I joined members of the Vanguards Rambling Club and others on 28 May to support the launch of the Vanguard Way Association. The Vanguards, who invented and created the route 41 years ago and have been monitoring it and maintaining it ever since, feel that it’s time to pass the job to a properly-constituted organisation.
The launch meeting was preceded by a walk. We met at the Coombe Lane stop on the tramlink. I was early and so Alan Smith, the walk leader, and I investigated the Addington Hills on the north side of the tramline. The hills are owned by Croydon Council, and are on a plateau of Blackheath pebbles with heather and pine trees. The noticeboard even mentioned Dartford warblers which got me excited (I saw none). The drop down to the valley was quite steep and the whole place was astonishingly rural.
By the time we re-emerged on the platform the walkers had gathered. Colin Saunders, a long-serving member of the Vanguards, came to see us off but didn’t walk with us.
Alan led us along the London Loop, past the entrance to Heathfield Farm with views to the North Downs.
Then we walked through Bramley Bank, a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and across an expansive open space to Littleheath Woods.
Here we joined the Vanguard Way, and we paused while I told the story of the wood’s acquisition in 1932 to save it from development. I had found references to this in the Journals of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society), of 1928, 1929, and 1932. In 1932, my predecessor Lawrence Chubb wrote: ‘The woods have an area of 52 acres and adjoin a new town that is springing up with amazing rapidity’. The purchase price was £5,700 which was borne in equal shares by Croydon County Borough Council, the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council, and the Croydon Branch of the Commons Society. The society helped the branch to raise the money.
We took the Vanguard Way, following in reverse the walk on the fortieth anniversary last year.
At Coombe Wood we stopped at the excellent Coach House café and gardens. I walked up to the top of the hill, which is on the same ridge as the Addington Hills, and sat among pine trees, watching coal tits and listening to goldcrests. It was peaceful.
In the gardens there is a magnificent rockery, made of Pulhamite rock, a type of cement invented by James Pulham because it was cheaper than imported rock.
After a pleasant break we crossed the extensive Lloyd Park (named after the newspaper magnate Frank Lloyd of the Coombe Park estate, whose daughter carried out his wishes and gave the land to the Croydon Corporation).
We arrived at St Matthew’s church in Chichester Road for the meeting, where we were joined by about 20 others. The church has some striking stained glass by John Hayward.
Colin Saunders spoke of the history of the Vanguard Way. He pointed out that, although 1932 was famous for the Kinder mass trespass, something equally important happened that year: the first ramblers’ excursion by train from London.
In 1965, after a group of walkers returning late from Devon was forced to sit in the guard’s van (there being nowhere else on the crowded train that they could sit together) the Vanguards Rambling Club was formed (see my blog here for the story). The group continued to walk together and decided, on Alan Smith’s initiative, to mark its 15th anniversary, by creating the Vanguard Way. This started as 55 miles from East Croydon station to the excellent Fullers’ Arms inn (now the Berwick Inn) at Berwick in East Sussex. However Berwick did not feel like the most sensible termination point so they extended it to Seaford, and then to Newhaven, for the Dieppe ferry, making 66 miles in all.
That’s a lot of path to oversee, waymark and help to maintain, and the club felt it needed ‘a more formal and more normal organisation’.
The Vanguards have walked the route regularly, and every five or ten years there has been an anniversary ceremony. Alan Mattingly, as secretary of the Ramblers, opened the path, near Gill’s Lap in Ashdown Forest (roughly half way along the route) on 3 May 1981. However he has not been available to take part in the celebrations, so for the 35th and 40th anniversaries I had the honour of cutting the red ribbon which, sadly, needs replacing. Drambuie is always quaffed on such occasions, reminiscent of the party in the guard’s van in 1965 when that tipple was enjoyed.
The way has entered the modern era with an app, created by John Jefkins. It can be downloaded free from Google Play Store or Apple Store. Search ‘Vanguard Way’, and find the words ‘VGW Guide’ on an upward pointing yellow arrow.
The meeting was a success, people volunteered to serve on the committee, and Colin agreed to chair it for a year to get the association going. It looks like the Vanguard Way will continue to be in excellent hands.