Thin tendrils of mist swirled around my feet in a vain attempt to escape the strengthening rays of the sun. Coupled with the alarming growth in the size of my feet as I trudged up the muddy field, it felt as though the forces of nature were trying hard to stop me. Add to that the pressures of trying out some new technology on the walk and today was quite hard going.
I parked up in Cobham, having not been able to get into my planned parking spot at the Forestry Commission place up the road. Not because it was popular – I was just too early and the gate was bolted shut. Never mind, it was supposed to be a circular walk, so it would just start at a different point on the circle. I spent a few moments faffing about getting my new Spot Connect switched on and trying to engage the track progress function on the phone app, then set off heading through the woods to where I’d intended to park.
The early morning mist was just starting to burn off, with the rising winter sun shining through the trees giving a magical air to the start of the walk.
I stopped off on the way to take a look at the bronze age barrow at the edge of the wood. Helpfully the information board couldn’t really tell me anything other than that.
I reached the car park, annoyed to see cars parked there and the gate now open, and darted across the road to enter the Darnley estate, specifically the grounds of Cobham Hall. A few years ago, I’d have had to tug my forelock, being a local lad and almost certainly living within the Earl’s demesne. As if to underline how things have changed, a crunch across the lightly frosted park brought me to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which runs alongside the A2. The first hour of the walk being accompanied by the regular swish of Eurostars and HS1 trains passing by.
The path wound up through the woods (muddy) and brought me to “the minefield”. So called (admittedly, only by me) because it reminds me of that scene in Kelly’s Heroes where they have to cross a minefield. Although, landmines aren’t a known feature of the North Downs, my walk across the first half of this field was undertaken just as gingerly. My winter issue of leather boots easily cake up underneath and then I’m like a cartoon cat on an ice rink. I reached the halfway point and observed the last of the mist hugging the ground and swirling towards me. It flowed around my ankles as I trudged uphill through the mud to the end of the field. Some unclear signing and a bit of “exploration” in the woods eventually brought me to the top of the field that sweeps down to the railway. There , a layer of mist separated the near from the top of the escarpment on the skyline. Several photos were called for.
Yes, more mist
And it’s about here that the SPOT seemed to suddenly come to life, although I only found this out when I stopped for lunch a couple of hours later. I’m not sure quite what made this happen – possibly it was me saying to myself, “well it’s not working, so I might as well ignore it and get on with the walk!”
I’ve walked up from the railway quite a few times, but everytime I try to do it downwards I seem to miss the spot, and today was true to form. My “exploration” in the wood had put me a little west of where I thought I was and I found myself thwacking along the bottom of the field looking for the underpass. Logic saved the day here, as it couldn’t be to my right, so it must be to my left. I decided to put this one down as a case of subconsciously “aiming off” and passed under the railway and headed down the more gentle slope to Lower Bush.
Next thing I knew I was on the ground, as the inevitable happened. Hands caked in mud pushed me back up to the vertical, and it was time for the poles to come out. I made my way through the lane to the picturesque hamlet of Upper Bush.
Now this is very familiar territory, although usually done the opposite way around to today. I headed between the houses, heading for the open land. A sweep up through another muddy field in the Bush valley, a patch of woodland and a further valley to negotiate and I was on the crest of the escarpment. Somewhere on the climb into the trees, the SPOT decided to start sending beacons and kept doing so for the next hour of woodland walking.
This is probably my most walked stretch of the North Downs, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get lost. Usually when walking the other way, I miss the turning for the path and if I’m slow in realising this find myself looking down on Luddesdown. Not today though. I reached the spot where the NDW emerges from a wood to join another path and remembered to cross through the adjoining field boundary to stay on the NDW up across another muddy field. Signing here is poor, but I know that if I’d simply followed the obvious path through the woods I’d have arrived at a sharp junction which probably would have been enough to jolt my memory. This would also have had the advantage of avoiding at least one muddy field.
I reached the other side of the field, ploughed through a short tree-lined stretch and emerged onto the main line through Greatpark Wood. And this time I made a mental note that metal railings denoted the proper point to turn off (for next time I’m going the other way). Down along a rutted byway where some of the trenches are several feet deep and full of water, and the rest is usually a mudbath, it was ironically (given the mud everywhere else) not too bad today. Before I knew it I was at Holly Hill House and heading along the lane to the Hill itself. A brief climb up from the deserted car park brought me to the County Top (unitary) of Gravesham, at the dizzying altitude of 196m. I overcame my altitude sickness and plonked on the picnic bench at the summit, which is marked with a trig column, a holly bush and a Christmas tree. As things come in threes, a robin landed on a branch to complete the set of winter sterotypes. All that was needed was a fat bloke in a red suit and some snow.
