North Downs Way Stage 9: Canterbury to Dover, on the north loop

Published 22 February 2013

Arrow on a bench

North Downs Way

Stage: 9 of 11

Distance: 19 miles, 30½ km

Walked on: 8 September 2012

A lot can happen in a year. When I’d done the first stage of the North Downs Way in August 2011 I was been unemployed; an official job seeker surrounded by job application forms with no idea what the future would hold. I was someone in desperate need of some respite, some escape, from the never ending treadmill of recruitment agents and job alert emails.

As I walked along the route, I got an offer of employment, accepted it and started working again. I’d even moved offices to somewhere more desirable. Before I knew it thirteen months had passed since that first day on the North Downs.

Thirteen whole months. So much had changed.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised just how the North Downs Way resonated so strongly in my mind with just one small part of my life. A point in time where things seemed so different. A narrow slice.

And soon things would be even more different. Soon a child would be born. My child. It would enter the world in November 2012. Times would be different.

I knew I needed to close off the North Downs Way before things changed. It wouldn’t work if I hadn’t. The book couldn’t be closed at the right point.

So it was that I found myself stood outside Canterbury cathedral; the floodlight building shining brightly against the black sky of the evening. A beacon on the landscape. A marker. A pause for thought. Somewhere to reflect. About how all those worries and concerns of the previous summer seemed so long ago.

Canterbury Cathedral


With around 19 miles to walk to get to Dover, and with September’s nights slowly beginning to draw in, I’d opted to travel up on Friday after work and stay overnight. Booking it all in, I was more than happy to discover that my accommodation for the evening was not even particularly far off the trail. Indeed I could get off the train at Canterbury West, follow the North Downs Way through the city, past its floodlit cathedral, for a mile or so before heading for my bed.

With the sun long gone, walking through the city’s historic streets all lined with trendy looking bars and restaurants, felt rather weird. The pavements were lined with people relaxing at outdoor tables supping wine and beer, toasting the end of the week. Yet here was I, strolling past them with my hiking boots and rucksack. It was like I’d been benighted after a long days walk even though the reality was that I’d simply hopped off a train a short while earlier.

Canterbury city centre offered no waymarks for the North Downs Way walker to follow. It was as if someone had made an active decision that the city didn’t need them as “hey, most people will just want to wander aimlessly and see the sights!” It was simple enough though. Straight on, turn off to look at the cathedral, wander down some backstreets, and get lost near a large branch of Waitrose. Easy really.

Things were far simpler the next morning as I picked up the trail again after a good nights sleep and headed off down a street almost inevitably called “Pilgrim’s Way”.

Final street called "Pilgrims Way" on the North Downs Way

In contrast to its forebears which were generally narrow lanes that looked like they’d been there for hundreds of years, this one was a modern housing estate looking like it was built in the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed the road was even on the wrong side of town to be of any true value to the ancient pilgrim. Anyone coming from Winchester or Salisbury would have been unlikely to have ended up here, way beyond the cathedral and most of the city’s other religious sites. It seemed more likely that the name was just an affectation applied randomly by a modern housing developer; a nod to local history rather than being a name that actually came from it.

The road gave way to a track as the North Downs Way made its way to the village of Patrixbourne before heading through empty fields, recently harvested. The garden of England had done its work. Food for the nation had been provided for another year, and now the parched soil held little more than the dried out stubs of crops.

It may have been September but the sun was shining strongly in the sky, giving that bright, dazzling sunlight that I’ve long associated with childhood camping holidays in the middle of France. The kind where all the colour seems to have been bleached, where the eyes struggle to remain open wide as the white sun shines down. This was clearly not a day to have left your hat, suncream and sunglasses at home. Which was unfortunate as that was just what I’d done.

