As Canterbury beckoned my speed increased slightly. Part from anticipation of a full English but mostly because it just felt exciting. For half an hour town toyed with me, I thought it was round the next corner but each time it kept me waiting. My track was shaded by a tunnel of overhanging trees, its dark brown surface offering a soft foothold and a wonderful mustiness that crept up and met my nostrils. Sun rays found their route too, escaping from a break in the clouds and stealing through chinks in the foliage. A field swept down to my left as vines played with lines of perspective and a solitary crow called.
The North Downs Way is a 156 mile marked path in south east England starting from Farnham, Surrey and finishing in Dover, Kent. The 156 miles assumes the loop near the eastern end is taken into account, imagine a length of rope with a lasso on one end and hopefully you get the picture. Much of the route follows the Pilgrims Way, an ancient route used by pilgrims travelling from Winchester to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of St Thomas Becket. Fluctuating along the line of hills known as The North Downs it toys with the tops but generally skirts along the sun bathed southern flanks just below the summits. It commands a rite of passage through sweeping fields and drills a burrow through ancient wood land. Apart from the South Downs a few miles away, it is my local playground.
I have walked it before, a couple of years ago with Nick and Chris who I finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with. We took our time with 20 mile days, not being in a hurry and savoured what this wonderful area had to offer. I enjoyed it so much I decided to walk it again this year in a quicker overall time, following on with my lighter pack approach and higher daily mileages. I decided that 5 days, at just over 31 miles per day would be respectable but give me a little time to appreciate my local hills into the bargain.
My dad dropped me off in Farnham one Wednesday evening and as I tucked into a last meal of fish and chips, a quick check on my phone at the weather report had me yelping with joy, wall to wall sunshine for 6 days at least, I couldn’t believe my luck. I hoisted my pack, walked along the A31 for a few minutes before being willingly grabbed by the woods and sucked in away from the hum of town. I strolled along the clear waters of the River Wey, turned right under the railway bridge and disappeared off amongst the trees to camp before 156 glorious miles to be started the following day.
First nights camp (ZPacks Hexamid Solo, ZPacks Poncho / groundsheet, Multimat Ultralight pad & Mountain Laurel Designs quilt for those geeks out there).
Waking in a tent in the middle of summer at 5am with birds chirping all around is amazing, I love natures alarm clock. Brewing a quick coffee I sat watching a deer skirt around me, stopping every few feet to smell the ground. It watched me cautiously and deciding I wasn’t a threat, carried on calmly. I was walking at 6am, not a soul anywhere and as I crossed over the occasional deserted country lane, even the locals hadn’t begun to think about rising yet. The sun was out but June was still clinging onto a chilly wind as I pulled on a warm jacket and made tracks along sandy trails. The occasional dog walker, still waking up, passed me and grounds men at the local golf course went about tending their turf.
I quickly arrived at Guildford, crossed the Wey South Path which I had walked a few weeks prior, (report) skirted the large town to the south, climbed St Martha’s Hill and arrived at the church. Two stone masons chipped away at slabs, occasionally marrying them up to the slot they were intended, before making more adjustments. The sky was Mediterranean blue meeting clumps of woodland and fields for miles. I let my feet air, splashed some water on my face from the tap kindly installed by the church and sat back on a wooden bench for a light brunch. It was warm; I squinted at the vista, downed a litre of water and re-filled my bottle before setting off down the other side, trying to arrest a light jog.
St Marthas Hill
Past the junction for the Downs Link, which as the name would suggest, is a 36 mile long track joining the South Downs Way and the North Downs Way and before long I passed several old Pillboxes. In 1940, the threat of an invasion from Germany prompted a hasty building program of defences all over Britain. Many were built on elevated positions to carry the advantage of height and they formed a line of defence, known as a Stop Line to foil an invasion. The pillboxes on the North Downs were considered a last line of defence before London itself. Many have been demolished but around half still remain, some lost in the undergrowth, others on clear display perhaps only a few hundred feet apart and most still accessible. Peering out through machine gun slots from the inside it was easy to see why they were positioned where they were. Thankfully, we never had to utilise them.
