North Downs Way
Stage: 6 of 11
Distance: 17½ miles, 28 km
Walked on: 22 October 2011
There are two ways to get to Cuxton from London by train. You can start at Charing Cross and change at Tonbridge. Alternatively you can set off from St Pancras and change at town of Strood. The first will take you about 100 minutes. The second will take you about forty five.
Halving the travel time does, however, come at a price. Specifically an extra six pounds or so on the fare. Normally, anyway. But thanks to a combination of a Railcard and Southeastern trains offering 20% off fares bought online, the price difference was suddenly a mere pound. Spend an extra fifty minutes on the train to save a measly quid? No chance. High speed it was!
And that’s what I found myself at St Pancras on a Saturday morning, running towards the platform just as quickly as my legs would carry me. I’d arrived at the station in plenty of time but had had to get some batteries for my ancient spare camera (my decent one having headed off for a trip to the Lake District without me) and spent a couple of hours in the massive queue to collect my train tickets from the machine. A queue that was delayed more when I got to the front and found that just putting in my credit card wasn’t enough – I had to put in a booking reference that I didn’t have with me, as well.
I made it on board my train with minutes to spare, slumping on my seat in exhaustion before musing how wrong it seemed that the fastest train service in Britain wouldn’t take me to some far flung location like Newcastle or Edinburgh, but was for commuter train to Kent. And as we pulled out of the station, I realised that whilst my camera now had batteries, I couldn’t take many photos as I’d forgotten to put a memory card in it.
Twenty or so minutes later I left the train at Stood in a foul mood, and leaving behind a giant dent in the otherwise pristine table I’d been sat at.
Yet another fantastic autumn day greeted me as I stepped off the train at Cuxton, an incredibly bright sun bathing the area in its warmth. It was Saturday, and the end of a tiring week. I’d started a new job and was suddenly having to learn a whole heap of new stuff as well as suffer the daily drudgery of a commute for the first time in months.
In a way, what I really wanted to do was slump on the sofa and eat doughnuts but the completionist in me wasn’t having any of it. I had a free weekend, the weather was good so what better to do than head out once more for another day on the North Downs Way?
After taking in a quick detour to Cuxton’s village shop in the extremely optimistic hope that they’d have a memory card, I headed up the main road to rejoin the North Downs Way as it crossed the River Medway.
Three different bridges span the wide river. The first carries the high speed railway, enabling Eurostar trains to thunder off to a tunnel under the sea to France and beyond. The second and third take eight lanes of the M2 motorway across the river and, tacked on one of them, a footpath and cycle lane allow those travelling under their own steam to cross too.
With lorries and cars thundering by I joined the path, preferring to gaze off at the yachts in the marina below rather than the road traffic. One vehicle did however catch my eye; off in the distance a brightly coloured JCB span round frantically as if the driver couldn’t work out how to stop it. Which was probably the case given it was sited at a theme park named “Diggerland”.
To Borstal said the sign and it wasn’t wrong for Borstal was indeed over there somewhere. The name became so synonymous with prisons for young offenders that many people probably don’t realise that the name comes from the town where the first ever such unit was established in 1902.
The Borstal system was abolished in the 1980s but the town still hosts a corrective facility for young offenders, although now under the name of HM Prison Rochester instead. Despite the route going very close to the prison (and a neighbouring facility for adults), you’d never know it was there from the North Downs Way, hidden as it is by the motorway embankment.
Leaving the motorways and Borstal’s correctional facilities behind, the North Downs Way headed south, initially along ploughed up farm fields before heading along a road through a small woodland, sadly filled with yet more signs warning about fly tipping and even more sadly, by items left by those who just didn’t give a damn. Why leave your baby’s old car seat at the council’s refuse facilities when you can drive into the middle of nowhere along a gravel track and dump it in some trees? It’s just so obvious.
Away from the waste, a sign for the hidden Robin Hood pub beckoned me but it was too early for a pint. With no surrounding buildings besides one or two farms, it seemed amazing the place had managed to stay open all these years. There wasn’t even any passing traffic; the pub was at the end of a quiet country lane and I walked the mile or so in to the oddly named village of Blue Bell Hill seeing just one car. And that seemed to have got lost given the abrupt u-turn it made.
