7 December 2007. Sevenoaks to Yalding, 12 miles.
The bus came past the station at the right time, which cut out the long walk through Sevenoaks town, and the way back through Knole Park was far more pleasant (because drier) than before. It’s a good start, overall, as the way descends the scarp slope slowly with the continuing grand views south that one is becoming used to but never dulled by. The 14th century manor house of Ightham Mote is a good excuse for a first stop, but the visitor entrance is off path to the north: one for another day perhaps. Beyond Shipbourne and its broad green by the main road, there is a passage through orchards, something Kent can still do well, before descending to the headwaters of Medway tributary the Bourne. Here, the high ground is occupied by the dense Mereworth Woods, through which the Wealdway passes; the two paths meet for a mile or so into West Peckham.
West Peckham is a quintessential English village: church, pub and a few houses grouped round the village cricket ground. What better spot to view England’s summer game, with pint in hand. Alas this was December, so pint was in pub – but the Swan brews its own beer, so this is little hardship. Luckily I had set myself a short stage beyond the village, given the early dusk; it meanders past East Peckham church, a long way from its own village, before all of a sudden there is a surprising vista of boats on the Medway. Yalding is being developed now, or should one say re-developed, for clearly the railway once brought industry here.
12 January 2008. Yalding to Ulcombe, 13 miles.
Orchard city. After the brief initial climb out of the charming large village Yalding, this glorious walk stays firmly to the greensand ridge, just below the highest point on the southern side. And for mile after mile you walk through acres of Kent’s orchards, entrancing enough in what passes for deepest winter but surely worth timing for England’s spring. The gently shelving south-facing slope gives fine fruit-growing conditions, even in some cases in January, but this is a landscape in transition; arable fields were once hop fields, as the oasts at Buston Manor attest; and one day vine-growers might turn their attention here. Meanwhile, enjoy the view down the combe before Linton, and across to the village too, and the deer park at Boughton Monchelsea house, where there is a simple diversion north to the very good Cock pub.
Barbara met me at the pub for the afternoon section, and we soon regained the Way at a rare patch of woodland. As the ridge begins its slow decline, there’s something of a sense of the end of country. The hills are lower too across the vale, and the ridge begins to straggle and wiggle; who knows, a sea could lie beyond … The principal settlement is Sutton Valence, with many fine houses and a well-known private school. It’s easy to miss East Sutton women’s prison, housed in a former manor house, so blending in to the local vernacular more than most of its peers. There’s a rare dip into a stream system soon after, before this stage ends at Ulcombe church; if like us one needs to return to the car at the pub, there is (or at least was then) a late-afternoon bus – one of five in the day – that conveniently does just that.
25 April 2008. Harrietsham to Pluckley, 11 miles
There was no morning bus to Ulcombe, so we took the train to Harrietsham and walked up the muddy northern slope of the ridge from there. (Matthew joined me for this stage.) It’s clear that the ridge is declining, but there’s still enough elevation in its 200ft-or-so above the plain to maintain the views south. If January brought orchards, April did too, in nearly the same number. The blossom was starting to form, though not in the profusion I was expecting, so below is a picture of some bluebells instead. These were in a very pretty and intricate little section (with a short stretch of boardwalk) just beyond Boughton Malherbe (= bad grass!), beyond a dull stretch of prairie below the hamlet, as the trail rises back up again to the village of Egerton, an enterprising place with its own music festival. Here the George formed our lunch stop.
Beyond here the path clings to a little patch of escarpment curving left, silaged and partly tilled by a thoughtless farmer, then crossing open fields up to Pluckley, allegedly the most haunted village in England if you go in for that sort of thing. On entering the village though, we turned sharp right to head by the official link path to Pluckley’s little station, which boasts the oldest passenger station building still in use in the UK (1842). En route there was another ploughed field to cross – it will be interesting to see if it’s reinstated when I return in a few weeks’ time for the final stage.
27 June 2008. Pluckley to Hamstreet, 16 miles.
A sketchy path has been left through the crops on the link route, but I manage to lose the path before arriving back in Pluckley village. From here you leave through the last of the orchards, dodging crop-spraying today, then dropping into the valley of the Great Stour. Why cross over the river, and hence leave the greensand? The loop seems to make no sense, until you encounter Hothfield Common. The map shows it as wooded, but nowadays it’s mostly scrub, and very reminiscent of the Sussex commons on the Serpent Trail. The Way exits through a little boggy area. Well worth the detour. The growing town of Ashford soon starts to dominate however, and you skirt round the back of modern housing before heading back over the Great Stour through parkland and up into Great Chart. The village still has its own identity, despite the proximity of Ashford, and (then) two pubs for lunch. Barbara met me and we chose the Swan – closed when I was in the village in 2014.
Over the A28 and the map can’t keep up with the new housing. There’s another open stretch though through Chilmington Green, before a wide open field leads you into Kingsnorth. Its great glory is the last of the sandstone churches along the way (pictured left). From here the way turns south, through a caravan park before a desolate little sheep-strewn stretch past the derelict Lone Barn Farm, almost northern in character. Take care soon after as the Way is routed on the busy A2020 for a couple of hundred yards. The section immediately beyond was badly overgrown in this damp summer, but there’s a super finish, if quite atypical of the Way as a whole, through the ancient Hamstreet Woods. Here you are coincident with the Saxon Shore Way for a while, before a remarkable little link that leads you directly on to Platform 2 of Hamstreet station. Well done, it was worth it.