The North Downs Way National Trail is a long-distance path in southern England that runs almost 250 kilometres from Farnham to Dover.
First opened in 1978 and now a popular National Trail, the path runs through the higher parts of the downland past Guildford, Dorking, Merstham, Otford and Rochester and along the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Kent Downs AONB.
A section of the trail also runs along the Pilgrim’s Way, an ancient route followed by countless pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
One of the path’s key attractions is that although it passes through one of most built up sections of England, it follows the chalk ridge of the North Downs, taking in plenty of quiet, open and beautiful countryside. The trade off of its close proximity to London is that the North Downs Way spends a fair amount of time near dual carriageways and motorways. If you’re only after serene countryside and peace then this it not the walk for you.
But if you can put up with some occasional road noise you’ll get plenty of pleasant scenery, stunning viewpoints and an array of different towns to stop off and enjoy. Almost all of the walk is within easy access of London and has good transport links.
Another top choice for doing the North Downs Way is that it’s perfect for those who are new to long-distance walking. For anyone looking to dodge the huge hills or wading through boggy marshland up Scotland-way then the North Downs Way could be for you.
Throw in a handful of historical sites and war-related artefacts, local hospitality and ease of access and the decision will be an easy one.
- Traverse a beautiful landscape rich in heritage.
- Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims on an inspirational journey to Canterbury.
- Take in the incredible scenery as you wind down towards the White Cliffs of Dover
The bonus of this route for those living in London is that virtually all parts of it have excellent rail links to the capital, so the trail can be done in a variety of day-long hikes.
For those coming from elsewhere, there are many railway stations on the North Downs Way, with stations at both ends at Farnham and Dover.
From either there is a direct train to London and many to various other parts of the country.
International visitors would fly into either London Gatwick or Heathrow and then take the train into the city, from where they can catch a direct train onwards to either end of the trail.
For anyone taking on the full trail, the route passes through towns that are generally ideally spaced to allow for a day’s walking.
Based on this, most people choose to walk the 246 kilometres over nine or 10 days – though it is possible to do it in less for those with the stamina to cover more distance.
Add on an extra two days if you want to do both north and south loops.
For those who would prefer to break it down, thanks to the railway network, the North Downs Way is very easy to split up and can be done in almost any combination you like.
Whether it’s a day hike, a long weekend or the whole lot in one go, it’s entirely up to you.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
As mentioned above, the North Downs Way is not particularly taxing, with hardly any steep hills and it is mostly flat in gradient.
Trail conditions are also good, being regularly maintained by the National Trust and much of the walk is paved.
Most of it is relatively easy to walk but, as a stamina test, try the ascent to Box Hill!
The manageable terrain and gradient make this a good introduction to long-distance walking. No special equipment or real experience is required for this route but the ability to walk long distances over consecutive days is important.
Before setting off do a few long-distance hikes near you, throwing in a couple of hills for fitness training.
Due to the fact that it is a National Trail, there are no permits needed or fees to pay to walk the North Downs Way or any subsection of it.
Guided or Self-Guided
As with most National Trails, the signage on the North Downs Way is so good that it can be done self-guided without any issues and you’ll rarely need to refer to a map.
The Trail is easy to use – just follow the acorn signs and you can’t go wrong. Having said this, it’s always good to have one and may come in use if you diverge away from the path.
Aurum Press also do a North Downs Way guide with excerpts of Ordnance Survey maps at the 1:25,000 scale as well as information and history about the trail.
Thanks to its accessibility and ease of navigation, most people opt to hike alone but to help take the stress out of your trip there are plenty of companies that can package up accommodation, luggage transfers and an itinerary for you.
The North Downs Way can be enjoyed at any time of the year but summer is typically the best time to go due to the higher likelihood of sun, no rain and longer days.
The main season on the path runs from April to October, however it does get busier during school holidays and on weekends between May and September. This can also impact on availability of accommodation.
Most people walk the North Downs Way west to east, and guides will list information in that order, but really it can be done in either direction.
The locations in our suggested itinerary below each have accommodation and a pub or restaurant available.
Some shorter sections could be combined together and done in one day for those who feel fit enough.
The North Downs Way is unique in that it has a choice of routes at its eastern end. The split happens at Boughton Lees and hikers can opt for the north loop (which is 9.6 kilometres longer) and goes via Canterbury – perfect for those interested in following a similar route to medieval pilgrims. Otherwise the southern route is more direct and takes in the White Cliffs of Dover for a triumphant finish.
For anyone who can’t decide, you can do both by completing a loop starting and ending at Dover or Wye.
Our itinerary outlines both options:
Farnham to Guildford – 17.5km
Guildford to Westhumble – 21km
Westhumble to Merstham – 16.5km
Merstham to Oxted – 13km
Oxted to Otford – 19km
Otford to Cuxton – 25km
Cuxton to Hollingbourne – 28km
Option 1 – Southern loop (via Folkestone and the White Cliffs)
Hollingbourne to Wye – 25km
Wye to Etchinghill – 18.5km
Etchinghill to Dover – 19km
Option 2 – Northern loop (via Canterbury)
Hollingbourne – Boughton Lees – 21km
Boughton Lees – Canterbury – 21km
Canterbury to Dover – 30.5km
Although the North Downs Way cuts across a densely populated section of South East of England it isn’t overflowing with accommodation options.
Passing near to several towns and large villages, finding somewhere won’t be too difficult, but it is key to book in advance if you want to find something close to or on the trail. Otherwise you can take a train or a bus to get to your bed in the evening.
A number of companies will arrange your walk for you and this will include lodging and baggage transfer between your accommodations. This is well-worth doing as it saves carting a heavy load for 10 days.
For those on a budget, there are just two YHA hostels on the North Downs Way – YHA Tanners Hatch and YHA Canterbury, both just a short distance from the trail.
There are few campsites on or around the North Downs Way, mostly concentrated on the more rural Kent section of the trail. Because of the geology of the land, the North Downs Way is not generally suitable for wild camping.
Most of the towns and villages that lie just off the trail will have a selection of B&Bs, hotels and holiday houses to rent.
The North Downs Way National Trail passes through two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs.
This makes it perfect for wildlife watching during the spring and summer months. Savour the scenery as you pass through ancient woodland and over rare chalkland grass slopes, rich with plants and butterflies.
Anyone who is taking on the full route will pass eight castles, three cathedrals and three palaces to the famous White Cliffs – enough to get your history fill for sure. To really make the most of the trail’s nature and heritage, take nine or so days, even if you’re physically able to do it in less.
Box Hill is another great stop off and is famously the scene of the picnic in the Jane Austen novel Emma, where everybody has “a burst of admiration” on first arriving.
Try the Mole Valley Stepping Stones below, which cross the River Mole, before climbing the steep grassy slopes to the National Trust restaurant at the top.
Why not turn the trip into a holiday and catch a ferry from Dover to Calais, taking a few days on the northern coast of France to relax and unwind?
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||Farnham, UK|
|Finishes at||Dover, UK|
|Length of route||246 Km|
|Average time to complete||9 - 10 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|