Sunday, 25 June 2017

North Downs Way - Wye to Chartham

Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury
Last Friday I joined three friends for a 12 mile hike along part of the North Downs Way.  One of the friends has completed much of the 156 mile long-distance trail, which starts at Farnham in Hampshire, and runs all the way to the White Cliffs at Dover. He could actually claim to have finished the trail, were it not for the fact that whilst the main route follows the line of the downs escarpment, there is a loop which runs north to Canterbury, before heading back towards Dover. It is this section that my friend is keen to finish.

My other two companions have accompanied the first friend on some of the Kentish sections, and knowing that they were planning part of the Canterbury section on Friday, I booked the day off in order to accompany them.

Fortunately, following the heat wave at the beginning of the week, the temperatures had dropped by around 10°, but with scarcely a cloud in the sky, some form of protection was needed against the intensity of the mid-June sun. So after smothering myself with sun-block and donning a hat for good measure, I wandered down to Tonbridge station to meet my friends for our journey down to the village of Wye, which is just to the north of Ashford. (I should also add that we all took plenty of water with us, along with a packed lunch).

Wye is a location I know well, having spent much of my teenage years living in the nearby village of Brook. I was a member of a youth group there, as well as belonging to the local scout troop, so it was interesting to be back there; even if we soon departed after picking up the NDW to the west of the village. However, we would be returning later in the day for a mini-beer festival, (more about that later).

Wye lies on the River Stour, and the route we would be following runs along high ground, over-looking the Stour valley. We walked out of the village, passing the site of the long-closed Wye Racecourse, before heading due west, across fields, towards the downs which were rising in front of us.

Mountain Street
There was a slow, steady rise at first which gradually became steeper after we passed Boughton Aluph church. There were a couple of large marquees erected in the adjacent field, advertising an art exhibition which was due to take place at the weekend, and it was shortly after here that the path began to climb steeply. Fortunately most of this section was through woodland, so we were shaded from the ferocity of the midday sun.

We paused at the top for a short break, to take on some water and a quick bite to eat, before continuing on our way. The route through woodland skirted Godmersham Park; a stately pile which was once owned by the brother of the novelist, Jane Austen. We couldn’t help noticing the high wire fence running along the estate perimeter, designed to keep out the herds of deer which inhabit Challock Forest. It is also worth mentioning that this area of woodland is extensively managed; the predominantly sweet chestnut trees being coppiced at appropriate intervals, and the resultant timber  used for items such as fencing poles.

Route into Chilham
Eventually, we passed out of the wood, but not before descending via a steep and rocky path, made worse by the dozens of loose stones underfoot. This stretch was quite painful on the feet, so I was particularly glad I’d worn proper hiking boots. We then travelled along a made-up road known as Mountain Street, which skirts the edge of Chilham Castle grounds. Through the railings, by the side of the road, we could see the castle up on the hill over-looking an ornamental lake. This was a welcome sign as it indicated we were close to Chilham itself and the chance to rest up for a while and to enjoy a welcome lunchtime pint.

Chilham Castle
It was a bit of a climb up into the village, with its picturesque square, flanked by some lovely old buildings, and presiding over it all is the impressive bulk of Chilham Castle. Were it not for the cars parked in the square it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine one had been transported back to medieval times. It is worth mentioning that the building known as Chilham Castle is an attractive, brick-built Jacobean house, which dates back to 1607. It replaces a much earlier castle which had medieval origins. Both the “castle”, and the village have been used as settings for a number of historical dramas, including an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Directly opposite Chilham Castle is the 15th Century church of St Mary, and to the left of the churchyard is the 16th Century White Horse pub. After having walked approximately seven miles, it was the latter establishment which caught our eye, and we entered the welcoming coolness of the interior with eager anticipation.

The serving area occupies the middle section of the pub, and although linked, there is a choice of areas to sit in. As the pumps were in the right hand section, we made a beeline there, but ended up sitting in the left hand area, where there was more space and a table adjacent to the impressive stone fireplace.

The beer choice was Otter Ale or Sharp’s Atlantic. I went for the latter, whilst two of my companions opted for the Otter. The third member of our party chose an intentionally cloudy cider. The beer was excellent; cool and refreshing and we scored both at 3.5 NBSS. It was tempting to stay for another, but with another five miles to cover we thought it best to press on.

In addition, all four of us have sufficient experience of long-distant walking to know that stopping for too long midway, especially if the halt involves several pints of beer, makes it much harder to get going again, so somewhat reluctantly we said farewell to the White Horse and made our way out of Chilham.

We had picked up a leaflet in the pub which gave details of the various local attractions and we had noticed that our route took us past Badger’s Hill Farm & Cidery. We thought it would be churlish not to divert for a look, and sure enough there was a well-stocked barn selling local produce, plus cider made on the farm.

Two of my companions bought a pint each of the Medium Cider to take away. I had a taste, but wasn’t quite so keen, although to be fair, if the cider had been chilled it may have been a lot more to my taste. We then continued on our way, up the appropriately named “Long Hill”, into the village of Old Wives Lees. As we entered the village, we were joined for part of the route by a sprightly local resident, who told us that since the closure of the Star a few years ago, Old Wives Lees is now a “dry” village.

We could see the sadly closed pub down a side-turning, as we continued through the village, but with several miles still ahead of us had no time to stop for a closer look. Our route took us through fruit-growing country, with apple orchards laid out on either side of us. Again the terrain was undulating and quite challenging in places.

After cresting one hill and getting ready to descend another, we could see laid out below us a large  encampment of static caravans and other semi-permanent buildings. This is the farm complex of one of the largest fruit growers in the south east, and the static caravans are used to house seasonal workers who arrive each year to help with the harvest. It seemed a substantial operation, with a fleet of mini-buses parked up, no doubt waiting to bus in workers from other locations.

Fruit pickers' encampment
After making our way through the farmyard, and skirting a number of rather nice looking houses, we parted company with the North Downs Way. Instead our route led us downhill towards Chartham village and the railway station, where we would be able to catch a train back to Wye.

Unfortunately we miscalculated slightly on the times, and whilst two of our party made it onto the platform, I was dead on my feet and unable to sprint up the steps and over the footbridge. We missed the train by less than 30 seconds, and with another not due for an hour, there was only one thing to do and that was to find another pub.

Just over 10 minutes walk away, passed the playing fields and across the River Stour, is the Artichoke; an attractive looking 15th Century half-timbered former hall house, which has been carefully restored by the owning brewery - Shepherd Neame. Now I know what regular followers of this blog will be thinking, but any port in a storm, and the chance to rest my weary limbs along with a nice cool pint of beer, was not one to miss.

The Artichoke turned out to be very pleasant inside, and the Whitstable Bay Pale Ale was also in fine form – NBSS 3.0. Somewhat unusually for a Shepherd Neame pub, the majority of the customers clustered around the bar were drinking cask, with Spitfire Gold appearing to be a particular favourite.

We made it back to Chartham station in plenty of time for the next train, journeying just two stops to Wye, where our plan was to spend the first part of the evening at the rather low-key Wye Beer Festival. This event is worthy of a post in its own right, so I will draw things to a close here and continue next time.

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