Beyond London (2): Sevenoaks(part 2) Here's the second half of my account of a grand day out in an administrative district adjacent to Greater London. Sevenoaks is a large local authority, in area if not population, twenty miles from top to bottom. Yesterday I reported on two interesting places to the north, and today I'm way down south. [14 Sevenoaks-y photos]
Somewhere random: An hour in Edenbridge 9.46am The Uckfield train rolls into platform 2 at Edenbridge Town, and not many people get off. It's either impressive or very fortunate that a town of only 8000 souls has two unconnected railway stations, but today everyone seems to be elsewhere. Outside, past the shuttered Station Kiosk, a large fallen branch requires me step into the street, but there's no danger of anything running me down. 9.50am The High Street features a sequence of white-painted cottage-type buildings, all most impressive until you spot one's a bookies and the next is a Costa. A couple of mobility scooters pass by, one with two Union Jacks on the handlebars. The bloke in the newsagents is unusually courteous and friendly, or maybe that's normal for everywhere except London. 9.54am A crowd, large for Edenbridge, has gathered outside the Eden Valley Museum. Some are in period costume, not necessarily chronologically synchronised, while the bearded bloke in the gold chains has the air of the town's civic overlord. In a side street by the Citizens Advice Bureau, a brass band has formed up into marching formation. I have six minutes before they begin. 9.57am At the foot of the High Street is an old stone bridge over the River Eden, not currently in flood (although it caused a scare earlier in the year). The sound of trumpets draws my eye up the hill to where the band have kicked off prematurely and are already parading past Lloyds Bank. 9.59am I rush back, past a half-timbered sandwich shop and the delightfully medieval Ye Old Crown. I arrive at the museum just in time for the band's dismissal, after barely one tune, as the appreciative crowd starts to file into the museum's courtyard.
10.03am Today is the first day of a commemorative WW1 exhibition entitled 'Til The Boys Come Home, so the museum are putting on a celebratory day of related events. This has been a publicity masterstroke, as getting on for 3% of the population have turned up and the entrance to the courtyard is rammed. 10.05am Some pretend soldiers have dressed up for the day and are standing to attention in khaki. The officer class then retreat and do bugger all while three privates perform drill exercises with bayonets by stomping round the cobbles. 10.13am After slightly too many eyes rights and wheel lefts the display ends, and the leader of the town council starts to speak. His microphone isn't what it should be, but we get the gist, which is that the museum's putting on a damned fine show and we should all hang around to enjoy it. 10.14am A sizeable proportion of the crowd drift away, but most stay and await events. The officer class are now sipping tea, before disappearing into the hall which later will be serving period lunches (including a Bully Beef Ploughmans with Mrs Beeton's English Chutney). 10.20am This was perhaps not the best day to visit Eden Valley Museum because the interior of a 14th century farmhouse is not optimised for large crowds. Nevertheless there is much to see regarding Edenbridge's long history and that of the surrounding valley, including some particularly nasty floods that afflicted the town in 1968. The upstairs room with the WW1 exhibition is of course the busiest, but on this occasion I have to leave those already present to their perusal. 10.35am As the brass band kicks off again beneath a protective awning, it's time to move on. I'm scarpering early, but I hope enough of a home crowd linger to watch the Gas Mask Drill and to meet a representative of the Belgian Tourist Board. 10.38am Back up the High Street, the queue at the family butchers is now quite long. Meanwhile at Cafe-Au-Net the proprietor stares out of the front door in case anyone needs milkshakes, internet or their laptop fixing, but no such luck. 10.44am Back at the station I pick up a leaflet for the walk I'm about to do next - it's impressively stocked - and then head back under the tracks to await my train. I'm all alone on the platforms, far from the madding crowd, until the 10.46 turns up and six cellists pile off. It's been just another hour in Edenbridge. by train: Edenbridge, Edenbridge Town
Somewhere pretty: Hever to Chiddingstone
The Eden is a tributary of the Medway, and the EdenValleyWalk follows both downstream for a total of fifteen miles. I thought I'd tackle a three mile stretch, although by the time I'd finished I'd done seven, thanks to mud, cows, closed gates and lack of stations. But the villages along the way were gorgeous, plus there were a couple of castles to throw in along the way for good measure. The first of these is Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, which is awkwardly located for anyone arriving by train. Hever station is a mile from the village, a remote outpost accessible only down a narrow, but rather charming lane. At the first T-junction came the sound of loud bleating as two flocks of sheep rushed to greet the latest human intervention, and duly lined up for my photograph of the day.
At this point I took the footpath to Hever, passing between low hanging cow parsley that soon had my trousers damp. The walk's leaflet had warned that this stretch could be very muddy, and soon I was stepping gingerly across what I thought was the worst of it. Afraid not. Before long I was clinging onto the rail to manoeuvre myself past squelchy brown pools, occasionally almost losing my walking boot beneath the surface. I think I nearly reached the end of the path, but at one point the going degenerated to unavoidable wading, at which point I was forced to retreat. Thankfully the mud had almost dried off by the time I finally yomped into the village of Hever via circuitous lanes, but if you're ever planning on turning up at the castle in pristine footwear, be warned.
Hever's tiny, but does boast a primary school, a pub, a coach park and a village hall. A 'bumper' plant sale was underway in the latter, where locals were emerging with trays of perennials as I passed. I didn't have time to venture inside the castle, especially not when it costs a whopping £15.50 for the privilege, although for that you get the extensive grounds and a couple of mazes thrown in too. Instead I poked my head inside the 14th century church, where the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather has pride of place in a side chapel. And then I was off through the woods, the castle screened totally out of sight, and only a single glimpse of its great lake beyond the jousting grounds.
Not a soul appeared for the next two miles, although I did have a close encounter with a llama at Lockskinners Farm. It left its comrades to wander over to the fence with what was either an inquisitive or an irate stare, and I didn't hang around to confirm which. Up in Moor Wood was the day's sole carpet of bluebells, perhaps a little late in the season but perfectly illuminated by a gap in the clouds and more than a little magical. Equally impressive were the rocks on the descent to Hill Hoath, forcing the path between a gully lined by gnarled overhanging roots. The landscape opened out somewhat afterwards, with green and pastoral views towards Sussex, and the flag of castle number two fluttering across the wheatfields.
Chiddingstone is often described as one of the prettiest villages in England, especially by the National Trust who bought up the entire village in 1939. It has only one street, with the parish church on one side and a run of Tudor buildings along the other. One's the pub, another's the village shop which is magnificently half-timbered, and with a bijou tearoom tucked away round the back. The effect is impressive, though perhaps a little brief, and somewhat diminished by the run of 21st century vehicles lined up outside. Take the dead end footpath up the road to find the Chiding Stone, a knobbly lump of sandstone after which the village is named. But it needs to be a day between Sunday and Wednesday if you plan to access the 17th century impressionisticcastle, other than for a nice walk in the gardens.
The Eden Valley Walk then heads off to the village of Penshurst, and yet another impressively stately home - Penshurst Place. But I didn't have time for that either, instead intent on reaching Penshurst station in time for the next hourly train. That was easier said than done, there being relatively few roads in this part of Kent, and therefore requiring a half hour "shortcut" across the fields. The most direct path ran through a field packed with cattle, which I avoided by following what might not have been a right of way until I reached something that definitely was. I eventually panted onto the Penshurst platform with barely two minutes to spare, after a splendid but somewhat unconventional hike through oast house country. by train: Hever, Penshurst