Guildford – St Martha’s Church Circular
Aerobics and Meanderings in the Beautiful North Downs
A fast train from Waterloo delivers you to the meandering River Wey and then, via an old watermill to an ascent along ancient pilgrim paths under open skies and woodland, to reach the North Downs Way. An aerobic climb to the perfectly located St Martha’s Chapel for a rest and lunch; followed by a descent around the back of the hill to follow a quiet, shaded track – the historic Pilgrim’s Way – passing tranquil, moody conifer woods and a return along the river.
Featuring: The River Wey, Shalford Mill (HQ of the mysterious all female Ferguson Gang), the North Downs Way and the historic Pilgrims Way, vistas from St Martha’s Church across classic southern English wooded landscape over Surrey, Sussex and, in the far western distance, Hampshire.
Moderate / 7 out of 10
7.7 miles / 12.4 kilometres
OS Explorer Map 145
How to get here
Eat and drink
Riverine, moderate/steep brief ascents, woodland paths, views.
Frequent fast trains to Guildford from Waterloo (35 to 40 minutes).
Check to avoid the slow trains which take over an hour.
See Travel Section in Tips and Resources for ways of using your Oyster/Travel Card to Zone 8 to get very cheap fares.
There are toilet facilities at Guildford Station.
Otherwise there are some wooded covered areas along the route.
As you would expect, there are many pubs and cafes in Guildford, and the Seahorse Pub near Shalford Mill (Point 10). But we recommend on this route that you bring your own lunch to picnic whilst resting and enjoying the spectacular views from the top of St Martha’s Hill (Point 20).
The North Downs Way
Starting in Surrey and finishing in Dover, this 153 mile long National Trail is one of many protected trails throughout England and Wales. Together the Trails provide over 2500 miles of the best of the countryside while giving us many of England’s most scenic views.
This section of the North Downs Way gives horizon-wide panoramas of southern England while wending its way through ancient woodland and open chalk downland. The final, moderately strenuous, climb takes you to St Martha’s Church which, quietly and with infinite patience, awaits you. Here you cannot only rest your legs but also your eyes on the view which, unlike that on your computer screen, isn’t pixelated, is untroubled by pop-up adverts and really does stretch off into that far, far distance…
Shalford Mill and the Ferguson's Gang
Shalford Mill (National Trust), sitting on the Tillingbourne Stream over which you will pass, has its origins in the 1700s.
The Mill was also the HQ of the mysterious Ferguson’s Gang who, in the 1930s operating under the synonyms of Red Biddy, Sister Agatha, Bill Stickers and others, operated as ‘robbers in reverse’ wearing masks and staging not hold ups but ‘hand-outs’, raising money in support of the National Trust.
Formed in 1927 by six women, some from ‘troubled aristocratic backgrounds’, they gained national prominence with their strategy of performative hand-outs: the recipients of their cash might find large sums of cash hidden inside a fake pineapple, a cigar or a bottle of home-made sloe gin.
Their work paid off, helping preserve several significant NT sites, including Frenchmans Creek, Mayon and Trevescan Cliffs in Cornwall and, of course, Shalford Mill.
The identity of the gang has since been uncovered by intrepid authors Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck in ‘Ferguson’s Gang: The Remarkable Story of National Trust Gangsters’ – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/who-were-fergusons-gang
St Martha's Church
Dating from the 1840s, it’s delightful that this church is only accessible by foot, horse, bike and possibly pogo stick. Given its location, it isn’t surprising that the church has ancient origins, standing on the site of an 11th century original of which some features have been incorporated into the current design.
The graveyard contains the ashes of French actress Yvonne Arnaud whose name remains commemorated in the Guildford theatre. It also marks the burial place of a remarkable Kiwi hero, Bernard Freyburg, whose career in two World Wars included the beach landings at Gallipoli (swimming ashore while becoming the youngest general in the British Army) and the Somme, picking up 3 Distinguished Service Orders along the way.
