The North Downs Way Again – Part 4: Kent Pilgrims’ Festival Days 1-2 (Aylesford to Wye)

In the first post of this series, I mentioned that I was co-leading two days of walks as part of the Kent Pilgrims’ Festival. Along with that my co-leader, Mike, and I offered to assist the walk leaders of the other 3 days with their walks – help manage the group / bringing up the rear / picking up and burying the bodies, that sort of thing. And so I ended up doing a complete joined-up walk from Aylesford to Dover, via Canterbury, thereby ensuring that when I complete this re-walk of the trail, I’ll have once again done the whole lot, including both options east of Boughton Lees.

The concept Mike and I originally had was to do the whole walk, starting from Rochester, to Dover, but we quickly found the Canterbury to Dover walk was already planned, led by Faye from Hope Walking. So we initially planned a four day walk to Canterbury. When we then found that Ildi, of History Hikers, was doing Wye to Canterbury over the two days before Faye’s walk, we found we only had two days at the very start of the festival to play with – unless we wanted to overlap with Ildi’s walk, which we would have done in a single day under our plan. There was no point duplicating, so we decided to trim the start of our walk to fit it into two days. And so it became Aylesford to Wye.

Even with all of the re-planning, the great thing was that the walks fitted sequentially, and even more that we’d get the strain of leading over with at the start and could then relax a little and be a part of the group for the remaining 3 days, albeit with a bit of work to do.

The big disadvantage of walking for the full 5 days of the festival was that it didn’t leave time for anything else – so we missed out on activities including icon painting, “ales, music and tales”, various craft activities and talks. But we still had a good time by focusing on what many would see as the core of a pilgrimage (ie the walking), and met many interesting people, and inside a few interesting places. Plus there was free beer!

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Day 1: Wednesday 21 September – Aylesford to Hollingbourne

I met Mike at Hollingbourne station for the “two car shuffle”. We’d leave his car there and drive in mine to the start, and reverse the operation after the walk.

At Aylesford station one person turned up for the walk – bookings hadn’t been exactly a flood, and until a day or two before, we’d had none at all. At least this made the group a manageable size. We set off towards the Medway, passing The Friars, a 13th Century Carmelite priory opposite.

The Friars, Aylesford

We couldn’t cross the ancient bridge over the Medway at Aylesford as, just our luck, it was closed for some work to be done, and so we had to make do with the modern road bridge instead.

Aylesford

We climbed up through fields onto the North Downs to begin the walk in earnest. A small detour brought us to Kit’s Coty, a 4000 BCE neolithic burial chamber, or what remains of one. For context, this places it up to 1,000 years before Stonehenge . Kit’s Coty is part of a group called the Medway Megaliths, and are some of the earliest ancient monuments to be found in the country.

Kit’s Coty

A bit further along the road, was its slightly less glamorous sibling: Little Kit’s Coty, also sometimes referred to as the Countless Stones. Legend has it there’s too many to count, or if you do manage to count all 20 of them, then it’s bad luck.

Little Kit’s Coty

On the other side of the A229, a further climb through trees brought us to the White Horse Stone, yet another neolithic remain.

White Horse Stone

At the top of the wood, we passed what is generally called the “Shrine to Economics”, but which is really a confused jumble of religion, eco stuff and complaints about growth-based economics. We paused a few moments to take in the full glory of the eccentricity on display. Mike had, on a previous visit, taken one of the free books on offer, thereby taking one for the team and avoiding the need for either of us other two to read it.

Wacko Shrine

Along field edges now, with glimpses of other rocks piled at edges of woods, that could be neolithic remains – much of what was here having been thought to have simply been destroyed in the days before preserving the past became much of a thing.

We dropped down into Detling, where I bailed from the trail last time I was out, and stopped for a pint in the Cock Horse.

A bit of huffing and puffing up the hill to Thurnham Castle, where we took lunch before finishing off a bit more roller-coastering up and down the downs. Soon we were on roads and tracks.

Our customer was staying at the motorway services at Hollingbourne, so we cut off the path to head across the fields to drop her off, before continuing on back to the station for the reverse car shuffle.

Day 2: Thursday 22 September – Hollingbourne to Wye

I met Mike at Wye even earlier, as it was a longer drive back to Hollingbourne as it had been from there to Aylesford, and not as convenient. Then we promptly got stuck in traffic so were already late when we pulled off the M20 for Hollingbourne, and I insisted on still getting a coffee on the way. Our customers were wondering where we’d got to. Mike went to pacify them while I parked the car.

Our group was up to 6 today, with the addition of two chaps using it as preparation for the West Highland Way, our previous day’s walker and one other. This made for a bit more variety of conversation, which would be useful as today was a lot flatter and less interesting a walk in itself.

Pilgrim Bench

We hadn’t gone a huge distance when we came upon the pilgrim bench just after Harrietsham. While people were playing around with that, I went to empty out the coffee.

Back on our way, it wasn’t long before we got to Lenham War Memorial, but in so doing we lost one of our party. Our previous day’s walker had a knee problem and deemed it best to bail for Lenham station rather than risk the additional 4 odd miles to Charing.

Lenham War Memorial

Onwards and byway after byway, track after track, road after road. Apart from a lot of beer-related discussion, a lot of focus on spotting pilgrim signs…

We dropped into Charing for lunch, taking it near the church, before regaining the trail for the final push. The roads, tracks and byways section ended at Dunn Street and then it was fields, fields, fields. We took a break by the ruins of Eastwell Church before pushing onto Boughton Lees.

Eastwell Church ruin

The walk completed at Wye station, we hopped in the car to take me back to mine at Hollingbourne. And there the real fun started. I’d booked a campsite on the edge of Canterbury for the rest of the festival, and to get there quicker I tried the Google maps suggestion of a direct approach, initially through lanes, rather than the long way around by the M20. It was going ok until I encountered a road closure within sight of what turned out to be the A249. A lot of guesswork through more lanes brought me to the A2 and the long slow way.

I finally pulled in at The Barns campsite at sunset and set about pitching in fading light. On the plus side, I didn’t now have to do any more of this racing about in cars for the rest of the festival.

Orchard pitch at The Barns campsite – highly recommended

*I’m not getting into any discussion about whether the apostrophe is appropriate – I have simply chosen to be consistent with the way that the KPF use in their marketing materials. So there.

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