We all need a walk pretty close to home. The opportunity to venture out for a day’s wander to stretch the legs, to test the weather, try out a new piece of kit, even simply escape the house. Pandemic regulations have meant that even the ten minute drive to the country start of a frequently enjoyed day walk couldn’t be made. Instead a five mile or so loop out from and back to the front door has had to be endured for too long. The rules changed and this week an unfit and overweight Three Points of the Compass ventured out again on a ‘not-so-local local walk’.
I devised this circular walk quite some ago as something I could do with just a short drive from my front door. It gets tweaked on occasion, a little longer here, a little shorter there, sometimes a different path to avoid seasonal mud. But today was my ‘standard’ local walk. Not particularly exciting but I have routed it to take in a few ups and downs to work the muscles, offer a series of modest views, take in some history and avoid people for the great majority. Needless to say there are the cons- a couple of roads to be crossed, some indifferent farm fields to be skirted, even a section where I have to be on the lookout for golfballs! But its my walk and I know it in all seasons and all weathers. It was good to be back visiting the old friend.
A short drive takes me to the Kent countryside east of the A249. Past a decent pub, sadly closed for a few more weeks due to Covid regulations, to a small car park on the Hucking Estate. This area of some 300 acres holds mixed habitats of chalk grassland, ancient woodland and newer plantations. Acquired by the Woodland Trust in 1997, it is a popular area for families and dog walkers who rarely walk further than a couple of miles from their car. The wide rides can become quagmires due to a combination of footfall and the ability of local soil type to become sticky shoe sucking goo. Today it was dry and new leaf was only just beginning to show on the trees. Birdsong was limited but that will build in the next few weeks. I saw Lesser and Great Spotted Woodpeckers searching out new homes. Jays and Magpies led my way down the various paths that took me to the top of the North Downs. As always, I paused part way along the Droveway, along which herdsmen used to drive their animals between the Weald of Kent and the North Downs, to peer down an exposed Dene Hole. This is an ancient chalk mine likely excavated with deer antlers as tools. It is comprised of a vertical shaft some 20m deep dropping down to a chamber from which sub-chambers were excavated outwards. There were likely hundreds of these in the south of England and the location of many is lost. Occasionally deneholes come to light when the overgrown surface entrance collapses beneath a quadbike or tractor. A simple but fascinating relic, someone had thought it the ideal place to lob a Coke can.
Leaving the estate woodland, it was across a newly planted farm field and along a brief farm track which is actually a stretch of ancient trackway. Skirting a couple of houses I emerged onto a descending country road and hugged the steep sided sunken lane for a short while, flattening myself against the side when a couple of vans passed, then crossed and emerged onto the slopes above Hollingbourne. Dropping diagonally down the contours I joined the North Downs Way, concurrent with the Pilgrims Way here, which is then followed for just a kilometre before leaving it again to continue dropping down the slopes, through farm fields to emerge onto a quiet piece of road that led me to the busier A20. Local farmers are occasionally plagued by off-roaders here. Burnt out stolen cars occasionally dumped at field edges and a variety of barriers have been used over the years in attempt to stop them. The A20 is only followed for a short distance. Noisy and busy with traffic, this part of the walk is the worst part of todays hike as it means crossing it near a fast blind bend. Which usually means a quick walk becomes a dash as an artic comes hammering down the road round the bend.
Leeds Castle is heavily advertised by the owners as one of ‘the loveliest Castles in England‘, nonsense obviously, but it is quite beautiful and located amongst extensive mature parkland. It was the home of six of England’s Queens and frequently visited by Henry VIII. The castle itself was closed due to covid restrictions but the grounds were open for both paying visitors who had booked a slot and a few golfers only recently permitted to again play a round on the sculpted course. I was on a public footpath so there was no impediment to my entering the parkland and skirting the castle entrance and moat on my chosen route round the grounds. My footpath crosses the golf tees in a couple of places and a hanging metal tube has to be loudly whacked at a couple of crossing points to avoid a golfball in the side of the head. There were quite a few visitors sitting on the grass banks enjoying the sunshine or wandering around, but it was by no means conjested. This is a really picturesque part of the walk and the grounds are different every visit- leaf kicking in the autumn, snow trudging on a good winter, sweltering on a good summer, today had proliferations of spring flowers, and alien black swans cruising purposefully across lakes. Squirrels were searching the grass for nuts buried last year and a pair of buzzards soared overhead.
An exit from the castle grounds on the far side soon saw me crossing the M20 and accompanying railway by two adjacent bridges. A Javelin shot underneath as I crossed above the tracks. One of the biggest ticket rip-offs perpetuated by Southeastern Railway, these ‘high-speed’ carriages cost a passenger a third more to ride in than the rest of the rolling stock. Back into the fields, new lambs, just days, possibly hours, old, staggered around. Approaching the village of Eyhorne Street I passed a somnolent pig doing a fine impression of the activity level of Three Points of the Compass these past few weeks. The Covid pounds had been piling on recently, perhaps on myself more than the pig…
The village itself was almost silent. The pub was closed, as was the barbers. Regulations meant that barely any business was operating. A tractor with heavy load squeezed down the narrow street. I walked in its wake, crossed the road behind it and left the village by a narrow path. Behind me, the small village shop seemed to be the only thing open.