Oh, did I mention the Victoria Cross? He clinched that when, despite serious injuries, he rallied disorganised and demoralised remnants of the attacking Allied Forces to capture Beaucourt village and 500 German prisoners. Not one to pass up an opportunity, he added a second bar to one of his DSOs by capturing the bridge at Lessines with just one minute to go before the Armistice. By the end of the war soldiers who served alongside him – he was popular with the rank and file – said his body was covered in scars. And that was before a later shell blast and air crash…
Despite being declared unfit for service, in 1937 he travelled from New Zealand to Britain to fight once more, winning a swimming competition in Los Angeles along the way – like you do.
In the Second World War he was again involved in many of the major turning points of the war, including the Battle of Crete and the two battles for Monte Cassino in Italy.
In St Martha’s churchyard his son, who also won a Military Cross, is buried next to him as is perhaps the truly unsung hero of this family, his wife, Barbara.
Mini LoHo factette: if you ever take to the lovely Hampton Court to Richmond walk (Walk 2) you may find the commemorative paving stone to Freyburg outside Richmond station.
Although the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims’ Way happily coincide along some of their route, they are two different trails. The Pilgrims’ Way is slightly shorter but at least 800 years older; in fact it is believed that the Pilgrims’ Way follows a trackway dating from 500 BC.
From 1172 Pilgrims have trekked this route from Winchester to Canterbury to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Thomas a Beckett, killed by four knights on the orders, it is believed, of King Henry II. The historical facts are disputed, and without pointing any accusatory fingers at His Majesty, local police have closed the case.
Taken at a steady pace the main Pilgrim route can be completed in about 15 days. In what may feel like an increasingly secular age, such routes are becoming increasingly popular. More can be found at the delightful British Pilgrimage Trust Website.
St Catherine's Chapel
Late in the walk, as you wend your way back across the sports fields towards the river and the ‘Gold Ford’ sandy banks from earlier, you may catch a glimpse ahead high up, the ruins of St Catherine’s Chapel – a stopover on the Pilgrim’s Way. This high sandy hill on which the chapel is perched was in ancient times ‘Dragonshull’ – a spot also favoured by ley line hunters and other happy woo-woo types.
Built in the 1300s as a chapel of ease, a place for people to worship for those who could not access the main parish church, St Catherine’s became a location for a five-day fair decreed by Edward II – the deposed King who was believed to have been murdered in a particularly creative fashion in Berkeley Castle in 1327. As with King Henry and the previous notes for the Pilgrims’ Way, let’s not point fingers, or indeed anything else.
North Downs Way
This extensive 153 mile long footpath through Surrey to the Kent Coast at Dover runs along the chalk ridge of the North Downs taking in plenty of quiet open and beautiful countryside>>
A great example of an 18th-century watermill located on the River Tillingbourne in Shalford. In 1932, the mill was endowed to the National Trust by a group of eccentric young female philanthropists called Ferguson’s Gang>>
St Martha's Church
The beautiful St Martha’s Church (also known as St Martha-on-the-Hill) is perched on the top of the hill on the North Downs Way and is accessible only by foot. It is the only church in Surrey to be on the Pilgrims’ Way>>
The Pilgrims’ Way is the historical route supposedly taken by pilgrims from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, stretching some 150 miles across Hampshire, Surrey and Kent>>
St Catherine's Chapel Ruins
The ruins of this ancient monument sit magnificently atop St Catherine’s Hill on this route south of Guildford. Built in the early 14th century by the rector of the church, Richard de Wauncey, a five-day fair has been held here historically since 1308>>
NOTE THE MAP FOR THIS ROUTE STARTS AT POINT 4
Start: Guildford Station
NOTE THE MAP FOR THIS ROUTE STARTS AT POINT 4
Exit the station and turn right to take the pedestrian tunnel about 50m away. Descend and turn left to go under the main road, then at the T-junction take the right turn to emerge on a busy road. Staying on this pavement continue onwards to the left around the side of Wey House offices. This will, in less than 100m, take you to the left side of the road bridge down to the River Wey.
