I was camping in my little light-weight tent overnight under an oak tree behind The Vigo Inn and slept reasonably well till 6am when I decided to get up: the sun was sparkling through the dewy grass, the birds were singing, and the pub wasn’t offering breakfast. I struck camp and packed my gear, and was striding through the gate and on my way within the hour. The North Downs Way (NDW) continued just a few yards from the pub, passing down through a wood that seemed to have engulfed a park or estate, as wall, large gateways and a lodge loomed among the trees. The path descended steeply to a wide vista across the Weald of Kent, its fields and hills rolling into the blue distance.
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The NDW in Kent runs parallel to the M26 then M25, and crosses three motorways before reaching Surrey so there is always a more-or-less distant traffic hum. It lies in the background until you are close, and it is surprising how peaceful the countryside can be with rushing traffic on all sides. But the land taken and disturbance caused by these transport corridors is huge and permanent, degrading the character and tranquility of enormous areas.
At this point, I was at the junction of the M26 with the M20 and between them, like a walnut in nut a nut cracker, lies the peaceful village of Wrotham (pronounced Rootam), who’s name goes back to a Saxon called Wrota who had his property there. It must have been a very pleasant spot, snug in the fertile valley beneath the downs, before someone decided to put a major motorway junction around it. However, it is a village of character with several pubs, an old church and an oast house, and it manages to feel quite rural in spite of it all.
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My route continued West through the fields, and it was such a lovely morning that I decided to sit and admire the view for a bit. Suddenly a little scotty dog trotted round the hedge, followed by a lady who exclaimed “How unusual to find a man sitting on his knapsack in a field!”. We got talking, and when I told her what I was doing, she told me that her daughter, Belinda Knox, has written a number of guide books on long distance paths, including the NDW! I gave her my card, and she continued with her walk, and left me making a note to look her daughter up.
In the Downs, the hills aren’t very high, but their sides are steep, so you do a few miles at one level, then have to climb or plunge a few hundred feet, which can challenge the legs. After my gentle start, the path left the valley and I was trudging upwards again towards the ridge, stopping to catch breath and admire the view on the way. Where the ridges aren’t cluttered with houses, the walking is really delightful, being fairly level with alternating woodland, paddocks and fields with long views to the south. The best of these was on the approach to Otford, looking south over Sevenoaks and west along the Downs ridge. Someone had thought it so special that they planted a large wooden cross on a brick plinth on the hilltop.[singlepic id=403 w=320 h=240 float=right]
I was getting hungry, and dreamed of a proper breakfast, but you never can tell what facilities exist in villages like Otford, especially on Sunday morning, so I was only moderately hopeful as I descended once more on the steep chalky path. Passing the railway station, I arrived at the delightful village green and pond with a pub, a church, and The Pond Cafe, which was in a lovely location and did a great breakfast – RESULT! At the next table were a group of men, one of whom who was nearly as wide as he was tall, who talked loudly in a growling cockney to his mates about how he had been advised to lose weight, but nothing worked. He put it down to the years of weight training in his youth.[singlepic id=396 w=320 h=240 float=left]
Otford is a picturesque spot, so I took some photographs around the pond and explored the immediate area. I set off west along the road past the manor house, and walked a mile or so on fields and roads to the M25 motorway crossing. On the way, someone shouted something unpleasant from a car as it sped past: what I was doing must seem very strange to most people who never get out into the countryside, or walk more than they have to. And cars do have a way of making people feel that only they have a right to be there.
I soon had another yomp uphill to the Downs ridge, where some kind soul had placed a wooden bench, which came in handy for a rest and some water. The path climbed through a huge flower meadow which was full of flowers and meadow brown butterflies: the first large population I’ve seen this year and very welcome. The route skirts Chevening Park, running along the top of the down where I was treated to more great vistas, woods and spectacular fields running up to the blue sky.
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At a village called Knockholt, I had two concerns: firstly, I was running low on water again, and secondly that I was about to walk off the map. I decided to get some water at a pub or from someone in the village and then to rejoin the NDW and follow it carefully for the 3 mapless miles: it couldn’t be too difficult as it was well sign-posted!
My water was kindly refilled by a lady who was mowing her lawn, and a mile or so further on, I stopped at a large and busy pub for a rest and a shandy. It was now 2pm, and I had covered about 15 miles, which was, really, enough for one day. However there was nowhere to stay nearby, (I had checked on the internet before I left) – no B&B’s, hotels or pubs with rooms. I just hoped that I’d come across a hostelry that I’d missed, but if not, I’d get a train from Oxted, which was, theoretically, a 4 or 5 miles away. That would make it a 20 mile day, which was plenty!
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Initially, the NDW was clearly signposted and I was happily following it through fields and woods, and definitely no longer on my maps. Then there was a junction with way marks that had nothing to do with the NDW – I was lost. I reasoned that I should keep heading west and struck off across a huge wheat field, keeping to the cultivation tracks. Then I had to push through high stinging nettles into a wood, through a horse paddock, over barbed wire fence and through more nettles before stumbling out onto a main road. Now should I go north or south? I only wanted to find the quickest way to Oxted, which I figured must be about 3 miles. A bit up the road, I asked a parked driver for the direction to Oxted, and he pointed back the way I had come. Whilst talking, I noticed that there was a track heading west, and if I’d taken it I would have saved myself a lot of road walking, but with no map it could have gone anywhere. So I set of back down the main road, keeping clear of speeding cars, and after about a mile, found the NDW once more. It was a relief, but I’d added nearly two miles to my trek!
The rest was a 4 mile yomp to Oxted station, where I arrived at at 5.45 feeling pretty exhausted having walked 23 miles during the day.
For anyone interested in kit, I was wearing lightweight Saloman walking shoes that I normally only used for short summer walks and, whilst I could feel the surface I was walking on, my feet were less tired than when I’ve walked in boots: I could feel my feet flexing with the terrain, which seems to bes better than a flat boot sole, even with shock absorbing inner soles!
This day had been delightful right up until the pub, but I need to be more careful about having a map for the entire route! Sadly, because of the lack of accommodation or camp sites, I headed home, enjoying a well-earned Indian dinner on the way.