Tuesday, 31 March 2009

London Countryway 19b/20: Riverhill (Sevenoaks) - Hurst Green

Boundary of Surrey and Kent

Today's walk is the last section of the Countryway in Kent, a county for which I've long felt an admittedly irrational connection. My mother was born in Dover and grew up in Eltham, which is historically in Kent, although the county never really figured in my youth. My sister inadvertantly re-established the connection years later by moving to Canterbury, and my parents gravitated back there too, later discovering several lost family members around Dover and Folkestone. When I first got my own flat in New Cross it was inside historic Kent by a couple of hundred metres, although I've since moved a similar distance over the historic Surrey side of the boundary. Kent is border country, only a few thousand years ago linked to the mainland of the European peninsula by that familiar chalky ledge, and now with what Wikipedia calls a "nominal" border with France halfway along the Channel Tunnel. Waves of immigration,invasion and influence have washed through the county -- Celts, Romans, Jutes, St Augustine and on. The name itself comes via Latin from a old Brythonic word meaning border or rim, land of the tribe named by Julius Caesar the Cantiaci.

Kent's northern boundary is also a natural one, the river Thames, although the historic boundary once peeped across the river to claim an enclave at North Woolwich, which we'll visit on the Capital Ring. The western, north-south side of the triangle, which once started along a stream running into the Thames just west of Deptford Strand and ended on the Channel Coast just west of Romney Marsh, is more history than geography, dating back to Norman times when the county was declared a near-Palatinate thanks to the ecclesiastical importancee of Canterbury. In 1889 a first scoop was taken out of the northwest corner with the creation of the London County Council, and London came back for more in 1964 with the coming of the GLC, though the inhabitants of Bromley and Bexley will still claim to live in Kent. The Medway Towns are in most people's minds still Kent, though officially they've been a self-contained Unitary Authority since 1998.

Within the county there's a further folk boundary along the Medway that divides Kentish Men in the west from Men of Kent in the east. Our walks are firmly in the -ish rather than the Men of zone, but we've still seen some of the county's significant landscape features -- the North Downs, the Greensand Ridge and the Weald. We've missed the marshy bits, but we'll find some of them on later journeys by the Thames. And there have been woodlands, orchards, ragstone buildings, plenty of oast houses, and roads and railways linked like arteries to London, as well as Paris and Brussels. By the time we reach Ebbsfleet on a notional extension of the Thames Path, Mark Wallinger may even have built his giant white horse, a modern day incarnation of Invicta, the emblem of the county.

Today's walk is the longest so far, thanks to transport limitations at London Countryway creator Keith Chesterton's suggested break point of Ide Hill and my determination to get back into line with his divisions of the route. I'm also realising I need to increase my personal time estimates as stopping to take photos and make voice notes for this blog is slowing me down more than I expected. I've decided to get the bus from Sevenoaks to River Hill rather than trudge back on foot through Knole Park, and set off quite promptly but even so on this just post-equinox late March day I only just make it with half an hour of good light to spare. The weather is also the least sympathetic it's been so far, a paradigm case of what we inhabitants of temperate maritime climates ruefully refer to as "changeable". First it's dull and overcast, with a biting wind; then thankfully the wind drops, the sun comes out and all's well with the world; then it clouds over again and begins to hail, locking into a cycle of sunshine and hail for the rest of the day.

I realise on the bus that another possible break point, evening up the two sections a bit more, is Sevenoaks Weald, where the route passes right by a bus stop with a regular daily service. Otherwise there's no ideal break point on this long section, though if you were out on a summer Sunday when the buses run to Chartwell, arriving there with enough time to look round before catching the bus to Bromley would make a good day out, with the added attraction of a red London bus venturing out of its regular TfL territory to link you to London proper.

After a brisk walk up busy Riverhill from Morleys Roundabout (where the A21 Sevenoaks bypass becomes the Tonbridge bypass as well as forming a junction with the old turnpike route I'm now on), and the trickiest road crossing I've yet had to negotiate, I find myself back on the contour line on the edge of the wooded upper part of the Greensand ridge, with spring flowers brightening the woodland floor on the slopes above me and the bypass paralleling my progress below. Then the waymarks send me back down the ridge again along muddy field edges to find a well-concealed tunnel under the dual carriageway, no doubt bored through the embankment more for the convenience of the local farmer than for walkers when the road was build in the mid-1960s. Its industrially corrugated interior is gloomy and damp, but I still find little used pieces of infrastructure like this rather delightful.


By now we're dangerously near the foot of the ridge and it's starting to get a bit flat and Wealden, so I'm pleased to find myself slowly climbing again through fields to emerge by St George's church and war memorial at the top of Sevenoaks Weald. This pretty little village was originally simply Weald, by which name the locals know it still: it has a Victorian feel, and the church dates from 1821, with a rather unsympathetic extension that's just been opened. Vita Sackville-West lived and entertained various bright young things in Long Barn, to the south of the village, including Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who gave his name to the Lindy Hop. More field walking, still uphill, brings me to a cluster of attractive farm buildings including an oast house, with a figure of a horse rider decorating the cowl, but all appears converted to residential, with some seriously posh cars in the car port.


From here an easy to follow path leads over a series of stiles and hedgerow gaps across fields to Wickhurst Manor, an attractive cluster of buildings centred on a part-13th century house that retains the layout of a mediaeval agricultural centre. Unfortunately this is where I encounter for the first time on the Countryway the bane of my rural walking -- dogs, or rather dog owners who seem unable to control their dogs in a responsible and considerate manner. Dog owners, in my experience, often anthropomorphise and sentimentalise their pets without understanding that dogs are, at base, territorial carnivores programmed to hunt in packs, normally affectionate and submissive to those they regard as their peers or superiors, but capable of vicious aggression to anyone else. The owner, seeing only the soppy mutt that rolls on its back to have its tummy tickled, rarely appreciates its nasty side. But even so, most of them at least have the decency to apologise when their dogs menace innocent bystanders. The dog owner I meet next does not belong in this category.
A sheepdog has already come after me as I crossed a stile, standing growling on the other side as if to dare me to return that way. Next, a field full of ewes with lambs decide to have a go at me vocally, heckling with loud and angry bleats as I pass through their field. Then, just as I'm leaving the area of the manor on a well-defined field edge path, still on the Greensand Way, a small but extremely aggressive white terrier, no doubt alerted by the sheep chorus, hurtles at me with ballistic speed from the last house on the path, yapping and snarling, a tiny thing but perfectly capable of ruining my day by attempting to make a meal of my ankles. A show of strength doesn't deter it, so I persist ahead in the hope that it'll soon be satisfied I've left its territory, but it keeps in pursuit, circling ever closer to my vulnerable ankles. This goes on for some time and I'm amazed that no-one has emerged to find out what all the fuss is about. In the end I simply stand still and shout at the house -- where the windows stand open -- "Call off this dog!"
Eventually a balding man saunters casually out of the house into the garden, now some distance off, seemingly amused at my distress. "Good afternoon," he says, with barely concealed sarcasm.
"Please call your dog off," I shout.
"What's the matter?" he says, chuckling. "Look at the size of her and look at the size of you."
"She might be small, but she's prepared to sink her teeth into me, and I'm certainly not prepared to sink my teeth into her. Call her off."
"Doris," he calls halfheartedly. Doris glances over her shoulder but soon decides that continuing to circle me while yapping and growling is more important. I try walking on again but she still follows me. I turn and try to chase her off but she just returns even closer. "See what I mean?" I shout.
"That's right," the appalling man shouts. "Give her a kick."
I'm astonished. I should be reporting him to the RSPCA as well as the police. "What?" I shout. "The last thing I want to do is hurt her. Call her off! This is a public footpath!"
"I know that," he replies, in an voice approaching a sneer. "We have lived here for 30 years." Three glorious decades of public nuisance. "Doris. Doris!" Finally the stupid beast responds to his call and I start to walk on. "Have a nice day," is his final sarcastic parting shot.
"No thanks to you and your bloody dog," is the best riposte I can manage.
I try to put this unpleasantness behind me as I regain the upper reaches of the ridge across verdant, rolling fields, with forbidding dark clouds gathering in the south like bruises -- and a Country Land and Business Association waymark proclaiming that landowners welcome careful walkers. I guess that means me.


