If there’s a fault, it’s after Dorking, where the North Downs Way sticks to the top of the scarp, and the M25 to its foot. Out of earshot, possibly, but out of view, rarely.
But that’s crowded southern England these days; at least the path is still there. And once I used to drive along the motorway most months, and could allow myself a little reflection (while keeping my distance from the car in front) of my time on the top.
The River Medway slices Kent into two – traditionally, the Men of Kent (and no doubt some women) reside to its west, and Kentish Men to its east. It splits the Way into two, pretty much, as well.
Monday 4 February 2013: Farnham to Chilworth, 15 miles (13 on trail)
This is the greensand day, just a bit left over for the next stage. Greensand forms the basis of another major hill group of the south-east, indeed underpins the area’s high point of Leith Hill, a feature on another fine trail, the Greensand Way.
Leaving the station, there’s a brief Wey-side stretch, soon followed by Runfold Wood, regenerating after the storms of 1987 and 1990. A friendly warden warned me about path flooding beyond Furze Hill; I was sceptical till I saw it, and had to deviate to the south. Quite how bad it would have been in the floods of February 2014 I shudder to think. Around Totford Hatch, there are fine open views to the north-west; indeed it would be nice if the Way could have run along the Hog’s Back ridge, but that alas is taken by the A31.
From Totford Hatch
It took some resolve to pass the fine pub at Puttenham and instead eat sandwiches in the churchyard. The village has a camping barn too, so will be a popular halt for many starting out. The original Pilgrim’s Way crosses the modern path for the first time around here.
Many would stop when the flood plain of the Wey is reached, with the big town of Guildford just around the corner, but I continued up to St Martha’s Hill before heading down to Chilworth station – missing the easy link path, and illegally scampering across the railway crossing to catch my train.
Monday 18 February 2013: Chilworth to Boxhill station, 12 miles (11 on trail)
One of the best stages. I had a beautiful sunny day too, if a little hazy at first. Soon after St Martha’s Hill, the Way drops down and moves from greensand to chalk – check the rocks either side of the little road. Soon there are great views from the delicious Albury Downs south-west to Black Down, the high point of Sussex, and south-east to Leith Hill, high point of Surrey, across the valley of the little Wey tributary the Tilling Bourne. There’s a railway in the valley; it’s barely noticeable, unlike the M25 that will be joined the next day.
Almost the whole stage is above the 600ft contour, a significant landmark hereabouts, and above Gomshall the clear woodland tracks allow fast progress. The stage ends with an exemplar of climate change in action, the good side in this case, as you come close to the extensive Denbies vineyards, the largest in England.
St Martha’s Chapel
Denbies vineyard and Box Hill
Monday 4 March 2013: Boxhill station to Caterham, 14 miles (12 on trail)
The Mole gap was familiar to me for many years of my childhood, as the channel for the south-to-north road and rail routes that took me to West Ham games from my then home on the Sussex coast. Pretty enough even then, but in all that time I had never once made the excellent trip up to Box Hill summit: too good to miss in a lifetime, especially with the chance to cross the Mole by stepping stones.
The Inglis memorial
Southwards, the Leith Hill views are receding now, but there are some sharp little climbs north of Reigate, culminating in its eponymous hill. A bit of industrial heritage, the lime works of Betchworth Quarry, lends interest too. For a while the Way skirts the bottom of the escarpment, before making a steep climb up to Colley Hill, with the Inglis memorial – perhaps the most elaborate horse trough of all – a good place for a break. Not far beyond, Reigate Fort is passed, one of a string of 1890s fortifications showing how invasion fears were still real even in late Victorian times.
At Merstham, the M25 and in short order the M23 are both crossed, but wisely the Way makes a bit of a beeline away from both, culminating in Ockley Hill, arable, unlike so many Downs high points so far. After a surprising folly at Tower Farm, pleasant woods take you to Gravelly Hill, where I left the Way for the gentle descent through woods to Caterham station. Warning to the unwary: this stage has over 2,600ft of ascent, ie the same as a decent Lake district fell.
Monday 15 April 2013: Caterham to Oxted, 7 miles (4 on trail)
Why so short? The plan had been Dunton Green. I’d had my boots refurbished, with new insoles, and foolishly hadn’t tested them before I set out. By the time I got back to Gravelly Hill, blistered and limping, I realised something was badly wrong. Simply, the new insoles altered the volume of the boot and the inclination of my feet so much that walking was painful. I pressed on for a bit, glad the paths were easy with little up and down, and checked bus times at the A233, half way. Then I saw a scratched waymark, ‘station’, pointing to Oxted, and I knew what I should do.