Turn right under the bridge and now continue on with the river directly on your left. (Note this bridge and turn as you will use it on your return).
Keeping the river on your left you continue on for five minutes or so, ignoring the wide bridge to your left which would take you to the High Street, instead continue ahead to pass around the left side of the White House pub, still keeping the river on your left.
Passing between the pub (on your right) and the river, note the statue of reclining children and a rabbit shortly after.
NOTE: previously the official footpath runs straight ahead, following the canal on your left for 300m to pick up the River Wey, opposite a rowing club, where would you turn right as in note 5a below. But at the time of writing, and for over three years now, this simple option has been blocked by engineering works and the bureaucratic idiocy of the numpties involved.
So here I will guide you through the simple options that are available to you as of April 2023…
Continue on a short distance from the statues until you come to a black and white footbridge. Cross this bridge and then the canal to take the newly diverted path away from the river towards the road, which in 80m or so emerges by the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
Pass the Theatre to emerge onto the main road. Turn right and follow this busy road for another 500m, passing on your right a large car park and then a curious tucked away 14th Century cottage below the pavement and the Weyside Pub.
Less than 50m past the pub at the footbridge immediately on your right, check to see if there are any diversion notices. If not, descend to the meadow, with the River Wey and the rowing club on the opposite bank on your left. Proceed towards Point 6 below, soon crossing a small, roaring weir after 100m.
Continue on for about 2km, following the meandering riverside path with no diversions to reach Point 6 – the footbridge over the river – after about 12 minutes or so.
If the route from the footbridge is blocked, then you are simply going to follow the same river route but you will do so on the other (left) side of the river bank, following an unofficial path that will lead you to the wooden footbridge at Point 6.
To do this, continue on a short distance along the road to gain access to the river and rowing club building – with the wide meadow opening up behind both.
Drop down to pick up a track running directly behind the rowing club which follows the river. Simply follow this track as it runs alongside the river for a couple of kilometres to reach the wooden footbridge at Point 6. Cross over this bridge to rejoin the original intended route and carry on with the river now on your left.
Follow on from Point 6 – the main route for all.
Passing under the black wooden footbridge (which you will encounter again later) note the golden sand along the river bank – giving the Anglo Saxon origins of the town’s name ‘Gold Ford’. Continue on as the river (on your left) meanders, with water meadows on the far side, and eventually you will come to open land and an obvious canal lock – St Catherine’s. Cross over – left – here.
Pass through the kissing gate with the canal adjacent and kept close by on your right. Follow the canal path through the open meadow for another few hundred metres towards the isolated canal side cottage. Pass along the front of the cottage to follow the path round, over a weir and left.
Now with the river on your left, continue on through the water meadow (sometimes boggy after rain). After 250m, use the wooden planking walkway to take you on towards the short rise in front of you. Ascend the rise to merge at a path by houses where you turn (perhaps surprisingly) left.
(NOTE : rarely, after very heavy rain, this can be impassable. If so you’ll need to take a 15 minute diversion, as follows: Return to St Catherine’s lock. Cross over the canal, turn left, walk for 8 -10 minutes to the first road bridge. Turn left to join the road, cross the bridge over the river, stay on this for a few hundred metres where, after a row of houses, a green space opens up on your left. Turn left and continue on sign-posted Shalford. Soon, passing allotments on your left, you will emerge at Point 10 where you continue straight ahead.)
Ascend the rise to merge at a path by houses where you turn, (perhaps surprisingly), sharp left.
Follow this path through trees (with the water meadows now hidden away down to your left) and the backs of houses and gardens on your right. Continue on this path for about 400m, ignoring any paths off. At a junction of paths look out for the blue painted tree; this is your cue to turn right out of the trees, between the buildings, and towards the main road.
At the main road use the pedestrian crossing to cross over, then turn right passing the Seahorse pub opposite. Now look for the finger post directing you towards Shalford Mill on your left. If it’s open (unlikely) take a look. If not, take time at some point to check out the tale of the mysterious and benevolently bonkers Ferguson’s Gang below.