I'm soon back in mixed and partially coppiced woodlands managed for public access, this time Sevenoaks District Council's woods at Hanging Bank -- so named as they hang on the edge of the hill, though they're also known as Stubbs Copse, and are also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Unexpectedly, the sun comes out, and turning a path corner I pass a man with three dogs, all of whom he's putting on leads, having heard my approach. "Good afternoon," he says, with sincere cheerfulness. "Turned out to be a nice day, hasn't it?" Redemption is at hand. To the left, across the Weald, there's now a clear view of Bough Beech Reservoir, one of the few very big reservoirs in the southeast, created by flooding farmland in the 1960s and now managed as an important nature reserve. A memorial bench to Tom Emery who led walks for Enbro -- Enbro is short for Environment Bromley, reminding me that out here in leafy Sevenoaks we're still within walking distance of a London borough.


I once walked the area around Bough Beech with a friend I've since lost touch with -- let's call him Jonathan. He was a birder, an enthusiastic RSPB member, and every few minutes he'd stop, grab his binoculars and point out to me a coot or a reed warbler. I found this rather curious, and eventually a little frustrating. I've never been a great naturalist and, other than the obvious ones like swans, pigeons or robins, a bird to me is an animal that flies but isn't an insect or a bat. I'm aware that for many people spotting wildlife is one of the motivations for walking in green surroundings, and judging by the questions I get asked but can't answer, this sort of knowledge seems to be expected of walking writers and walk leaders, so I guess I'm deficient, but I find geology, the built environment and human culture more interesting. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen says nature is boring because it's always beautiful, a view with which I have some sympathy.
Besides ornithology, Jonathan's interests included tattoos, piercings and body modification: beneath the veneer of a respectable Bromley schoolteacher was a gallery of body art and some DIY modifications of the sort that some find painful to look at. He and a similarly decorated friend sometimes went for early morning walks around Bromley Common wearing nothing but boots, though we explored Bough Beech fully clothed.
On that same trip we ended up at Toys Hill, which is wear I head next -- Chesterton's chosen end point for this section of the walk, descending from Hanging Bank past a house called Pooh Corner with a gate decorated with some rather battered wooden cutouts of Pooh and Piglet -- actually Pooh Corner is some way south, in Ashdown Forest in the middle of the Weald and way off our route, but it's a nice thought.


Ide Hill is a pretty little place that once had an excellent tea room, now sadly closed, but it does have a friendly pub, a village green and an odd little shelter measled with memorial plaques. Once my partner Ian and I drove out to Ide Hill hoping for lunch in the Cock Inn, to find it offered only sandwiches. When I asked if there was anywhere nearby offering anything more substantial, I was told there was a big pub just down the road, "of the sort frequented by townies."


The National Trust owns some land here, including a spectacular viewpoint perched on wooded steep outcrop with wide views over the reservoir and the Weald, and there are numerous connections to the Trust's co-founder Octavia Hill, who's buried not far away in Crockham Hill church. There's a stone memorial bench to Hill at the viewpoint, and here I meet two women who regularly walk together, one of whom travels from Folkestone to walk in the countryside round London.


"Are you doing the Greensand Way?" they ask. "No, actually I'm doing an unofficial route called the London Countryway," I reply. "Oh," they say, "we've done that one, but where on earth did you get a copy of that old book?" We chat about the way the route has changed and they tell me that in their opinion this and the Chilterns are the best bits. As we talk, the skies cloud again and hail begins to fall. Golden sunshine will alternate with ice pellets from the skies for the rest of the day.


Since joining the Greensand Way at Ightham Mote the Countryway has followed the same route to the letter, but chooses a different way of looping round Ide Hill which involves at one point walking part of the Greensand Way in the "wrong" direction, and from now on, as with the Wealdway, our relationship with the signed route will become rather flighty and coquettish. We meet up with the GW for a while on the other side of the hill for a fine field edge path that dips into a valley and crosses a parish boundary, through countryside with a near-upland character, before climbing the ridge again to a larger area (81ha) of National Trust woodland at Toys Hill, also an SSSI. As the interpretation boards will tell you, these strips of wooded hillside were among the worst areas affected by the Great Storm of October 1987, the one which the Met Office famously failed to predict (and which I contrived to sleep through). But the regeneration since has actually increased biodiversity, perhaps a sign that the ecosystem is more resilient than some people think to extreme climate events. By now I'd actually appreciate a thinning of the cover in what is becoming a lengthy succession of woods -- too much woodland walking can start to feel a little oppressive, even in early spring when leaves aren't yet blocking off the views completely.

Toys Hill Woods have a more park like character, less dense, with rhodedendrons. Here the Countryway leaves the Greensand Way to take a more northerly route, following a bridleway. There are several other waymarked routes through the woods, with leaflets available from Chartwell and Ightham Mote, including one called the Weardale Walk -- which sounds more like a hike through the hills and vales of northeast England but is in fact a shortish route linking the National Trust properties in the area, including nearby Emmetts Garden, which also has a tea shop and information. The path we're on passes the backs of the southernmost houses strung out along Chart Lane as part of the settlement of Brasted Chart, crosses another valley and climbs to the hamlet of French Street. Looking to the right I can see the familiar slopes of the North Downs ahead, although it will be some time before we reach them on this route. I emerge by an old footpath fingerpost from the days when these showed destinations -- I'm not quite clear why this useful practice has gone out of fashion when in many other respects signing of footpaths has improved so much.



