The Darent Valley Path

Although it was a bank holiday weekend, this time it wasn’t practical to head for the hills, especially with choice much reduced by the current “situation”. I had no desire to be in some honeypot location fighting my way through hordes of people; no desire to sit on a train in a mask for hours on end; and even relatively little desire to sit in a car and drive somewhere like Dartmoor. Anywhere hilly enough was too far away for the amount of time I’d be spending there.

We also had a step challenge at work this week: in teams you simply to try to achieve the highest number of steps stepped over the week. Something that started in the first lockdown, and has been a monthly event ever since. This will likely be my last one though, and I wanted to make this one count.

So I looked at resurrecting past ideas for a long walk within easy reach of home. Something that would get me a huge number of steps. The forecast was looking good, and this could very much be a proper summer fast and light type affair, so I could put in some big distances, fitness permitting.

The route that really pressed itself on me was the Darent Valley Path, a 19 mile (ha ha) walk between Sevenoaks and the Thames north of Dartford, with an alternative start point at Chipstead on the western fringe of Sevenoaks. I’d looked at this before, and basically found it too much for one day, but not enough for 2 days. The wild camping options also didn’t look that good on the map.

After much wrangling and considering other options, principally just making up a big circular walk on the North Downs, I decided on doing the DVP in combination with the North Downs idea. The plan would be to walk the DVP backwards, so starting at the Thames, and then follow it upstream to Sevenoaks. That way I could do the two alternative starts/ends as a loop, by just joining them up by walking across town. It also had the advantage that when I arrived back at the point the route splits, that’s directly on the North Downs Way and I could simply follow that “home”.

It seemed like a sound idea. The 1 day vs 2 day issue now neatly solved with a possible spot to camp near Sevenoaks, and the second night back in terra cognita where I’ve camped many times before. The plan called for about 31km on each of Saturday and Sunday, and a smaller 10km or so to my parents at the other end, where I’d be picked up.

My wife dropped me off by the sewage works (probably some sort of metaphor there) by Dartford Marshes, being the nearest point to the start of the DVP without me having to retrace my steps. I headed out to the sea wall and simply followed that to the confluence of the Darent and Thames.

No fanfare for the start (or end) of this path – the only real sign being a normal waymark on a post.

I headed south following the Darent, here called Dartford Creek. It wasn’t long before I crossed the A206 and walked into Dartford. Long Distance Paths can often lose their way a bit in towns, but here it was in just one place after the hardest bit of navigation. Being a river-based path, simply trying to keep close to the Darent was a good strategy.

I took a break in the park come sports ground before crossing the A225 and leaving the built up area. Underpasses took me under the A2 and M25 and before I knew it I was in Darenth

Horton Kirby and Farningham followed quite easily.

I approached Eynsford with a road walk, having not stopped for lunch. I detoured into the village, passing crowds of people enjoying the grassy riverside and shallow waters of the Darent. Finding nowhere to get food without going indoors, I picked up tea and cake from one of the tea rooms which had an outside stall, and went and parked myself by the ford, my feet inches from the water of the Darent itself.

I resisted the temptation to also have an ice cream and got on my way. There was still a lot to do.

The next stretch took me uphill through fields, for no apparent reason other to avoid the road. It did give great views down over the Darent valley though. I descended to Lullingstone Roman Villa (closed) and the castle (open).

There were plenty of people out and about along the paths, being close to a touristy place, and I was keen to get myself a bit more space, so forged on.

Through Shoreham and the first golf course of the trip. A cricket pitch with a match in progress too. All very quintessential English summer type stuff.

I descended into Otford – the crossroads of this trip. Here the DVP meets the North Downs Way, and they share a mile or two (depending on which arm of the DVP you then take). I would be returning here the next day and continuing along the North Downs Way.

I’d also decided that Otford was the last sensible en route place to get water and a look at Google maps pinpointed two convenience stores of interest. One 0.3 mile in the wrong direction, the other 0.5 mile further along my route. An obvious choice. It was open until 8pm too (not that I was cutting it at all fine).

Except the shop itself was very firmly shut. With no desire to go the best part of a mile each way to and back from the other one, including the risk that it too would be closed, I carried on. Hopefully the outer fringes of Dunton Green would bear fruit.

I reached the point where the DVP splits – with the western arm (towards Chipstead) staying with the North Downs Way for a bit further, and the eastern (Sevenoaks) arm striking off. Contrary to my plan, I now took the Sevenoaks arm as this would take me closer to “civilisation” and hence had greater chance of what I needed.

