It’s not often that I get this excited about a walk in the days leading up to it, and I don’t think it’s ever happened for a local walk. But I sat there at the weekend, finalising the route map for the Wealdway and giving some thought to where I might camp on the first night, and the desire to simply be out on the walk was huge and getting bigger.
With a clear, nay sunny, forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday and no prospect of rain, it was looking like I’d have perfect conditions for the two-day walk. The worst that could be said about the forecast is the prolonged rain on Monday that would likely leave some slightly soggy ground and which may put paid to the chance of any dry wood for a fire at my camp.
The expectation of walking some of my favourite places on the North Downs was strong, and matched by the prospect of entering new walking terrain. The attraction of my first wild camp in Kent was also powerful, and I deliberated for quite a while over which shelter to use – Mabel (my cheap and coffin-esque HiGear Soloista) for stealth but at the cost of not being able to sit up inside, Matilda (my Luxe Hexpeak) for a bit more comfort, or even to simply bivvy bag it. In the end I went for a compromise of bivvy with the Hexpeak fly.
Taking my cue from the way Pilgrim Chris plans a hike, I deliberately didn’t want to set a target place to overnight, and with no usefully-positioned “proper” camp sites anyway, it was always going to be a case of see what I found. All I had was a desire to get at least halfway through the 28 mile walk before stopping for the night. Other than that I was happy to make it up as I went along and treat it as an adventure. Having said this, there were a few obvious points on the route which leant themselves to a likely camp.
One thing I did want to get right though was the start point, and the various sources I was working from didn’t seem to agree on this. The old guidebook from 1984 has it starting at the A2, which appears to be on the basis that the waymarking starts there, there being none through the town itself. The KCC/ESCC book has the Gordon Promenade as the start, which I’d have taken as definitive were it not for the LDWA having the main pier in Gravesend – a logical point, and backed up the apparent existence of an information board close by. The Ramblers, as creators of the route, were next to useless with no information discernable on their site. With no consistency between the sources, it would be left to me to make my own mind up. Knowing the town where I grew up well, this would be easy in terms of potentially visiting all of the candidate spots, but I’d rather not expend extra time and energy on a wild goose chase. The plan became to try to locate the information board as the most likely official start point, and if not satisfied by that I would visit the Gordon Promenade. The old, and clearly wrong, start point at the A2 is irrelevant as wherever I start in the town, I would pass through there anyway.
With this kind of expectation building, it was sod’s law that one or other of the various potential bits of work that are bubbling away in the background would rise up and prevent me taking advantage of this near perfect opportunity. As a result I spent Monday expecting the phone to ring at any second or an email arrive that would see me have to reschedule the adventure. As it turned out, by close of play Monday, it had been a day of silence – nobody wants me, at least not imminently. The walk was very much on.
Gravesend to Mereworth (about 16 miles, plus another mile of futile camp spot exploration)
Like a number of good walks in the past, this one started with a crossing of the Thames on the Tilbury Ferry, which nowadays lands at the Town Pier, the world’s oldest remaining cast iron pier. It’s also the site of the mythical Wealdway start board I alluded to earlier. I found it just off to one side where some gardens begin.
I walked up the High Street and crossed the main shopping street into Windmill Street, stopping off briefly in my usual cafe for a bacon roll and tea, and toying with the idea of spending a few minutes in Munn’s, Gravesend’s art shop. But I decided to get on with the walk – I’d be returning home via Gravesend anyway and could always pop in then. I didn’t think for one minute about the chances of not being allowed in the shop at the end of the walk.
Out along Wrotham Road, and if I’d wanted to I could have simply carried on along that road all the way to Tonbridge, the path mirroring the road and apart from a sudden jink to the east on day 2, never more than 3km from it.
I encountered the first waymark sign just before the Tollgate junction of the A2, and then turned on to walk on what used to be the A2, and is now a cycle track – the A2 having been widened and moved in conjunction with the work done for the HS1 rail line. Across the A2 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and I was finally off tarmac and onto lanes and country paths.
