|Signature Kent architecture: oast houses originally for drying hops at Aldon Farm near Addington.|
Just out of Gravesend and not that far from London itself, the London Countryway plunges into deeply rural surroundings: a rolling West Kent landscape of chalk hills and picturesque hamlets, dotted with overgrown orchards and oast houses as a reminder this was once the Garden of England. The first two-thirds of today’s walk are through a lesser-known corner of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including a delightful wooded ridgetop path and a crossing of the main escarpment through ancient woodland, with a prehistoric long barrow nestling at the bottom of the slope. From Addington on, the trail is outside the AONB but there are pleasant locations such as lush Platt Woods to compensate for two golf courses.
There are good rail connections at start and finish, but not much opportunity to split the section further: bus stops at a couple of points have an infrequent service, and the best bus options, at least on weekdays, are at Platt, which is quite close to the end. One other option is to divert at the foot of the escarpment along the North Downs Way National Trail to Vigo Village where there’s an hourly bus to Gravesend or Borough Green (except on Sundays) but I haven’t explained this in detail as I plan on covering it in a future post on the national trail. The Countryway intertwines with a well-established signed trail, the Wealdway, as far as Platt, giving various options for circular walks. This post is an expanded and updated version of my earlier post on this section, originally numbered 18, in March 2008.
Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
|From one ridge to the next: view east from Brimstone Hill, Luddesdown.|
Geology is a curious thing, a set of processes outside human or animal influence, with timescales so slow they approach immutability. Its reference frame is not society or history or culture but the universe, its matter the stuff of solar systems: though an atmosphere makes things more interesting, lifeless planets do geology too. The power to influence geology through will, like the Prophet moving his mountains, still seems remote and god-like even in science fiction, where terraforming is often presented as the ultimate technological milestone of the most advanced civilisations.
And while that may be changing, if global warming theory is to be believed, it’s still a bit cold and scary to feel insignificant out here where the universe just gets on with things as it always has. The palaeozoic rocks of the ‘London platform’, at the deepest levels beneath London, are more than 400 million years old, a length of time so vast it seems meaningless.
The next layer up, and the one that will interest us most today, is admittedly a product of life, though there was certainly no conscious agency involved. During the Cretaceous period, 142-65 million years ago and before the formation of the Alps, a tropical sea washed over these rocks, and the calcium carbonate shed by microorganisms inhabiting that sea collected as a bed of what has now become chalk, a particularly pure form of limestone. This was later smothered by clays and gravels, but subsequent millennia of erosion have exposed the underlying chalk as ridges along the edges of the shelf to create the structure known as the London Basin.
London itself sits within a triangle of chalk, with the edges marked by the North Downs in the south and the Chilterns in the northwest, while much of the eastern edge is submerged by the Thames estuary. The Thames runs roughly east-west through the basin, but its own drainage basin stretches much further west, and long predates the river. This once ran on a more northerly course, until forced into its present alignment by glaciation, as we’ll discover when we reach the Vale of St Albans on section 17.
The chalk hills, with their shallow dip slopes reaching inward towards the city and their steep, wall-like scarp slopes facing sternly outwards, form one of the more concrete boundaries of London. They are part of a larger system of chalk deposits that covers much of southern and eastern England and stretches to Champagne in France, with skeins of chalk hills sweeping from Dorset to the Yorkshire Wolds. The same chalky, well-drained soils that produce some of the world’s best hops also sustain some of its most prized vines.
Chalk ridges were firmly established features of the scenery when humanity first walked across the land bridge from what's now mainland Europe, and they played an important role as early channels of communication, scored along their length by ancient trackways that probably began as animal tracks and have sometimes ended up as part of the modern road network. The springy tracks and airy open views most people associate with downland are a result of human management, particularly for grazing -- left to their own devices, like most of England they quickly revert to woodland, which is how the first downs walkers must have found them. Some sections, including those we’ll discover today, are wooded still.
Most of England’s undeveloped chalk downs now enjoy special protection. Here they form part of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which you’ll enter through the gate opposite Sole Street station. The upper-case initials indicate this isn’t just any old area of outstanding natural beauty but one which has been officially certified as such through a statutory process.
It seems a curious thing that an aesthetic, subjective judgement can be institutionalised, with officials and lobby groups debating the presence and extent of beauty, and you might expect such judgements to err in favour of traditional conceptions rather than, say, the beauty some of us might see in a derelict industrial site or a tranche of particularly interesting early 20th century social housing. Indeed, in the past there was considerable subjectivity involved in defining AONB boundaries, though as I explain when London Loop 4 dips into another designation – an Area of Great Landscape Value – in recent years the criteria have been made more specific.