World War II Pillboxes guard the Surrey Hills
I followed a narrow but well defined trail through shady woods and forests, occasionally emerging to cross meadows of wild flowers as I reached for my sunglasses. A few people dotted the hill flanks enjoying the sun, dogs happily darted through the grass and a mountain biker here and there nodded at me. I crossed the road at Newlands Corner, grabbed a quick ice cream and escaped quickly from tourist questions. Bright yellow fields of rape plants caught my eye through gaps in the trees, the colour of bright sunshine at lower elevations, and fading to younger, green plants just a couple of hundred feet higher where they felt it colder.
I followed trail markers, sometimes getting lost or discovering another track for a mile before being placed gently back on the right path. It was adequately marked; pay a modicum of attention and you’ll find your way through. For some reason the authorities that be decided to use red, yellow and blue discs according to whether the route is on a footpath, bridleway or byway. It can be confusing, the eye becomes used to one colour and subconsciously looks for this, it made little sense to change it but it’s a minor grumble. I had RouteBuddy installed on my phone (review coming soon), so a quick check when all felt not well would let me know exactly where I was. That said, my mind wandering as it often does whilst walking, I did manage to somehow execute a perfect 180 degree turn and walk back in the opposite direction for 2 miles before realising the sun was in the wrong position. This does not bode well for the Continental Divide Trail next year.
I walked through Merstham and camped in a wood just the other side, choosing not to pitch the tent as I remembered the weather report. My Pot Noodle rehydrated and I threw in some nettles and wild garlic at the last minute. A few joggers ran past, the occasional biker sped down the hill and gradually the sun retired. I could hear the hum of the M25 a short distance away, perhaps one of the NDW’s least attractive features is the motorway, often heard and sometimes seen a couple of miles distance. I totalled the mileage and smiled at a 37, thinking it a decent buffer to be traded either for a quicker finish or an extra hours sleep before dozing off.
Swathes of wild garlic. Nom nom nom . . .
The temperature had plummeted the following morning, I awoke cold, quickly figured out that the reason I couldn’t find my jacket was that I already had it on and sped off to warm up whilst pulling on gloves and hat. Climbing a hill past Parkham Meadow I warmed a little and watched the rising sun do battle for some room with clouds streaming over trapped in a brisk wind. I watched, mesmerised, as corn fields, still a vibrant green, swayed, swirled and moved around in entrancing patterns as the wind toyed with them. I reached Otford, uninspiring at first but mellowing to a charming village centre. The Crown pub, worryingly deserted served me up an admirable egg and chips.
“Banana and chocolate pudding perhaps sir, just made?”
“Oh go on then.”
I re-supplied with a little food at the local shop. Another bonus of the NDW is its proximity to small little hamlets, towns and villages along the way. You need never carry more than a day’s worth of provisions which keeps the pack weight down and a home cooked meal is pretty much guaranteed at some point during the day. Did I mention beer? There’s beer as well. My appetite was huge, I couldn’t stop munching. Placing snacks in side pockets to save me delving into the pack, I spent most of the day subsequently doing just that to retrieve further supplies as my calculations fell far short. I put this down to the obvious physical exertion but also the chilly air, it was past 2 in the afternoon before I had removed my jacket, mostly due to a steep climb up Otford Mount which had me sweating and reaching for the water. 32 miles at days end and I pulled up, decided that was an admirable distance for a Saturday and nipped over some barbed wire to pitch tent in the corner of a field.
Early in the morning I descended the hills and caught glimpse of the Medway Bridge carrying traffic along the M2 and over the River Medway itself. It took what seemed an eternity to cross, the hills on the other side seeming to get no nearer, and those behind no further. I climbed quickly up to the Downs summit once across to escape the hum of engines and drone of rubber, reaching to the top I lay back in the grass and watched it close over me as meadow flowers danced around and a ferocious wind whipped overhead bending trees over in arcs. I stopped at Kit’s Coty, part of a stone burial chamber built some 2,800 to 3,500 years ago as a final resting place for those from farming communities.
As the sun finally emerged it warmed slightly. Woods were interrupted by vast swathes of meadow, fields and other open spaces. A faint track wove through and I checked the occasional sign post to make sure I was on the right track. Weekend families lay on blankets spread upon sun drenched banks. Children ran around screaming, dogs dangled tongues looking for water and birds played with thermals. The wind, still intense, blasted me sideways, summer clouds sped overhead as I watched my feet progress over chalk, flint, grass and baked mud. Kissing gates squeaked as I squeezed through them and back into the cool of the woods once more.
