I managed to knock off an eight mile section of the North Downs Way last Sunday. This followed me joining a group of local CAMRA members on a rather muddy walk to a classic old country pub, nestled on top of the downs; a pub that will sadly close its doors for good this coming Friday, (today!).
The pub in question was the Rising Sun at Cotman’s Ash; not to be confused with the Rising Sun at Twitton, just the other side of Otford. Now I intend writing a separate post about the Rising Sun, but my mention of Otford was deliberate, as the village’s railway station was the starting point of our walk.
The North Downs Way passes through this pleasant village, which nestles in a gap in the chalk hills, formed by the River Darent, and after agreeing to accompany my friends on this hastily arranged walk, the possibility that I could complete a further section of this long-distance trail, began to take shape in my mind.
The walk was arranged by a handful of West Kent CAMRA members, following a Twitter-feed advising of the Rising Sun’s imminent closure. The fact that this ancient old inn is closing on the same day as Britain’s ill-advised departure from the European Union, was a fact that was not lost on many of us, but leaving such comparisons aside, the loss of this classic country alehouse marks the loss of a piece of living history, as well as the demise of a way of life for the pub’s owner.
Our small walking group was made up of just five hardy souls who met at Tonbridge station, before taking the train to Sevenoaks. We then changed onto the Darent Valley Line, before alighting (always a strange term) at the aforementioned Otford. A short walk east of the station leads to a path which begins a long ascent up the aptly named “Otford Mount.”
At first the path is sandwiched between some rather posh looking houses, but these are soon left behind as it continues to climb towards the 204 metre summit – what’s that in old money? I first walked up this path, some 20 years ago, back in the days when we had a family dog. The surrounding area seems much more overgrown than I remember it; evidence of how the advancing scrub-land can easily takeover.
Later on, we came across a group of volunteers, equipped with brush-cutters – industrial-size strimmers, who were cutting down the advancing bushes and infant trees, preventing them from becoming established and converting the grassy chalk downland into the beginnings of a forest.
The terrain levelled out, once we reached the summit of the mount, but we were then faced with the challenge of sticky mud. After one of the wettest autumns and early winters on record, the ground remains saturated, even on top of the normally rapid-draining chalk hills. Fortunately most of us had heeded the advice to wear stout walking boots, but these intermittent muddy areas still managed to slow us down.
For me though, it was just great to be back out in the open countryside, after being cooped up indoors for three weeks, because of man flu and/or inclement weather. It was mild for mid-January, making walking pleasure, despite the muddy conditions underfoot.
We eventually reached our destination, finding the attractive Rising Sun pub, almost hidden behind a hedgerow. Constructed from a mixture of brick and roughly-hewn local flints, the pub sits in what looks like its own small-holding. A couple of dogs came out to greet us, before we stepped inside.
The interior was like stepping back in time, but I’m going to leave the description of the pub for the separate article, as there’s much to tell. More to the point, there’s another four miles of walking to cover, before we get to the end of this particular section of the NDW.
We didn’t stop long at the Rising Sun, primarily because the pub had run dry. Our party of five were served what turned out to be the last pints of cask left. With closure planned for Friday, the landlady was trying to run down stocks. Consequently there was no more cask waiting to come on tap.
Our original plan had been to stop for a couple of pints at the Rising Sun before heading back. A different return route was mooted; one which involved missing the muddy fields and woodland, by walking along the lanes which criss-cross this part of the downs. The village of Shoreham, which is the next village along from Otford, also nestles in the Darenth Valley, was mooted as a suitable destination. It has its own station, along with three pubs.
With this plan in mind, we’d all purchased return tickets to Shoreham and, were it not for my desire to complete the North Downs Way, this would have been the ideal place to end our walk, before taking the train home. To my mind though, the miles put in by partially re-tracing our outward route, could be put to better use by continuing eastwards, along the NDW to the village of Wrotham.
For me, Wrotham, with its nearby rail connection at Borough Green, would be a far better place to end the walk, as not only would it mean completion of a further four miles of the trail, it would also provide a suitable starting point for the next station.
I’d already explained my idea to the walk leader who, having completed the NDW several years before, fully understood the thinking behind it. I therefore bade farewell to my companions, and set off towards Wrotham. It was shortly after 2pm, so I was certain of reaching my destination before dusk. There was also a reward awaiting me at the end of the walk in the form of the Bull Hotel. This was the only one of Wrotham’s three pubs I had not set foot in, but one which looked particularly appealing so, armed with my OS Guide, off I went, passing through a mixture of woodland and open countryside.
I am quite happy walking by myself, as I can set my own pace, stop for a drink from my water bottle or nip behind a suitable tree to get rid of the excess. I kept up a reasonable pace, finding the trail well-marked and easy to follow. After approximately a mile and a half, the route suddenly descends from the hilltops, by means of a steep path. It then continues in an easterly direction, along the bottom of the escarpment, along a rough, but quite firm track, all the way to Wrotham.
Although the views were nowhere near as impressive, the firm going underfoot allowed me to make good progress, and true to form I arrived in Wrotham before the light had started to fade. The lack of impressive scenery, meant there was no need to stop and take photos. I was also keen to press on, especially as an annoying light drizzle has started to set in. I found my way to the Bull, making note along the way as to where I needed to start the next section of the NDW, whenever that might be.
The Bull is an imposing and well-appointed hotel, parts of which are said to date back to the 14th Century. Today, it has a good reputation for food, but is also known for stocking a reasonable selection of beers, often sourced from small breweries. With this in mind I was a little concerned about the state of my footwear, even though I’d managed to remove most of the excess along the second part of the walk.
I needn’t have worried though, as there was a stone floor running from the door towards the well-stocked bar. Even more comforting was the presence of two Old Dairy beers on the bar, Red Top and Über Brew. I opted for the latter, pale in colour and refreshingly hoppy in taste. It was well worthy of a 3.5 NBSS.
The best seats in the pub were occupied by two groups of drinkers, some of whom had dogs with them. The latter is always a good sign that the establishment is not too pretentious. I asked if it was OK to sit in the dining part of the pub, and was told it was fine, apart from at the one large table with the reserved sign.
I settled down to enjoy my pint, congratulate myself on completing this section of the trail, and then use my phone to check the train times from Borough Green and the time it would take me to walk there. There was sufficient time to finish my pint, but not really enough for another.
I therefore set off, but not before dinning my waterproof, as I could see through the window that it had started to rain quite heavily. Fortunately the road out of the village, as well as the main A227 was well-lit with a proper footpath for pedestrians. I reached the station with time to buy a ticket and catch the train back towards Otford.
I received an enquiry regarding my progress, via WhatsApp, from the group of friends I’d started out with. I sent them a photo of the Bull and also a picture of my pint. They were ensconced in the second of Shoreham’s three pubs and judging by the photos, getting stuck into the beers. I was on a nice warm train, heading back home, secure in the knowledge that son Matthew would be waiting in his car, outside Tonbridge station, ready to pick me up at .
It had been an enjoyable walk, but I’m glad there wasn’t that long slog up the hill, towards my house, to end it off.