AONBs also struggle with the perception that they’re a kind of second division of National Parks. Both designations result from the same post-war legislation, both are vehicles for managing areas of land in mixed and private ownership (unlike national parks and their equivalents in many other countries, where most of the land is in public ownership), and AONBs will tell you their landscapes are just as valuable as those of the national parks. But they were nonetheless set up in recognition that the resources required for a national park, which has its own statutory authority, would not stretch to covering all deserving landscape areas.
AONBs are managed instead by partnerships of local authorities and offer less protection than national parks. The ones around London are all based on chalk ridges and the Countryway crosses all three: the Kent Downs, Surrey Hills and the Chilterns AONB. Further south, the South Downs, once an AONB, has since become the closest national park to the capital.
Interestingly, the primary purposes of an AONB don’t include recreation but are ‘to conserve and enhance natural beauty’ – though demands for recreation should be met where they’re consistent with this. For AONBs like these, so close to the UK’s biggest city, there’s certainly a demand, as well as massive pressure for developments which would detract from the areas’ unique attractions. For visitors surveyed in 2013, the scenery and views and the footpath network figured highly in the features of the Kent Downs they most valued. When asked to isolate components of natural beauty, respondents large plumped for chalk downland, woodland and ancient lanes and paths.
Designated in 1968, the Kent Downs AONB covers 880 km2 in an uneven and ragged band of varying depth, stretching from the boundary with Surrey eastwards to the coast. Examined more closely, the shape resembles more a circumflex accent than a straight line, following the orientation of the main ridge. In the west, there’s a thick donut around Sevenoaks, then the line deflects northeast to meet the Medway before heading southeast on the other side of the river, at first a thin strip below the sprawl of the Medway Towns then thickening out to embrace the famous White Cliffs between Hythe and Deal. The boundary includes not only the chalk ridge and associated valleys but related ridges and escarpments, including the Greensand Ridge running roughly parallel to the south, which provides the AONB with its highest point of 250 m at Toys Hill.
All the AONB is in the traditional county of Kent but smaller parts are now outside the modern administrative county, in Medway unitary authority and the London Borough of Bromley. District councils, the Environment Agency and land management organisations like the NFU and the CLA participate in the partnership. The AONB works closely with its neighbour, the Surrey Hills AONB, covering the rest of the North Downs west of the boundary, and has further links to the east, with the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d'Opale, safeguarding the coastal chalk cliffs on the other side of the English Channel.
The AONB has been subdivided into landscape character areas, and the first one the trail encounters is known as the West Kent Downs: Luddesdown. Kent County Council assessors have noted the importance of woodland to the landscape, particularly atop the ridges, and there are good examples on today’s walk. These woods, once part of the much larger area of Rochester Forest, help frame large fields which undulate across dry valleys, and are particularly important to the structure of the landscape because many of the hedgerows which once portioned out the fields have been lost.
Henley Street and Luddesdown
|Classic country pub: the Cock at Henley Street near Luddesdown.|
The London Countryway peels away from the Wealdway (which I talked about in more detail in the previous section) immediately on leaving the station, the first of several such partings today as the two routes intertwine round each other like hesitant suitors for much of the way. Your route is a nice straight path across a field roughly parallel to the railway, which soon reaches a junction with the previous section, approaching from a footbridge (that’s if you’ve chosen to follow my revised section 1: you’re already on the original route via Wrotham Road).
In the ancient divisions of Kent dating back to Saxon times, this was all part of the Lathe of Aylesford. Sole Street was a hamlet of Cobham in the hundred of Shamel and is still part of the modern civil parish: you’re roughly following its southern boundary through the field. Turning south on Gold Street, you enter both the ancient and the modern parish of Luddesdown, which is long, thin and very rural, consisting mainly of woodlands, fields and scattered villages. Historically this was a different hundred, the delightfully named Toltingtrough.
The name Luddesdown, pronounced ‘Ludsden’, is Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning ‘Hlud’s hill.’ The parish is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 when it was part of the vast swathes of land around London gifted by William of Normandy to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (see under Crofton on London Loop 3). It was through Odo that Luddesdown was linked to the estates of Rochester cathedral and Swanscombe manor, links which persisted even after the bishop fell out of favour and had most of his land confiscated in 1083.
