45/46: Westerham Heights, Greater London and Betsom’s Hill, Kent

Fallen tree
Fallen February tree, pale chalk soil. Somewhere to the left, the M25…

Date: 13th February 2022.

Weather conditions: Heavy rain was forecast to arrive later in the day, and duly did so, but I walked early and stayed dry. There was a grey, gloomy and vaguely ominous cast to things all morning.

County Top bagged: The fourth of these walks to bag two CTs for the price of one. The first summit I reached today (though see the route notes below) was Westerham Heights (a.k.a. Westerham Hill), which at around 804 feet/245m above sea level, is the highest point in Greater London. This point lies at around TQ463565, and is unmarked except by the gate to a gasworks. As noted a fortnight ago, this point has been a CT since Greater London became the UK’s first metropolitan local authority in 1965.

Summit of Kent, sort of
The summit of Kent — kinda.

Not far away lies Betsom’s Hill, which is the summit of both the historic and modern versions of the county of Kent. Here, the summit is trickier to identify. A height of 823 feet/251m a.s.l. is quoted in the Times Atlas of Great Britain and according to the online OS map this lies at about TQ465563, close by and to the south of the London summit. However, this lies on private ground (specifically in someone’s garden), and cannot be visited.

I did think that the entrance to Little Betsom’s Farm (pictured), and the covered reservoir that lies next to it at TQ461564, cannot be a great deal lower than this and made for a perfectly good ceremonial summit. The walking distance between this point and Westerham Heights is about 900m, making these a slightly less close pairing in practice than the two on Winter Hill (~500m) or Billinge Hill (~650m). However, the direct distance between the two real summits is the closest CT pairing of all, at about 300m.

Crow in field
Crow in field (that’s all)…

Rankings by altitude:
Historic Tops: Betsom’s Hill ranks 71st of the 91;
Modern Tops: Betsom’s Hill is 93rd, Westerham Heights 99th;
Full list: Betsom’s Hill is 114th, Westerham Heights 120th.

Having said all that, the highest point of the walk is neither of these: the route reaches to about 853 feet/260m a.s.l. on Botley Hill. This is in Surrey, where the majority of the walking in fact takes place today.

[ << Bushey Heath, Middlesex (44) | (47) Craig Airie Fell, Wigtownshire >> ]

Road sign on Botley Hill
The unglamorous top of the walk, at Botley Hill.

Start and end point of walk: I started at Clacket Lane services on the M25, because I had stayed overnight there at the Days Inn, this being the most convenient accommodation option in the area. This is about 3½ miles from Oxted, which is the nearest railway station, and where I finished the walk. A taxi from Oxted to the hotel the evening before cost me about £10.

If you don’t need to, or don’t want to, stay over, then there are various options. If using a car, you could park at Clacket Lane and get up to both summits and back within the two hours of free parking you are offered at the services, but you’d be coming up and down the same way. I did consider a point-to-point walk from Oxted station to the next railway line east, which is the Sevenoaks line at Dunton Green: this would have been a walk of about 10 miles.

Oxted High Street
Oxted High Street.

Either way, the guidance I provide below varies a little from the route I actually took; the difference explained by my experience with the A233 road, on which the London summit lies but which is unsafe for pedestrians. See the route notes, and bear in mind that the recommended route will bag the two summits the other way around from how I actually did them. The walk took me around three hours.

Pub at end: The Oxted Inn, which is a Wetherspoons that has swallowed up all the other options in the vicinity of the railway station. We all know what ‘Spoons are like — they do a job, but they are not places to visit for the charm or ambience. Oxted does have plenty of other pubs remaining but they all seem to be in the old village, which lies to the west of the station, and I did not get that far.

Distance walked: 7.75 miles/12.5km approximately.

View over Oxted
View over Oxted. What’s the building? I’ve no idea.

Feet of ascent: 920 feet/280m approximately. This is an undulating walk, particularly in its second half — there are several points at which you lose height only to have to immediately make it up again.