I reached Hollingbourne and The Dirty Habit pub. I remember missing this last time with Nick and Chris because we passed by early morning when it was still shut but now the timing was perfect. Lunch beckoned and I tentatively opened the front door and peered inside to try and get that quick glimpse of what lurked the other side before deciding if it would be worth entering.
“Hello, good morning,” was the welcome offered by a pretty barmaid.
“Hi,” I offered whilst trying to think of a quick chat up line and failing miserably.”Er, nice weather?”
I placed my pack in the corner, sat on a bar stool, dripped sweat on the bar and started to drool as I eyed up the beers on offer. The barmaid smiled, rested her hand on a beer pump and waited patiently for a decision whilst smiling. Let me tell you, I find few greater pleasures in life than trying to decide which ale to sample first whilst a lovely barmaid smiles at me.
The Dirty Habit had a story to tell, as did a lot of places that the NDW passes by. Monks were brewing beer there as far back as 980 AD and even then, it was a popular resting place for pilgrims travelling the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury and beyond. I pondered how many pilgrims had reached its doors, tired, thirsty and hungry to be welcomed just as I had. Thousands, no wait, millions surely? Katherine Howard, one of King Henry VIII’s wives, was born to the Culpeper family of Hollingbourne Manor and spent much of her childhood in the village.
Fuelled by more ale (obviously these circumstances have to be taken full advantage of), I enjoyed possibly the best burger I had ever eaten, said my goodbyes and went through a possible list of chat up lines as I left to fully prepare for similar circumstances arising again. If you’re ever near Hollingbourne and it’s lunchtime or dinner, you should check this place out. I left marvelling at the novel idea of being able to exchange money for beer and promised to take full advantage of it.
I spent most of the afternoon humming Can’t get used to Losing you, by Andy Williams whilst cloud shadows raced over the landscape around me. It had turned into an incredible day, the wind tossed me about, slamming into me as I crossed open stretches and dived quickly back into the shelter of the woods. The trees became alive, gales ripping through them and over me as they screamed for mercy, their limbs swaying angrily as dead wood littered the trail ahead.
I stopped just before a campsite at Westwell and in true thru-hiker fashion, decided I didn’t need a shower, nor the camping fee, and hunkered down in the field next door after a 33 miler. I was just shy of where the NDW goes into a loop. My choice was either turn right and go south through Dover, Canterbury and back to this split, or left and north to do it the other way round. I dozed off happy in the thought that that was the only major decision I had to make that evening.
I was now in the county of Kent, known as the garden of England. I don’t visit often but it always impresses me. I walked through a light spittering, which is what I decided to call the light rain, too light to be called spitting. Kent took ages to wake up, it was Sunday after all. I ambled through apple orchards, past greenhouses where I shamefully admit to nipping in under stealth mode and gorging on the deep red berries because someone left the door open. Actually, sod it, I’m not ashamed at all.
I passed by banks of wild garlic, shaded in the woods, often smelling the onion before I saw the pretty white flowers. I was funnelled through blinding fields of yellow rape along white chalk paths, cradled by woods of oak and kept company by occasional streams littered by pebbles. I passed through sleepy hamlets with curtains still drawn and cats by front doors, tails flicking, patiently waiting to be let in. The roads were quiet, rabbits scattered showing white tails as I approached, deer eyed me from the depths of the woods and slowly a sun appeared over the horizon.
Even by 10am there was still a strange lack of other people about. This day of the week is usually when the hills are dotted with the odd rambler or dog walker but it was strangely quiet and after a while it dawned on me why; it was cold. Very cold in fact. The wind, if anything, had intensified so much that at times it actually kicked me off the trail. I was wrapped up in most of the clothing I was carrying and still I couldn’t warm up. There was only one thing for it, coffee.