There were numerous lords of the manor over the succeeding centuries, including ‘marcher lord’ Reginald Grey, Baron of Ruthin, who had to sell it to pay off his ransom when held hostage by Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr in 1402. His successor William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, died from injuries sustained from being hit by a cannonball during the Siege of Orléans, where Jeanne d’Arc was among his opponents.
The manorial centre was to the south in Luddesdown village, where the old manor house, Luddesdown Court, still stands: partly dating from around 1100, this is one of the claimants to the title of the oldest inhabited house in England, but it’s off our route, though on the Wealdway. The latter route will also take you close to another Luddesdown curiosity, the lost village of Dode, decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century and abandoned, though its church still stands and is now used as a wedding venue. But the Countryway chooses a route via one of Luddesdown’s hamlets, Henley Street, passing a very tempting pub, the Cock Inn, a solid building dating from 1713. The pub has an excellent reputation for its beer but sadly it’s a bit early in the route for a refreshment stop – you could always schedule a visit at the end of the previous section.
The trail turns off the road just after the pub, but a little further along is the Grade II-listed Reynolds Farmhouse, an 18th century red brick building with a vaguely Dutch-looking half-hipped roof and an imposing front door. Back on the trail, the fields start to roll as you approach the corner of the first major patch of woodland, known as Henley Wood. The Countryway crosses the Wealdway again here and following the latter left will take you to Luddesdown and Dode, but our trail keeps on along the woodland edge. The field to the left was also once wooded and was known as Woodfield Shaw. Emerging into a field, you’ll see the buildings of Bramblehall Farm over on the left before reaching Oakenden Road and the boundary of the parish of Meopham.
The Brimstone ridge
|Spring flowers on a chalky bank along the Brimstone ridge.|
Once again, the Countryway passes through a historic parish while avoiding its main village, which is along Oakenden Road to the right. Meopham (pronounced ‘Meppem’) has a lengthy documented history. It was a Roman-British farmstead back in the 1st century BCE, and the first written reference to it dates from 798, with numerous records of land transfers from the 10th century. It’s mentioned in the Domesday survey, by which time it had been attached to Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, to help provide a living for the monks. One archbishop, Simon de Meopham, was born in the parish in 1272.
It retained its connection with Canterbury even after the dissolution, remaining church property until the lands were gradually sold off in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The parish council finally bought out the title of lord of the manor in 1949. Perhaps the best-known Meopham native is John Tradescant the younger (1608-62), botanist and royal gardener, responsible for introducing numerous exotic species to English gardens.
The path follows the Meopham boundary through the first field then turns decisively into the parish in the second field, climbing the slope of Mill Bank and crossing a track known as Brimstone Lane, part of an old road between the main village and the subsidiary manor of Dene. The path beyond is one my favourites on the whole trail, a lengthy and relatively direct stride through a strip of woodland atop Brimstone Hill, a subsidiary north-south ridge that runs to the west of the main North Downs spine. It can be muddy and uneven and in places it’s a little precipitous, clinging to a contour a few metres down from the crest.
In places it passes the back gardens of houses along the lane to the west but it’s mostly uninterrupted woodland, with glimpses of open country through the trees particularly when they’re not in leaf, and wild primroses in the dense undergrowth in early spring. Brimstone Wood, the first big wood on the right, is ancient woodland, then there’s Long Gorse Shaw and John’s Croft Shaw. To the south the hill is known as Chambers Hill, then the path emerges on Chandlers Road in the hamlet of Priestwood (perhaps a reference to the former connection between the manor and the church).
The footpath continues on the other side of the lane through a mix of woodland and more open country. Still tracking the contour, it rounds another patch of woodland, Deanmead Wood, then bends left to Dene Garth, where it joins Dean Lane, another road from Dean Manor, to the green at Harvel.
|No place for evil spirits: converted oast house in Harvel.|
The unusual village name is of uncertain origin: it may derive from a ‘holy field’ or a ‘hart [male deer] field’ mentioned on Anglo-Saxon charters. For centuries Harvel was a tiny southern hamlet of Meopham, a few farm buildings, cottages and a pub around a green and a pond, and though it grew a little in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, it’s still small and isolated, with a population of only 250.
Judging by the Meopham chronology on the history pages of the parish council’s website, life in Harvel has been quiet for centuries, with nothing listed for the hamlet before the 1830s and then mainly petty crimes and incidents like traction engines accidentally reversing into the pond. Its greatest claim to fame seems to be that in 1950 it was the site of a BBC microwave relay station for the first live television pictures broadcast to the UK from mainland Europe, covering a street festival in Calais.
