Cold, mild, raining, sunny, hail, arctic winds…the weather can’t make up its mind, and neither could I when it came to finding something different to do at the weekend. I like getting outdoors, being active, venturing somewhere new, but until recently, I was stumped for ideas – until I was introduced to hiking.
One of my best friends recently got into hiking through her love of walking and exploring London. She found a few Meet Up groups, and through trial and error, now has a few firm favourites and attends a day hike with them about once a month. I decided to join her a while ago, and after a wet, muddy February day, full of stunning views, bracingly fresh air and good belly laughs, I haven’t looked back.
So, more recently, I went along to a Meet Up group called Outdooraholics. The nine-mile hike that day was set in Surrey, where we would take in Box Hill (made famous by the Olympic cycle race in 2012, but for me, it’s all about Jane Austen’s Emma where our heroine flirts outrageously with the naughty Frank and falls out of grace with the dashing Mr Knightley for insulting poor Miss Bates) and we would end up at England’s largest – and award-winning – vineyard, Denbies Wine Estate.
We meet at Victoria station at 9am, and the £24 we’ve prepaid gets us the return train ticket, and an entire day of expert guided hiking with Graham, who runs Outdooraholics, and his assistant Callum… both of whom are incredibly tall and make walking look like slow motion.
There are about 45 hikers in our group, of all ages, genders and nationalities. For a cloudy, cold day and a chance of rain, they wear varying levels of specialist gear; a couple are head-to-toe in hiking paraphernalia complete with walking poles, while a few confidently stand about in jeans and what look like running trainers. Most are at least in hiking boots and waterproof overcoats. One lady has rocked up looking like she’s about to stroll through Hyde Park – leather knee-high boots with two-inch block heels, long-strap handbag and a tailored wool grey coat (I find myself looking out for her all day, convinced she’s going to realise she’s got the wrong group at some point).
Incidentally, I’m a firm believer that if you have the right gear, you can truly enjoy any activity, and it doesn’t always have to be expensive. For hiking, the most costly thing to get you started is probably going to be your boots – I went to Mountain Warehouse and got mine for about £50. They’re waterproof and light-weight, and will do the job nicely. If you’re going on your first hike, check out my list of recommended gear at the bottom of this blog post.
For the Box Hill hike, it’s recommended you have a good level of fitness. Total walking time is about three and a half hours, and it isn’t slow. There are about three good inclines that leave you out of breath, and a couple of slightly steep descents that are better handled by side-stepping on sturdy knees. Having said that, Graham makes sure we have plenty of water breaks. Check the difficulty levels on the Meet Up group pages, because hikes are often described in good detail and are rated from easy to difficult.
The scenery of – and from – Box Hill is stunning and varied. From long sweeping views over the English countryside and weaving woodland to quaint chocolate-box villages and the well-earned beer at the end of the day. Mostly though, I loved the brief escape from city life and a deskbound job. And with a group of so many, I found I could lose myself in thought and talk to no one, or I could share sweets with complete strangers and discuss the best Christmas movies.
The day ended with drinks at a lovely little pub by Box Hill & Westhumble station, called The Stepping Stones. We were back in Victoria for about 6.30pm where my friend and I managed a few more hundred steps to gobble down some tapas dishes at a newly opened Iberica. Props to the staff for being so gracious to two dishevelled women trailing specks of mud from our boots and smelling slightly sweaty (the result of a total of 30,000 bloody hard steps).
If you’re looking for something a bit different, something that is incredibly good value, gets you out to see new places, keeps you fit and allows you to meet interesting people, then I couldn’t recommend hiking highly enough. There are lots of Meet Up groups that head out on hikes from towns across the country, and even host long weekends and trips abroad. The ones I’ve been personally recommended are Outdooraholics, AAA and Trailblazers – all are London-based.
First time on a hike? Here’s what I recommend for different weathers: