I Remember 1968

The weather forecast for Sunday, 7th July 1968, was "cloudy, with bright periods". By 8.30 a.m. the dew on the Leatherhead football pitch was drying out under a blue sky, and small groups of people were forming a crowd. Two of us, Lindsay and myself, were waiting for the other four of our "team". Everywhere was busy with new arrivals booking in, collecting maps and instructions. 9am came and a cheer for the starter, a few words of advice lost in the general hubbub, a hush, the gun and with a great shout they were off! Over 800, mainly under 25s but all ages up into the seventies were represented. By 9.15 the ground was quite, the main body nearly a mile up the lane and out of hearing.

At 9.30 a.m. Lindsay and I decided that we could not wait any longer. Thirty miles in ten hours is a challenge. Six miles to the first of ten checkpoints, mainly uphill through very pleasant fields, Norbury Park, Polesden Lacey (NT) and Ranmore Common to the top of White Downs. The walk was almost effortless and after two miles we began overtaking some of the late starters and some younger groups, who to judge by their footwear, were due for foot troubles before too long.

Immediately after the checkpoint we started a noticeable climb to the top of Hackhurst Downs and on to Netley Heath in semi-wooded country side, before starting on a gentle but ever increasing down gradient. Our path was resiliently soft underfoot and wound through wooded and open terrain with the occasional wonderful view to the south. Lower down we lost the views as we passed under the A25 to reach Shere. We arrived at this picturesque village just a few minutes to noon, or should I say, too soon? A longing look at the closed pub door but we strode manfully on, along the banks of the babbling Tillingbourne into Albury Park, trying hard to subdue the thoughts and flavour of good English ale with pastoral views of the Surrey countryside! All this while the fleecy white clouds had been busy gathering, leaving few patches of blue in the sky but plenty of heat in the valley.

Checkpoints 2 and 3 were passed without event and we set our sights on the not too distant St. Martha’s Hill – checkpoint 4 at 14 miles. From two miles off we could see the crocodile of walkers making their way towards the summit. Our turn to climb arrived slowly. From level ground we started upwards, slowly at first, then a final quarter mile at 1 in 3 gradient along paths that in wet weather were clearly miniature rivers between high banks of earth, brambles and ferns. Our ascent was not helped by the 1,001 flies that seemed to be trying to eat us alive. I had the advantage of a straw hat to protect my shiny dome but others had to resort to beating themselves with bracken.

On our arrival at the top, all available space seemed covered with sprawling humanity, all exhausted after the climb and most preparing a picnic lunch. We found a spot near the church yard wall and were soon munching our sandwiches but our only drink was from a bottle I had carried all the way – warm water – ugh!

Throughout luch the sky grew darker and after 40 minutes the first light spot of rain had us on our feet and away. A lovely rest but far too long after a 14 mile walk. Our leg muscles seemed weled to their bones making the first 100 yards decidedly slow and uncomfortable. A half-mile track of soft sandy paths did not help either, but once clear of the sands, we soon got into our stride again over Albury Downs. Checkpoint 5 saw us at the beginning of the return crossing of Netley Heath and Hackhurst Downs to bringing us into an area of ever thickening trees. After a mile or so our route consisted of mainly undefined paths through alarge deciduous wood. Rain had now begun to fall in earnest but the trees gave us more shelter than we realised for at least 2.5 miles. It was at this point that we realized that there did not seem to be anyone in front of us! Lunch had clearly split the Marathoneers and we now seemed to be the leaders of the “diners”. The “non-diner” being way ahead of us.

In the woods we occasionally had doubts as to remaining on the correct course but a little work with a marching compass and a one-inch map helped us reassure us but not as much as finding a “yellow arrow”! Our navigational aids clearly interested other small groups with directional problems. They followed us hopefully and peace of mind was restored on locating checkpoint 6.

After our walk in the woods tripping over the occasional root and slipping on odd patches of mud and slime, the thought of two miles along metalled roads was cheering – until we left the woods. In exchange for a safer walking surface, we had to sacrifice our leafy umbrella and take to wearing our nylon macs.

Along the road we caught up with a 12 year old lad called Dave Willson who was to continue the journey and finish it with us, well, almost. Some of our initial conversation went rather like this – “Hello son, how’s it going?” – “Not too bad but I’m tired. Is it much further?” – “Only about six miles, but don’t worry nobody drops out after the 20 mile mark”. (We had nearly eight to go in reality and it wasn’t all downhill!) – “Would you mind if I walked with you?” – “Aren’t you with a group?” – “No my dad brought me by car from London this morning and he said he would meet me at the end about 6 o’clock”. – “What would have happened if you had dropped out along the way?” – “I had not thought about that really, but I could always phone dad if things got too bad”.