The Countryway emerges by a curious cottage with a cylindrical wing. While some houses were deliberately designed in circular shapes for superstitious reasons, to prevent evil spirits from hiding in corners, this one was converted from an oast house, a characteristic Kentish structure designed for drying hops: there are some more complete examples further along the trail. Your route from here is across the green, now a pleasant public space equipped with a millennial village sign depicting agricultural silhouettes of tractors, sheep, shepherds and ducks. But there are a few features of interest close by in the opposite direction, including the surviving pub.
Just past the round building, set back from the road and overlooking the pond, is Old Pond House, a Grade II-listed 15th century timber-framed and thatched farmhouse on a mediaeval hall house design. Right along Harvel Street is Crickfield Farmhouse, another hall house of similar age, no longer thatched but with classic exposed timber and plaster facings. Further along on the same side is the wooden village hall, built in 1912 as a nonconformist chapel.
Forge Cottage, opposite, is a Grade II-listed 16th century building: this was once an alehouse as well as a smithy. Its refreshment function was superseded by the Amazon and Tiger, which was originally the building opposite the current pub, now a private home. Today’s pub was purpose-built in 1914 at a time when the population was expanding. It was designed to look like a range of cottages rather than a public house in deference to the wishes of the chapel congregation. A very occasional bus stops outside here.
Back on the trail, there’s a reminder that the agricultural functions of the area aren’t quite what they used to be. White Horse Farm is now a large equestrian centre, and the Countryway threads past horse paddocks over some very chunky wooden stiles. Crossing into the last small field before Leywood Road, the trail returns to Luddesdown parish. The original Countryway route cut a corner across the field on the other side of the road, but this path now seems to have been lost to ploughing and cropping, and it’s not too much of an imposition to follow the lane to the next bend, where the Wealdway rejoins from the north. A broad field-edge path now heads south, passing another patch of ancient woodland, Round Wood, on the right, to reach White Horse Road by Poundgate Farm.
Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment
|Ancient boundaries, coppices and plenty of mud in Whitehorse Wood.|
On the other side of White Horse Road, the trail enters Whitehorse Wood, part of a large and rich patch of woodland, much of it ancient, covering the shallow dip slope of the main North Downs ridge as it passes between Wrotham and Cuxton. The white horse Invicta is of course the emblem of Kent, but the wood and the road take their names from a long-vanished White Horse pub which once stood just to the right of the path into the wood: the site now contains modern houses.
The woodland here is still managed commercially by the ancient practice of coppicing: cutting the trees right back to stumpy coppice ‘stools’ just above the ground on a decades-long cycle to encourage the growth of a profusion of thin trunks for use as poles. Coppiced trees live to great ages and often grow into spooky shapes, like massive gnarled hands, the sort that come to life in twisted fairy-tales. The various patches of woodland each side of the path have different names, and soon you’re passing Lodge Wood right, Evers Broom left and Goldings Wood right.
The 1981 trail guide records that parts of this wood are being cleared, making it difficult to find the way; the stick-cluster trees seen today have grown back in the decades since. Wayfinding is easier now thanks to a profusion of Wealdway waymarks and a well-defined path, but more of a problem is the mud, a thick and sticky wet clay that sucks on your soles. Deep in the wood, a crossroads of tracks has become a virtual pond, though it’s possible to avoid it by picking through the trees.
Immediately south of the muddy crossroads, a low woodbank crosses the path, marking an ancient boundary between Lullingstone in Toltingtrough hundred and Addington in Larkfield hundred. The path originally followed a north-south kink in the east-west boundary line before plunging into Addington, but the modern civil parishes have been rearranged so you immediately enter Trottiscliffe. The trail also enters its second district council area here, leaving Gravesham Borough for Tonbridge and Malling Borough, created in 1974 by merging Tonbridge Urban District, Malling Rural District and parts of Tonbridge Rural District. A few paces further, a sudden flash of open country through the trees reveals you’re on the crest of the Downs, in fact the highest point of the trail so far at 200 m.
The path instantly starts to descend steeply, cutting a diagonal line across the sharp slope. The woodland here, Ley Shaw, is part of a 600 ha area known by the cumbersome label of the Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated in 1951. You’ll notice the character of the woodland has changed: rather than the oaks and hornbeams that grow on the clay above, the trees here are birches and yews which prefer the more meagre environment of the steep and exposed chalk hillside. Between them you might spot rare orchids and the delightfully named Stinking Iris.
