My brand-spanking new pair of Meindl boots had their first proper airing on Friday. I’d taken a hard-earned and well-deserved day off from work, in order to enjoy a lengthy, four-day weekend – the taste of things to come! So, with the weather set fair at last, after what has to be one of the wettest Mays on record, it was the perfect excuse to try out the boots by hitting the North Downs Way.
I realised it had been nearly eight months since I last set foot on the trial – a combination of two lockdowns and inclement winter weather preventing me from getting back out there. And before any of you say I could have walked a section of the NDW without stopping off at a pub, or two, yes, I could, but a “dry” walk isn’t half as much fun.
Friday’s section covered the eight or so mile stretch between Wye and Charing, or more accurately their respective railway stations. Completing this stretch would mean I have now walked an unbroken line from Dover to just north of Sevenoaks, at Dunton Green.
In addition to this, I have also completed the so-called “Canterbury loop,” which is an alternative route that runs from just west of Wye, at Boughton Lees, northwards to Canterbury, before heading back to join the main line, where the trail finishes at Dover. I can now concentrate on completing the remainder of the NDW, as it heads west, out of Kent, through leafy Surrey to the start/end of the trail at Farnham, on the border with Hampshire. In completing the various sections I have walked in either an easterly, or a westerly direction, rather than sticking to just one, as some purists would do. My choice of which direction to take was in the main, dictated by rail connections plus train times and connections. Friday’s walk was no exception, and even though I would have preferred to have set off from Charing, rather than the other way around, the connections at Ashford would have meant a lengthy wait.
I allowed this factor to override the opening times of the handful of pubs on the route, as by starting from Charing I could still have enjoyed a pint at the Wheel Inn at Westwell (which worked out OK both ways), followed by another pint at the Flying Horse at Boughton Lees. Finally, unlike Charing which is a pub-less village (apart from a micro, that doesn’t open until the evening), Wye still has three hostelries, all of which I know well. This dates back to my late teenage years, when the Bailey family resided at the nearby village of Brook.
That’s enough of the waffle, and background information, let’s get started on the walk itself. Friday represented my first ride on a train since last December. There was a reasonable number of passengers onboard, but without the need to sit opposite a stranger, or indeed opposite one. Sooner, rather than later we’re going have to get over this unnatural phobia of being close to people we don’t know.
My journey to Wye involved a change of trains
at Ashford, and as the train was a few minutes behind schedule, I was beginning
to think it necessary to put Plan B into action. The latter was to take the
train to Charing and walk the route in reverse. As things turned out, I made
the connection with minutes to
spare, thanks to the Wye train departing from the adjacent platform, but I wasn’t so lucky on the return journey.
Alighting at Wye station, my route took me in a roughly easterly direction, although after crossing the A28 Ashford-Canterbury Road I allowed by cockiness of not needing to look at the map, to get the better of me. Net result I ended up slightly to the north of where I was supposed to be, which was rather silly of me, given that I’d walked this section of the trail four years ago.
This second walk inspired me to have a crack at the North Downs Way, not thinking that my timetable for doing so would be delayed by my wife’s near-death experience in January 2018, or the worst pandemic in over a century, but having found myself back on the right route for a short while, I veered off to the left at the point where the Canterbury loop branches off in the opposite direction.
I soon reached the pleasant little settlement of Boughton Lees, with its large village green, known as the Lees. Cricket has been played here for some 200 years, including several games that featured my father, when he was a member of the neighbouring Brook Cricket Club.
Teas have always been an important feature of village cricket matches, although I understand this tradition was abandoned last summer due to unfounded concerns regarding Covid. I am sure that some visiting team members would have joined the home side for a few post-match drinks at the Flying Horse pub, which overlooks the green. With dad not being much of a drinker, plus my mother expecting him home as soon as the match had finished, it’s unlikely my father would have ventured into the pub, although I do remember it being frequented by my sister and her boyfriend of the time.
