While doing the occasional day walk near Haslemere, we had come across some signs for the Serpent Trail, which prompted us to find out where it went. There was a PDF guide on the internet which described the entire route, including inset OS maps. It went from Haslemere to Petersfield, but took a deliberately winding route (hence the name) in order to stick to sandy heathland, forests, and common land as much as possible, which from the map looked like very interesting walking. By road it is only about 24km (15 miles) between Haslemere and Petersfield, but because of the wiggly route the Serpent Trail takes 64 miles to get to the same place, which was also an ideal length for us to fit it into the end of May bank holiday weekend with an extra day tacked on the end.
We got moving quite early on saturday. It was a nice morning, a bit hazy but dry. A couple of trains got us into Haslemere just before nine, and we stocked up on some supplies from Waitrose, then went to a cafe in the High Street for Breakfast. We finally got moving just before ten. The start was impressive, one moment we were standing in amongst all the activity on the High Street, then we headed off down a narrow side street called Well Street, to pop out almost immediately in a very pleasant grassy meadow. As the name suggested, we went past an old well which apparently used to be one of the main water supplies for the town.
Just before climbing up Black Down we passed a slow worm which seemed to be living up to its name. Once on top of the down the path took us through some superb beech trees. At the eastern end of the down was a viewpoint, called &Temple of The Winds&, where there were some impressive, if slightly hazy, views. It was nice and sunny by now, and we sat down on the stone seat for a little while to take in the view. The route now headed back West, traversing back across Black Down, through some excellent heath, carpeted with heather and clumps of pine trees, before descending to Valewood. A short stretch on minor roads took us to the start of Marley Common, where we stopped at a bench for some buns with houmous and tomato. The Serpent Trail signs across the heaths were mostly very good, although there was one unmarked junction where we went a bit off-route. We seemed to be heading in roughly the right direction though, and we bumped into the proper route again after about fifteen minutes, plus we spotted a woodpecker enroute.
Near Stanley Common, we stopped at a bench by a pond, but it was a bit of a sun trap, and actually a bit too hot to hang around, so we soon got going again. At the end of Stanley Common the route joined up with the Sussex Border Path for a while along a car-width track, and we passed a chap in a suit and tie and smart shoes walking along, which didn't seem the best walking attire on a warm day, although he was at least holding an OS map. We were looking forward to a cold drink at the pub at the end of the track, where it met up with the B2070, but unfortunately it all seemed to be closed up when got there. Soon after the pub, the route did a bit of a dogleg to skirt round Chapel Common, but it was worth it, a very pleasant common.
Arriving at Rake we were getting very low on water. Near the start of the village was a garden centre with a coffee shop, but as it was five o'clock, it had just closed. However the women in the cafe kitchen very kindly filled up our water bottles for us. A bit further on in Rake there was a pub, but by now we thought we might never get going again if we stopped, so we pushed on. It was easy going through Rake Hanger, past some nice oak trees. Near Liss we popped out on a minor road where we left the route, and took a short half mile detour to the outskirts of the village, where there was a good pub that did bed and breakfast, arriving at quarter to six.
Today was a slightly shorter stage. Breakfast in the pub started at half past eight, and by the time we had finished and walked back along the minor road to the route, we finally got going again at about quarter past nine. It was a nice morning, already sunny. The route started off along sandy track through some impressively tall conifers. Not long after getting going, we passed some superb marked out MTB trails dropping off steeply through the trees at the edge of the track. Near Tullecombe the path came to a pleasant open area in sunshine where there was a deer that eyed us suspiciously from a safe distance. Just after Borden we crossed a field, thankfully quite short, as some rather frisky bulls rushed over and hung about looking menacing.
At the start of Iping Common, we passed a walled off churchyard which no longer had a church, then went across fields with nice views to tree covered slopes to the North. After Titty Hill the path went through a slightly marshy bit, and a toad bounced across the path in front of us and disappeared into the undergrowth. More good forest led to one of the best bits of the entire route, the climb up the grassy slopes of Woolbeding Common. We stopped at a bench on the top for a snack, and took in the superb views of almost nothing but trees for miles on end. Nearing Henley the route descended an excellent sunken lane, with a superb variety of mosses and ferns on the walls. Reaching the small hamlet of Henley, there was a nice pub called the Duke of Cumberland, and we stopped for lemondade and crisps.
Near Lord's wood we passed an interesting rat-proof barn sitting on top of stone supports, of the sort that you often see in the alps. After Uperton Common, the route popped out on a minor road beside a tall tower at the edge of Petworth Park. We pushed on along the minor road. There was a game of cricket in progress outside Tillington, the pitch seemed slightly convex, but made up for it with superb views South to a long tree covered ridge tree. After Tillington there was a less interesting section on pavement alongside A-road, but at New Lodges there was a gate into the park, and we headed over to the small lake, where there were great views of Petworth House.
We had a bit of a struggle getting out of the park, we went a bit astray and narrowly missed the entrance to the pedestrian tunnel. By the time we realised, it was just after five, which meant that the gate had been locked so we couldn't retrace our steps back to the tunnel! We ended up walking all the way to the main car entrance to get out and then back along the road into Petworth, which was a bit of unwelcome extra mileage at the end of the day. On the plus side the extra detour did take us past some impressive trees, including a rather intriguing 'handkerchief tree' which had white leaves hanging off.