Trottiscliffe, which may originally have meant ‘the tract of cliff’, is another name spelt in a way that seems designed to expose strangers to ridicule: it’s pronounced ‘Trozlee’ and sometimes more logically spelt ‘Trosley’, including in the name of the country park a little further along the ridge to the west. It first appears in records in 788, and at the time of the Domesday survey was part of the property of the Bishop of Rochester. The bishop had a palace here, and the parish church is interesting, though off our route to the southwest.
Trottiscliffe itself has since been eclipsed by the much bigger village of Vigo, just to the west of the trail and accessible via the North Downs Way. This originated to serve a late 19th century estate, Trosley Towers, which now forms the basis of the country park, then during World War II it became home to the biggest army officer training camp in the UK. After the war, the camp was used to rehouse people who’d lost their homes in the Blitz and was turned into a permanent settlement in the 1950s. The unusual name is from a once-isolated pub, which in turn was named after Vigo Bay off the coast of southern Spain, site of a naval battle in 1702 during the War of Spanish Succession. Beware of another pronunciation trap: the locals rhyme the first syllable with ‘eye’.
|Looking south from the Pilgrims Way near Little Commodity at the foot of the Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment.|
The path emerges on a trackway following the line of the ridge, traditionally known as the Pilgrim’s Way, which here, as in several other places, also provides the official street name. Despite its Chaucerian flavour, the name is likely a Victorian invention, though the track itself is much older, one of the chalk ridgeways in use from prehistoric times.
This section also carries a more modern invention, the North Downs Way National Trail (also here part of European long-distance path E2) -- we’ll have more to say about both routes when we follow lengthy sections of them later, but at this point we share only a few metres of their alignment before both Wealdway and Countryway turn decisively south. Sitting just above the Pilgrim’s Way opposite this junction is a Grade II-listed house by the unusual name of Little Commodity, something of a patchwork of weatherboarding and plaster over a timber frame. The core of this is 16th century though the facing was rebuilt in the 18th century.
Coldrum Long Barrow
|Favourite rendezvous of modern mystics: Coldrum Long Barrow near Trottiscliffe.|
The path descends more gently along the edge of a field, shortly passing Coldrum Long Barrow, a prehistoric burial chamber: you can see more of it on a very short diversion off the path. It was constructed in the early Neolithic period around 4000 BCE, at a time when humans in Europe were adopting a more settled lifestyle based on agriculture, rather than surviving as nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The earliest stone monuments in Britain are from this period, including this one. It’s the best-preserved of a cluster of similar structures known as the Medway Megaliths, communal tombs oriented on an east-west axis, consisting of a stone chamber buried under an earth mound and surrounded by sarsen stones. Coldrum, which sits on an artificial lynchet ridge of a type associated with prehistoric agriculture, originally consisted of around 50 stones and was wedge-shaped, about 20 m long and varying from 12 to 15 m in width.
The millennia have taken their toll in erosion, landslips and deliberate pillaging, as most of the stones aren’t in their original positions and the burial chamber is exposed. Archaeological excavations in 1910 and between 1922-26 retrieved human remains as well as pottery and tools, which were all removed and taken to Maidstone museum. Various examinations since have concluded they represent at least 17 individuals, both adults and children, interred around 3900 BCE. Indications that the corpses had been systematically dismembered led 1920s archaeologists to speculate they were sacrificial victims, but there’s no strong evidence for this. It’s more likely they were excamated, with their flesh and organs ritualistically removed. The barrow was very likely not just a tomb but a site for ongoing ancestor worship, with bodies added, removed and rearranged over time.
The long barrow was given to the National Trust in 1926 as a memorial to Kent historian Benjamin Harrison, still commemorated with a plaque which erroneously describes it as a stone circle. It remains in the Trust’s management and is free to visit, now a favourite rendezvous for modern-day mystics and pagans who have turned some of the surrounding trees into ‘wish trees’ bedecked with votive ribbons. Morris Men dance here at dawn on Mayday, and in the late 1990s the site hosted a ritual aimed at preventing the building of the High Speed 1 rail line. As Countryway walkers who crossed this line south of Gravesend will realise, the attempt was unsuccessful. But even if, like me, you’ve little patience with such stuff, you may still find the stones have a striking atmosphere even on bright and sunny day, especially in their dramatic setting below the Downs.