Monday 13 May 2013: Oxted to Otford, 13 miles (12 on trail)
Dry enough for trainers, thank goodness. The Way soon climbs by a hollow way to Botley Hill and the escarpment top, and stays there for pretty much the whole stage, a short decline where the A233 cuts through excepted. It was a great day for bluebells in the scrub and woods next to the Way. There’s a brief flirtation with the London/Surrey boundary (a modern affectation I know, but it shows how the capital’s tentacles have spread). Often, especially here and around Knockholt, the Way wanders onto the broad north-heading plateau, until a gradual descent by way of Chevening Park to the Darent valley and Otford village, with its duck pond.
Hollow way to Botley Hill
Bluebells next to the Way
Monday 20 May 2013: Otford to Borstal, 17 miles
Time for a big stage: this and the next two formed useful training, extra weight deliberately in pack, before heading to the North-West Highlands of Scotland a few days later. And as well as the distance, this is another day well in excess of 2000ft climbing. A misty start though, and it never got better than grey.
After soon regaining the ridge, there’s a very nice switchback section north of Kemsing, before heading down onto the ancient Pilgrim’s Way. Yet another motorway, the M20, is crossed at Wrotham, but this will be the last of their influence for a while. Now the Way starts to head away from its due-east bearing, starting to trend north-eastwards instead, initially either above or below the escarpment, until from Holly Hill a quieter, wooded landscape is encountered. The descent to Cuxton has you crossing arable fields, which has not happened for a while. Sting in the tail: the Medway bridge is shared with the M2.
After Otford Mount
The Medway bridges
East of the Medway
Though it looks on the map as though you’ll still be shadowing a motorway, you’ll have much closer acquaintance with the orchards of Kent, arguably England’s premier fruit-growing county.
There’s a choice to be had at Boughton Lees – to Dover by the coast, or through the ancient city of Canterbury? No choice at all: do both.
Friday 31 May 2013: Borstal to Hollingbourne, 16 miles (15 on trail)
Soon you’re heading up a prow of the Downs, passing the little Boxley Warren nature reserve, back on to the escarpment, with good views south over the Medway valley. Blue Bell Hill is a better name than place; here the Way is coralled beside the busy A229 for a while. Beyond the White Horse stone megalith, the ridge soon resumes, the Way sticking resolutely to it apart from a brief dip at Detling. Here, at last, I had an excuse to stop and eat – my first NDW pub, such will power!
Beyond Detling, there’s a country park leading to close to the ruined Thurnham castle, before a few dry valleys poke up onto the ridge to give a different, more intimate, feel, and the final descent to the pretty village of Hollingbourne.
The White Horse stone
The Cock Horse, Detling
Monday 3 June 2013: Hollingbourne to Wye, 16 miles (15 on trail)
There are good long striding stretches on this stage, many green lanes and country lanes, the first 11 miles out of Hollingbourne being entirely coincident with the ancient Pilgrims’ Way. As such there’s no village until the edge of Charing is reached. Also the escarpment is less marked here, indeed the 600ft contour is not breached at all. Across the Stour valley, the Greensand hills reappear, with the Weald further away, and one or two very distant glimpses of the sea too.
Beyond Dunn Street, the parkland of Eastwell Park gives wide open spaces, and I had time to treat myself to a pint by the village green of Boughton Lees. The last few miles, by contrast, have some rather prosaic farmland, though the imposing downland of the next stage becomes increasingly prominent, the chalk cut of the Wye Crown showing the way forward.
Pilgrim’s Way bench above Harrietsham
Hop fields and the Wye Crown
Tuesday 18 June 2013: Wye to Folkestone, 16 miles
Prominent above Wye is the Crown memorial, cut into the chalk in 1902, and the Way goes straight up to it. From here there is an intriguing downland stroll with many undulations – this is another 2000ft day – starting with the orchid-rich grasslands of the Broad Downs, a national nature reserve though once an artillery range! I was planning a pint at Stowting but alas the pub was having a day off.
After a roadside stretch there’s a switchback above Postling, and then a climb to the radio station on Tolsford Hill; the Way, usually so obvious, is a bit less clear on the ascent, and I manage to go a little astray for a while. Here the Way coincides with the Elham Valley Way for a mile, as far as the long-gone railway through this valley, and then enters an impressive dry valley beyond. At last, the sea, France in clear sight, and if to underline the point, the Channel Tunnel terminal beneath your feet.
Below the Wye Crown
Monday 24 June 2013: Folkestone to Dover, eight miles (and on to Shepherdswell, 17 miles total)
Not many people would walk through Dover on the Way, but as I planned to walk both its Folkestone and Canterbury loops it made sense for me. But first, to get there: sea cliff walking, some of the finest in the country, in the south-east perhaps the finest stretch other than the gem that is the Seven Sisters.