Passing some classic chocolate box cottages, including the half-timbered whitewashed April Cottage (above), I rejoin the Greensand Way on the edge of Hosey Common, another council-managed wooded space, and am soon walking along the edge of the Chartwell estate. I've visited Chartwell before so don't linger now -- it's one of National Trust's biggest attractions in the area, less for the pretty country house and grounds and more for its connection to politician and wartime leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965), whose personal home it was from 1924 until his death. I've always felt ambivalent to Churchill, an arch conservative and establishment patriot, with a sometimes cruel wit, at first sympathetic to Mussolini, who nevertheless understood the threat of Nazism, was instrumental in defeating it and in shaping the international order that emerged from that defeat and seemed, when I was growing up, immutable. Strangely, like his arch opponent Adolf Hitler he was also an amateur painter, using painting to counter fits of depression. His paintings, mainly vaguely impressionist landscape watercolours, are perhaps the most interesting curiosity on display here -- though it must be said that if his statesmanship and grasp of military strategy had been at a similar level to his skill as an artist, 20th century world history may have turned out rather differently.

More wooded commons follow, these managed by Sevenoaks council, and just crossing Hosey Common Road and entering the Natinal Trust's Mariners Hill I see someone has kindly left some white-painted metal garden furniture under a tree, which seems as good a place as any to have my lunch.


Again we're off the Greensand Way on a woodland path that comes out at Kent Hatch Lodge -- a sign we're walking our last few hundred metres in the county. Then it's back on the Greensand Way on an enclosed path between houses that takes us to Surrey.

I'm not disappointed with the boundary. A couple of weeks earlier I'd walked across the border of the Netherlands and Belgium between Bergen op Zoom and Antwerpen, just below the Brabantse Wal, and it was barely detectable, a muddy ditch in a muddy field with only a 19th century border post indicating its significance. West of Kent Hatch, I emerge at the boundary from a fenced path into a tranquil clearing in woodlands that look quite different to the ones we've just left, less dense and with a proliferation of conifers, giving that characteristically cushioned woodland floor. A low bank marks the boundary itself and the Greensand Way signing changes from the Kent oast house to simple GW lettering or path names. What I at first guess is a boundary stone turns out to be a Greensand Way marker, indicating it's exactly 55 miles (88km) from here to both Ham Street and Haslemere, the two termini of the route: how convenient that exactly half should fall into each county.

Here the Greensand Way goes half left, while another route, the Tandridge Border Path, which circles the edge of Surrey's Tandridge Borough, follows the boundary left and right along a bridleway. We're now also in a different Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Surrey Hills, although you'll often see it lumped together with the Kent Downs as simply the North Downs. The Countryway appears to go half right but I lose track of the path and end up taking a slightly different route to the common at Moorhouse Bank. The woods here are also open for recreation, though they're in private hands -- this is the southernmost reach of the Titsey Estate, centred on a 16th century country house on the North Downs ridge to the north of here, and now owned by a trust controlled by the Innes family. The trust bought back the leases on the woods in 1996 when the leaseholders threatened to redevelop them and have subsequently improved public access.

Rounding an open common used for cricket, I join another clear bridleway that runs along a series of woodland edges, now walking in the rich light of the lowering sun. I cross the alignment of the old Roman road from London to Lewes, which starts near Asylum Road in Peckham, about 15 minutes walk from my flat -- but there's no obvious evidence on the ground here. A little further on and more obvious, though sadly with vandalised waymarks, is the route of the Vanguard Way, from East Croydon to Newhaven on the South Coast, which I'll be exploring here when I finally get round to north-south routes across London.

A short path down the side of a golf course -- the first and only one today -- brings me to the edge of Limpsfield Common, which a commemorative stone records was given by the lord of the manor to the National Trust in 1972. It's a common misunderstanding about commons that they have always been public land -- in fact they date back to the feudal system and to a very different system of rural economics, where a single landowner controlled both the land and the people on it, commanding them to work for him and in return giving them certain rights of subsistence, such as grazing or gathering firewood. Commons technically are areas where local people retain these common rights, but with the feudal system abolished, most of them ended up in the private hands of the successors to the old feudal lords, many of whom from the 18th century onwards took to enclosing and developing them in accordance with the new economic order. The ones that still exist today generally do so as the result of local struggles and legal challenges and often involved them being acquired by institutions like councils and trusts that made them available for different kinds of public use.

Crossing the B269 from the golf course to the common, I leave the AONB, though the land still enjoys a lesser landscape designation, that of Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV), a designation now threatened by a government review. Local councils have long asked for the AONB boundaries, which date back to 1958 (it was one of the earliest AONBs), to include the current AGLV, but have been told there is no funding for this process, so are currently pressuring to keep the lesser designation. I see their point -- it makes a nonsense of officially sanctioned definitions of Natural Beauty as there's no obvious drop in landscape character on the common. If anything, its more open landscape adds a little variety, and it's clearly well used by local people.

Finally, after rejoining the Greensand Way and following a track past some very big houses, I'm out of the AGLV and into suburbia and the posh edges of Oxted. I finish the walk at Hurst Green station on the Oxted line. The line was opened as the Croydon, Oxted & East Grinstead Railway in 1884, a joint venture between the South Eastern and the London and Brighton, but there was no stop here until 1907 when a halt was opened just to the south of the road bridge here. In 1961, reflecting the development of housing in the area, it was replaced with the current station. And just to underline that we've crossed a boundary, services from here are operated by the modern Southern Railway rather than the South Eastern, whose trains are found in Kent. Actually both companies are owned by the same large group, GoVia, and have only a tenous link to the previous companines that bore their names, operating some of the same trains on some of the same track, but the changing liveries of the various operators on the radial routes around London are another way to chart my progress. With the sun now dipping below the houses, it's a convenient place to end a lengthy walk.

View a map http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=117966169375523396049.00046414d40d8252e7b70&ll=51.414197,0.368729&spn=0.106206,0.219727&t=h&z=12

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Thursday, 26 March 2009

London Countryway 19a: Borough Green - Sevenoaks


If the North Downs are the wall around the south of London, then the Greensand Ridge is its advanced line of defence. This largely tree-topped ridge of greenish-coloured 'lower greensand' sandstone runs roughly parallel to the Downs and a few kilometres to the south. It's part of the geography of the Weald dome rather than the London basin, though of course the geological structures are continuous. The greensand dates from the Aptian stage of the early Cretaceous period, some 125-112 million years ago, and, like chalk, is associated with life and seas rich in organic deposits. The chalk came later, a vast continuous sheet of it, and north of here it became indented to form the London basin, while south of London earth movements ab0ut 30 million years ago pushed layers of chalk and greensand up into a dome. Erosion did the rest, slicing through the chalk at the top of the dome to expose the underlying rock layers, leaving exposed chalk as ridges round the edge -- today's North Downs and South Downs -- with the greensand layer below the chalk now also exposed as a second ridge.