After eventually escaping from the park, there was a bit of a walk back into Petworth, following a very tall wall that surrounded the park. We finally arrived in the middle of town just after six, so much for the shorter day! After getting sorted out at the B&B we went to an excellent indian restaurant, followed by a wander round the town, and stocking up on snacks for the following day from the Coop.
This was the longest stage of the trip, so we had an early breakfast at half past seven, then it was only a five minute walk back to the route, and we were back on the go again just after eight. The path dropped straight down into a grassy meadow, then climbed up to forest, with good views back to Petworth. In the forest we came across a bloke who appeared to be walking his dog by driving round the forest tracks in his 4x4, while the dog ran along beside. There were lots of coppiced trees in this section.
Near Lithersgate Common we got a bit confused going through more coppiced woodland, and took a compass bearing, which confused us even more, as we seemed to be heading in the opposite direction to what we expected. Nearer Fittleworth, we stopped and checked the compass against a mobile phone app, only to find that the compass was actually back to front, with the North end of the needle pointing South. Apparently a common problem these days due to people carrying lots of devices with magnetic fields!
From Fittleworth the route did a dogleg out to Hesworth Common, which took us through lots of holly trees, nice woodland and along root covered sandy paths to a small summit with a trig point, where there were views of tree covered downs in the distance. The route from the common arrived at Lower Fittleworth just in time for elevenses, and we popped into the Swan for a pot of tea, and filled up our water bottles. At Lord's Piece a sandy path took us across pleasant heathland, although the route wasn't totally obvious so we had to take a compass bearing, remembering to treat the South end of the needle as a slightly inexact North!
After Sutton End the path passed beside the small lake of Chingford Pond, with some views of Burton Park. This was followed by a farm road past a field with some rather energetic horses running around, and kicking their back legs up. Looking South there were superb views of a long line of tree covered downs in the distance, which from the map looked like the route of the South Downs Way. At Heath End there was an old petrol station which had been turned into a farm shop, with vegetables on display under the large canopy where the petrol pumps used to be. Shortly after Heath End we stopped and sat down on a large tree trunk and had some buns with houmous.
On Lavington Common there was a superb marshy stretch which was thick with sundews, which if you have not come across them before are small bog-dwelling carnivorous plants which lure insects into their sticky tendrils. Close up they are quite colourful too, and we spent quite a bit of time inspecting them, and attempting to get some decent photos. Graffham Common was an interesting stretch too, with sandy paths through scots pines and heather, and lots of white chunks of flint strewn across the ground in places. Further on the path squeezed its way through thick Rhododendrons, sometimes it was almost like going through a tunnel.
The route detoured round Midhurst to the South, and at Cocking Causeway we passed by a pub where there was a fiddle and drums playing. After dropping down under a tall railway bridge under the disused line, we pushed on to the end of Pitsham Lane, where we left the route and headed off into Midhurst to the B&B, which was about half a mile off route. We arrived about half past six at the B&B, which was located in an old 16th Century pub. For tea we treated ourselves and went out to get a takeway from the local chippy. Unfortunately the forecast for the final day was for heavy rain in the morning.
We were expecting the worst for the weather, but when I looked out the window in the morning I was surprised to see that everything looked dry. We had an early breakfast at half past seven, so we were on the move by quarter past eight. We walked back out of town to regain the point where we had left the route yesterday, and were back on route again at half past eight. We followed the route round Midhurst Common, with lots of dog walkers out. We went a bit astray near the end of the common, where we missed a sharp left hand turn, but soon backtracked and got back on route again.
After Trotton Common the route joined a minor road for a while, it was very quiet for traffic, and led through Dumpford, and then on to Nyewood, where there were signs advertising a scarecrow festival. Leaving Nyewood the route went through a nice bit of oak forest, although the forecasted rain had finally arrived, so we stopped under the trees and put full waterproofs on and had a Clif bar. The route then took us through some quite pleasant fields full of buttercups, with lots of oak trees along the edges. After a gigantic sand pit, there was a short section along a minor road, running parallel with an old railway line down below. From Durleighmarsh the path pushed its way across some tall oilseed rape fields, that deposited water on us as we went past, so we were thankful of the waterproof trousers.
Another buttercup covered field led us to a bridge over a small stream and some curious UFO-shaped buildings. From there we were in the suburbs of Petersfield, before reaching the very final part across Heath Common. The rain had eased off a bit. The path took us round the lake, with lots of baby coots and ducklings hanging about at the waters edge. We arrived at the end point in at a car park just before one o'clock. It was a bit of a low-key ending, and could really do with a board showing a map of the route and some exciting blurb. Another 20 minutes took us the extra mile through the town to the station.
All in all an very high quality trail. Very impressive how they have managed to make the route take in such a high proportion of forest, heathland, and common land. And not too much farmland either. At times it feels quite remote, you don't see a lot of people, or much in the way of civilisation, and often all you can see from the viewpoints are trees as far as the eye can see. At times, you could almost forget you were in the South East of England! It does mean that food and water supplies, and also places to stay for the night, need a bit of thought though. Here are the stats, as measured by my smartphone app: