The night prior to my final day on the Pilgrims Way London link had been loud and dramatic, thunderstorms rolled through for hours, lightning crashed, it pelted down, and I lay awake wondering if getting up and setting off on this walk was actually a good idea.
The storm passed, I slept a while and groggily rose for my early train. The weather forecast was a bit uncertain as the weather continued to break. It was muggy and I was told to expect anything from torrential rain to sun and the low thirties later. I caught my too-early-a-train and attemped to doze, difficult with a nearby chap shouting into his phone for an hour.
Day three- Dartford to Otford
Having arrived at Dartford railway station it was still early enough in the morning to wander through quiet nondescript residential streets to arrive at the large park. There was no rain yet so I had to contend with the usual joggers, others swaying at Tai-Chi, dog walkers and a couple of lycra clad individuals sweating profusely while personal trainers shouted at them. A typical park.
I was on the look out for a Sustrans Portrait Bench to one of Dartford’s most famous sons- Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. I almost passed without noticing it as it was pretty poor- a small and unremarkable rusting silhouette standing amidst some straggly weeds behind some temporary fencing. A founding member of just about the finest English rock band in history deserved better.
I was now following the Darent Valley Path beside the eponymous river. I left all behind me as the skies became greyer and rain began to steadily fall. Now hungry, I sat beneath a road bridge for shelter with traffic hammering overhead and enjoyed Quakers Golden Syrup Porridge to Go, having it swell inside me with glugs of water. Always wise to drink plenty of fluids with these as I find they get a bit uncomfortable after a while if not. Or perhaps I eat too many.
It wasn’t the best of halts as I was faced with poor graffiti opposite, bald banks and not a lot else. I left as soon as finished. It wasn’t wet enough to trouble any waterproofs so used my new gear addition this year, a trekking umbrella. This item being just about perfect for these conditions.
The day now started to improve, the rain went away, the skies cleared, the sun peered out and the day just, well, got better. It wasn’t much further to Darenth. Even with a thundering great railway bridge overhead and a massive chimney poking its head above well kept houses and offices, any mid to heavy industry was long gone and these Victorian remnants seem to now just slot into a modern land and townscape.
The third day on the Pilgrims Way out of London passes through a series of pretty and interesting villages
Leaving the village, the Pilgrims Way rejoins the River Darent, and gets prettier still. Shoals of small Brown Trout swam from my shadow and I kept stopping and trying to get photos of the abundant and beautiful Banded Demoiselle.
I had done a pretty good job of guessing my arrival time at Lullingstone. The Roman Villa is an English Heritage site and in this coronavirus year, visitor numbers were limited and staggered. Pre-booking to a specific time slot was required and I had done this the previous evening.
There is a series of pretty villages along this stretch of the river- South Darenth, Farningham, Eynsford, Shoreham and Otford follow each other, but I had my mind on another attraction, one I was booked into for midday.
Having walked up and over the hills above Eynsford and crossed the slopes below the bird of prey centre, where vultures seem to regularly leave their handlers and fly off up the valley for a couple of days before being recaught, it is then a short drop down the hill to suddenly emerge beside covered Lullingstone Roman Villa.
I arrived five minutes before my time slot, booked in, applied hand sanitiser, mask on and then enjoyed a fascinating hour exploring the home to successive families that lived here from around AD100 to the 4th century, converting to Christianity in that time. Like so many places, it is build upon build, extension upon extension, and the archaeologists have had a fine time trying to make sense of it all. It is an amazing site and I had it almost to myself before emerging into startlingly bright sunlight and found a shaded spot outside for a simple early lunch of wraps and tuna.
After my brief lunch stop it was back to the Pilgrims Way. The day was now hot and fine. I stopped to chat to an old girl picking up rubbish from the street outside her house. She loudly confided that she was glad to be alive as the thunder and lightening the previous night “almost did me in“.
A quiet traffic free lane led me to Lullingstone Park. An area that is obviously popular with those ‘in the know’. There is really easy and level walking to be enjoyed here, through orchards, past hopfields and arable and then returning to the riverbank. The water is shallow and safe and as I neared Farningham, every gap in the banks vegetation was occupied by a family. Rugs spread, the paraphernalia of a day-out spread across it, adults ate their picnics while nippers no higher than your knee, paddled in the river in front, shreaking with excitement as they showed grasped bunches of dripping weed to their parents. It was lovely to see.
It wasn’t long before I reached Otford. This is a larger village than those passed since leaving Dartford this morning. The early Saxon settlement has a rich history and the centre of the village is a conservation area. Even the village pond is scheduled as a listed building.
It was a short walk along the High Street to Station Road. I was now on the main Pilgrims Way that stretches between Winchester and Canterbury. But that will have to wait until, hopefully, next year. Instead I dropped down right to enter the railway station with just a ten minute wait for my 12.59 train with a number of changes to be made on the way home. I had walked 13.67 miles with a modest 839 feet of ascent.
And that was the end of my Pilgrims Way London Link. I had walked 35.07 miles over three days since leaving Southwark Cathedral. Yes, it could be walked quite easily over two days but three gives time to enjoy some of the interesting features encountered along its length. Each day is an improvement on the one before and if walking the 138 miles of the main route, I would suggest that the London link definitely also be included for it offers a great flavour of what the pilgrim experienced when they left the capital and walked into the country and onward. Though they were denied some of what I had relished most- the Kossowski mosaic, Lesnes Abbey, Lullingstone Villa and quiet woodland walking and river paths.
Day One: Southwark Cathedral to Welling
Day Two: Welling to Dartford