WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot….
So pricketh them nature in their corages;
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend
(From the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer)
Chaucer scared the crap out of me when I was at school, and at the time I counted myself fortunate that my acquaintance with him was fleeting, a mere advert for the horrors that might lie in wait for me if I were to undertake English Literature A level (of which there was no chance whatsoever anyway it has to be said). Of course, years later and maturity threatening to set in, I developed an interest in seeing what I’d “missed out” on all those years ago, sampling many of the greats and developing a particular fondness for Dickens. Hell, I even read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and that makes Chaucer look like reading the Beano. Maybe Geoff isn’t so bad after all.
What does this have to do with the business at hand, I hear you ask ? Well, the journey of the Pilgrims to Thomas Becket’s tomb roughly coincides with the route of the North Downs Way, and I’ve reached the bit that takes me to Canterbury. Indeed the Ramblers’ recommendation is to use The North Downs Way as the proxy for the Pilgrims Way, given that the latter now lies largely under tarmac. Evidence of this can be seen in many places on my journey, with Pilgrims Way adorning street name signs in several places I have passed through.
My last section of the route was back in October 2011, and even that was after a gap of 5 years from my previous foray. It’s high time I completed the journey – and especially embarrassing being that it’s my local National Trail.
So a cloudy Tuesday morning saw me driving down to Chilham to abandon my chariot there overnight and resume the quest…
The Highwayman’s Tale
Through the churchyard and across the A252, I climbed up the hill to the small village of Old Wives Lees. Soon I was climbing further up onto the escarpment itself, extensive fruit farms laid out below me.
Soon I was passing through Chartham Hatch and into No Mans Orchard, the name signifying merely that it lay across the boundary of two people’s land. Gnarly trees abounded, none of great stature, and looking around I couldn’t help but think this is where the phrase “low-hanging fruit” may have originated.
I stopped for lunch in the adjacent woods soon after, and was surprised by people coming past while I sat there – I’d not seen a soul on the path so far. And indeed it turned out that over the whole two days of the walk the number of people I’d see on the path (not counting in town of course), would remain in single figures. This is very much how I like it.
After lunch, a few minutes walk and I was at the site of Bigbury Hillfort.
Just on from Bigbury Camp and I was crossing the A2 and entering the outskirts of Canterbury. Having only recently taken my fleece off because of feeling too warm, it was sod’s law that I would now find myself embroiled in a hail storm. Another stop to replace layers. I battled through the wintry weather and into the City proper.
I used to come to Canterbury with my parents as a kid quite often, so the basic layout of the place was still quite familiar. But it’s been a few years, and pretty much all of the shops I remember have now gone. Another thing that wasn’t present in my childhood is “chuggers”, or if you will, charity muggers. For the purposes of this piece I will simply refer to them as modern highwaymen. The main street was swarming with them. I realise charities too are finding times hard, but what gets me with these present-day footpads is that they’re not after money, they’re after your personal details, so that they can hound you mercilessly forever after. Stopping to talk to one is, therefore, a form of extreme masochism. Of course they will tell you it’s just about raising awareness – but it is almost without exception well-known national charities, who I’m quite capable of patronising if and when I want to. If you’re not already aware of them, you probably never will be.
Today I was a relatively slow moving target, weighed down by a rucksack, but there was richer prey about – dawdling tourists. I weaved my way through the throng and went to have a look at the Cathedral. I’m, sure when I was younger you could get into the Cathedral Close to look at the outside and only pay if you wanted to look inside. Now, of course, the admission kiosk is in the gateway itself. There was no way I was going to pay £12 merely for a photo of the outside of the cathedral. There should at least be a discount for those that have come the traditional way of the pilgrim!!
I left Canterbury and its leeches behind and out back into farmland. A succession of tracks alongside woods filled with bluebells and expansive fields now followed. My wild camping radar now activated, I started taking more interest in the surroundings and its potential for an overnight stop. In the end though, I arrived at the place I’d pre-planned – one of the many woods lying to the north of the Way.
It took a bit of scouting around before I found a pitch – much of the forest floor was covered in bluebells etc, and not wanting to crush them, I eased myself gently through the ankle deep sea of purple and white, eventually finding a patch of rough grass in the middle. It looked like previously disturbed ground due to its unevenness and lack of vegetation, and was just the right size for the tent. It seemed like a gift. I got the tent up, and had just completed my faffing about when the rain came.
The sun sank beyond the trees and the wood went dark.Birds flapped about overhead and with the wind the branches rubbed together, producing regular squeaking and creaking sounds to lull me to sleep.
The Dogger’s Tale
Again contrary to the forecast, it rained in the night and heavily so. Or at least that’s how it seemed lying there in the tent, listening to the thud of raindrops mere centimetres from my face. One of those moments when you question the sanity of bringing a single-skin shelter. All was well though, and as light felt its way into Squeaky Wood, I woke to find all of the tent’s contents dry. A brief wipe of the flysheet with a rag brought for the purpose dealt with the thin film of condensation that was to be expected. I’d had to settle for a lower pitch than I wanted due to the uneven ground. It had kept things warmer, but certainly hadn’t helped in the battle against moisture.
I got my porridge and boiled eggs inside me and packed up. Soon I was on my way, retracing my steps to the edge of the wood, and along the footpath that put me back on the Way.
The sleepy villages of Womenswold and Woolage negotiated I found myself on the first of many wide tree-lined paths that were a feature of this day’s walk. Soon I was passing Three Barrows Down, a creepy stretch of woodland, the way the light was filtering through the trees.
Into Shepherdswell and I took a rest in the little grassy park thing. A few minutes later another walker rocked up, looking for all the world like a fellow North Downs Wayer. Having seen no one in sight behind me on the way into the village, I assumed he must be really motoring along and would soon catch me as I set off again. I never saw him again, so bang went that theory.
Into an enormous field in Waldershare Park, the path running dead straight, and the crossing taking seemingly forever. Then down to Waldershare House itself and all of the trappings of a country estate.
The other side of the A256 and the path turned south, indicating the last leg into Dover, and what should be a simple trudge along byways and bridleways. A fallen tree blocked the way, but was easily circumvented. Ahead of me a car parked at the end of the bridleway, a rather odd position. As I walked past I realised, that not only was the car occupied, but that the occupants themselves were “occupied”. That’s a first for me on this particular walk. Although, I did encounter something similar under a bridge alongside a canal on the London LOOP. This now has me thinking that maybe this is a feature of every long distance path, and so has set a bit of a bar for next week’s chunk of the South West Coast Path!
At the end of the next stretch of path, a sign stating that several byways were closed because they were dangerous – or was it simply a ruse to prevent off-road vehicles using them, an eternal battle? More disturbingly the sign also said there was no alternative route. This made the decision to plough on regardless a lot easier. Expecting many more fallen trees, landmines and snipers taking potshots at me I headed down the Byway of Death (Spoiler alert: I didn’t meet my demise). This is the scene that actually lay before me:
No sign of the alleged dangers, it wasn’t until the stretch after Pineham that there was any inkling of trouble. Wheel tracks had eroded quite deeply and filled with water. A bit of care and holding on was needed to get past them without slipping in, but that’s all. I’ve encountered far worse further west on the North Downs. Still puzzled by the danger, and the lack of forceable closure to the paths if they are so dangerous, I emerged by the A2 again.
I crossed over and headed down into Dover and the end of the walk. With two trains required to get me back to the car and one due any moment, with the next over an hour away, I made straight for the station, leaving the ceremonial visit to the end marker for next time…