Updating his North Downs Way guide, Key Reynolds re-connects with the beauty and history of this easily-overlooked National Trail.
The other guest having breakfast at the B&B north of Maidstone looked surprised when she heard I would spend the day walking.
‘Walking!’ she exclaimed. ‘Where would you go walking round here? It’s all motorways!’
Of course, that’s the perception of those who make their journeys only by car. Motorways, trunk roads, and how to get from A to B in the shortest possible time dominate their idea of travel. But leave the roads behind and another world is waiting to be explored.
‘I’m walking the North Downs Way,’ I told her. ‘From Farnham in Surrey to Dover.’
‘What – all that way on roads?’
I laughed then, and tried to explain that the previous day I’d wandered for eight hours on footpaths and farm tracks and loved every step. I told her about the trail that drew me through the most magical beech wood carpeted with bluebells, been serenaded by birdsong, watched a great spotted woodpecker drilling a dead branch, disturbed a herd of fallow deer, and lazed on a meadow with a view that stretched for 20 miles or more with not a motorway – or another walker – in sight.
She shook her head, doubting either my words or my sanity. In her car she would be completely divorced from the reality of the great ‘Out There,’ unable to catch the fragrance of dew-damp nettles or the earthy smell of sun-warmed timber. She’d be ignorant of the sound of insects seething in a wood in mid-day heat, and have no inkling of the taste of a breeze filtered by hedgerows. Seated in her car chasing traffic, she’d be unaware of the downland slope not a mile from our breakfast table, where 5000 cowslips (at least) would at that very moment be nodding their multi-flowered heads in unison.
Neither of us knew then – nor would she ever know – that later that afternoon I would be gifted with the eye-watering melodies of a nightingale singing in a spinney just for me. The view through her windscreen would be of the rear of the car in front; in her rear view mirror she’d see only the front of the car behind.
I knew what I’d rather be doing for the next few days.
The North Downs Way makes its 209km (130 mile) journey along a range of chalk hills used as a highway by Neolithic tribes and their predecessors, and it’s a sobering thought that some of the footpaths and trackways I’d be walking were stamped out thousands of years before even the Romans came to these shores.
Walking those same trails to update the guide, I could reconfirm my lasting connection with the landscapes of south-east England, their history and their natural beauty: I was eager once more to visit the sandy crown of St Martha’s Hill near Guildford, enjoy the far-reaching views from Box Hill, Colley Hill and the Wye Downs, gaze once more on Canterbury’s cathedral and stride across the White Cliffs of Dover; all of which make this National Trail worth re-walking.
Farnham to Sevenoaks
I’d set off from Farnham as the morning rush-hour stalled at traffic lights, and within a few minutes had left all that behind to wander beside the little River Wey on the first leg of my journey. Waymarks took me through meadow and woodland, along the edge of arable fields and on a sunken track between banks of bluebells, before easing into Puttenham, the only village on the route between Farnham and Guildford. It’s a trim village, snug below the Hog’s Back, and the camping barn near the church looked as welcoming as ever – but it was far too early to consider spending the night there.
East of Guildford I picnicked on St Martha’s Hill with a tree-filled view, remembering, many years ago, walking along the Downs Link that began right here and finished at Botolphs at the foot of the South Downs. That had been a long day’s trek of 53km (33 miles), and much as I’d enjoyed it then I was pleased now that I was on a more leisurely journey that would take a week or more to complete, with time to sit and dream…
I’m good at dreaming, and walking on well-marked National Trails such as the North Downs Way, it’s easy to do. I could drift with the hours, mind at rest, with only birdsong to guide the way. So the miles slid by, and almost before I knew it I was idling down a track to spend the night at Tanners Hatch Youth Hostel.
Adapted from two tiny 17th century cottages in a woodland clearing on Ranmore Common, Tanners Hatch is one of the few remaining hostels to retain the YHA’s countryside traditions. There’s no road nearby, and the peace that surrounds it is broken only by natural sounds. That London is almost within spitting distance is hard to believe when you sit in the garden of a mild spring evening and watch a badger lumbering past.
Next day I crossed the River Mole on stepping stones, before climbing the clematis-flanked slope of Box Hill to gain another great view onto and beyond the greensand hills that form an inner lining to the Downs. Those hills would be my companion for the next day or so, and it was only after I’d left Surrey for Kent and crossed the Darent Gap north of Sevenoaks, that the NDW veered north-east to lose its wood-crowned neighbour.
Sevenoaks to Wye
In several places my route would slide off the crest of the hills for a mile or two to join the Pilgrims Way (219km (136 miles) from Winchester to Canterbury). It does this some way beyond Sevenoaks, after you’ve followed a broad trail through Trosley Country Park, when the route makes a dog-leg and slopes downhill to the crossing track of the much older Pilgrims Way.