Unlike the Sussex counterpart however, there is a tad too much inland intrusion, bits of ribbon development here and there, and later the A20 too. But the Sisters can’t boast the view of France, with the ferries scuttling across like water boatmen on a pond, nor the Battle of Britain memorial, nor, if I remember, Highland cattle grazing the grass. All that, and an approach to Dover itself that threads the ramparts of the Western Heights.
Battle of Britain memorial
Dover Western Heights
The Canterbury Loop
Includes (former) coalmines. Kent had its coalfield once, four pits surviving to the standoff with Thatcher in the 1980s. And also: one of the great shrines of Christendom, plus miles of downland, tiny villages, continual undulations, intimate corners and far-reaching views. Worth a visit, in anyone’s book, surely.
Approaching Bigbury Camp
Monday 24 June 2013: (eight miles from Folkestone to) Dover to Shepherdswell, 17 miles total
In Dover, I had a chance to sit by the little patch of shingly beach for a while – no Channel swimmers today, this is their traditional start/end point, a long-distance venture far beyond my abilities (I can manage 25 metres, not miles). Then it was soon out of the town, heading north on its Roman road for a while, before cutting westwards past the little church at Waldershare and the parkland beyond.
Unexpectedly perhaps, if you don’t know the labour history of this area, bits of industrial heritage – old pit buildings and the colliery railway – follow: for Shepherdswell was, until the late twentieth century, on the edge of the Kent coalfield.
Monday 24 March 2014: Shepherdswell to Canterbury, 11 miles (10 on trail)
The wet winter of 2014, plus a dodgy achilles, got in the way of continuation, but I finally got around to a resumption after a nine-month gap. There’s a pleasant downland start over the antiquities of Three Barrow Down, and Womenswold is one of the very prettiest of the villages on the Way, but this is another stretch bedevilled by road, this time the A20 again.
Mercifully there’s a right turn just beyond the surprise of the grand house of Higham Park leading above sculpted Bifrons Park into Patrixbourne, another smashing little place. Unhappily, it bore the scars of the winter’s flooding, from the Little Stour tributary the Nail Bourne. Pumping machines were working, the ford across the bourne was closed to motors, and a few sandbags were still in place.
Beyond Patrixbourne there’s an entrancing little primrose-lined lane, but the last few miles into Canterbury are all on tarmac, little else of it enticing. I was looking forward to a bit of time in front of the Cathedral but you have to pay money (and quite a lot), not just to get inside it – to be expected these days – but, before 4.30, even to enter its grounds! I took one picture, from the money till, and plodded slowly to the station.
On Barham Downs
Patrixbourne oast house
Getting to Canterbury just left a dozen miles of the loop to be closed before the whole NDW was completed. This made a pleasant bank holiday expedition for Barbara and me, with an overnight in Canterbury courtesy of Chilham train station. Notice the two walks were taken in opposite directions!
Saturday 23 August 2014: Wye to Chilham, 8 miles (5 on loop)
The little church at Boughton Aluph is a pleasant, if early, stopping off point before the climb up onto Soakham Downs (a name that has surely led to much merriment on days less clement than this – the clouds of the picture never delivered). From here, the Way stays close to the scarp in woods for a couple of miles or so, slowly declining, with occasional views through the trees into Godmersham Park. Just after a deer leap – essentially, a one-way trap so that deer can easily come out of the woods but not back in, and nibble the saplings – the Way heads back down, with a lane into Chilham. Arrival there was a surprise to us: we had no idea we were breaking the walk at one of Kent’s prime chocolate-box villages.
Looking across Godmersham Park
Sunday 24 August 2014: Canterbury to Chilham, 8 miles (7 on trail)
Quite possibly saving the best for last; or, more accurately, boring bits at the beginning, middle and end with exceptional walking before the middle and very good walking after it.
Soon after Canterbury’s houses are left behind, the first of the orchards is with you, then after crossing the modern by-pass there’s a top-quality long mile. Notice underfoot a change from chalky soil to sandy, rabbit warrens abounding, and look for the outlines of the Iron Age Bigbury Fort – the only hill fort in Kent (even Epping Forest has two!), and an early victim of Caesar’s invasion.
Through interesting woods, pine prominent, you are soon in No Man’s Orchard, a relic of how orchards used to be – and we were passing apples in peak season. Beyond prosaic Chartham Hatch is commercial fruit-growing territory, the modern orchards of mega-grower FW Mansfield spreading acre on acre around Nickle Farm. Eastern European pickers, many of them in family groups, were arriving at the portakabin village right on the route. There’s one last patch of tree-belt before the road work through Old Wives Lees and downhill into Chilham. Just the day to sit outside at a country pub, and hope that the train home would be a few hours late in coming.
No Man’s Orchard
Fruit-picker’s camp near Nickle Farm