As I approached the Lees, the grounds man was busy getting the cricket pitch and outfield ready for the coming Bank Holidays’ match(es), but unfortunately the Flying Horse didn’t seem very open. I asked a couple who were sitting at a table outside, if they knew what time the pub opened. They said they’d been told, by the landlord, that it would be opening at midday, but with my watch showing 11:10 AM, I didn’t fancy a 50-minute wait.
Instead, I decided to press on, circumventing the green and crossing the busy A251 Ashford-Faversham Road, before passing into the relative tranquility of Eastwell Park. This extensive area of prime country parkland is now run as a country estate, with the former manor house now functioning as an upmarket Champneys Spa Hotel.
It’s worth mentioning the impressive, redbrick wall that separates the estate
from the A251 road. It must have cost a fortune to build, back in the day, and seems to go on for miles. It certainly seemed to as far as my sister and I were concerned when, as children, we drove toward Faversham with our parents. We nicknamed the owner of this massive estate, “Lord Greedy Guts,” as it seemed incomprehensible that one individual could own so much land!
Today, it all seemed very prim and proper, as I followed the road towards Home Farm. To my right I could see the Champneys hotel, half hidden by the trees, whilst to my left were the tranquil waters of Eastwell Lake. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to get close to the ruined St Mary’s Church, which lies at the head of the lake. I remember looking around the churchyard as a young boy, with my father, and also visiting with a couple of friends, during my teenage years, but the church now stands alone and forlorn, fenced off, either because the structure is unsafe, or to protect the ancient building from further vandalism.
Leaving the estate road behind, I headed up hill, along a track and into woodland. A mile or so away, at Dunn Street Farm, I turned onto a lane that took me down into the tiny village of Westwell. I’m fairly certain this was my first visit to the village, despite having lived less than 10 miles away, in Brook.
I was making for the Wheel Inn, in the centre of Westwell, where I stopped for a well-earned pint. I will tell you a bit more about the Wheel in a separate post, as it is certainly worthy of a decent write-up. For me it provided a cool and refreshing pint of locally brewed cask ale, which was just what I needed to slake my thirst. I didn’t stop for more solid refreshment, as time was pressing on, but I did walk over to the local playing field, where I sat on a bench enjoying the cheese sandwiches I had brought from home.
Afterwards I headed back up towards the NDW, for the last section of the walk. There’s not a huge amount to say about this two and a quarter mile section, as most of it is through woodland. The majority of this part forms an off-road, cycleway that runs all the way from Ashford to Maidstone.
I emerged from the woods at Burnt House Farm, just past a chalk pit which is still being worked. It led me to the top of Charing Hill, and the busy A252, before I thankfully turned off, away from the traffic and down into Charing village. I had followed this route up, out of Charing, when I commenced my last NDW walk, last October, but this time was blessed with warm and sunny weather.
I stopped in at the village shop, for an ice cream, before continuing down to the A20, and the road to Charing station. On the way I passed the long-closed, Royal Oak pub, as well as the Bookmakers Arms micro-pub. The latter doesn’t open until 6pm, weekdays, so presumably with the Oak, plus another pub both closed, the villagers are obviously a very sober bunch!Upon reaching the station, I checked the miles I’d walked by means of my Smart Watch. They amounted to 10.43 miles, station to station, the detour down into Westwell having added a mile or so to the distance indicated in my NDW Guide. Arriving at Ashford station, somewhat predictably, I missed connection my connection back to Tonbridge by about 30 seconds – the distance between platforms five and one being too great to cover in a couple of minutes. I could, therefore, have waked the route the other way around, thereby being able to enjoy a pint in the Flying Horse as well as the Wheel, but you know what they say about hindsight, being a wonderful thing!
All in all, I enjoyed this section of the NDW. There were no steep hills to climb and no tricky steep descents either. The weather wasn’t too hot, the rain kept well away, and surprisingly it was much drier underfoot than I’d anticipated. My Meindl boots needed just the briefest of brush downs, a quick wipe, followed by a coating of Nikwax, so much so they looked as if I’d just taken them out of the box!