That ridge marks the furthest edge to which the London Countryway ventures, and it dominates today's walk, much of which is through what the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty identifies as the "Sevenoaks Greensand Ridge". According to the AONB. its key landscape characteristics are "extensive mixed woodlands, heathy commons, small orchards and pastures, magnificent views, lines of mature trees, ragstone buildings", all of which I'll see today. The magnificent views are southwards towards the High Weald, part of which also forms a separate AONB, where more hills, of earlier Wealden sands, push up from the broken centre of the dome. Last week, leaving the Downs, I started to feel I was straying too far, with the gravitational pull of London weakening. Today, I'm reassured that we've reached the outer limit of this part of our journey -- Keith Chesterton, who devised the route, keeps it clinging to the ridge, gazing at but not venturing into the Weald proper, and I'll end today's walk in a major commuter town.

Also characterising today's walk is a series of historic buildings and estates, most of which are wholly or partially open to the public, the sort of property often known by the now rather quaint and old-fashioned term "stately home". In one sense these places are an historical category, substantial civilian residential properties dominating country estates of the post-feudal period, from the days when the Lord of the Manor no longer exercised manorial rights over the local tenants but dominated through economic means instead. But they're also part of the mythology of rural England, symbols of continuity and tradition rooted in the mediaeval past. This mythologising was already at work when "morally improving" poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835, most famous line "The boy stood on the burning deck") first coined the term in her 1827 poem 'The homes of England':

The stately homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land!

Noël Coward (1899-1973) famously parodied this stanza 110 years later by replacing the final two lines with "To prove the upper classes / still have the upper hand." Coward was both wrong and right. A minority class did indeed still have the upper hand in 1937, as indeed today, and some of the descendants of those who built the stately homes of England still have significant property-owning might -- today, 70% of land in Britain is owned by 1% of the population, including massive holdings by the likes of the duchies of Norfolk and Lancaster. The ideology of Englishness and English tradition to which the myth of stately homes contributes has long benefitted the property-owning minority. But the economic framework in which these buildings were developed was changing irrevocably even when Hemans penned her doggerel, with the country estate as self-contained economic unit outstripped by the massively enhanced profitability and productivity of large-scale industry. As the 20th century progressed, the old estates became unsustainable, and those that survived found a new rôle in the growing industries of leisure and tourism, destinations for day trips and heritage tours. And while there's something pleasingly democratic about oi polloi thronging tapestry-hung corridors and oak panelled libraries that were once the preserve of the privileged and their servants, the cultural baggage accreting in the space evacuated by economic function is more likely than not to tell a false story of British identity.

If there is an organisation firmly associated with the stately home it is the National Trust: the two together conjure an image of genteel days out gawping at roped-off heritage under the tutelage of elderly women with cut glass accents, and admiring the view of the formal gardens over a cream tea in the orangery café. But the image turns out to be rather unfair, and increasingly unwelcome. As its full title, the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, indicates, it is not entirely concerned with the built environment, and when founded in 1895 it was at least as much concerned with saving threatened green space from development and opening it up for public use. It came at the culmination of a series of 19th century campaigns aimed at saving green space and securing countryside access, supported by middle class philanthropists convinced of the benefits of access to the outdoors for working people, particularly those otherwise forced to suffer the unhealthy conditions of industrial towns. Its most famous founder, Octavia Hill (1838–1912), was involved in many such campaigns including for modest urban parks like Honor Oak Park in Lewisham. We'll come across the legacy of numerous struggles of this kind on our walks.

The Trust is today one of Britain's single biggest landowners, with 2,520 km², about 1.5% of the total land mass of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own, separate, organisation). Most of this is parkland and countryside, open to the public free of charge, including substantial holdings around London, and its oak leaf logo will become increasingly familiar as we proceed. It's also keen to point out that its buildings aren't just stuffy old houses -- in fact our first encounter with that logo was back at Coldrum Longbarrow, from a very different period of architecture, and its more famous recent acquisitions include John Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool. Nevertheless the Trust is now much more of an establishment institution than its combative roots might once have suggested, enjoying a unique position as a British NGO in having its powers defined by specific statutes and able to issue its own by-laws. It's the stately homes that rake in the bulk of the cash from its predominantly middle England supporter base, and the debate over the hunting ban very nearly tore it apart.

Arriving again at Borough Green station, I leave through the ticket office, which hosts a charity book sale in aid of the Air Ambulance. Alongside the bookcases, someone has added tables and potplants, given the place the appearance of a living room -- it's a shame no-one's selling pots of tea.


I leave "businesslike" Borough Green and reach the cluster of farm signs in Crouch Lane again, keen to solve a puzzle raised by the 1981 London Countryway guide. This appears to show the route following the farm track from here to Basted, but this doesn't appear as a right of way on the map. A man working in the fields tells me the latest map is right -- the farm track is blocked off further down, and the bridleway runs by a different route, initially through the hedgerow parallel to the lane.

This turns out to be an attractive and well-defined route that soon leaves the lane and heads off through rich woodlands, emerging by what back in the early 18th century was a water-powered paper mill, one of a series along the river Bourne, a tributary of the Medway that rises not far away in Ightam. The mill was later converted to steam power and finally closed after flooding in 1968, after which the site was taken over by the legal and accountancy specialist publishers Butterworths, now part of the huge Reed-Elsevier group. They left in 1997 and the mill has been redeveloped as housing, which takes advantage of the attractive waterside setting and surrounding green space -- some of the water features have been preserved or reconstructed, such as the mill pond and a waterfall -- but attempts by the architects to parody local vernacular styles give it a slight Disneyland whiff.

I note from a sign that the road through Basted is a designated Quiet Lane --it turns out to be part of one of the earliest demonstration projects of this initiative in England, launched in 2001. The idea, originating in Guernsey where such lanes are known evocatively as ruelles tranquilles, is to encourage more walking, cycling and horseriding on certain country lanes, balancing use more evenly with motor vehicles, by such measures as resigning the road network to discourage through traffic along them, reducing signing sizes and getting rid of clutter and other road markings to create an environment that is less obviously driver-friendly. I'm very much supportive of the intention -- in my view, walkers' organisations gave up the roads rather too easily to drivers in the last century, leaving the tarmac a no-go area of high speeds and selfishness by opting instead to stick to footpaths wherever possible, thus reinforcing the view that roads are primarily for drivers.


In fact, both legally and morally they are not -- except on motorways and some other purpose-built fast roads, walkers have just as much right to use the roads as drivers, indeed more so as their use is less regulated. The surfaced road network developed over an existing network of mainly unsurfaced paths and tracks, and unsurprisingly it was usually the most direct and convenient routes that were chosen as modern roads while the back ways were left as footpaths. So while it's fine for a leisure walker to stroll idly along the scenic route, for local everyday trips the road is usually the obvious route, and if people don't feel safe there, they'll simply use their cars, further feeding the vicious cycle of car dependency. And except for the traffic, roads are more accessible than most paths, with unobstructed flat surfaces that can also be used by wheelchairs and pushchairs. Other countries are much better at managing walkers and cyclists on rural roads than we are in the UK. Unfortunately I'm not sure that a bit of sign tweaking is going to do the trick without the support of speed limits, enforcement and physical measures like humps and narrowing, and sadly the Quiet Lanes project seems to have been forgotten about recently, perhaps for lack of an effective advocate.