The path past the barrow once followed the parish boundaries of Addington to the east (left) and Trottiscliffe to the west but is now entirely in the latter. It continues through another patch of ancient woodland, Ryarsh Wood, named after another village and parish to the east thought to have a Saxon history. The trail finally enters today’s Addington parish at a road junction where the Wealdway peels off again to the west, while you continue straight ahead: the trees to the right conceal one of several still-operational chalk quarries in the area. Then you leave the AONB by crossing the bridge over the M20, the main route from London to the Channel Tunnel and mainland Europe and part of European route E15 from Thurso to Algericas, unsigned in Britain. This section was built in the early 1970s, some time before the tunnel.
|Addington Green and the Angel pub. All together now: "Rambler!"|
The first time I visited Addington was also the first time I walked the London Countryway. Pausing on the pretty village green to check my map, I was surprised to hear a passing driver bellowing at me over a thudding baseline from his 4x4 -- “Rambler!” -- in that singsong football chant tone that people once used to shout “Skinhead!” at anyone with slightly short hair. I don’t imagine it was intended as a compliment, but as I worked for the Ramblers at the time, the incident provided much amusement when recounted to colleagues and became something of a running joke.
A few minutes later, on the same green, I witnessed a toddler taking a few stumbling steps to the evident pride and delight of his father and recalled how I once read that walking is a controlled form of falling. So natural is walking to us as a species that, alongside first words, first steps upright on your own two feet are treated as a significant milestone on the journey towards being fully human. How odd, then, that something everyone does should yield its own special class of people identifiable enough to get shouted at from passing cars.
Addington claims over 5,000 years of continuous habitation based on the presence of further Neolithic sites: there are two other long barrows here, both from the same period and of the same design as Coldrum, but less well-preserved. The name, though, derived from a personal name and meaning ‘Eadda’s property’, dates from Anglo-Saxon times and there’s no documentation of what happened in between. At the time of Domesday, Addington was yet another page in Bishop Odo’s bulging property portfolio, but the most enduring lords of the manor were the Watton family, who held it from the early 15th century until the 1750s.
Pleasant pub the Angel Inn, overlooking the green, was originally a timber-framed farmhouse dating from the 16th century, though the outer facings were rebuilt in the 18th century. The red brick stable block across the yard behind the pub is early 19th century and is also Grade II-listed. The trail follows Park Road away from the green then down the church drive, though by staying on the lane a little further you’ll cross the site of Addington Long Barrow, with a few sarsen stones visible in the adjacent private field. The village’s second prehistoric site, Chestnuts Long Barrow, is just to the north of this, and can only be viewed by prior arrangement with the landowner.
Various buildings and other facilities attached to the manor house once occupied the land to either side of the church drive. The house itself, known as Addington Place, was immediately behind the church, but was demolished in 1949 following a serious fire. In 1932, a spiritualist organisation called the Seeker’s Trust bought the manorial complex and still occupies it today, using the old stable block to the right as well as various newer buildings. Aerial photographs reveal a star-like symbol on one of the lawns. The Trust describes itself as a non-denominational Christian “Centre for Prayer and Spiritual Healing” and according to the website, its work is “guided by a ‘Dr Lascelles’, a medical practitioner already in the spirit world.” Between the Trust and the long barrows, the locality certainly has its attractions for the less scientifically-minded.
The nave of the rather blocky and squat Grade I-listed St Margaret’s Church likely dates from the 11th century, though windows and doors were replaced at various times from the 13th century onwards, the tower was added towards the end of the 15th century and there was some Victorian rebuilding too. The church includes a 15th century private chapel added by the Watton family, including a lavish 17th century monument. There are two other listed structures in the churchyard: an early 18th century chest tomb with a now-illegible inscription, and a 6 m stone obelisk commemorating William Locker, a late 18th century Governor of Greenwich Hospital.
|Half-buried but definitely non-prehistoric garages at Addington.|
The path from the church passes some curious half-buried buildings: not more prehistoric tombs but modern garages. You then walk alongside what’s thought to be one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world: it’s not known quite when Addington Cricket Club was founded but in the mid-18th century it was noted as one of the best teams in England despite drawing its players from such a tiny village.
On the other side of the ground is the first, but by no means the last, golf course we’ll encounter on the trail, West Malling Golf Club, opened in 1974 on former parkland attached to Addington Place. The footpath runs rather dangerously straight across a driving range in direct line of fire of golf balls. Yet another pronunciation trap here: for Malling say ‘mawling’. Beyond the course you cross the A20 London Road, originally built as part of the turnpike between Foots Cray and Maidstone by the Wrotham and Maidstone Turnpike Trust in 1773. It’s no longer a trunk road here, as through traffic is directed to the M20, but remains a busy local road.
