steep slope which was now a very wet steep slope. By the time we got to the bottom the rain had stopped and we fucking melted. Eventually we had to give up, stop, and lose the waterproofs.
You’re on the North Downs Way and the Greenwich Meridian Trail for short while here too, both are trails I’d love to do some day. You pass a plaque announcing that this is where the NDW and the VGW cross the Greenwich Meridian Line which is ironic given that the GMT itself fucked off to the right several metres back, then you carry on all the way down to the motorway which you follow for a short while (don’t worry, the vehicles bombing it at 70+ mph are on the other side of a tall hedge) then you cross over the footbridge. Aaaand you’re out of London. You can start smiling at people again without them thinking you’re a serial killer. You know how southerners reckon everything north of Watford is The North? Well as a northerner I consider everything within the M25 London. Stop looking at me like that, Croydon, you’re within the tarmac, you’re London. You too, Epsom.
We’d decided that Limpsfield Chart was a sane distance from East Croydon, and it looked like it was surrounded by lots of woodland, so that’s where we aimed for. It was only meant to be 16 miles but we somehow managed to turn it into 18 miles like the really shit hiking magicians we are. There’s a nice pub there called the Carpenter’s Arms so we popped in for a beer whilst we waited for it to get dark enough to sneak into the local woods.
That’s another great thing about autumn, it makes stealth camping a lot easier. When we did the Ribble Way earlier this year it didn’t fucking get dark, like, ever, and we felt very exposed. We were going to have to grow a vagina (Balls are soft and weak. Vaginas are tough and can literally expel an entire human. We don’t “grow some balls” anymore, we grow a vagina) for next year when we do the big walk. There isn’t always going to be a forest to hide in, and it’s not always going to be dark by 6.30pm.
We left the pub possibly slightly later than we should have after we got chatting to a lovely local couple who owned a gorgeous beagle who tried to eat my backpack, and literally as soon as we were about ten metres from the door, the heavens opened. Bollocks. We’d already recced a camping spot in the daylight so we beelined for that, chucked on a waterproof jacket, and got the tent up by red torch light as quickly as we could. Fortunately we’re pros at this now, we’re very good at getting that bastard up and down in record time.
Dinner, though, was a disappointment for Tarrant. Our local Co-op has really struggled to keep the shelves stocked recently and we’d decided to do our day one shop before we left Brighton. Couldn’t find any noodles or packet rice, so we made do with a tin of chunky vegetable soup which isn’t only really fucking heavy, we don’t put actual food in our pots due to the logistics of trying to keep it clean. It’s for boiling water only. We’d have to eat the soup cold. Tarrant, it turns out, is a bit of a princess when it comes to food. I spent years considering cold baked beans shovelled straight into my chops from the tin a perfectly acceptable meal, I was going to adapt just fine to cold shit from a can, even if it did have the vague consistency of mucus.
By the way, I’ve managed to get my backpack down to 8.65kgs without food and water. I could get it down to less if I didn’t insist on carting a tripod up and down hills, or get really scared at potentially being even a little bit cold, like, ever. I think I’ve dialled it in as much as I can for now. If I find it too heavy next year I’ll just have to ditch things as we go.
East Croydon, Greater London to Limpsfield Chart, Surrey, England
Stayed at: Wild camped in the woods at Limpsfield Chart.
Activity: Hiking the Vanguard Way, North to South.
Useful shit to know…
- There aren’t a huge amount of places to filter water on the first day but there are pubs and shops either on or not far off the trail to buy it if you need to. There’s a small stream you can get to in Titsey Woods, the River Eden, but not much else.
- Sainsbury’s is about three quarters of a mile from the pond in Chelsham and it’s huge. Everything you need for a resupply, and it’s got a toilet too.