Monday, 17 March 2014

Wealdway wanderlust

One of the ironies of planning a major backpacking trip in Scotland is that my preparations have turned me on to the outdoors possibilities on London's doorstep. During most of my years in London, the commuter belt was just somewhere I whizzed through on the train on the way to Scotland with my hiking kit on board. During a short spell when we lived in Hertfordshire a few years ago I got to know the local back roads very well by bicycle, but walking never occurred to me. Maybe it's because I got into walking growing up in Scotland, where it's almost invariably summit-focused: walking as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

The need to build up walking fitness can't be met by sporadic trips to Scotland though, so I've been forced out into Kent and Sussex to sample what's on offer, and I like what I've found. Trail walking in a landscape with little variation in elevation is so different to hillwalking. Navigation is surprisingly difficult! Waymarking on the long-distance trails is often erratic. Footpaths criss-cross the land. There are few distinct landmarks and a lack of big views to help with orientation. Paths and trails twist and turn so much, squeezed grudgingly around the edges of fields and backs of gardens (English access laws - another culture shock for a Scot!) that keeping your sense of direction - north, south, east, west - is well-nigh impossible without the aid of the sun or a compass. Yes, a compass really can help at times! I consult the map far more than I do on an average Scottish hillwalk.

But the vibe is different too: hypnotic rather than ecstatic, introspective rather than exalted. Unlike a hillwalk there's no crux point as such, when you reach the top of a mountain and raw beauty whacks you in the solar plexus. The vibe works best when your goal is to travel from A to B. You walk and walk, gliding through the country, until on a good day it seems to glide by you, like a film. Sitting on the station platform at the end of the day, sipping a coffee, you play back the film reel in your mind, marvelling at how you started way back there, way back then, when the air was chill and the sun yet to warm up the day, and somehow made it to here under your steam. Thru-hiking in miniature.

I've done much urban walking as well, in the name of training, wearing a groove along the Thames path, but hard concrete and harsh lines take their toll on feet and eyes. A trail underfoot and trees overhead, birdsong and wind in the branches: walking and nature were made for each other.


It's been a horrible winter, as if we need reminding, but here in the South East at least, some healing process is underway. On perhaps the finest day of three weeks of dry weather I headed down to Borough Green in Kent to tackle a thirteen mile section of the Wealdway to Tonbridge. The land is drying out but still looks raw and battered at this early stage of spring. 

From Borough Green there's a bit of road walking, albeit on quiet lanes, to pick up the Wealdway as it descends from the North Downs. Then it's south into Mereworth Woods. The Wealdway cuts through the western edge of the woods. For much of the way it's almost a monoculture of crack willow with the odd Scots pine towering above. These woods are clearly managed, heavily coppiced; perhaps the willow is harvested for commercial use.

Parts of the woods have been fairly wrecked by winter storms. The 1987 Great Storm took out thousands of trees in one night. We haven't had one single storm as bad as that, but the cumulative effect of relentless bad weather must have had a similar impact.

More mixed woodland takes over as the trail passes through the National Trust enclave at Gover Hill.

Gover Hill is a fine viewpoint, even with a car alarm going off somewhere nearby and a trials bike buzzing like a hornet with 'roid rage in the woods.

It feels like a long descent from the Weald into increasingly open, peopled, agricultural land as the route winds towards the River Medway. The way emerges suddenly from fields onto West Peckham village green. An ancient church (St Dunstan's) and a pub (The Swan on the Green) overlooked the green where a few people lounged in the sun. I wanted to get a few more miles behind me before I stopped though.

Kent is the garden of England and it's not hard to see why. We're well dug in around here.

Feeling frazzled by the sun (but not burnt, oddly; perhaps the March sun isn't yet strong enough) I stopped for lunch by the River Bourne. The path inched alongside a high garden hedge on one side, and was roped off from the river on the other. Notices gave nagging reminders about not straying an inch off the path: this is someone's garden don't you know!

I recently bought a pair of Inov-8 Terroc 330 trail shoes for half price. This was the first sizeable walk I'd done with them and they were proving as comfy as carpet slippers. Not a hint of chafing or blisters. Nevertheless it was nice to peel off socks and shoes and air my feet for a bit as I sipped my coffee and lost myself a bit in watching the water glide silently by. A flask of freshly brewed coffee hit the spot.

Pressing on, I crossed the River Bourne by a dangerously undercut footbridge and walked through the hamlet of Barnes Street. From a farm behind the hamlet the trail led on to the Medway. For a short distance a row of trees on one side and a brook on the other formed a pretty avenue.

Yellow, green and blue - the colours of the day.

Then I was at the River Medway.

Time to turn west for the last four measly miles to Tonbridge. Those four miles took a while though.

The Medway has a massive floodplain. Consequently, closer to Tonbridge at least, it's regulated by a system of locks and side channels, and there's a man-made embankment. One lock I passed was guarded by a pair of pillboxes, like this:

I could tell I was approaching Tonbridge. Dog-walkers appeared, kayakers, boys flying out over the river on a rope swing, youngsters with a carry-out. Detritus.

Into town, behind warehouses and workshops, past the obligatory riverside new-builds, up the high street and into the station. Onto a quiet fast train back to London. Bag a table seat, pour out the last of the coffee, sit back, replay the reel...


  1. I'm having exactly the same experience, living in the Thames Valley.

    1. If only you'd got the Trailstar a few weeks earlier you could've been practicing pitching it in ankle-deep mud and driving rain - the real McCoy!

  2. I'm lucky to have Epping Forest on my doorstep. As you say, navigation is more challenging than in the mountains. The weather has been lovely recently :-)

    1. Certainly has been lovely and it's supposed to be a good summer too but we've heard that one before :-)

      Haven't been to Epping Forest yet but it's on the list.