A traditional orchard, long abandoned and overgrown but still with trees that produce copious apples in season, lies beside the road here, and the Countryway originally followed a public footpath through it. But last time I tried to walk this, it was near-impassable, thick with nettles and brambles in the orchard and obstructed by fences in the meadow beyond. So it’s better to continue a little further on the pavement beside the A20 then duck down quiet Aldon Lane to the railway bridge where the original route rejoins. The orchard was once in Ryarsh parish, with the boundary partly following the lane: today the parish boundary between Addington and Offham simply follows the railway, the Maidstone East line which we’ll meet again at the end of this section.
Offham and Wrotham Heath
|Matrix-style orchards at Wrotham Heath.|
The village of Offham – ‘Offa’s homestead’ – is some way to the east of the Countryway, which passes through the wider parish. There are property records here from the 9th century and a Domesday record that notes this was yet another of Odo’s properties. Divided into several sub-let manors, it was owned by Christ Church Canterbury until reclaimed by Henry VIII who divided it between various cronies. One of the smaller manors, Pepingstraw, was likely the birthplace of Jack Straw, a leader of the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt. On the village green is a mediaeval quintain, a device used for jousting practice, the last surviving example of its kind.
There’s a pleasant cluster of listed buildings at Aldon Farm, just over the railway, the most obvious feature of which is a trio of oast house cowls sprouting above a fence. A granary is also part of this mid-19th century construction which has since been converted into private houses. The farmhouse is much older, with parts dating from the late 16th century. The big house opposite is an 18th century former rectory.
Leaving the lane on a footpath you would once have been entering a ‘detached part’ of Addington. Across Teston Road, which likely follows the course of a Roman road from Wrotham towards the Weald, large traditional orchards stood as recently as the last edition of the Countryway guide in 1981. But they’ve since gone decidedly hi-tech, with grey plastic cloches partly occupied by strange arch wire frameworks to which twiggy saplings are wired, threaded by plastic tubes like something from The Matrix. Bending around these you’re back in the historic territory of Offham.
Today’s second golf course is Wrotham Heath Golf Club, created in 1906 on an area of former heathland to the southeast of Wrotham described by historian Edward Hasted in 1798 as consisting of “a barren sandy soil, both red and black, but on which great quantities of peat is dug”. You pass the clubhouse, in a former now cowl-less oast, then, turning onto the main part of the course and reaching the end of a line of trees where the path becomes a track, you cross another ancient boundary, entering what was once the parish and hundred of Wrotham (pronounced ‘Rootem’). This was a very large parish and as some of the villages have grown and developed, it’s been subdivided, so you’re now in the modern civil parish of Platt.
|Rhododendrons in Platt Woods.|
Beyond the golf course, the trail crosses Platt Wood, an atmospheric, park-like place where broadleaf trees mix with rhododendrons and pine. This mixed complexion is the result of deliberate planting in ancient Wealden woodland which formed part of the Great Comp Estate a little to the south, creating a space that was used partly for private leisure, partly for commercial forestry.
Some of the trees were felled for timber during World War I, then the wood was threatened with development after World War II but saved as a public amenity following a local campaign. The 17.5 ha site is now owned by Tonbridge and Malling borough council and managed by a parish council-led committee with help from the Forestry Commission. Among the oaks, chestnuts, Scots pines and Douglas firs are a few tall giant sequoias or Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted in Victorian times.
The Wealdway rejoins along the lane before the wood but peels off again for the last time just inside the trees, heading definitively south, while the Countryway slowly starts to bend west. Just over halfway through the wood to the right is an area known as Potters Hole, a former clay working, then the path descends steeply to reach the village and its rather imposing church at the bottom of St Mary’s Slope.
|St Mary's Church, Platt.|
The church was a response to the village’s 19th century development. Originally this was a tiny hamlet attached to Wrotham, with no church of its own, but as the population increased with the establishment of a flour mill and other industries along the Maidstone Road to the north, demand for more local facilities increased. Local landowner William Lambard donated the site in 1841, and the church, designed by Whichcord and Walker architects of Maidstone, was consecrated in 1843, originally as a chapel of Wrotham. The date is commemorated in a weathervane atop the tower, in fact an addition from 1900. Just inside the churchyard on the other side of the wall from the car park is a mounting block, a reminder of the days when some parishioners arrived on horseback.