Faint tap taps were heard as I feasted on past-their-best hot cross buns and apples and I looked up to see a woodpecker moving to its next victim. I also looked at my phone and it was at this point that I discovered that my map had actually gone properly live on Social Hiking, although not until 90 minutes after I set off. I reckon the Adventure Bot got sick of my constant demands for status, and got off his metal backside to switch the map on.! Rather irritatingly, although it showed the tweet to say I was at the summit of Holly Hill, the peak itself wasn’t picked up on the Social Hiking track as bagged. As I later found out, this was clearly an issue with the beacons.
I set off down the other side of the hill to cut down through the woods to rejoin the North Downs Way, then followed it a while further west. Decision time was approaching as the clock showed 1pm – I’d soon reach turnaround point, so needed to start working out how much further that would be. The plan was a return towards Cobham on the Wealdway, but the question was whether to simply join it when I reached it, or carry on a bit further first. It was clear that my intended walk to the bottom of Hognore Wood wasn’t going to all be done, so I set 2pm as the point at which I would simply turnaround and walk back to the Wealdway, planning to use a different path back if the opportunity presented itself.
I reached the Wealdway and pressed on up through the woods, back to the top of the escarpment and into Trosley Country Park. A popular path, I saw more dog walkers and child walkers in the next half mile than in the rest of the walk put together. The sun burned down with the mist a distant memory, and my jacket came off. Spirits always rise on a walk when I’m down to baselayer only, and my pace benefitted as a result. 1:45pm came as did a convenient path to the left to perform my u-turn. I headed down and walked along the tarmac of the Pilgrim’s Way back to the point where the NDW and Wealdway meet. This time I climbed straight up through the wood on the Wealdway, heading for home.
The escarpment gained again, and Whitehorse Wood stretched in front of me. The place that has broken several past walks – either through navigational mishaps or path quality. And soon I saw which it was to be today, and I think it’s obvious from the pictures. Water-filled trenches alternated with unstable mud all the way to the road, some of which could be avoided but much which couldn’t.
I got to terra firma and took a brief break, with the knowledge that it’s largely good paths all the way from here. The Wealdway took me along the west side of the Buckland valley, scene of vast poppy fields in the summer, but today being merely stubble. And mud of course. Luddesdown appeared ahead, with a vague hint of Cobham on the horizon. I got to Luddesdown looking tight for time given my plan to visit relies down the road and avoid the worst of the rush hour at Dartford Tunnel. Having fought my way across miles and miles of mud today, I opted for the tarmac option back to Cobham.
Total distance: 18.6 miles (29.93 km) with total ascent/descent: 1,978ft (603m). These are the actuals I recorded on my watch, rather than what my Social Hiking trackmap says.
Some Initial SPOT Testing Results
After initial disappointment that it didn’t seem to be tracking my progress, I was pleased that it started working at some point and was happily recording my track for at least a while. Subsequent investigation revealed that I had most probably not got a decent GPS lock at the start of the day, my only becaons being manual markers I’d put down. The eventual Social Hiking map also showed that beacons didn’t work from Buckland to the turnaround point, which I put down to the trees. Also on a walk like this, the number of twists and turns in the route isn’t adequately picked up when beacons are every 10 minutes. Combined with the tree issue, this meant that Social Hiking wasn’t aware that I’d visited the summit of Holly Hill. Not just visited, mind, but sat there for 40 minutes having lunch.
Messages, however, worked well, and every one sent was received by the planned recipient, which for this first test was just my email account, Twitter and Social Hiking in various combinations. Indeed it was the fact that this function was clearly working that lured me into thinking I’d got decent GPS lock and it would track ok. Messages clearly passed the test, and given that this is one of the reasons I got a SPOT, and a Connect in particular, this was good. On a long trip with little or no mobile phone signal, this is my means to tell home everything’s ok and to transmit my location.
Several times during the day, the Spot Connect app was telling me battery power was low, and at others that it was fine. I was using brand new batteries that came with the device, so just assumed they’d been on the shelf a bit and weren’t really full when I got them. On a longer multi-day walk, I would of course have spare batteries with me.
Having been doubtful about the success of the tracking whilst on the walk, it was a surprise to find a whole track on Social Hiking when I got home, albeit one with some straight lines where beacons weren’t getting through, be that due to woodland or incompetent user. To illustrate the effect of this, I recorded the walk as 18.6 miles compared with Social Hiking’s calculation from my track of 16 miles. Hopefully I can deal with the incompetence through practice, but on a walk such as this I’m always going to have problems with the woodland blocking satellite reception. But conversely, on the hills which I really bought the SPOT for, I should get much better tracking of the GPS satellites although I clearly won’t really know how successful tracking has been until much later when I get home from the trip. So more practice is called for to build confidence in using and relying on the device.