It is December as I write this. We have just seen the first snow of winter down here in England’s South East. So, what to write about? Obvious- three days hiking during some of the hottest days this summer…
In this awful pandemic year Three Points of the Compass was unable to attempt a number of planned hikes. What I did do, was commence another long distance trail on my ‘wish list’. With both family demands and frequent periodic official instruction not to use public transport, I was still able to slot in three days of the Pilgrims Way where I could. While I shall return to complete the entire 138 mile Pilgrims Way running from Winchester to Canterbury in 2021. I also wanted to walk the additional 33 mile spur that runs from the City of London to join the main trail at Otford in Kent.
Due to the proximity of each days start and finish to railway stations, it was a simple exercise to complete this over three separate days. My 33 mile long London link was extended slightly by having to break off and rejoin each day but it is still an easy three-day section walk. I knew it wasn’t going to be fantastic walking but was confident I could find enough of interest to make it worth the effort.
Day One- Southwark Cathedral to Welling
Travelling up early on day one saw me arrive at a London Bridge station packed with masked commuters from where it is a short walk to nearby Southwark Cathedral.
If not commencing at Winchester, many pilgrims walking to Canterbury Cathedral started from here, setting off down the old Roman road and I was keen to start my walk from inside the cathedral however I found I had an hour to kick my heels until it opened. No problem, I found a cafe bordering nearby Borough Market that was happy to sell me excellent if expensive quality sausage in artisan roll, together with a proper mug of tea. I took my time over this before returning to wander around the cathedral just prior to it opening.
I wandered the peaceful interior of the small cathedral. I viewed the effigy of Chaucer’s friend, the poet John Gower, resting his head upon his books, I stared at stained windows and contemplated how Thomas Beckett had visited here just weeks before being murdered on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, then I headed to the exit. On impulse I asked the lady at the door if I could obtain the pilgrim’s stamp. She directed me to a corridor “go past the sign marked Private, then knock on the door on the right marked Private“, I did so and the verger that emerged readily produced an inked stamp on my request, applying it to the page of my trail journal. He wished me a good pilgrimage and we touched elbows, no handshakes in this pandemic year.
From here it is a day of following various streets, heading out of London. Lots of traffic but the route follows an old way, Roman Watling Street, that has been forgotten by more modern route planners. Or at least initially as I was to discover. For a while though, the heaviest of traffic is mostly elsewhere. This is not a pretty walk in its early stages, bordered by run-down flats and new build. Tatty small green spaces and dodgy looking shops, most seemed to have closed for good.
I was intrigued in Tabard Street by a length of old fencing that trailed its way down and round flats on my left. For those in the know, this fence had been made from repurposed World War II stretchers. Over 600 000 were made so that people injured during German bomb raids could be carried to safety by the ARP. Following the war they were reused to make ‘stretcher fences’ to replace those removed and melted down to help the war effort.
Through busy and smelly Bricklayers Roundabout and on to the Old Kent Road, and I soon crossed to look at the secular ceramic depicting much of the history of this road. Spread around two walls of the Everlasting Arms Ministries Church, formerly the North Peckham Civic Centre. The 2000 tile, 1000 square foot frieze had been created by the ceramics artist and sculptor Adam Kossowski in 1964 as thanks for his release from a Soviet labour camp. Besides Romans, Henry V, Charles II and the expected Chaucer pilgrims, there was also a (defaced) London bobby, pearly King and Queen and sad souls rotting on gibbets. It is fantastic. Then back to the roadside path and onward, heading out of London.
There had been a little graffitti around and on the Kossowski ceramic but it hadn’t been too bad, which was perhaps a little surprising. However another object I had been looking forward to seeing was in dire condition. Further on down the road was once the Kentish Drovers & Halfway House. A pub dating from around 1840 and boasting Englands longest pub sign. This is a remarkable mural installed in the late 19C by Daulton’s of Lambeth. It curves around the buildings exterior and shows an Old Kent Road of old. The pub is now a restaurant, the sign above the top windows is in dire condition. It is a rare example of a mural that has been painted on structural blocks rather than tiles. The only other London example is in the V&A Museum. Why the hell it has been allowed to fall into such dilapidated condition is a mystery. Obviously the root is cost, but apathy will play a big part. Hard to believe this is a grade II listed building.
Passing through a wealth of diverse cultures, the route soon begins the steady climb up Blackheath Hill to the extensive heath at the top, surrounded by housing. My Uncle lived here decades ago and our family would be bundled up periodically in the car to make the long journey here for family reunion. This callow youth was occasionally able to escape to gaze at deer in nearby Greenwich Park. Today the air was thick with traffic fumes, Despite the grey sky, I was sweltering, there was nowhere remotely pleasant to take a breather. I skipped halting for an early lunch, paused to drink from my bottle, but onward, always onward. A ‘saharan plume’ was expected over England and its presence was making itself known, my shirt was dripping from the humidity.
“Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!”Henry V, Act III (1598), William Shakespeare
Shooters Hill is supposed to be a bit of a vantage point, with views over London below. It might once have been, for pilgrims saying farewell and herdsmen reaching the end of a drove, but other than back down the main thoroughfare behind me, it is too built up now.
The name Shooters Hill is purported to stem from the guns carried by the highwaymen that frequented the area. Sadly, the name was being used in 1226, just a few years before guns were invented.
To be honest, I was pleased to be reaching the end of todays walk. I had known it would be urban, but points of interest had been too infrequent for my liking and I was a bit fed up with traffic by my side. It had been a fairly undemanding 10.07 mile day with just 485ft of ascent. I now left the route to walk to Welling railway station, but not before I paused to glance up at one of the distant markers from central London, the 531 foot high water tower built in 1910. The highest point in London. Handy, as I was now leaving London and entering the county of Kent.
I arrived at Welling Station in time to catch the 13.11. An early finish, but that was enough of a day for me and meant I was in a ‘socially distanced’ train carriage prior to it getting rammed with commuters. Day two on the Pilgrims Way London Link would see me walking from Welling to Dartford.