Continuing on past the mill, emerge into a wide open meadow and head directly onwards towards the hedge, 400m away, on the far side. Note: as you reach the hedge, don’t exit by the stile in front of you (as this will put you on the road) but instead take the gate to your right in the corner of the field to take the more tranquil route parallel to the road, following the hedge on your left and with meadows now to your right.
Continue along the hedge for about 350m, you might catch sight of a carved tree trunk shaped like a chair buried in the hedge, then find an obvious signposted exit in the hedge on your left. This puts you back on the road and directs you to your next footpath which is opposite and slightly to the left.
Pick up this path to enter open land, with the North Downs rising invitingly ahead and above you. Ahead, after a few hundred metres, the path makes a T-junction with an obvious hedge-line where you turn right.
Continue on this path for another 300m where, at the edge of the large field you have been following on your left, you leave your path to turn left (not signposted) towards the rising Downs with the field end and hedge now on your left.
After 200m the path enters the woodland at the bottom of the Downs. Pass through the gate – don’t proceed onward, but take the upward diagonal track immediately angling off and up quite steeply to your right. Your direction will be a diagonal climb up this hill to the edge of deep woodland.
Take your time as you pick your way upwards and onwards. After about 350m you will meet an obvious well used path by fenced woodland. Continue onwards (right) along this path with woodland on your left and views soon opening on your right. This will be your main path from now until lunchtime.
After c300m, pass through a metal gate looking out for a wide meadow on your right which has at its far side on your right a set of carved wooden benches facing away. Take this looped diversion off the main path towards the benches and a welcome rest with splendid views across several counties of southern England.
Leaving the benches follow the curving path onward, around and back towards the edge of the woodland.
Soon you will emerge into an open area/campsite with a few ramshackle brick buildings. There is a tap for freshwater here and another 100m further on at the edge of the wood. Continue to this second tap at the edge of the wood ahead. Don’t veer left in to the main deciduous woodland, but pass directly past the tap into a small but atmospheric conifer forest (you may allow yourself a brief Scandi-moment).
After about 200m this emerges at a road (on the OS Map ‘Halfpenny Lane’). Turn left, then immediately right uphill following the signposted North Downs Way.
A steady uphill climb for ten minutes or so, throughout which you will heroically try to disguise the fact that you are increasingly out of breath, leads you up a wide sandy path to St Martha’s Church. Try to bag one of the benches either directly up against the church itself at the front, or one of the others more hidden along the church wall facing south. There is another bench on the far side of the church.
Those who don’t like hills can stop moaning now because the rest of the day is downhill or flat. Hooray!
Enjoy a rest and whatever drink, nibbles and tasty knick knacks you have brought to snaffle.
Continue your previous direction picking up the path on the far (eastern) side of the church (don’t descend directly down towards the views) taking the most obvious wide sandy path at the edge of the hill, down hill. Your aim now is to descend for c200m or so, passing through a sparse wooden barrier with small red reflectors on each side, to pick up the signpost angling you left away from the edge of the hill into trees and downhill. If you miss this turn, or meet the car park don’t worry, you will still arrive at the road where you will turn left to Point 22.
At the road look for the large redbrick cottage (on the OS Map ‘Keeper’s Cottage’) on the left. Pass around the front of this to pick up the bridleway sharp left – heading away from the road – on its far side. You are now following the back of the hill you have just climbed and will do so for a couple of kilometres with no major turns off.
Follow this sandy track, along a quite different landscape now, with a shallow valley to your right and the hillside woodland on your left. Stay on this for about 1.2 km when you reach the newly redeveloped Tyting Farm. At the road, cross over and continue straight on.
After less than 400m, your route will meet woodland and a lane. Ignore the lane to continue on along the track which soon bears left to meet a T-junction of paths where you turn right.