More of that bright, hot sun

Barnham Downs looked little different to the earlier fields of the day, with the additional aural experience of traffic thundering down the A2 a short distance away. There was little respite from the sun. By mid-morning the temperatures had already reached uncomfortable levels and the fact that I was walking in to the sun didn’t help matters either. Whilst most of the North Downs Way had been content to meander through woods and down tree-lined lanes, all of a sudden it seemed reluctant to do anything other than head straight down the middle of a field. Just when a row of trees was just what I needed, was just when they were completely absent. Burned arms, and quite possibly ruined retinas, seemed almost inevitable.

The land was flat, the fields large. At times it was impossible to look out and see where the edge was. One took me about half an hour to cross; the field boundary only appearing when a road got in the way. If it wasn’t a road it was a settlement like the tiny, faintly twee looking hamlet of Womenswold or the more modern Woolage village. Built in 1912 Woolage was established to house the miners of the nearby Snowdown Colliery, opened in 1908. Today, the fields of Kent aren’t exactly well known for their coal, but mining was a major industry in Kent for many years until the final mine closed in the 1980s.

Another mining remnant was a short way over at another village. With a level of indecisiveness most unusual for the Ordnance Survey, my map told me I was entering “Shepherdswell or Sibertswold” and as the North Downs Ways skirted the village I passed over the tracks of a railway. Originally steam locomotives hauled passengers and coal over the line, connecting several mines and villages in the area, but declining demand and the poor state of the railway after the Second World War saw the line slowly close down in stages between 1949 and 1951.

Locked level crossing gate

But like many closed railways, part of it had survived and the modern day East Kent Railway now runs over relaid tracks for the short journey between Shepherdswell and nearby Wigmore Lane. There’s no coal to carry any more, but instead the tracks ferry happy passengers on a variety of diesel and electric trains. As long as they turn up on the right day, anyway. There was to be no journey on a heritage locomotive for me. No trains run on Saturday and the level crossing gates were firmly padlocked as I walked past. Anyone wanting to be whisked away would have to use the village’s other rail connection; the mainline railway still provides direct services to Dover and London to this day.

To add to the village name confusion, the mainline station is known as Shepherds Well for no apparent reason, and as there was a shop near it, I headed on a short detour on the off-chance that it offered such delights as sun-protection for sale. Inevitably it was a doomed venture. Cauliflower and cabbage yes; locally made jam and preserves no problem. But as bottle of factor 50, well there was no chance and I returned to the village green empty handed.

The Bell Inn, Shepherdswell

I parked myself under the welcome shade of a giant oak tree, a short way from one of the village pubs, and ate my lunch. The heat was beginning to get to me. It was September, not July. 27 degrees it should not have been. I had images of myself with a bright red face; burnt to the shade of bacon. Truth be told, I’ve never been that good with the heat but with no sunglasses or hat, I was really feeling the pressure. Momentarily I pondered giving up; heading off to the station and zooming back to London and the relative coolness of my house. I could come back another day. Maybe when it was cooler. Or raining. Or snowing even.

A pair cyclists pulled up outside the pub, another weary and hot looking walker behind them. Two cars parked up, one with a small boy extremely unimpressed with whatever ‘boring’ task he’d been assigned to do. As the village seemed to be slowly waking up, it seemed time to leave.


Waldershare House

The fields of the morning were replaced by the almost identical looking landscape of Waldershare Park. A giant red-brick manor house, once home of various Earls of Guildford, stood at one side of the park. Rising costs of maintenance had seen the manor house split in to a number of apartments, and a substantial amount of the manor’s former driveway was now lined with cars.

The North Downs Way then should have brought me to an old flint church but the signs seemed to point me in the wrong direction and I instead found myself crossing the rather less interesting A256. Then it was back to the motley collection of roads, tracks and field boundaries, all much the better for their shade from the afternoon sun. For most of the day I’d been walking east but with the end rapidly approaching, the North Downs Way now took a southerly direction. With the sun no longer in my eyes, I could, for once, see where I was going, and a gentle breeze helped keep things cool as I passed through the hamlets of Ashley and Pineham.