Only a short distance along the quiet lane I fork right along a "restricted byway" -- another legacy of the rather curious development of English highway legislation, which works on the principle of "once a highway, always a highway" and also derives much of the law governing motor vehicles from that governing their horse-drawn predecessors. Byways, alongside another miscellaneous category of route known as "Roads Used as Public Paths" (RUPPs), are old roads that for various reasons didn't end up being maintained as part of the modern surfaced road network, but may at some stage have been used by horse-drawn vehicles, so may be legally usable by car drivers. Most are physically inaccessible to conventional road vehicles but the growing popularity of off-road vehicles like 4x4s and trials bikes has put them under unforeseen pressure, with some churned into rivers of mud. Restricted byways are a recent legal invention to deal with this problem, being open to horse-drawn carriages but not horseless ones, and most RUPPs have now been reclassified accordingly.

The broad muddy track -- a little churned up recently by contractors' vehicles on tree maintenance duty but easily passable -- is our first riverside footpath since leaving the Thames: the Bourne is little more than a stream but it's pleasant to be beside the water, and the odd piece of inadvertant public art such as a half-submerged and decaying wheelbarrow adds to the interest.


Leaving the waterside, the route heads across a recognisable orchard with dwarf but otherwise unrestricted trees, unlike the science fiction version we crossed last week, although a sign warning the trees have been sprayed is unsettling. Kent used to be one of the most important counties for orchards, growing not only apples and pears but cherries and cobnuts, though 85% have gone over the past 5o years.


We're now in the most substantial cluster of them we'll find on our walk through Kent, and more of them stretch uphill to the right of the route as it continues down a good farm track, with views across the Weald beginning to open up on the other side.


A constant stream of walkers is coming towards me, all grasping the same printed handouts. They turn out to be participants on the Sevenoaks Circular Walk, a challenge event organised by the Kent group of the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA), which starts from the Vines in Sevenoaks and has a choice of routes from 22.5km (14 miles) to 48km (30 miles) to be completed in 10 or 8 hours. These big walking challenges puzzle me -- I'm a lone walker usually fighting the urge to challenge myself and forgetting to enjoy myself -- but they've certainly been lucky with the weather, which is beautifully sunny. I later discover about 300 people have participated, but even without this bulk upload, the paths are busy with others out on foot.

After the intriguingly named hamlet of Yopps Green, just north of Plaxtol, there are more orchards and a woodland strip, and we pass just to the north of the first of our big country houses, and the only one completely closed to the public: Fairlawne (or Fairlawn), once the estate of politician and royalist-turned-parliamentarian Henry Vane (1589-1655), whose son, also Henry (1613-62), became governor of Massachusetts. Reaching the first main road of the day, the A227 Ightham Road, which we last encountered leaving Gravesend where it crosses the A2. Ightham (pronounced "eye-tem"), to the north, is now bypassed -- the village dates back to Saxon times and name probably comes from a Jutish personal name. On the other side a sign welcomes us to the Fairlawne estate, initially on a woodland path, but suddenly the vegetation changes to a more heath-like environment, with gorse and rough shrubs. It doesn't last, and we're soon heading downhill on a field edge, with wide views in front, past stands of Scots pines. I've already started to notice waymarks revealing we're in National Trust territory, staking out circular walks on the Ightham Mote estate.


At the bottom of the hill the route turns east down a lovely walled track, past some photogenic oast houses and to Ightham Mote itself, also doing great business on this fine day. It's one of the best surviving examples of a moated mediaeval manor house, with quite a bit added in Tudor times, a pleasant prospect of half-timbering, warm ragstone masonry, ponderous chimneys and a complete moat. When Chesterton wrote his guide it was still in private hands, but in 1989 it came into the hands of the Trust and it's proved their biggest conservation project ever.


As we'll see, it's a notable contrast to the other major Trust property on today's walk, Knole -- that is a massive house commanding vast parkland, all about display, but Ightham Mote is not only more intimate, it's also clearly preserved traces of its role as the nucleus of an economic unit, a working mediaeval agricultural estate. Its 221 hectares of rolling fields and meadows were hardly changed until the 19th century, and some has been restored, so walking these paths is nigh-on the closest you'll get to experiencing a two-centuries-past-Domesday landscape. Not so long ago, estates like this could be found on the edges of the City and Westminster, which here seem a very long way away.

Reaching the lane just by the house, we reenter the Kent Downs AONB and join the Greensand Way, the second of the major long distance paths that the London Countryway shares some of its alignment with. In fact the Countryway wasn't fully established when Chesterton wrote his guide -- but the way west, following the greensand ridge, is obvious so it's not surprising they share foot space for some time to come. The path passes through the estate's still working home farm and keeps ahead as a fine track on the edge of the ridge, with trees hanging to the steep slopes above and right, and occasional clusters of greensand boulders strewn on the surface.


Soon after leaving the farm we've crossed the boundary from Tonbridge & Malling borough into Sevenoaks District, but we cross and recross for a while as the boundary meanders across the ridge independently of our path.

Now definitively in Sevenoaks (the District, not the Town), I'm soon in another National Trust property, One Tree Hill, originally purchased for the Trust in 1911 in memory of Octavia Hill's half brother Arthur Hill -- the first tranche of Trust-owned countryside sans old houses we've encountered so far. At the 207m summit a clearing reveals a spectacular view that just demands to be drunk, with the craggy High Weald rising up in the distance over the Eden valley. Chesterton wrote that this section is in his opinion the most beautiful on the walk, mainly for its distinctive views, and standing here it's easy to see why.


Leaving the hill I spot some checkpoint cards for a Duke of Edinburgh Award event taped to a post in plastic bags. I hope the participants appreciated the views -- the young people I've seen on these events in the past always look so glum.


Beyond One Tree Hill we pick up another track hugging the contour of the ridge, before the landscape plateaus out in a field where roped off horse paddocks annoyingly disrupt the line of the right of way. A damp woodland path brings us out opposite a very serious-minded metal gate, through which we're in a different world -- the scrubby wooded parkland and well-used broad avenues of the self-consciously splendid Knole Park estate. The Greensand Way and Countryway only skim the southern edge of this vast 4km2 park, running down the obviously named Chestnut Walk, but here I have a decision to make.