Somewhere along Rye Lane I missed a sign and found myself passing the station and heading right for the middle of Dunton Green (this actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise). A short way down the A224 lay a Tesco and a guarantee of water – albeit at the cost of extra distance I didn’t want to do.

I grit my teeth and did it though. I then headed off somewhere close to the DVP to find a camp spot shielded from public view by trees.

Overnight I’d taken stock of the mess I’d made of this last bit of the route, with bits of both DVP arms walked. I realised that there was a way I could walk all of both arms with only a very small bit of treading the same ground – and that ground was the bit between the two arms. I headed back into Dunton Green to pick up the Sevenoaks arm again.

A final bit of street pounding brought me to Sevenoaks station and the “end” of the DVP. except there was still the small matter of the other arm. I started out walking along the A224 through town, and found 2nd breakfast in the form of a Shell petrol station. Even better it was one with a Little Waitrose. A pastry, some more water, and a pasty for lunch were secured.

The A224 took me to Riverhead and a delightful lane through Chipstead to the other “start”/”end”.

The path now took me around Chipstead Lakes, the boundaries of which were festooned at every possible place with Keep out signs. So many that it makes you want to do the exact opposite!

The route the owners graciously sanctioned, however, was also the exact route of the DVP and it was also the most direct route out of their little empire. This took me past the previous night’s camp spot too. Before I knew it I was back at the point the DVP splits, which meant I’d now done the whole path.

Back to Otford and the point the DVP and North Downs Way part ways. This time I stayed with the North Downs Way, but only as far as the first tea room that took my fancy. This was one with outside tables, of course. I plonked myself down and ordered ham, egg and chips and a coffee. This technically made it 1st lunch rather than 2nd (well really, it would have been 3rd) breakfast.

A climb out of Otford to gain the escarpment, and with the pressure of a specific long distance trail now behind me, I could relax a bit on what I consider my “home” trail. Although, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily a familiar bit. I think I last walked this stretch in about 2011, and I remembered very little of it.

So I just focused on enjoying the shady woodland “tunnels” and the fact there were still bluebells out. I finally stopped for a proper rest halfway between Kemsing and Wrotham, at the point the NDW descends from the escarpment to the valley. It made a good vantage point for 2nd Lunch.

Not far to Wrotham now, and the question of water for tonight’s camp was starting to bubble up again. Wrotham would be the last proper civilisation until my likely camp spot, so it needed to be dealt with there.

No shops of any use in Wrotham, it was a detour along the A20 to another Shell garage. A side lane brought me back to the NDW just before a long grinding reascent on to the escarpment.

Now I was on familiar territory, entering “my patch”.

The Visitor Centre at Trosley Country Park still had toilets unlocked, meaning no need to use the trowel on this trip !!

It’s a fairly long slog through the tree tunnel from there, though, and shared with the late dog walkers. Then an unofficial path through Whitehorse Wood past the back of Badgells Wood campsite, which every time I pass through has expanded – this time I was actually walking past tents.

I now rejoined the NDW, or rather it rejoined me after another detour to the valley, and a succession of woods and clearings brought me to “Slug Meadow”, a regular haunt.

A quiet night, without even much in the way of animal noises. Breakfast (1st) was a choice of rice pudding (apparently) or picking at the remaining snacks in my food bag. In the end it consisted mainly of coffee and Haribo. I was banking on something better at my parents’ house at the end of the walk.

I gave my usual greeting to Graham and Colin, or rather the bench dedicated to them, and ploughed on along the crest of the ridge. The Bush valley and then the Cobham estate brought me to the A2 and soon after my parent’s house, where I was duly presented with 2nd breakfast.

Unusually, I’ve already posted my reflections on the walk in my last post. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed the DVP, or perhaps more accurately I enjoyed being out on a long distance path, and enjoying the routines of the trail. It didn’t matter at all that it wasn’t somewhere more “epic”: this was an occasion for simply getting out and executing the backpacking process. And it’s always a pleasure to be out on the chalk downs and woodland of the North Downs.

It has made me keener to tackle a number of the other, supposedly less inspiring, long distance routes that are near(ish) to home, and which have never really felt like they’re worth the effort. Something for coming months I think, while long distance travel is still going to be a rare thing.

[And I’m sure at least one wag will ask how the step challenge panned out, if I don’t tell you now: we came 3rd as a team, and I came 2nd individually with 208,000 steps, beating the guy that usually gets the most. So a respectable result].

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