The North Downs Way Again – Part 1: Dover to Paddlesworth

When I became an Ambassador for the Trail last year, I decided to do a complete re-walk, as it was 2016 when I finished the walk before, and even that had been spread thinly over 10 years. My familiarity wasn’t what it could be.

Of course in the time since, I’ve walked parts of the trail again – my “local” section between Wrotham and Cuxton multiple times, and of course the sections that the Ambassador training took place on – in my case Otford to Wrotham and Guildford to Gomshall. But there were still large chunks of the trail I’d not seen for a good long time.

It’s taken me a while to get around to starting the re-walk, largely because the motivation to do a brand new trail is always stronger than the motivation to repeat one I’ve done already, no matter how distant in memory.

What gave me the push I needed to get on with it is the Kent Pilgrims Festival, taking place from 21-25 September this year. Somehow, I agreed to co-lead a couple of days mini-pilgrimage as part of the festival, which arose from a chance conversation with a fellow Ambassador at a networking event earlier this year.

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The section we’re doing for the festival is Aylesford to Wye, and anyone who is interested can sign-up here:

Day 1: Aylesford to Hollingbourne 21 September – 13 miles / 21km

Day 2: Hollingbourne to Wye 22 September – 15.5 miles / 25km

Both days involve a fair amount of up and down, and these walks are very much for the stronger walker. Note that these led walks do have a cost attached, but they are considerably cheaper than some of the other festival walks, as my co-lead and I are volunteering our time and only getting expenses covered.

Other walks then follow on successive days to Canterbury and onto Dover, meaning that it will be possible to complete a journey from the Medway all the way to the coast.

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Anyway, I digress. As I will be tagging along on the other walks to Dover via Canterbury, and thereby covering that part of the trail, I decided to start my re-walk project in Dover and to head west along the less popular side of the eastern loop. This would also give the chance to perform a recce of the bit we’ll be leading on. Ideally I’d have continued on from my St Swithun’s Way walk and done the trail in the normal direction, to make a neat two journeys from Winchester to the coast in this year. But ultimately I figured that I’ve already walked the NDW that way, so completing a re-walk of any kind is the key objective. Dover westwards it would be then.

It was just my luck that on the appointed day South Eastern trains were utterly screwed due to a signalling failure down the east end of Kent. At London Bridge in good time for my train, in the time it took to take the escalator down to the platforms and through the gateline, my train had gone from “On Time” to “Cancelled”. An anxious few minutes was had while I worked out what was going on and what my options were. There were no guarantees that the next train would run. Eventually I re-located to St Pancras and got the high speed, but even that was problematic as the train I was on was then cancelled on arrival in Ashford.

I finally made it to Dover an hour and a half late, which meant I would at least get a complete refund of my £14.50 ticket, but also meant I was up against it for the walk I had to do that day. It was now 2pm and I had the best part of 20km to do, to get to my campsite.

I walked down to the seafront to find the start/finish markers that I don’t remember seeing the first time around. Here was also a thing that clearly represented cross-Channel swimming.

Back across a busy road junction to pick up the trail proper. A steep climb up onto cliffs and around the Drop Redoubt, Dover’s lesser known fortification. From here I could see across to the better known one.

I could also see, quite clearly for once, France, and moreover a stretch of chalk cliffs over there. It’s easy to forget that thousands of years ago the Channel didn’t exist and there was a continuous band of chalk joining Kent and France. This is incidentally reflected in recent efforts to get the combined area of the Kent Downs and the Parc naturel régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale recognised by UNESCO as a single Geopark…

On the day though, a more disturbing thought came to me: if there’s chalk over there and it’s part of the same band (which it is), then maybe my Walk the Chalk project needs to include a walk in France too. But then, where do I draw the line ? That’s one to ponder later.

I may use the convenience of the large lump of rock that fell into a Norwegian fjord approximately 10,000 years ago, creating a tsunami that flooded Doggerland and broke through this band of chalk to form the English Channel / La Manche, as an excuse to limit this project!

Finally, I finished with Dover and its fortifications, although still every so far I’d pass a pillbox. Up onto the cliffs proper with the views opening out.

Soon I came to the stretch above Samphire Hoe, created from the earth dug out from the Channel Tunnel.

Further on, was the sound mirror, an early pre-radar aircraft detection system that never really got going.

And on to the Battle of Britain Memorial, where I was 20 minutes too late for the cafe, which I was desperately in need of, my water supplies having run perilously low.

Luckily around the corner, where the trail hits a road, is the Valiant Sailor, which furnished me with a bottle of cider that disappeared within 5 minutes – some down my neck, and the rest into my water bottle: I didn’t have time to sit around as it was already 5pm and I had at least a couple more hours to go.

A decent stretch of quiet road helped me build some momentum, so that by the time I got to Caesar’s Camp and started the section of download alongside another road, I was making good progress.

The campsite couldn’t come soon enough though. As I looked down over the Channel Tunnel terminal and turned north to leave the trail, my legs were starting to give up. A short stretch of lane and then just a footpath across a field to the campsite. Unfortunately, said field had dogs running loose in it, and they weren’t pleased to see me. One was really giving me some verbal abuse and making darts towards me. I was in no mood for this at all, or the “oh, they’re actually quite friendly” bull I was given at my destination.

The site itself, not responsible for the dogs, was my sort of place. By which I mean basic. It had toilets and showers, albeit of the bucket on a string type, wasn’t too crowded and I could pitch facing the sunset. A gaggle of kids even came along while I was pitching to offer me foraged blackberries, which they said they were “selling for free”. Someone needs to teach them about commerce…

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