A familiar route was taken across fields to Ifield Court, Nash Street and onto Sole Street. The paths were muddy, not surprisingly given the time of year, but not too treacherous. Sole Street, and its station, marked the first main staging point on the walk, and the route goes right past the station, making this first section an ideal first half day.
Skirting Camer Park, the Wealdway took me up onto Henley Down and my first encounter with a muddy ploughed field, through which the official public footpath goes. Even worse, the field was sloping, making for an almost certain skid given my propensity to fall over on a single blade of wet grass. I stuck to the grassy side of the field.
Luddesdown came and went and then I was crossing the stile that put me in the Bowling Alley valley, and making good southward progress. The path through Luxon Wood now showed what I would have to contend with for much of the walk – a churned up path through trees, the Kentish mud being of that particular kind that both sticks to your shoes easily and is extremely slippery. I thanked my lucky stars I’d brought my poles with me.
Soon I was at Poundgate, and knew what horrors were about to be foisted upon me. I have none too fond memories of the next stretch through Whitehorse Wood, and if I thought what I’d done so far was muddy, knew it was about to get a lot worse.
I wasn’t disappointed, and I lurched my way along the track, holding onto trees, carving curvy detours to avoid impassable bits of mire, and sometimes risking the mud itself where brambles were the only alternative. And then I arrived at the main junction of tracks through the wood, and saw what I expected to see – canals.
Now I descended through the rest of the wood, sloping loose mud threatening to speed my way down the scarp slope of the North Downs, so it was with some relief that I reached the Pilgrim’s Way.
Along the path to Coldrum Longbarrow, the finest and completest of the Medway Megaliths, the earliest group of surviving prehistoric monuments in England. Built around 4000 years BCE at the time that people stopped being Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and took up Neolithic agriculture and the early forms of religion. To put this in context, Coldrum predates Stonehenge by at least 1000 years, maybe as much as 2000 years. Yes, you heard that right.
Further barrows and burial chambers lie a short distance further south in Addington, although my route would just miss these. The next joy in store was crossing the M20, which involved a path alongside a sand quarry, and an unpleasant subway under the motorway used by the lorries going to and from the quarry. Deeply rutted with puddles in the ruts, I found the slime overtopping my shoes. This was probably the most disgusting part of the walk. I was now literally walking through the local geology I remember from geography lessons at school.
I arrived at Wrotham Heath, my planned stop for water for tonight’s camp, striking lucky with the path emerging onto the A20 right by the petrol station I knew was on that road. There would be little prospect of water anywhere I was likely to camp.
On towards Platt, and the path disappeared down a narrow, tunnel-like passage between fences and overhanging trees, and as I emerged onto the common I automatically looked around for possible camp spots. I still had a bit more in my legs though, and knew that any more distance I could do today would only help for tomorrow. On I went, along lanes to the start of Shipbourne Forest, past of the large area of Mereworth Woods.
The sun now glowing orange and low in the sky on my right, I headed to a part of the forest that had looked promising on the map, only to find that the clearing suggested on the map was now filled with young trees poking up through a carpet of brambles and similar.
I retraced my steps back to the Wealdway, and plumped for the backup spot I’d seen closer to the path in an orchard. Hidden from the path by a dip and from the farm buildings by the grid of trees and a log pile, I waited until darkness was encroaching and settled down for the night.
I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of the locals – the sort of sounds you don’t really hear when camped on a hill. Nearby blood-curdling screeches suggested either a major fight or that the foxes were abroad. Owls hooted in the trees. Somewhere near Matilda, something was making scrabbling and burrowing noises. Help was going to be needed to get to sleep. I lightened my pack of some of the whisky I’d brought, and gradually drifted off.
Mereworth to Tonbridge (about 13 miles)
A fitful night’s sleep and I was willing the time to pass on my frequent looks at my watch. 6am came and I got up, wanting to be away as early as possible – both to get a good start and to avoid discovery.
On through the forest I went, as the sun was still rising. A detour near the Keeper’s Cottage to locate a trig point and an attempt to find the top of Hurst Hill, a Tump. This was always going to be tricky to find with precision given the barely sloping nature of the ground and the thick covering of trees, and I settled on a route back to the path from the trig point, that should take me close to it. Out came the compass for the only time on the walk.