Difficulty: ★★. Put on the hiking boots for this one, thanks to some significant outbreaks of mud. When you’re on the chalk, things are fine, but that nicely permeable rock is not underfoot for the whole walk, by any means. Although the majority of the walking is easy, there are a couple of steep climbs.

Ease of access: ★★★. I considered four stars, as I probably could have made it on a day trip from Yorkshire, changing from King’s Cross to St Pancras and using the Thameslink service to reach Oxted via East Croydon. But this journey is reliant on a number of tight connections from different ‘service providers’ and it was a lot less stressful doing it over two days. From London this would be an easy trip.

Deer in woods
I have seen you, you know.

Scenic qualities: ★★. I didn’t really hold out big hopes for this one going on the map and experience of similar places (e.g. Blackdown, Holly Hill), and the forecast was fulfilled. High levels of litter and the M25 don’t help either. However, it can have the second star for the deer, at least.

The area: It is ridiculous to propose that stepping for a minute onto the very edge of Greater London gives a representative impression of this gargantuan city. That being the case, I will hold off commenting on anything to do with the place until I make it to Hampstead Heath, CT of the County of London.

Chestnut Avenue
‘Chestnut Avenue’, up on Betsom’s Hill.

As for Kent, this is the most populous non-metropolitan county in Britain, and, thanks to Canterbury, is the seat of Christendom in England. Its agricultural fertility means it’s always been known as “the garden of England”. I grew up in nearby Sussex (see commentary) and there was always a general sense that Kent was ‘the other place’, but it did become one of the six counties/local authorities in which I have lived at some point, thanks to 2½ years in Tunbridge Wells from about 1988-91 (and the second of these where I’ve reached the Top, after Leeds last year).

Map: Signposting is reasonably good on the walk but a copy of OS Explorer 147 Sevenoaks and Tonbridge will be useful to keep to hand. If you are a purist, the final section into Oxted then requires the neighbouring 146 Dorking, Box Hill and Reigate.

The summary map shows the recommended route and not the one I actually took.

Map of walk 45/46

Route: In purely physical terms this was a decent bit of healthy exercise. Yes, it’s a little drab scenically, but it would have been better on a nicer day (as is true of everywhere, of course). Having to negotiate the main road is a problem, but one that can be minimised by following the route described here.

You may not start at the service station like I did, but if you do, find the gate out onto the narrow road that is the actual Clacket Lane, and then head north. The lane is befouled by litter, which does not make for an edifying start to proceedings. It crosses the motorway, then ends at a junction where turn right, then shortly left, following a ‘Public Bridleway’ sign through the gates of a farm.

Cross the road ahead, and then begin climbing, fairly steeply, through the wood. This is the muddiest stretch of all, but was redeemed for me by seeing four deer doing their thing, and managing to photograph one of them (never easy to do, particularly once the deer know you are there).

North Downs Way sign
Welcome (back) to the NDW.

This path comes out onto a lane that is the North Downs Way, last used by me at Holly Hill, further east. Turn right and head back downhill a short way. Just past the house named Betsom’s Hill (but this is not the summit), there is a path heading up to the left, and I recommend it is taken in order to avoid the unsafe stretch on the A233. As I didn’t use it on the day I don’t know what this path is like but the map suggests it will ascend, fairly steeply, up to the summit plateau at Little Betsom’s Farm. As noted, its gate might as well serve as the summit of Kent. You may not be able to reach the actual Top, but covered reservoirs like the one next to the gate are a reliable indicator that you’ve reached the top of something.

If you are only interested in bagging historic Tops you can skip the rest of this paragraph and head back to Oxted. But if you do seek to stand atop Westerham Heights, carry on along the lane until reaching the main road at a complex junction, called “Hawley’s Corner” on the map. Here, you need to turn right up the A233 a short way. This stretch is a little more tolerable than lower down thanks to a narrow verge which just about keeps you off the tarmac until reaching the huge house that clearly stands on the summit of the road — and of Greater London. Though as the border runs down the middle of the road here the summit is in fact on the other side, in the vicinity of this gate.