Platt, subsequently sometimes known as St Marys Platt after the dedication of the church, became a civil parish in its own right in the late 1860s. A little north of the church and just off the trail is Captains Walk, a terrace of Tudor-style almshouses dating from 1850 and managed by the Betenson Trust, a charity established in 1788 with a bequest from a well-off local resident.
But your way is south along Long Mill Lane, past more chocolate-box cottages. Rose Cottage on the left and the former farmhouse known as Dales with its exposed timber frame on the right both date partly from the 16th century. The Countryway uses a bridleway beside the latter, but a little further along the lane, past a thatched barn, is a particularly well-preserved oast house, Platt Oast, with three 19th century cowls attached to 17th century building with more exposed timber framing.
|Farm signs on Crouch Lane near Borough Green.|
The bridleway leads straightforwardly beside fields to Crouch Lane where another bridleway parallel to the road hides behind a line of trees opposite. This section of the trail ends here, with the next section heading south, but to end the walk there’s an easy link north on the bridleway, across the end of the drive to Black Horse Farm and along the lane towards the station at Borough Green. Long Wood on the left is partly ancient woodland, and around the bend just past the drive to Beech House you cross from Platt into Borough Green civil parish.
Borough Green is a large village, really a small town, which Keith Chesterton terms ‘workmanlike’. Wrotham, further to the north just under the Downs, was historically the more important settlement, centre of an ancient parish and hundred, attached back in the 10th century to Canterbury cathedral and remaining among its holdings until Tudor times, with an archbishop’s palace next to its church. But the changing pattern of transport by road and then railway saw Borough Green grow to eclipse its northern neighbour, becoming a separate parish.
There was indeed a small green here, and ‘borough’ usually indicates a Saxon fortification or, later, a unit of local government, but in this case, it might be derived from ‘barrow’, as there’s a tumulus in the village which has yielded Celtic and Roman remains. Before the 19th century it was a tiny and insignificant hamlet amid orchards, hop gardens, fields and sand, clay and ragstone quarries, at the point where a road from Gravesend to Hastings crossed an east-west route from Guildford to Maidstone paralleling the Downs. The latter is now the A25, a road perhaps best known for sharing its number with London’s orbital motorway, which superseded part of it. By the 17th century a cluster of coaching inns had appeared, but it wasn’t until the 1820s, after both roads had been turnpiked, that a distinct high street developed.
The settlement became more substantial after the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) opened a station just north of the village centre in 1874. By the end of the century several large farms nearby had been redeveloped and the area was populous enough to justify becoming part of Wrotham Urban District Council in 1894. The most dramatic expansion, however, followed World War II when reconstruction prompted the appearance of both large social housing estates and private developments, increasing the population from 400 in 1946 to 1,300 in 1982. This pattern of post-railway age developments is also typical of many outer London suburbs and Borough Green looks just like one, with a distinctly urban feel. That may be about to intensify as current strategic plans envisage a 3,000-home Borough Green Garden Village on tracts of former Metropolitan Green Belt.
Hunt’s Farmhouse, on the A25 opposite the Crouch Lane junction, is a mid-18th century Grade II-listed building, while the Black Horse pub dates from early coaching days. It opened in 1592 as the Black Bull, though has been rebuilt several times since: the current pub dates largely from the 1920s though the centre block preserves part of an earlier iteration. The trail swings off the main road along Station Road, passing a couple of rustic-looking Grade II-listed cottages: late 17th century Forge Cottage, a timber-framed ragstone building, and no 89 next-door, the remains of a 16th century hall house. At the next junction the high street is a few steps away to the left, while the station is to the right.
|Borough Green's civilised station booking hall.|
It’s an indication of how the relative perception of Borough Green has shifted that when it opened the station was known only as Wrotham, even though it was a considerable distance from that village. It was shortly renamed Wrotham & Boro Green, but the names didn’t swap to the current Borough Green & Wrotham until 1962.
It’s on the Maidstone East line, originally a branch line from the LC&DR’s Sevenoaks line at Otford to Maidstone, but later extended to rejoin the company’s main line at Ashford. The cottagey red brick station building is original, and today looks rather incongruous amid car parks and a modern late-opening supermarket. There’s a welcoming touch, though, in the homely ticket office with its pot plants and second-hand books, and after a day’s walking through some of the more remote parts of west Kent, the conveniences of urban life may seem surprisingly welcome.