Places to stop and grab a hot drink and a bit to eat diminish in Kent somewhat, the county seems a little lacking after being spoilt for choice up until that point. I reached the split in the trail; Dover to the right, Canterbury to the left. I figured if I could get through Canterbury at a reasonable lick then I could reach, and get through Dover by end of day and hopefully get a sweet camp spot on the cliffs watching the English Channel. I swung a left and by mid-morning stumbled out of the woods and into Chilham. It made me smile; it’s the sort of place where you look in the estate agents window out of curiosity. It still looks like it must have done 300 years ago Everything, the walls, windows, roads, pub, all look weathered and rustic but incredibly cute. I remembered the cafe where I had stopped for breakfast last time and made my way over whilst my stomach started making strange sounds of anticipation. It was shut. I made do with a Gruyere and wild garlic sandwich, some Mr Kipling Country Slices and a couple of caffeine tablets from my rations before rocketing off to Canterbury, still in a desperate search for the full English.
Canterbury itself is also a wonderful place, rich in history, tales, stories and an eclectic array of wonderful shops. It also boasts, thankfully, more places to eat than a hungry hiker could possibly wish for. I stopped at the first decent looking offering and got the attention of a guy sitting outside in a Liverpool t-shirt.
“Hey, food any good here?” I enquired.
“I always eat here,” he replied. “Food’s good.”
Canterbury – Thoroughly charming
A few minutes later I was tucking into said full English with homemade baked beans none the less, plus two Americanos with extra shots of course. Sunday shoppers milled around in North Face body warmers confirming it wasn’t just me who thought it was cold and before long I had walked through the centre, past the old city walls and other wonderfully twisted and contorted buildings, through the outskirts and then spilled out into the Kent countryside once more. I still had 23 miles to Dover, not the place, with all due respect, that I wanted to be searching for somewhere to sleep so head down I decided to rack up some miles during the afternoon shift.
At 6pm I crested a hill to be met finally with the sight of the English Channel, glinting in the sporadic afternoon sun. I started to descend down narrow county roads and tracks, past farms and small holdings. Cows looked at me strangely as their mouths chewed from side to side, lambs still young enough to jump and spring did exactly that. Slowly the green gave way to Dover itself, uninspiring buildings but occasionally some wonderful architecture saved the day. It was getting late, I knew I’d be shattered at camp ready for nothing but sleep so I wolfed down some chicken and chips and tried to remember how many people sitting on the path had asked me for money.
The ferry ports buzzed with departures and arrivals, truck engines moaned up the steep hill as brakes hissed. I was out the other side at least and as the houses gradually gave way I passed under the main road, eyeing up the steep looking hill up to the top of the cliffs. I shouldn’t have worried, I had been walking for 14 hours and although tired beyond belief, I was warmed up and flying. I made eye contact with the ascent and sped up like I was finishing a race. The occasional bout of vertigo kicked in as the path moved mere feet from the edge and a few hundred feet to the shore below, separated by a flimsy steel fence. The sun was just going down, streaking the sky with a good omen of orange as ships sailed up and down the channel. I walked past numerous pillboxes and World War 2 artillery emplacements guarding the waters, eerily silent but still majestically commanding. Throwing down a groundsheet in the lee of an old building I was too tired to do anything but glance at the mileage on my watch. I smiled at the screen, 40.4 miles and I promptly fell fast asleep.
For about 8 miles the NDW hugs the coast from Dover along an uninspiring section often next to the road before turning sharply North West to head back to the trail split and for me, the finish line. As I headed inland, the road noise faded and save the railway lines serving the channel tunnel, I was back in gorgeous countryside. Past more ancient hill forts and relishing a warmer day where finally the wind had ceased knocking me around. I reached the charming village of Wye, grabbed a quick coffee before the café closed for lunch (how can a café close for lunch?!) and peered through the estate agents window. Having decided to head for Boughton Lees, a little village just a way on from the finish I was stopped dead in my tracks by the Tickled Trout pub hunkered up next to the river Stour. An old stone bridge arced over the water, a few drinkers sat by its banks and it took very little to get me inside for a pint and something to eat. I promised to come back and visit Wye, as well as few other places I had walked through.
A final few miles to Boughton Lees summed up a great few days. Like a final mixed farewell offering a summary of the highlights I made my way through woodland, bright yellow fields, along the tops of rolling downs, over tinkling streams, along shaded tracks before finally coming back to the trail split. I had completed 156 miles in 4.1/2 days, the furthest I had ever walked in that amount of time. I downed my pack and as I lay on the cricket green waiting for a taxi to take me to the rail station, I smiled. I was tired, but satisfied at a very healthy fix of English countryside.
The cliffs out of Dover and the English Channel
Done! 156 miles in 4.5 days !