In his role as Kent Downs writer-in-residence, Marcus O’Dair goes in pursuit of the outstandingly beautiful
Pale male writer walks in countryside. We do not need more of this. Yet the commission, to mark 40 years since the opening of the North Downs Way and 50 years since the designation of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is simply too good to turn down. As writer in residence, commissioned by Applause Rural Touring, I have to walk in areas of the Downs that are, by definition, outstandingly beautiful. And I have to visit pubs. There is a good deal of envy when people hear that job description. Although I know sections of the North Downs Way, I am unprepared for the spectacular beauty of the Darent Valley Path or the Greensand Way, and equally unprepared to find these routes so spectacularly unpeopled. I also fail to fully anticipate the fundamental tensions that become evident when talking to local residents – between wanting to raise awareness of this glorious landscape and wanting it to remain a kind of secret, and between a conservative impulse to keep everything just as it is and an acknowledgement that, without new homes, the younger and less affluent are effectively banished.
I begin my walk in Dartford and soon pick up the Darent Valley Path, a riverside walk that runs straight out of the town’s Central Park. The route is stunning: hop gardens and cornfields, willows and wild flowers. But I walk for hours at a time without seeing anyone at all. Beyond the very occasional solitary dog walkers, the only people I see, in a brief stretch between lakes, are fishermen. All are clad in camouflage gear. They must be hiding from the fish. I see a sign setting out a complicated ticketing system, and a sign warning forbidding defecating in the bushes. Other signs warn of wheel clamping and CCTV, or warn that land is protected by ‘professionals in security’ who do not look kindly on those who enter without ‘authorisation in writing’. No right to roam, it seems, here. But, on Darent Valley Path, roaming is what I do. Although I have a paper map, I mainly use my iPhone for navigation, and it may be because of this that I occasionally get lost. It is partially due to this sort of inefficiency, of course, that walking is so enjoyable, but it still feels as if my iPhone is mocking me. Why am I spending three hours and 19 minutes walking to the next destination when I could get there by taxi in a tenth of the time? On two legs rather than four wheels, I make it to Horton Kirby and tuck into Mrs Manning’s homemade pie at the Fighting Cocks. Then I head on to Eyensford for a drink right by the River Darent. The barmaid at The Plough clearly thinks I’m nuts when she asks if I’ve come a long way and I tell her I have come from Dartford by foot. I head on, passing lavender fields and a shop selling Kentish cherries; in the early evening, I see the first oast houses. I reach Ye Olde George Inn in Shoreham, a pub that dates back to the 16th century, before heading on to Dunton Green and my bed for the night. My iPhone says I’ve walked 27.4km. But it also suggests, albeit not in so many words, that I’m a fool for having done so.
I begin day two in the village of Westerham and soon pick up the Greensand Way, a route that stretches for 108 miles from Surrey and which takes its name from a sandstone ridge. As on the Darent Valley Path, I walk for hours without seeing anyone at all. I make it to the Fox and Hounds on Toys Hill – at 801 feet, the highest pub in Kent – and continue on my way, sometimes in idyllic countryside, sometimes on roads, and in places the overgrown hedges and unusable verges make the stretches on roads a little hairy for pedestrians. This disregard for public areas is in stark contrast to the strictly enforced boundaries of private property: I pass signs for companies offering ‘security solutions’, stating that only horse riders ‘wearing valid hatbands’ are welcome. What would be an invalid hatband? I have lunch at the Cock Inn in Ide Hill, looking out onto a village green straight out of a Kinks song, and head on towards Sevenoaks, where the houses get bigger and the very public path rubs up against very private property once again. I stop at the White Hart, a pub that dates back to the 1600s, then head on to my BnB, which I find decked out in England flags for that night’s World Cup semi-final. It’s England vs Croatia. Football does not come home.
