The 1970’s were a tough time to be a kid. There were only three TV channels – and one of those showed Cheggars Plays Pop, the must-have toy called Clackers broke our wrists and semolina was a feared stalwart of the school dinner menu. Worse than this, in Surrey anyway, we had Janet Spayne and Audrey Krynski, two foul witches whose names still bring a shudder to many an ex-stockbroker belt child. Spayne. Over 40 years on and it remains impossible to say that name without virtually spitting it out – like sputum or Spacey, whereas Krynski still sounds like the second row of a typewriter. But it’s right that their names still bring distain for these debauched crones were responsible for one of the vilest texts in literature, the title of which can to this day summon up spiteful memories of blisters, boredom and poorly prepared sandwiches, when in 1974 these sisters of evil wrote A Walk in the Surrey Hills.
This dreadful tome, with its cover displaying a particularly spiteful-looking hawthorn tree in and algae-green wilderness on the journey to Hades – or Leith Hill as it is alternatively known. Inside is a maelstrom of twenty (count them) twenty walks guaranteed to dowse the spirit of your 8-12 year-old children and instil in them the lesson that life can be pointless, brutal and weekends are there to be ruined.
Imagine the scene. Sunday morning, and your young self is effervescent with the delight that this is the one day of the week you don’t get up at 6am to do your back-breaking paper round, and the whole day beckons ahead promising Subbuteo, The Big Match, roast potatoes and doing a jigsaw on the carpet in front of Journey to the Centre of the Earth on TV. Your mother enters your bedroom. You get the first shiver that something is not right when she goes to your drawer and pulls out that jumper, the one Gran knitted in a colour that makes you look and feel like Big Bird. She insists that you stop reading Whizzer and Chips and come down for your Golden Nuggets. As you and your sister bite into these balls of condensed sugar thus activating their corrosive attack on your teeth, you notice your father fumbling on his knees at the cupboard under the stairs. The purpose of his rummaging is unclear – he is wearing a shirt, tie and sleeveless pullover just like any other day, but then he removes the objects of his search, his walking boots, still cleaned and polished from the last time he wore them.
‘Today, kids,’ he smiles, ‘we’re going for a walk.’
He might well have said, ‘today, kids, we’re going to have you disembowelled,’ or even, ‘we’re going to visit your Aunt Sylvie,’ such is the horror of his statement. My sister, being 8, bursts into uncontrollable tears, while with the maturity that an extra 4-years brings, I have a right paddy, refusing to go before stamping my way back to my room and slamming the door sufficiently hard to send my Airfix planes spinning on their cotton threads suspended from the ceiling.
An hour later and Dad is pulling up at some deserted and overgrown carpark with the dread book. our moaning the whole way having been ignored to be meted back out to us when it’s looking like rain or we get lost as we inevitably would. Each walk was typically 6-8 miles long, a vast distance to those with a big attitude problem and little feet, and was represented in the book by a hopelessly small-scale map and written directions described in some detail over several pages. Having somehow survived several of these walks, I’d sussed Spayne and Krynski’s modus operandi even if my parents couldn’t see it; I reckoned that one in every eight of the instructions was a bogus call, aimed at disorientation, getting families lost and to potentially die out in the Surrey wilderness. I calculated that these typographic ambushes could be split into the following three categories, each named after other morale-sapping elements in my life at the time:
– A Wimbledon Fortnight – A total opposite eg: turn right at the dead horse should really be turn left.
– A rice pudding – Where a key component of the direction was a fallacy, ie turn right at the crypt, where there was no crypt, or else had been moved or subsequently destroyed.
– A Brady Bunch – Where instruction was vague, such as ‘fork right at the tree’, where an argument is required as whether the angle of the path in front of you and a thicket of sycamores constitutes a right fork to be followed, or a right turn to be ignored.
Of course, those grenades inevitably led to even more miles, doubling back, uncertainty and yet more misery and dissention from us kids, even though I must now concede that we always made it back to the car before dark when the wolves closed in. As I sulked along, kicking at any stone that dared lie in my way, I used to think that Spayne and Krynski were hiding in the woods, cackling at our pain and vocalised hatred of all things woodland. Then it happened. We had come to stop while Mum and Dad head-scratched over some Brady Bunch or other while us kids sat on a rock moaning, when around the bushes marched a particularly self-important looking group of ramblers – the sort that my parents aspired to be members of, with long socks pulled over the bottoms of their corduroys, rucksacks packed with Kendal mint cake and pouches of tinder in case the need rose to build a campfire, and OS maps strung around their necks, slotted neatly into purpose-made plastic rain covers. I loathed them as they almost ran us off the path with their speedy strides,their walking sticks clacking on the chalky path.