Nearby stand the Coldrum Stones, the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, while another site from the same era is found on the edge of a hilltop meadow on the far side of the Medway Valley. Other sites of varying distinctions form part of the so-called Medway Culture: but, ancient though they are, I doubt they’re included on the list of 20,000 historic buildings Kent County Council claims within its boundaries, some of which I’d be passing on my way to Dover. There’d be castles, two cathedrals, old timbered hall houses and tiny thatched cottages, all bearing the weight of centuries in their beams.
The North Downs Way approaches the River Medway by stealth, creeping past the lovely collection of houses at Upper Bush and skirting Cuxton before coming to the madness of the high speed railway and M2 motorway.
There can be few greater contrasts for a long distance walker to experience than the section of the Way that crosses the Medway on a bridge with a span of about ¾ mile, a bridge it shares with motorway traffic. Look left and you gaze along the river, past Rochester’s marina to a view of its Norman castle and cathedral. Look ahead and to the right, and your vision is dominated by cars and lorries thundering past, heading for Dover. They’ll be there in less than an hour: we who are walking will take at least three days!
Escape from that madness on the east side of the river is surprisingly easy, and it wasn’t long before I was listening to skylarks on the way to Blue Bell Hill, below which I cut through a hedge to inspect Kits Coty House – three upright sarsen stones with a huge 10-ton capstone, contained within a fenced enclosure. Shortly after, in Boxley Warren Nature Reserve, I wandered past the White Horse Stone – the third of the Neolithic burial sites found close to the North Downs Way.
You’re never far from sites of historic significance when walking on the Downs, and after my night at the B&B north of Maidstone, I found time to explore the remains of Thurnham Castle, thought to have been built by the Saxons on the site of a Roman watch tower just above the trail. Later that morning the Way sloped downhill to join the Pilgrims Way once more above Harrietsham. Shortly after, I felt the need to stop for a drink from my flask, but when I found the perfect spot – a bench seat right beside the route – someone had beaten me to it. A monk, on pilgrimage to Canterbury, had settled himself on the bench and fallen asleep. As he was made of wood, he was in no hurry to move on, so I sat beside him, had my drink and a cheese roll, then left him to his slumbers. As far as I’m aware, he’s still there.
Continuing on the Pilgrims Way I passed above Charing and along lanes, tracks and footpaths to Eastwell Park near Boughton Lees, where the North Downs Way divides into two routes. The main route heads straight for Dover, while the alternative makes a northerly loop to Canterbury before advancing on Dover ‘by the back door’. Since I needed to walk both routes, I carried on a few miles to Wye, checked in at a pub for two nights of B&B, and next morning set out along the direct route.
Wye to Dover
And oh, what a lovely route it is! It’s a little over 24 miles, and although I could have broken it with B&B halfway, I wanted to walk it in a single day, return to Wye by train, and head for Canterbury the next day.
When I set out there was a nip in the air, but the sun was shining – perfect conditions for a long walk – and I was soon puffing my way up a steep woodland path that brought me out on the crest of the Downs. Less than five minutes later I stood beside the Wye Crown Millennium Stone and enjoyed one of my favourite downland views, gazing west beyond the town, across the valley of the Great Stour to the long curving wall of the Downs, trying to identify the route that had brought me here.
The Way led on, with consistently fine views, until midday found me at Etchinghill with another 19km (12 miles) to walk. Having caught sight of it several times, I could almost smell the sea now, but coming in view of the marshalling yards of the Channel Tunnel put me in a gloomy mood. So I turned my back on the queuing traffic below, stomped my way over Castle Hill and enjoyed instead a long view across the Channel to the French coast, which seemed almost close enough to touch. Pausing briefly to admire the Battle of Britain memorial, I then wandered across the iconic White Cliffs of Dover before entering the town by way of the Western Heights defence system – a labyrinth of brick chambers and galleries, huge walls, tunnels and ditches.
An hour later I was on the train chuntering back to Wye, and next morning set out for Canterbury.
I like Canterbury – its cathedral, old Roman walls, the 14th century Westgate, and the River Stour flowing by – and the North Downs Way approaches it by the best of all possible routes. It goes through orchards and beech woods, past Godmersham Park (former home of Jane Austen’s brother) and on to Chilham, one of the most charming of all Kent villages. Beyond that came more orchards and hop gardens with every view, it seems, peppered with white-tipped oasthouses.
Out of Canterbury my route was shared with the Elham Valley Way as far as Patrixbourne, then across miles of flat agricultural land from which an occasional glimpse of the sea could be had many miles away to the north. Beyond Shepherdswell there were no more villages, and it was only towards the end of the walk that the rolling nature of the Downs was reasserted. Then suddenly Dover Castle appeared ahead, still some miles off, but enticing on its high point above the town.