With remarks like that I am sure that the spirit of adventure in today’s youth is far from dead. Young Dave was a good walking companion and had the edge on more than half his elder Marathoneers – he’d thought to bring his mac!

Checkpoint 7, as did most of the others, offered us drink – water! Nevertheless, in spite of our damp exterior a beaker of water went down very well with a FREE handout of a bar of chocolate appropriately called “Marathon Bar”.

Our way continued on good paths, roads and tracks but the rain was taking the real pleasure out of the walk. We slowly descended from Ranmore Common through Ashcombe Wood, beneath the railway and the A24 (Dorking/Leatherhead) to the footpath leading to the giant stepping stones across the river Mole at the foot of Box hill. From the footpath, Box Hill, towering almost 600 feet above us , from its sides soild with foliage, looked grim, forboding and frankly, unclimbable. On reaching the base it didn’t seem quite so bad, but it’s 40 degree slope, slippery with rain and with the summit well out of sight soon began to tell on our remaining reserves of strength. After 26 miles of walking it seemed unfair to make us attempt this servere climb. (If we had know what was in store for us two miles ahead I know we would have considered giving up).

Our progress up Box Hill was slow and frequently punctuated with stops and sfter what seems like and hour, but was nearer to 20 minutes, we reached the top. A few hundred yards of muddy pathways then a dry walk, under trees on a metalled surface led to Checkpoint 8 with its now welcome cold water. Our path now lay in pleasant woodlands but there was nothing pleasant about the path – thick sticky mud with pools of water.

It was now 4.45 pm. We had been on the go for over seven hours and three of them wet ones. Only three miles to go, less than an hour’s walking – easy – or was it? There was still one more serious demand to be made of us – Mickleham Hill. None of us had ever seen it before – lambs to the slaughter! We came out of the woods at the bottom of a hill wetter and muddier than ever but happy that the finish was not far away, crossed the Headley Road and saw IT for the first time. We did not believe it – but there was the little yellow arrow! All I could see was a dirty white mark stretching ever upwards - the mark made by years of rain slowly removing the top soil to reveal Chalk and flint beneath!

The water was tumbling down a 60 degree slope and there, way up amongst the shrubs and brambles we saw a few feet and legs trying hard to move higher. There was no way around this obstacle. This was the way and Checkpoint 9 was sited right at the top! Our hearts sank to boot level. We could not get much wetter or dirtier and soon found it easier and quicker, but not much, to go up on all fours. It only meant leaning forward a little and putting out our arms! If we stayed close to the sides the bushed gave some help but the brambles tended to cancel out5 the advantage. Away from the edge it was just hope – hope that we would not slip and tumble backwards.

Checkpoint 9 marshals knew they were in for a long wait – in fact they had been there two hours and had another three hours duty at least. They were prepared though. They had their “primus” and a “brew” was in preparation. Hopefully we greeted them but the “brew” was not for Marathoneers. The best we could expect was a set of initials on our card and a cheery word of encouragement telling us that it really was “all down hill” from now on – and it was. First to Mickleham church, then by road through the village and over the A24 again but this time taking our chance with the traffic, then across the Mole by footbridge. From here it was just a two mile stroll along the towpath, offering “idle and sill” remarks to all those daft enough (in our opinion) to sit out in the rain trying (not) to catch fish. The Isaac Waltons were just as cheerful and capable of parrying our remarks quite wittily.

The final mile seemed a “busy” one and despite our general fatigue the urge to overtake those in front crept into our walking and we passed several in this fashion. Young Dave, our 12 year old companion, was not even content with the quickening of the pace he decided to jog the last half mile and finished the course a minute ahead of us.

Back at the football ground, food and hot drink was the order of the day while we sat and witted for our “STIFKITS” to be made out. At the same time we had the satisfaction of seeing others even wetter and dirtier than ourselves “crawling” home.

Of the 887 starters, 675 finished inside of the 10 hours and 15 others soon after. That number of finishers was shared between 66 teams of six or more, twenty teams of less than six and about 160 individuals plus at least five dogs who probably covered nearly twice the distance shown on the route.

Stuart Bennet