Footpaths are elusive at Gatwick Airport, but if you walk south past the valet parking depot, the car hire desks and the smoking sheds full of re-dosing new arrivals, you eventually find a West Sussex County Council fingerpost, looking as alien as a pennyfarthing at the TT races.
The path winds between the long-term car parks, and crosses over the internal road system, encased all the way in a wire cage, as the planes roar in overhead. As the airport sprawled, someone presumably fought for the preservation of this right of way, but it makes you feel like a perimeter guard at a high security prison. After a surprisingly long time, we cleared the airport, spotting a fox cub and a muntjac on the way, then meandered back over the motorway to Shipley Bridge.
Turning south, we followed roads and footpaths through Copthorne, then entered the western fringes of Ashdown Forest (\’home\’, its website earnestly informs us, of Winnie the Pooh). Police signs on the gates warned of malicious damage to flora and fauna – bear-of-little-brain-baiting, perhaps, or thistle-rustling? – but the tracks through the well-managed woods were almost deserted, decorated only by piles of logs and the occasional feral club chair.
Abruptly, the forest gave way to the lawns, playing fields and golf courses of Worth School, a Catholic boarding school boasting the grandiose but grim architecture in which such institutions specialise. We were a couple of weeks away from the beginning of term, but already lawn mowing and line painting was immaculate, ready for the onslaught of a new academic year.
A thirsty diversion west through more woods led to The Cowdray, a recently refurbished pub with a sunny beer garden full of families. A slow-moving elderly lady, looking down at a toddling infant, remarked with casual menace, \”If you get in my way, I will tread on you, you know.\” Outraged expressions all round. The Cowdray\’s reinvention of the club sandwich was – as reinvented club sandwiches tend to be – perfectly pleasant in itself, but not a patch on the original.
The rest of the walk to Balcombe, along the busy B2036, was functional rather than scenic. Balcombe itself was full of blackberry pickers, looking on each other with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as they hunted down the most fruitful and accessible branches.
Stats: 9.2 miles, 14.8 km, 4 hours