Your route will give you the option of following the lane, but it is more agreeable to pick up the trail that runs parallel to the road just inside the wood, on the left. This will occasionally rise up and away from the road but trust the direction and the route continuing ahead, for c1.5km, around the base of the wooded hill.
You will pass along the edge of tranquil conifer woodland and a colourful sign depicting Pewley Down, while also walking the ancient Pilgrim’s Way.
Emerge at a wide junction of paths and car park to continue straight on to the main road. Cross over and turn left, following the road for 500m to meet a road junction to cross directly over to open sports ground.
Continue directly on across the sports field towards the line of trees ahead of you. Passing through the trees to rough water meadow you will soon see, higher up and ahead, the silhouette of St Catherine’s Chapel ruins.
After 200m, on reaching the River Wey, take the footbridge over to your left to cross the river to coincide with the golden sandy banks and path encountered earlier (Point 6).
Turn right to retrace your steps back to Guildford Station – about 25 minutes away.
Don’t even try to hurry, your legs won’t let you, besides, there are plenty of trains…
Browse more walks…
Lucky you. I’ve walked several thousand miles of footpaths and city streets to distil out a choice selection of rambles for everyone to enjoy. There is no way of knowing whether a walk is worth doing except by walking the route every step of the way; a lot of terrible walks, dull vistas, and frankly boring trudges have been endured and discarded. Lucky me, I love walking and being outside so it’s all been worth it. I hope you can find the time to explore a route or two.
"Everywhere is within walking distance if you create the time..."
No 1 : Princes Risborough to Wendover
ST MARYLEBONE I MODERATE I 6.8m/11km
Leaving habitation behind you, spend the day following one of Britain’s most ancient trackways dating back 5000 years, possibly much further...
No 2 : Hampton Court to Richmond
WATERLOO/VAUXHALL I EASY/MODERATE I 7.8m/12.5k
A favourite walk bookended by the imposing Hampton Court Palace and the bare remains of Richmond Palace, along the Thames path and through diverse parks and meadows...
No 3 : Three London Parks
REGENT'S PARK I EASY I 5.6m/9k
Easy walking, people-watching in the parks, and chi-chi 'villages' ending on the splendid views and rambling of Hampstead Heath...
No 4 : Newington Green to Smithfield
CANONBURY I EASY I 3m/4.8k
An idiosyncratic trail of visual and historical curiosities taking in radicals, rebels and assorted contrarians along the way...
No 5 : London Bridge to Greenwich
LONDON BRIDGE I EASY/MODERATE I 5.6m/9k
A real treat for the soul, spending an entire walk following the course of the River Thames from the heart of the old City...
No 6 : Eynsford to Otford
I EASY/MODERATE I 6.8m/11km
A perennial favourite to introduce self-identifying 'non-walkers'. Stunning views of the length of the Darenth Valley, an impressive Roman Villa, a 'castle', a 'palace' and three typically Kentish villages...
No 7 : Eynsford Circular via Shoreham
I MODERATE I 8.2 - 9.1m/13.3 - 14.8km
A longer cousin of Walk No. 6, this route follows the lovely Darenth Valley on its western slopes and returns along the valley bottom. A landscape of hills, open views and a riverine return with a choice of picnic, pub or vineyard for the lunch stop...
No 8 : Sole Street Circular
VICTORIA/ST PANCRAS INTERNATIONAL
I MODERATE I 8.8m/14.2km
Continuously undulating chalk hills and farmland welcome you with vineyards and gorgeous valley views, including a welcome and timely lunch stop at a splendid Kentish scene of a windmill and pub overlooking the local cricket pitch...
No 9 : Guildford St Martha's Church Circular
WATERLOO I MODERATE I 7.3m/11.7km
Along the meandering River Wey via an old watermill to an ascent along ancient pilgrim paths under open skies and woodland, tracking the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims' Way, including an aerobic climb to the perfectly located St Martha’s Chapel for a rest and lunch...
No 10 : Greenwich to London Bridge via Limehouse & Wapping