Crops not yet harvested

The rather less-than-straight course of a former Roman Road was now being followed as I began to reach the outskirts of Dover, marked nicely by a giant branch of B&Q which turned out to be the only DIY store to be found on the North Downs Way. And then it was time to descend slowly into Dover itself. Into a town of large houses, B&Bs and plenty of signs for the nearby ferry port.

After starting the day in the rather upmarket Canterbury, Dover was a bit of a come-down as the North Downs Way headed into the town centre past a variety of battered looking pubs. Each came with a large group of aggressive looking lager-swilling men outside, for whom every other word uttered just happened to be very loud, and begin with an F.

It perhaps wasn’t the impression Dover’s tourism chiefs would really have wanted to impart on me. No doubt they’d rather I was waxing lyrical about the town’s rich maritime heritage and the well preserved remains of the Roman Painted House. Instead I just saw large packs of hooded teenage boys hogging the pavement, forcing parents with young kids on to the road in order to get past. Were it not for the sight of a teenage girl wearing a bow-tie, I’d have been rather worried for the place.

Broken North Downs Way sign

First impressions count so much and my initial feelings towards Dover weren’t helped by the fact that every North Downs Way signpost in the town centre had either been broken, vandalised or deliberately turned round to point in completely the wrong direction. One of them even seemed to have been snapped in the middle. This was a signpost that was made out thick, chunky metal, yet looked like someone had taken an axe to it.

I ended up wandering round side streets, trying to work out where on earth I was supposed to be going; my Ordnance Survey map not being the easiest of things to follow in a town centre. I finally had a brainwave and loaded up my phone, using its maps application to guide me towards the beach where the trail ended, and where Dover got a bit more appealing.

FIN

At one time the North Downs Way had ended in the market square, marked only by a rather battered sign and a bench where groups of teenagers would gather round. But in 2010 the decision was made to extend the route slightly to the Esplanade where a simple, but wonderfully effective looking “Start/Finish” line made out of black granite sits inlaid on the ground.

Just ahead of it, a plaque in the ground showed the flora, fauna and heritage of the route. And just as one challenge was ending for walkers, a pair of statues of swimmers allowed the walker to reflect that this was also a place where some people would set off on a rather more extreme adventure; swimming to Calais.

Cross channel swimmers

I slowed down and took a moment to savour the moment. One step more and this would be it, the North Downs Way would be over. A year of walking, on and off, complete.

Across the sea, a pair of ferries crossed each other on their way to Calais. Children ran excitedly on the beach and people queued for ice cream. This was the pleasant side of Dover; people enjoying themselves in the remnants of the summer sun on the town’s promenade.

Little did any of them know that a journey had just ended. That an era of my life was drawing to a close. And if they did, would it have made much of a difference?

Of course it wouldn’t. It would only matter to me. I stepped over the line and meandered over to the beach. The North Downs Way was over. And two months later, with the birth of my son, a new era of my life began.

Next time: hang on? There’s a next time? But you’ve just finished the whole thing! Or have you…

Rambling Man Walks The North Downs Way: Following the Pilgrims from Farnham to Dover

The whole North Downs Way adventure is available to read now for Kindle, iOS, Kobo, and Google Play or other e-readers.

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Your Comments

Ludovica

11 April 2017 at 10:56 am

Hello!
my name is Ludovica and I am planning to walk part of the North Down Way this weekend.
My plan is to do:
-Wye to Folkestone
-Folkestone to Dover
-Dover to Canterbury

Could you tell me how long did it take you to walk these parts of the trail?

Are there clear signals and indications on the trail, or is it easy to get lost?

Are there places where to get water while walking along the trail?

Thank you very much for any valuable information you might give me!

Andrew Bowden

11 April 2017 at 11:04 am

Hello Ludovica – you’ll find all the information you need on my North Downs Way planning page.

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