The break point for this section is not straightforward. Keith Chesterton chooses to end the section at Ide Hill, but public transport was sparse there even back in 1981 and the situation hasn't improved since, with the occasional bus on weekdays only. I'd quite like to see more of Knole Park and end in a sizeable town, especially one with an excellent rail service, so I decide to head north to Sevenoaks, but not before I've pursued the Countryway a little way further to another potential break point, on the main Tonbridge Road to the west of the park. This section of road of between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge was in 1710 the first turnpike road in Kent. In the 1920s it was designated as part of the A21, the major trunk road from London to Hastings, which begins just a couple of kilometres south of my home at the roundabout by Lewisham station. A major bypass was constructed in 1966, and the old road redesignated A225, but it's still busy enough with traffic, much of it driving far too fast round the series of sharp bends through which the road snakes rapidly down the Greensand ridge. The buses aren't straightforward even here, however -- while on weekdays they run regularly down the main road from Sevenoaks station, stopping just short of the junction with the lane that takes us into the park, at weekends they run hourly and are diverted via Sevenoaks Weald, with the nearest stops being at the bottom of the hill where the old road has a junction with the bypass.

This short stretch of road southwest of the park shares its name, Riverhill, with another country house, at core a Queen Anne mansion on the site of a Tudor farmstead, built of ragstone quarried from the ridge on which it sits, though much altered and expanded. The entrance is immediately opposite the footpath on the opposite side of the road along which our route will continue. It's particularly noted for its gardens, established in the 1840s when John Rogers, a keen horticulturalist and plant collector, bought the house. It's still in Rogers' family, and they open the gardens to the public on Sundays and weekend bank holidays during spring.

Heading back to Knole Park, I strike up a good pace along another broad avenue -- Broad Walk -- before following a helpful series of waymark posts across more undulating ground and scatterings of trees, in the company of crowds of Sunday strollers. I note there are no Greensand Way waymarks in the park, even though this is part of an official Greensand link route to Sevenoaks and the Darent valley -- presumably the estate managers are pernickety about such things.


I'm soon following the wall that separates the house from the park, and begins to give a feel for its massive scale of the place -- the house alone covers over 16,ooo m2 and reputedly has 52 staircases. Built by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the latter 15th century who left it to the See, it was later "requisitioned" from Thomas Cranmer by Henry VIII, and in 1586 came into the hands of the Sackville family. The family's most famous recent member, born in the house, was writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), sometime lover of Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf. Sackville-West was the model for the androgynous hero of Woolf's novel Orlando, which is partially set in a fictionalised version of the park. A more recent bohemian connection is with the Beatles, whose seriously peculiar pioneering videos to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane' were shot here in 1967. Sackville-West and Woolf loved the place, but John Evelyn found it depressing and, looking uphill at the vast edifice glowering over its deer park, I can see his point.

The Sackvilles still own the grounds and use parts of the house, but it's well used by the public, and an informal soccer game going on in the shadow of its walls cheers the place up. Back along the path, the distinctive igloo shape of an ice house nestles between the trees.


The grounds escaped reworking by 18th century landscape architects and still very much resemble their original form as a deer park, but I don't see any deer until quite near the exit, when I come upon a whole group of sika grazing unhurriedly by the driveway as the cars stream past. A young stag poses obligingly for me at the top of a hillock.


Leaving on the park, I pass the adjacent town council-run Sevenoaks Environment Park, which has tranquil woodlands threaded by inviting paths, but I'm now in a bit of a hurry. Sevenoaks originally grew because of presence of Knole but expanded hugely with the coming of the turnpike and still more when the railway arrived in 1868. Commuter services to London got faster when the line became one of the first to benefit from Southern Railway electrification in the 1930s, but the town keeps something of its own identity despite its umbilical links to the capital, with some interesting buildings and intriguing alleyways in the Y formed by its two main roads. According to the Town Council it's the "happiest" town in Britain, though I guess the fact that they've put quotes around "happiest" is indicative of the challenges of evaluation in this area. If you go looking for the oaks that allegedly give the town its name, the original group were in Knole Park but the official ones have been at the Vine cricket ground since 1902, although the Great Storm of 1987 put paid to the most of the oldest ones of these.
It's a long haul from the town centre to the station down Tubbs Hill into the Darent Valley, and the station buildings are a 1960s replacement of the Victorian original, oddly compact and modest for such a busy place.


Here the Greensand link ends and the Darent Valley Path begins, heading up via the North Downs towards the Thames at Dartford -- entirely outside London but entirely within the Countryway, it qualifies for London Underfoot status -- but that's another walk for another day.

View a map http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=117966169375523396049.00046414d40d8252e7b70&ll=51.414197,0.368729&spn=0.106206,0.219727&t=h&z=12

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

London Countryway 18: Sole Street - Borough Green


Update October 2018. This post has been superseded, though I've left it online for historical reasons. For more recently updated and expanded details of this walk see London Countryway 2: Sole Street - Borough Green.

Today's walk is very much a rural one, a reminder of how much London offers to those who prefer urban life but appreciate classically attractive countryside near at hand. A short train ride from Victoria and we're in a landscape of rolling hills, woods, hedgerows, quaint cottages and village churches that's everyone's stereotype of rural England. The economic forces that shaped this landscape are long since changed beyond recognition, though it may try to fool you it's still part of an unchanging and ever present past, but you can recognise its essential artificialities and still enjoy it. The more permanent, natural and thoroughly material substrate below it all is the geology which, if you care to look and think, illustrates some of the key physical preconditions that shape the city we know today.

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 even 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 even 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 chalk 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 -- the basin long predates the river, which once ran on a more northerly course, until forced into its present route by the ice shelfs of various ice ages.

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 bigger 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. They were firmly established features of the scenery when humanity first walked across the land bridge, 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 in some cases now form part of the modern road network. Today they provide leisure opportunities close to some of Britain's most populated areas, but 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.

Arriving at Sole Street station I notice something I didn't see last time -- the wooden shelter on the down platform is decorated with several curious paintings of local scenes in the style of well-known painters -- Meopham as interpreted by John Piper, Vincent Van Gogh, LS Lowry, Wassily Kandinsky, Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Paul Klee. The pastiches are crude ones (the Lowry one flatters the artist not through the effectiveness of its homage but by reminding us that Lowry was actually much subtler than many people give him credit for), the works are damaged by grafitti and the Hundertwasser piece is particularly garish, but they certainly have some curiosity value. No credits or explanatory plaques are obviously visible.


Opposite the station approach, the London Countryway leaves the Wealdway, the first of several such partings today as the two routes intertwine round each other like hesitant suitors before finally going their own way, and immediately enters the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). AONBs are an example of when an ordinary English phrase sprouts upper case initials and becomes a Designation, not any old area of outstanding natural beauty but one which through some established statutory process has been judged Outstandingly Naturally Beautiful by civil servants, council officers and politicians. It seems a curious thing that an aesthetic, subjective judgement can be institutionalised, with public officials and lobby groups debating what is and is not Beautiful, and whether or not the Beauty is sufficiently Beautiful as to be deservedly Outstanding, and inevitably these judgements err in favour of rather traditional conceptions of rural beauty 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.