‘Lost?’ said a smallish woman stopping at the head of the group. ‘You appear to have a copy of my book,’ she continued to the guffaws of the rest of her group. ‘No, No. It’s right at the fork a good country mile further on, this is a right turn,’ said the woman, pointing out our stupidity and introducing herself as Janet Spayne. I can only imagine Krynski was out bothering some other poor set of kids made to tramp through endless paths overgrown with nettles, maybe on the Horsley to Peaslake trudge, or the feared Friday Street to Pasture Wood slog to hell. Dad thanked her, and asked if she could sign the book before they strode off. Faced with the architect of all of my worldly grievances, (apart from my ridiculous 8:30pm bedtime) I was too scared to my raise my voice against her.
I recently asked my sister for her recollections of those terrible excursions. She has remarkably few: her brain’s self-defence mechanism has clearly erased the horror whereas mine insists I regularly relive them in gruesome detail, but she did remember the dreary picnics. Our parents showed no imagination. It isn’t hard to add some zazoom to your alfresco eating. A slice of pork pie, or a mere tub of potato salad or even a hard-boiled egg would have provided a spark which if supplemented by, say a bag of Ringos and a Topic bar, would have at least given us something to look forward to other than a limp heavily-buttered cheese and lettuce sandwich, 2 slices of heavily-buttered malt loaf plus an apple (unbuttered) that made even the half time rest a drudgery. No cans of fizzy pop for us: I had an army-style canteen attached to my belt within which weakly-diluted orange squash sloshed audibly as I walked while it warmed up unappetizingly and took on the taste of its heavy-duty plastic receptacle. Linda didn’t so much recall the uninspiring nature of the fare, but it was the location of the feast that still haunts her. For in the same way that pensioners park up at the seaside and never get out of the car, our parents always chose to mete out our rations pretty much in the middle of the bridle path. Whilst this could barely make the dining experience any worse for me, Linda found this proximity to passing families frog-marching their own oppressed kids wholly mortifying and having her plea to move into the anonymity of the woods ignored, sat as far away from us as she dared without risking missing out on her share of the malt loaf.
At least on the Box Hill to Dorking walk there were two points of relative interest. The steep slopes seem an unlikely place for John Logie Baird to have had a home, but there he did. I guess there was nothing to do living among the brambles except watch TV but even if though there was no public access allowed to the house it was a landmark of sufficient transiency to assure me that we at least momentarily knew where we were on the map. The second is the gravestone of local eccentric, Major Peter Labelliere. He chose to be buried there as he believed that: ‘the alkaline properties of the hill were conducive to good health’. Fool. I’m certain it would have been as godforsaken and soul-sapping when he died in 1800 as it was in the 1970s.
But the fact that he also chose to be interred upside-down, saying that, ‘as the world is turned upside down on Judgment day only he would be correct way up’, suggests a man with thoughts very diverse from those of you or I and almost certainly a rambler. I’ve since found out that in his old age he neglected his own personal hygiene to such an extent that he acquired the nickname “the walking dung-hill” and in this fetid state would pass long periods in meditation on the side of the hill. On one such visit he lost his footing, falling into dense undergrowth and losing the sight of one eye. It’s as well that I did not know this at the time for fear of coming across the cycloptic ghost of the walking dunghill on the Dorking to Glory Wood stretch.
A few years ago, we had need to clear the old family home and on a shelf between the AA Book of the Road, and Dr D G Hessayon’s Lawn Expert, saw a slim tome that I recognised immediately and made me retch. It wasn’t even their copy of The Joy of Sex. As I touched the cover great waves of unspeakable memories ripped out of my soul and swirled around my head, and my feet became paralysed with fear. I knew what I had to do to validate or exorcise the memories that have haunted me for so many decades. I opened the book and there it was. On the title page sat Janet Spayne’s autograph. No comment, no nicety, just her gruesome signature.
I had to keep the book – I knew it could not be destroyed – and it would only come back stronger if I tried. Sadly, there are no photos remaining from those walks for me to share with you. In the unlikely event that I would have assented to any being taken and the chemist actually allowing them to be developed, I clearly destroyed them in the aftermath. I have added a contemporary one of me, Linda and Mum taken by Dad in some undergrowth scenario or other.
I look back know and feel bad for Mum and Dad. We were ungrateful at a time where there wasn’t much spare cash around and they just wanted their slovenly kids to get off their arses and into some fresh air. Thirty years on, when my own kids were the age we had been and Gameboys had overtaken Monopoly as the excuse to stay inside on sunny days, the tables had turned and I dressed our family walks up as ‘nature trails’, even learning the names and anecdotes about some of the plants and trees we were likely to encounter. I certainly did not take Walks in the Surrey Hills: I do love my kids after all. It worked once or twice before Jack cottoned on as ‘nature trail’ being an all too thinly disguised pseudonym for tiring boring exercise, an activity over the years that I had somehow come to enjoy and relish to this day.
Thank you Janet and Audrey, bless you, and maybe, just maybe, you weren’t the bastard daughters of Satan after all.