The origin of the Vanguard Way lies in a bottle of Drambuie. This soul- warming beverage was passed round a group of young walkers, sitting together on the floor in the guard's van of a crowded ramblers' excursion train back in 1965, on their way back to London. Thus was born the Vanguards Rambling Club, which subsequently became one of the leading clubs in the London area. One of their favourite destinations in the excursion programme was Berwick, in East Sussex, where the station pub would line up pints of strong cider for speedy consumption before the homeward train's departure.
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To celebrate the fact that most of the group were still together after fifteen years, though slightly more sober, the club decided to devise a long distance trail that would link London with Berwick. It was then decided that Seaford station would make a more meaningful target, while East Croydon station was chosen as the start, having been a key departure point for many ramble excursionists. After many months of research and reconnaissance, the route was launched in May 1981 at a formal ceremony in the Ashdown Forest, by Alan Mattingly, then director of the Ramblers' Association.
The route received some official recognition almost from the start, appearing on Ordnance Survey maps. However, it was not until 1997 that the route was formally adopted by the four local authorities (Croydon, Surrey, Kent and East Sussex), who provided signage. What better location for the relaunch ceremony, by the Chairman of East Sussex County Council, than Berwick station!
The club can be proud of its achievement, as a group of enthusiastic amateurs, in devising such an attractive and interesting long walk of 66 miles, which can easily be taken in stages using public transport. Heading generally a little east of southwards, you are soon amongst the greenery of Lloyd Park, Littleheath Wood and Selsdon Wood, linked by pleasant residential roads, then it is almost non-stop countryside all the way to the Sussex coast. The route undulates across the North Downs, the Weald, the Ashdown Forest and the South Downs, only passing through two settlements of any size, the pleasant villages of Forest Row and Alfriston.
On reaching the coast at Cuckmere Haven, the route turns west over Seaford Head, to provide one of the most spectacular views in Southern England, of the Seven Sisters. The final stretch is level as you pass Seaford along its Esplanade to reach journey's end at Newhaven Harbour. This provides adventurous walkers with the possibility of walking from London to Paris, starting along the Thames Path to Wandsworth, then following our own Wandle Trail to Croydon and the Vanguard Way to Newhaven. The revived ferry to Dieppe leads to a choice of routes into the heart of Paris, using the extensive French Grandes Randonnées network. This bold expedition has in fact been undertaken - by members of the Vanguards Rambling Club, naturally!
Copies of the current (1997) edition of the official Vanguard Way guidebook are available for £3.50 including post and packing (payable to Vanguards Rambling Club) from 109 Selsdon Park Road, South Croydon, CR2 8JJ.
By colin saunders