AONBs are also curious in being something of an uncomfortable Championship League to National Parks. Both designations result from the same post-war legislation, both are structures 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 and Beautiful as national parks. But it's obvious they were created as "national parks lite", in recognition that the resources needed to set up a national park -- which has its own planning authority -- simply were not available to cover all the most deserving landscape areas. AONBs are managed by partnerships of local authorities, and offer less protection than national parks. Still, they've undoubtedly protected some fine areas, and Londoners in particular should be grateful for them as they're the best protected large areas within easy reach of the capital. Both ranges of chalk downs--the North Downs (covered by two AONBs, the Kent Downs and Surrey Hills) and the Chilterns -- have AONB designations, while another, more southerly, chalk ridge, the South Downs, currently an AONB, is about to be upgraded to London's closest National Park.

I strike out in a straight line across a broad field, along a lightly but clearly defined path, one of those that now seems so firmly impressed on the turf it will re-emerge even if ploughed and cropped. On the edge of the hamlet of Henley Street, I pass the Cock Inn, Luddesdown, a solid rural pub dating from 1713 and a multiple local CAMRA award winner for its range of interesting real ales -- the sort of place I'd hope to stumble upon at the end of a walk, but it's too early in the day and the walk to pay a visit.


From Henley Street things start to get more rolling, with fields that fold and dip into dry valleys. I cross the Wealdway again, and chat to a local couple doing their regular Sunday rounds -- "six or seven miles", they tell me. This mid-March day has become quite glorious and they won't be the first I meet who are out enjoying it.

I'm soon heading south through woods along a path that follows the edge of a wooded ridge in the lesser-known northern area of the Kent Downs, an offshoot of the main line of chalk. I can understand why the creator of the London Countryway, Keith Chesterton, chose this route as an alternative to the more established Wealdway -- it's exactly the sort of long and interesting stretch of path a route developer would apply all their ingenuity to incorporating into an itinerary. It's slightly muddy and uneven and in places a little precipitous, clinging to contour a few metres down from the crest of the ridge, and through the trees, not yet in leaf, there are glimpses of open country. Wild primroses are in the dense undergrowth.


Finally I emerge from the trees to a sweeping view below from a field edge churned by cattle. Sheep, the traditonal livestock of the downs, are also about, and it's the lambing season -- a ewe bad temperedly stamps her front hooves at me, warning me away from her babies. Beware of aggressive sheep.


At a junction of paths in a dry valley just north of Harvel I run into a cheerful group of children and a smattering of parents being shepherded by older fleece-clad and boot-shod people brandishing map cases and trekking poles. It turns out to Meopham & District Footpaths Group (who, incidentally, also publish their own leaflets of walks through local outlets) conducting local school students on a fundraising walk. One of the map case carriers has opinions about the way I should walk, with good intentions but it puts me off and I get slightly lost on the complicated path junction. Back on track, I emerge on a lane just north of Harvel, by an intriguing cottage with a cylindrical-shaped wing. It's presumably an oast house -- a structure formerly used for drying hops -- that's been converted for residential use, but I'm pleased to find a circular house on this outermost circular route. I seem to recall that people once built round houses so there would be no corners for evil spirits to hide.


Harvel is a picturesque place with a green complete with duckpond and village sign, installed to mark the millennium in 2000. According to Wikipedia, in 1950 it was one of the signal receiving points for the first live television pictures transmitted to Britain from mainland Europe. The village sign depicts traditional agricultural images of tractors, sheep and sheperd, ducks and horses in silhouette.


It's the horses that seem to be most important, though, as my path now takes me through a large equestrian centre over a series of chunky wooden stiles.

East of Harvel I rejoin the Wealdway for quite a lengthy section leading across the downs ridge proper. First there's the very Kentish-sounding Whitehorse Wood, still managed commercially by the traditional woodland technique of coppicing. This involves 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 have a tendency to grow into spooky shapes, like massive gnarled hands, the sort that come to life in twisted fairytales. In the 1981 edition of his guide to the route, Chesterton reports that parts of this wood are being cleared, making it difficult to find the way. When I visit, some small sections have been recently cleared, but much of the scraggy woodland with its stick-cluster trees must be what's grown back in the 28 years since. A profusion of Wealdway waymarks ensure there is no chance of losing the trail. More of a problem is the mud, thick sticky clay-like mud that sucks on your soles. Nearing the southern edge of the wood, a crossroads of tracks has become a virtual pond, though it's possible to avoid it by picking through the trees. Much of the mud has been churned up by working vehicles, although the intrusive high-pitched fart of two-stroke engines not far off makes me wonder if there might be an off-road vehicle problem here too.

Immediately south of the muddy crossroads, a low woodbank crosses the path which I'm sure is a boundary marker, and in crossing it we leave Gravesham Borough for Tonbridge and Malling Borough, part of what the tourism people call "The Heart of Kent". A few paces further, a sudden flash of open country through the trees reveals I'm on the crest of the Downs, and the path instantly starts to descend steeply, cutting a diagonal line across the wooded scarp slope. At the bottom, I emerge by some houses on the east-west track that's 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 probably a Victorian invention, though the track itself is much older, one of those prehistoric highways that traces the line of chalk. 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.


At the junction I discover the source of the noise -- four young men on quad bikes have pulled up and are deciding where to go next. "We can always go that way and meet them at the top," says one. "No, we can't," says another. "It's a bridleway." "Yeah, but it leads up to the top." "No, it's a bridleway, we're not allowed on it, we're only allowed on byways." "Yeah, but we could still go on it though." I tell myself off for being surprised at this rudimentary awareness of rights of way law (though "allowed" isn't the best word to use, but we'll consider that another day), but then I don't understand the attraction in these noisy, smelly vehicles even on byways. Still, they're doing better than the girl on horseback, out with her family on foot, who started off on the bridleway just around the corner but is now merrily cantering all over a growing crop.

After this brief dalliance with ancient trackways the Wealdway keeps decisively south, across the flatter open country between the Downs and the next geological formation, the Greensand Ridge, which is now rearing up some distance ahead of us. South of London the greensand and chalk form the rim of an eroded dome of clay and sandstone known as the Weald, which gives the Wealdway its name. The route was created in the 1970s by members of the Ramblers and, unlike the Countryway, its advocates were successful in engaging the support of local authorities -- Kent and East Sussex -- to recognise and sign it. As we've seen, it starts at Gravesend and crosses the North Downs; it goes on to cross the Greensand ridge and the Weald itself via Ashdown Forest before tackling the South Downs and ending at Eastbourne on the Channel coast, a total distance of 129km. We'll soon be taking a look at the Weald from the Greensand Ridge, but via a different route, so more about them then. Looking back at the wooded ridge I've just descended as it sweeps off into the distance to my east, all brown and forbidding, I feel I've crossed to the other side of the wall round London, and wonder whether I've strayed too far.