Top of London
From this point on, know that the Top of one of the biggest cities in Europe is a ‘valve site’

Retrace your steps back to Little Betsom’s Farm and carry straight on, turning right past more opulent housing and rejoining the North Downs Way. You now follow this almost all the way back to Oxted, and signposting is clear. Some views open up to the south, off the escarpment, although they’re not overexciting. The path undulates up and down, passing through woods and fields in turn.

At Botley Hill you reach the highest point of the walk, though would be forgiven for not realising this. There is an OS trig point not far from here at 875 feet/267m but I didn’t trouble to visit this as it requires more road walking. Instead, I stuck to the NDW, which drops steeply down through untidy woodland before crossing a stretch of open country; the paleness and dryness of the soil making it obvious you are on chalk here. Look for the plaque marking the point at which you cross the Greenwich Meridian, 0º longitude: meaning this walk takes place in both world hemispheres.

Meridian line
Does it feel any different on the other side of this sign? Well… not really. But still, this is cute.

Shortly after this, turn left, leaving the NDW behind. This path crosses the motorway on a narrow footbridge then must transition back off the chalk, as it becomes swampy once again, ensuring you will offend the residents of genteel Oxted with your muddy boots. The town is reached near the school, the fence of which seems rather forbidding. Past this, turn right up Bluehouse Lane, which after a final little bit of climbing, brings you to the town centre; the railway station lies to the left.

Into the past, and out the other side: I’m getting older. Of course this is true of us all in a literal sense, of everyone and everything. Time’s arrow points in only one direction. But I have reached the stage where I’m conscious that there is surely less time left than has already passed for me.

Selfie in mirror
Me, self-reflecting on the way into Oxted.

To some extent this explains my project, this detailed exploration of my country. I conceived of it before the recent impositions by regimes who have shown how paper-thin are their commitments to freedom, and even though the arbitrary and pointless restrictions (hands up anyone who thinks that they have not been exposed to Covid at least once or twice over the last two years regardless) are now slacking off domestically, international travel is still a hassle and my employer seems to have decided it’s not going to pay for it any more anyway. Thus, walking has become an even bigger contributor to my satisfaction with life than when it started: my desire, need even, to see the place.

This doesn’t mean everywhere is new to me. Today’s walk was the second day of a weekend that started with my heading down to north Sussex on Saturday, to the town of Crowborough, a few stops down the railway line from Oxted. This rather obscure place of about 20,000 people happens to be where I grew up, and lived until 1988.

A bridge to the past? No, it just takes you over the M25.

I rarely come back: I don’t have family here any more, so there’s not much reason to. I did make a trip in early 2019, when I was writing my last book, and wanting to both get some time to myself, and also reflect on my memories of it as part of the writing process. On that trip I felt as if I was wandering around a past Crowborough, as it was 30 or 40 years ago but not as it is now.

This time, however, I did something new there, by going to a game at the town’s non-league club, Crowborough Athletic, whose existence I was in almost total ignorance of during my youth. I felt as if this difference, this newness of experience, took me out of the past and into the present; and unlike my 2019 visit this meant all sense of nostalgia was gone. I have to credit Crowborough with making me the person I am but I don’t think I mean this in a positive sense. It provided ingredients but I don’t think I ever integrated them while I was there, it was only after I left that I started to get a sense of my place in the world.

Looking south
One of the day’s few panoramic views, looking south.

So I don’t miss it, and I don’t miss Kent either, where I went next. I’ve lived in Yorkshire for 31 years this year and I’m not ever heading back south. These walking explorations are good and meaningful, and bring new experiences to my life even when the places are familiar. But I’m not using them as trial runs for a relocation.

It’s time I got up a mountain or two, after a run of semi-suburban rambles. Let’s commit to making the next CT something over 1,500 feet at least, even if it’s unlikely to be until March.


8 thoughts on “45/46: Westerham Heights, Greater London and Betsom’s Hill, Kent

  1. Lived in the general area for years and never been up these, though I have been very close on the North Downs Way, and I’ve driven over Westerham Heights. Not sure that counts, though.

    I have been up Botley Hill, though!

    1. It’s probably safer being driven to Westerham Heights, at least for the last few hundred yards… Not a good road to walk on for pedestrians, that’s for sure.

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