Somehow I managed to bag the Tump, but you’d never have known it on the ground. I rejoined the path system on the other side of the Keeper’s Cottage, and had an anxious few moments working out which of the many tracks I needed to rejoin the Wealdway. Luckily the sun rising through the trees made this very easy.
A few moments were spent taking in the view from Gover’s Hill, having left the forest behind, before I descended into the fields to join the Greensand Way, my companion for the next mile or so into West Peckham. Down in the valley, ribbons of mist weaved their way over the rooftops.
Muddy tracks took me into West Peckham, where my meagre breakfast at sunrise of a cereal bar started to catch-up with me. I spotted a nice bench around a tree on the village green and decided to stop for a proper repast. Out came the stove and soon porridge and tea were being brewed up. I lingered on the bench a while. A long while.
Leaving West Peckham and the Greensand Way, my luck also deserted me. I headed down the path, far less muddy than what I’d encountered so far and all of a sudden felt myself going down. The skid mark on the ground was pathetic and I was annoyed that having survived much much worse patches of mud in the last 20 miles, something so innocuous should take me out now.
Open fields and plenty of squelch took me to the A26. Now I entered stereotypical Kent farmland – rows and rows of identical hop plantations and roofs of oast houses in the distance.
A footbridge across one of many streams that run into the Medway deposited me at the edge of a ploughed field that stretched almost as far as the eye could see, minature oast houses on the horizon at the far side. The trudge across said field added some noticeable weight to my person, as half of the field came with me.
A short stretch of road walking brought me to a larger river, initially mistaken for the Medway through not looking at the map, and confusing me when the path then crossed the river and turned south. The map soon made it clear and I regained the official path.
Some unclear signage in terms of which side of a field boundary the Wealdway went south of Barnes Street saw me arrive at a locked, barbed wire-topped gate and a choice between retracing my steps some distance or dicing with the gate. I opted for the gate and a tirade of expletives.
Soon though I was at the real Medway.
4 miles of muddy fields alongside the river followed. The odd fisherman and a guy in a canoe at one of the locks were all I saw apart from muddy fields and the muddy river alongside. Narrow paths squeezed alongside the river and hedged with brambles as they crossed between fields. Underfoot was unstable mud. Progress made from one field to another by a tarzan-like approach of lurching along the path holding onto trees.
The torture eased, and the first signs of Tonbridge came in the form of industrial estates. A creature caked in mud up to the knees emerged into the streets and found the station for the end of this section.
A train to Strood and another from there to Gravesend got me back to the start point for the ferry. In my manky state, I decided it would be best not to attempt to enter a pristinely clean art shop, given the disapproving looks last time I went in there wearing a small daysack. So I got back on the ferry for the voyage home.
I’d looked forward to this walk immensely, and possibly a bit too much, so that I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in what I was actually confronted with. The scenery was exactly as I expected it, but I found myself spending less time taking it in whilst walking due to the pressing need to ensure that I remained upright through many miles of mud. With the paths in this state, I really would have been better off waiting until later in the year when the sun has had a chance to bake the mud dry a bit more. So I may defer the next section until then so as to have better conditions underfoot. That will allow me to enjoy the walking and scenery a bit more. Despite this, though, the urge to get on and complete what I’ve started is still strong.
Well, I finally went and did my first wild camp in the south east, although spending a night in an orchard isn’t really a fair use of the word “wild”. However, I was surrounded by wild beasts (some of them sounded not just wild, but absolutely livid) and one of the reasons I opted to sleep under the Hexpeak fly was due to this – I really didn’t want them crawling all over me in the night.
The bivvy bag option worked ok up to a point. As I’d used the banana bivvy, it didn’t add anything in the way of warmth, and any extra warmth that could have been available would have been welcome on what was a frosty night. I’ve now slept a few nights in bivvies under flys/tarps and have yet to really enjoy the experience. Maybe I just need more practice, or maybe I’m just really an inner tent sort of person.
The Route (click on image to open zoomable map in Social Hiking)