Some more fly tipping warning signs later, and a brief detour to the Blue Bell Hill viewpoint, and I was back alongside traffic once more as the trail came alongside the bustling A229. Here some thought had gone at least into giving walkers a nicer environment to walk down, with the North Downs Way keeping a discreet distance from the dual carriage; trees helping to block out some of the noise.
Then, off to one side, I passed something strangely magical. Through a gap in the trees was Kit’s Coty House burial chamber, where three giant stones stand, one rested across the other two. Placed together around 2000BC, the stones once marked the entrance to a long barrow, which is now long gone.
Rising three metres high off the ground, an iron fence protected the monument from vandalism, and a little way on I found another stone where such protection could have been useful. Dating from the same era, the nearby White Horse Stone is rather less impressive, but no less important. Sadly the modern additions of a spray painted artists impression of a part of the male anatomy and a word that’s considered one of the most offensive in the English language, did little to improve its stature.
From the White Horse Stone the path headed uphill through a nature reserve, and then along the edge of the hilltop. The views were mostly blocked by trees but a set of pylons had required some of them to be cut back and for a brief moment the flat plains of the South East were revealed. It would be hard to claim I was high up – the hill was barely 190m above sea level – but the relative flatness of the rest of the land meant I could see for miles and miles. Had it not been for two cyclists chatting at the best view point, I would have stopped for a whole. They shouldn’t even have been there; this was firmly a footpath only, but legal status didn’t stop them and several others from hurtling over the paths I was walking on.
The village of Detling is cut in half by a road; the A249 to be precise. A busy dual carriageway, the road was built in the 1960s to connect two motorways. Yet despite the huge amount of traffic that would be flowing over it, no one bothered to consider those that lived in the area and the fact that they may want to get from one side to the other by foot.
As the road got busier and busier, things got more dangerous and locals began to get more vocal in their campaign for a better solution. In 1974 a 74 year old man was killed as he tried to cross, and in 1986 the death toll hit two as a 74 year old woman was killed too.
It would take another two deaths before something was done. In 2000 eight year old Jade Hobbs was killed along with her 79 year old grandmother, Margaret Kuwertz as the pair went on a visit to the shop on the other side of the road.
Despite the deaths Kent County Council refused to build a bridge claiming it was too expensive, but after a campaign that raised £75,000 in donations, a £1.1m bridge was finally built. On either side plaques dedicate the bridge, named Jade’s Crossing, to the four people who had lost their lives and the bridge itself stands tall and proud as a testament to those that fought so hard to get it built. Beneath the plaques are donation boxes and the money raised by Jade’s Appeal has been used to fund a number of road safety initiatives in the area.
As I stood on the bridge, watching the traffic speed fast through the village I briefly wondered how I would have managed to cross the road safely had it not been built. Given the number of cars and lorries that thundered through Detling, the bridge had been long overdue.
After ducking down in height to cross the road, the North Downs Way headed back uphill once more and the final section to the village of Hollingbourne was one of the North Downs Way’s finest. I wasn’t alone with enjoying the bright sunshine as I completed the final few miles. Families and couples strolled happily, enjoying the views.
“Are there any cows in there?” asked a nervous looking group of three teenage girls as I came through a gate.
“None at all,” I replied, watching the relief on their face as they hurried on.
I looked down at the valley and at my map. I was almost at the end and the North Downs Way followed a path that took me in to the village of Hollingbourne. Next to a pool table repair specialist and opposite the Dirty Habit Pub, I bade the trail goodbye and headed for the station, and home.
It would be some time before I’d return. The weekend after, the clocks would change meaning the sun would be setting earlier. I hadn’t many free weekends before Christmas and as the trail headed further east, so the journey time on the trains increased.
For now I’d have to say goodbye to the North Downs Way, but it was a fitting place to end; a delight of a stretch to finish the year on. I just hoped my return, whenever that would be, would be just as good.
Next time: Muddy tracks, various lanes, a giant chalk cross, a pilgrim hogging a bench and a decision to be made.
The whole North Downs Way adventure is available to read now for Kindle, iOS, Kobo, and Google Play or other e-readers.