I start my third day at the Robin Hood on Blue Bell Hill, a site of special scientific interest due to its magnificently named flora: salad burnet, bird’s-foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch, fairy flax, pyramidal orchid, bee orchid, false brome grass, hairy violet, bulbous buttercup. I’m soon on the North Downs Way, looking out over the Downs and Medway Valley, the route in places intersecting with the Pilgrims’ Way, the ancient path now helpfully improved by the addition of tarmac. Although it’s noticeably better signposted than the Greensand Way or the Darent Valley Path, there’s still hardly anyone about. And, as on the other paths, I occasionally find myself deposited without ceremony on roads, sometimes with fast traffic and no verge: not much room, in other words, for pilgrims. Near Detling, I am obliged to use a pedestrian overpass; no one in Chaucer’s day had to contend with four lanes of traffic. But these spots are interspersed with areas of natural beauty as outstanding as I was promised, and views that reward the climbs. Today, too, I encounter signs of private property: signs advertising ‘effective vermin control and land security’, warning that ‘trainee patrol dogs’ are operating. Wondering whether or not I would prefer the fully qualified variety, I walk on to the Black Horse in Thurnham and then the Dirty Habit, a 13th-century pub right at the foot of the North Downs. Monks used to brew ale here more than a thousand years ago.
On my fourth day, I continue along the North Downs Way, beginning at Charing with a balanced and nutritious breakfast of sausage roll and Eccles cake from the local butcher. And now, for the first time, I see groups of fellow walkers: teenage boys on a hiking trip. Today’s pilgrims are working towards Duke of Edinburgh awards. This section is overwhelmingly green, although the splashes of red through the undergrowth to my right are reminiscent of a World War One cemetery. The path here is easy to follow and, once I pass those walkers, fairly quiet. I find myself daydreaming, miles away from bills and Brexit. Yet there are still reminders of our impending departure from the European Union – the signposts feature the EU flag, and one section of the route is actually called the Grand Randonnée European path. Tomorrow, too, the Channel will be my constant companion. I have lunch at the Tickled Trout in Wye and then head on to Stowting. At one point, I find my way blocked by an animal that looks very much like a bull. I consult my guidebook. It is a bull. But I make it to Etchinghill and, over a beer at The Gatekeeper, reflect on dramatic landscape features such as the giant cleft known as Devil’s Kneading Trough, and the 20-mile views from Wye Crown. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the hottest English summer on record. Kilometres walked today: over 30. Headless pigeons seen so far: 1. Dead badgers seen so far: 1. Blister plasters used: I’ve lost count.
My fifth and final day of walking is along the section of the North Downs Way that runs along the coast, so everything on my right is now blue. This is the best-known part of the route and it is spectacular, offering the panorama that no photo can properly capture even on ‘panorama’ setting. I pass Folkestone Warren and the Battle of Britain memorial up on the cliff, and have a drink in Capel-Le-Ferne. I drop down to sea level at this point too, 50 flights of stairs according to my iPhone, and head along the shingle until I reach a nudist beach and don’t feel able to continue without removing my clothes. Back on the cliff top, I pass Shakespeare Cliff and, finally, make it to Dover. It’s a jolt, not only suddenly urban but suddenly multinational, with number plates from Lithuania, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and a bureau de change everywhere I turn. Then I do something eccentric: having spent much of the day walking from Folkestone, I now jump on a train and retrace my steps. I’m back at Folkestone Central in just seven minutes. But the faster pace is necessary, as it is time to begin the second phase of my residency, carrying out interviews with people who live and work in the Kent Downs AONB: farmers, archaeologists, artists, fruit-pickers from Romania, hop-pickers from the East End. I begin tonight, at the Plough Inn in Stalisfield, and need to get a move on if I am to catch the regulars. The walking part of the residency is over. Before setting off, I read Rural Rides by the journalist, farmer and politician William Cobbett, and The Old Road by the writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, both of whom roamed these paths back in the 1800s. Like Belloc, I am ending in a pub, so I borrow his closing words to close this piece. ‘In the inn,’ Belloc writes at the conclusion of The Old Road, ‘in the main room of it, I found my companions. A gramophone fitted with a monstrous trumpet roared out American songs, and to this sound the servants of the inn were holding a ball… With all this happiness we mingled.’