Very shortly the path passes by Coldrum Longbarrow, a relatively well-preserved neolithic burial chamber now owned by the National Trust which one held the bones of 22 people, some of which may have been deliberately broken, including "a skull on a shelf", until they were removed following early 20th century excavations and moved to Maidstone Museum. The structure has suffered badly from pillaging and landslips, most of the stones aren't in their original positions and the burial chamber is exposed, but they are still striking, especially in the dramatic setting below the Downs. On this beautiful sunny day it's hardly Frodo and Sam tangling with wights on the Barrow Downs -- ignoring the fencing, a couple are happily picnicing on top of the earth bank. It's a place favoured by morris men and hippies and I see a tree overlooking the site has been festooned with lucky ribbons, Chinese style. The two parallel slabs of the burial chamber point east, probably along a ley line. I'm more struck by how little we know of the pre-Celtic culture that for some reason mashed up the bodies of 22 men, women and children and buried them here, but I'm pretty sure the self-styled mystics who make a fetish of such places wouldn't survive there a day.


Reaching Trottiscliffe Road (it's pronounced "Trosley"), and noting a discarded Laphroaig carton that seems to indicate a better class of street drinker, I leave the Wealdway again and cross the first road with an advertised number I've encountered so far on today's walk, and it's a big one -- the M20, the main route from London to the Channel Tunnel and mainland Europe, and still rammed with the lorries of Norbert Dentressangle and the like even on a Sunday. This section was built in the early 197os and is thankfully crossed on a bridge. It's also a part of European route E15 from Thurso to Algericas, the ferry port for Morocco. I've always been disappointed these European route numbers aren't signed in Britain, even though they're a United Nations innovation, the work of bureaucrats in New York City rather than in Brussels.


Over the motorway, and leaving for the rest of today the officially designated Naturally Beautiful Area, I reach the pretty green at Addington, with its 14th century inn, the Angel, and stop to check my map. A passing driver bellows 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's intended complimentarily. But how odd that walking, something that everyone does, should yield its own special class of people. As if to bear me out, as I'm eating my lunch on the park bench, two men sit on the grass nearby, and with them is a boy toddler clearly only just past his first steps. The boy stumbles uncertainly but with obvious delight from the outstretched arms of one to the outstretched arms of the other. The men are delighted and proud. Alongside first words, first steps upright on your own two feet are treated as the most significant early milestone on the journey towards being fully human. The boy falls a few times, but rather than crying, he gurgles with laughter, picks himself up and tries again. A singing teacher once told me that singing is a form of controlled shouting, and watching a toddler reminds you that walking is a form of controlled falling. Elbows bent, palms up in front of him, this child is readily casting himself into gravity's well with each step, joyfully confident in the odds each step risked will pay off. How much we lose, and how easily.

The route through Addington passes The Seeker's Trust, a non-demoninational Christian "Centre for Prayer and Spiritual Healing" founded in 1925. The whitewashed residential buildings in their woodland setting, including another round house, look attractive, but the website turns out to be at least as full of bollocks as the people who do druidic rituals at Coldrum Longbarrow. The foundation of the Trust was apparently "guided by a ‘Dr Lascelles', a medical practitioner already in the spirit world...Healings are achieved through Harmony Prayer Circles of up to six people praying at Addington Park...[which] complete a triangle of power with spiritual beings whom we call Angels." When I come to map the route on Google, I see the Trust's star-like symbol has been recreated on a lawn, clearly visible in aerial photographs. There are more neolithic remains round here -- no doubt they help ground the triangle of power -- but I miss them, passing straight down the long drive past the rather blocky, squat St Margaret's Church, past some oddly half-submerged garages and through a recreation ground, where a footpath map and notes on the village are on display (also downloadable from the parish council website).


On the other side of the recreation ground is the first, but by no means the last, golf course we'll encounter on this journey. More so even than equestrian centres, golf courses seem a completely fake form of green space, with a completely invented and homogenous geography imposed in a stroke on the more organically evolved natural and human geography of a space. I guess it's also a class thing -- golf is a game for posh people who probably don't want the likes of ragamuffins like me traipsing across their neatly mown greens. In reality most golf courses accept and manage the rights of way that cross them, though the ones today could be better marked. The footpath runs rather dangerously along the end of the area where golfers practice their swing, with grass worryingly peppered by golf balls.

Much stranger is our first experience of what at the time Chesterton wrote his guide were still traditional orchards, part of the ancient industry that gave Kent the strapline "the garden of England." Over the past few years many have been grubbed up, and the supermarkets of Maidstone and Ashford dispense French and American apples even in October. One old orchard remains on this walk, though much of its fruit seems to have been left to rot. Another area of orchards has gone hi-tech, with a field partly striped by 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.


Between them we cross the A20, the old turnpike road from London to the Kent ports, now robbed of its long distance function by the M20 but still busy; and briefly parallel, then cross, the Maidstone East railway line, opened by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway in 1874. A fine line of three oast houses sprouts above a fence. On another gold course, belying my prejudice, a golfer helpfully and politely directs me to the footpath when I veer slightly off course.

The next woodland, Platt Wood, turns out to be a rich, atmospheric, park-like place where broadleaf trees mix with rhodedendrons and pine -- the result of deliberate planting in ancient Wealden woodland when it was part of the Great Comp Estate. The wood, which also contains a former clay working called Potters Hole, was threatened with development after World War II and then rescued by the local authority following a campaign. As the interpretation boards tell you, it's now managed by a parish council-led committee with help from the Forestry Commission. Entering the wood, we rejoin a very short section of the Wealdway, soon parting from it for the last time as it heads definitely south, while we slowly start to bend west.


The woodland path suddenly emerges in the churchyard of the rather imposing St Mary's Church, Platt, actually a Victorian-era structure built in 1843 to save the expanding local population from travelling to Wrotham. Here I encounter a cat warming its bottom on a redundant stone stile that looks like it would be more at home in the moorlands of northern England. Opposite the church in Platt village, a notice board and leaflet dispenser explains some waymarking that's puzzled me for the last couple of kilometres -- the local WI have waymarked and promoted several circular walks round Platt as part of a community challenge project. On the edge of Platt, past more chocolate box cottages, a fine bridleway continues west, emerging finally on Crouch Lane, just south of Borough Green, where the next section of the Countryway heads off down a farm track at a junction where farm signs vie for tree space.


A sufficient walk for one day, so I head up Crouch Lane into Borough Green, a large roadside village, bordering on a small town, where the old road from Gravesend to Hastings crossed an east-west turnpike following a line south of the Downs from Guildford to Maidstone: the latter is now the A25, a road perhaps best known for sharing its number with London's orbital motorway, an early section of which parallels it. Here I meet up again with the Maidstone East line and head back towards London. Chesterton describes Borough Green as "workmanlike"; it's certainly the most urban environment I've been in since catching the train earlier, and the trappings of civilisation -- such as the seven-days-a-week late opening Coop supermarket next to the station -- certainly work for me.

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