It was then across horse paddocks and past more new lambs toward the lonely Hollingbourne railway station. I passed a young man crossing the fields from station to village here. Apart from ambling visitors in the Leeds Castle grounds, this was the only person I had actually passed on my path so far today. The public footpath leads directly into the station, up and over the railway footbridge and exits from the far platform. Then a splodge through sodden fields to cross a small stream by slippery muddy wooden sleepers and a march up to two pines standing prominent on a ridge. I have halted here many a time for a brew up in the past but I had another destination in mind for today.
Despite a bright and sunny start to the day, it was only spring and had now clouded over. The temperature had dropped considerably. I walked across a couple of large fields, waving at the tractor drivers doing whatever it is that tractor drivers are doing at this time of the day. This has been the worst part of this walk underfoot at times as the soil has been turned so much that it has lost much of its texture and the claggy clays hold water after rain for weeks. I have struggled to keep trail runers on across these fields and have even had boots wanting to part company with my feet. Today was fine though and having passed one small woodland I ducked off trail into the shelter of a second. The thin and rotting tree cover in this dank private wood gives cover for the pheasants who all loudly ran away from me. A partridge whirred off too.
Here I was protected from the cold breeze whistling across the exposed fields and I can usually find a downed tree on which to sit while heating up water for a brew. I accompanied this today with a simple lunch of instant mash and a tin of chilli sardines. Basic fare maybe, but it did me just fine. My cook set up today was a 450ml Evernew mug, BRS stove and small gas cart. Everything just got eaten out of a Soup ‘n’ Store bag with a long handled ti spoon. A twenty minute halt saw the inner man fortified and then back to my walk.
Cossing another field it was back to another quiet road for a few hundred metres, more new-born lambs and a diagonal cross of a couple of horse paddocks with curious but cautious occupants. This took me to Cobham Manor. There was an equestrian centre here for decades but is now a much smaller livery stable. More interesting are the typically Kentish buildings. The West Wing of Cobham Manor has black weatherboarding, alongside some lovely examples of Oast House. Few of these buildings are used for their original purpose today and most have been converted to residences. Sadly some lose their cowls at this point. Examples with and without cowls are within a quarter mile of each other here.
Farming industry has changed a great deal in recent years. Approaching Thurnham saw my path pass above and then through acres of newly planted vines. Viticulture was no doubt practised by the Romans on these south facing slopes just a few years back, and the exercise is being repeated. Thurnham itself is just a small hamlet. A couple of builders were carrying out either restoration or extension to one residence. The radio in their van was blaring out, keeping both them and anyone within a couple of miles entertained.
Another brief halt from my wanderings as I took time out to explore the churchyard of Thurnham Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The interior of the church itself was closed, more Covid regulations. But I pottered around the trees and headstones outside for a few minutes. The Yew tree is estimated to be 1500 years old and the church dates from the 12th century.
Thurnham appears in the Domesday Book. This record of 11th century taxable resources in England tells us that Thurnham comprised three sulongs (a sulong was about 200 acres). The sixteen villagers were recorded as having four ploughs and forty pigs. As well as the church and a mill, there were six slaves. Slaves were at the very bottom of the social classes, forbidden from holding land, they could be bought and sold by the Lord of the Manor. Around ten per cent of the population were of this class.
Leaving Thurnham Church behind, it was into more rows of vines and a gentle climb back up the slopes, through a field of young Rapeseed, and into Open Access land and the steeper slopes that took me up to the top and back on to the North Downs Way.
I frequently come across one or more paragliders here but today they were mostly sat around waiting for the wind to build. Shortly past the paragliders I came to my second castle of the day. But this one is simply a ruin atop a hillock overlooking the plains below. It is mostly just parts of the flint built Bailey walls of 12th century Thurnham Castle that survive today. Being open to unfettered public access and close to a road layby, this site frequently has the meal remnants from picnickers too lazy to take rubbish home, or fire circles from overnighters. The site wasn’t in too bad a condition today and it looked as though Kent County Council, who own the site, had recently been keeping on top of things.
From here, it was simply a case of following the undulating North Downs Way eastward along the modest ridge. In and out of trees and scrub. Up and down slopes. There are still a handful of miles left to todays hike and this last stretch is a test of the knees. Winds can batter these slopes and shallow rooted trees frequently topple, sometimes blocking the path, sometimes taking the path with them. Short stretches of field are periodically crossed, some with sheep and new lambs, some with new crops poking their head up from the chalky, flinty surface.
Arriving back at the Hucking Estate the views opened up and I crossed grassland dotted with gorse. This would be a lovely place to wildcamp, particularly if walking the North Downs Way. It can be a popular place during the day and evening but gets very quiet as night falls. There are a number of trails round the estate and a few wood sculpures are dotted around. Just prior to moving inland and back to the wooded area, I came across one of these. The Shepherd is supposed to commemorate those who grazed the slopes here. The chap himself gazes out over the Weald of Kent while a somewhat bemused and cross-eyed looking lamb lies at his side.
From there it was a twenty minute walk back to the carpark, again, passing no-one until reaching my car. Other than those golfers, family groups and individuals wandering around the Leeds Castle grounds, I only passed four people on my fifteen miles of trail and enjoyed my six hours walking immensely. End of March/early April is still early spring and not a great deal of leaf is on the trees. There was a minimum of flowers out but this will change dramatically over the next few weeks and huge bees were buzzing amongst the undergrowth searching out what they could.
We all need such a stretch of walking. Others better placed in the UK will have the moors and hills to explore, but even Three Points of the Compass, resident in lowland North Kent in South East England was able to peruse O.S. Maps and sort out a reasonable day’s jaunt, with 1700 feet of ascent, just a few minutes from home- my ‘not-so-local local walk’.