Old Skool

Recently I unearthed a couple of sets of typed route instructions for sponsored walks I did at school in the late ’80s. I remember these being in the region of 20 miles, which I polished off fairly easily, which was nice because I was at a sporty school and was crap at most of those sports. I remember feeling slightly smug being one of the only kids with proper walking boots. I remember feeling less smug when my Dad was operating on my heels to pop the resultant blisters, a job he botched so much I still have rough skin there to remind me of those days.

In recent years, the vague memories of those days have set me wondering about these routes and they’ve achieved an almost mythical status in my head. Many is a time I’ve been out for a walk on the North Downs and felt a stirring of a distant memory or wondered if such and such a path were part of the original walks. Now this is all solved.

I set to plotting the routes out on a map and after dealing with the building of the HS1 rail line and the upgrading of the A2 that’s happened since I walked them, I had a route over the North Downs of about 19 miles and a route over the marshes of about 17 miles. Originally I intended to do both of these as day walks as part of my TGO Challenge preparation, but running out of time and the failure to get out of bed early enough to get across the river to do them led to a rethink. Also wanting a sleep out, I decided to combine the two routes, cutting out much of the marshes one and extending the Downs one a bit. This would maximise the up and downness of the walk and yield more in the way of potential for sleeping out.

I hopped on the ferry, and started the walk from the pier in Gravesend. This being a walk based on my old school walks, the first stop really had to be the school itself. It’s changed a lot. Walking past I noticed that the sports hall (that wasn’t there when I was a pupil) had been named after the fellow who was headmaster when I joined the school, and who further back was my Dad’s PE master. Indeed the school sponsored walk was also introduced by him in 1979. I wonder what he’d think of the fact that what was once a 20 mile test of endurance has been cut down to a meagre 13 miles.

I took the alley behind the school to bring me to the rear entrance where the walk started, and then made my way out along Valley Drive to the A2. Whilst walking I decided to reverse part of the planned route as I noticed that otherwise I’d be largely repeating the first part of my previous walk. Across fields to Thong and into Shorne Woods Country Park. Across the A2 and into the Darnley estate, where 7 miles in I took a welcome break.

Taking a break in Cobham Park

A climb over a ridge and I was crossing the railway and walking through the lane to Upper Bush, a picture postcard scene.

Upper Bush

I emerged into the Bush Valley and caught up with a DofE group out on a bronze expedition. I got past them quickly as they were dragging their heels.

Bush Valley

Finally the North Downs Way climbed onto the escarpment and all was flat easy paths through woodland, bluebells in abundance. What finer place to walk.

Wingate Wood

I emerged from the woods at Holly Hill and decided to further tweak my route and reverse the extension loop I’d added. This would put me nearer to some decent camp spots. I crossed over to the Wealdway and headed south once more. To make it harder, I descended the scarp to the Pilgrim’s Way and followed the chalk field edges for a while. Soon it was time to reascend, with the knowledge I’d be stopping soon. My goal purely to beat the distance of 16.28 miles I’d walked the other day. I skirted the camp site the DofE people were in and investigated an open grassy area I’d had my eye on since a walk with Stuart 18 months ago. This would be fine . At 16.31 miles I stopped for the night.

The view from camp

Dinner went on and tonight it was pasta bolognese, dehydrated a couple of days ago. This was the improved recipe with the addition of peas and half an oxo cube. It seemed to have worked.

Dinner: home-dehydrated pasta bolognese

Night fell and I retired to the bivvy, laying watching the trees against the sky through the bug netting, before dropping off.

Waking up in a field

Each time I looked at my watch in the night I was pleasantly surprised by how much time had passed since the last look. It seems you can get a passable night’s sleep bivvying after all. Light came at 5am ish and as is my custom when camping out in the lowlands, I got up and packed and away quickly, with just a cereal bar and a swig of water as (1st) breakfast, saving the main event for a convenient spot away from the scene of the crime.

Morning on the North Downs

A mile or so’s walk and I was atop Holly Hill and brewing up for porridge and tea.

Breakfast stop on Holly Hill

On my way again and I took to Manky Byway, stepping briefly into the bushes behind Holly Hill House to bag the county top of Medway. Manky Byway may have to be renamed as since my last visit the deep metre-deep ruts have been filled in, making for a much more pleasant ambulatory experience. I passed Cockup Corner (now also no longer really deserving its name) and the Junction of Doom, today intentionally heading for the road.

Byway to the Junction of Doom

I arrived in Luddesdown, having scrapped the whole western stretch of the originally planned walk, due to its similarity with a recent walk here. A little further along the Wealdway and then was turning to head for Cobham, crossing through orchard after orchard.

Through the orchards

Next up was Ashenbank Wood where I detoured briefly to visit the Bronze Age barrow and old RAF camp.

Bronze Age Barrow in Ashenbank Wood

I crossed the A2 and through Shorne Woods Country Park again, heading for Ifield. A long slog through fields brought me to Chalk and the memories of church parade in the Scouts.

Chalk Church

I dropped down onto the marshes and tentatively crossed the railway to join NCN 1 which would take me alongside the former Thames and Medway Canal all the way into Gravesend and the ferry home.

Thames and Medway Canal

The route done and it felt like mission accomplished. 29 miles under my belt with a decent amount of ascent. The legs felt good and I’d made a few final gear choices for the TGO this week. Now one more walk to do – in which I’ll try to cover the equivalent of the hardest day on the TGO – and then I’ll be ready to head for Scotland.

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