Friday, 20 September 2013

Washed out on the Downs

Last week my mum and dad were down from Scotland for a few days' visit. The occasion was the birth of our second daughter, who arrived right on time at 9.30am on 10th September. Once things had settled down a bit I took my dad down to Kent to walk part of the North Downs Way. We covered about 10 miles, taking the train to Otford just north of Sevenoaks and following the route east to Vigo Village, before doubling back and heading for Borough Green to catch the train back in to London.

Sadly the weather was terrible and it rained almost non-stop all day. Still, it was a good to get out and I saw enough that made me want to come back again for more regular walks along the many trails that criss-cross this area, once the first few difficult months of caring for our newborn are over. Our oldest should be ready by next year for little walks on these fairly undemanding trails as well. Also it was a good test for my dry bags and trekking poles, and to further wear in my North Face Hedgehog trail shoes which I'll be wearing for the lowland parts of the Tay catchment walk. These shoes are Gore-tex lined and kept my feet dry and comfortably warm all day.

The first few miles of the walk were lovely, even in thick mist and rain. The path climbed steeply out of Otford, tunneling through dense woodland before emerging onto a meadow fringed by woods on the top of the Downs ridge. We carried on through this mixed landscape of woods and fields, often sharing our path with horses, before dropping down a steep bank and across a muddy field to meet the Pilgrim's Way. This ancient trackway was the route taken by pilgrims travelling between Winchester and Canterbury. The North Downs Way shadows it for much of its length. The Pilgrim's Way tends to follow the foot of the Downs escarpment, perhaps because this is where natural springs tend to be located, rather than the tops of the Downs which are dry.

Reaching Vigo Village we were far from dry but definitely parched, and were glad to find a small pub. The windows were dark and it looked empty, but the door was open, so we went in to find a startled-looking woman behind the bar. I think she'd accidentally left the door unlocked! We were about to retreat but she was happy to serve us drinks, so we had a beer whilst a young Boxer left his tennis ball on our table, and attempted to climb on to the table to retrieve it when we didn't throw it quickly enough.

From here we backtracked down a steep section of path that tunneled through overarching trees. We went under the M20 and over the M26 as we threaded various little-used footpaths together to make our way to Borough Green station. These two motorways meet around here with the unfortunate village of Wrotham wedged in the tight angle between them. The noise of the motorways is a constant, wearing roar, even from a mile or so away, and overwhelms this section of the North Downs Way. Their embankments are strewn with litter hurled by morons from their vehicles. Living near this constant noise can't be good for blood pressure and must surely promote heart disease. Even central London is more peaceful!

Nevertheless there's lots of fine countryside here, and huge potential for linking up sections of the North Downs Way and other long-distance paths such as the Greensand Way and Wealdway to make long one-day or overnight trips. The High Weald in particular looks to be heavily wooded enough to enable sneaky overnight bivouacs, maybe something to consider for spring next year. Heading further south into Sussex and the South Downs there are also a lot of possibilities.

It's not exactly Scottish hillwalking, but from a training and preparation perspective at least there's the opportunity on the doorstep for some lengthy walks on paths and trails on rolling, even hilly terrain, and through some fine woodland. At the moment all my training walks are along the Thames path in central London - flat and paved all the way. Carrying around 12kgs on my back and getting to grips with walking with trekking poles, which I've never done much before, adds to the work-out. However, although it's great being out by the river at sunrise, it doesn't beat a walk in the countryside.

The walk also gave some food for thought regarding maps. I took a standard paper copy of OS Landranger 1:50,000 no.188 (Maidstone & Royal Tunbridge Wells). I didn't have my plastic waterproof map holder with me (something I would never be without when hillwalking in Scotland) and the map was in a sorry state by the end of the day, especially as I had to use it a lot for micro-navigation towards the end of the walk. The OS produce laminated weatherproof versions of their maps (Active Maps). They're expensive in the shops but can be found at a good discount on Amazon and Ebay. I'm beginning to think they're worth the expense, and bought a replacement sheet 188 and sheet 198 for Brighton & Lewes, covering much of the South Downs from Amazon for half the RRP.

Even using a waterproof map holder, paper maps still get worn out quickly, especially if you're folding them back on themselves a lot. On wet backpacking trips, the dampness will still get to them even if they're protected.

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