diamond geezer

 Monday, January 22, 2018

Westerham to Otford (8 miles)

I walked this particular stretch of the North Downs Way back in August, but never got round to writing it up at the time. I hope my summer reminiscence will be the perfect antidote to a dull, grey, sleety January.

The last time I left you, which was six months back, sorry, I'd reached Westerham Hill. The top of the hill is the highest point in London, and very close by is Betsoms Hill, the highest point in Kent. Plenty of traffic careers down this steep winding lane, plus the number 246 bus, and it'd be several miles before I saw another road even vaguely as busy. The footpath set off up the edge of the adjacent field, on this occasion liberally spread with flung manure, so I was glad it hadn't rained for days. A pheasant sauntered across the harvested furrows, safe from being shotgunned until the season started up again in October.

Before long the path turned right through a wood, emerging briefly to watch a rumbling tractor, then climbing 45 steps and a steep field. There is a lot of up and down on the North Downs Way, which is rarely content to follow the top of the escarpment for long, but thankfully is about to for a while. The view was excellent from up here, all Wealden valley and the roofs of Westerham, though augmented by the incessant hum of the M25 reverberating around the scarp.

The very top of the ridge marks the Greater London boundary, the only half mile of the North Downs Way which brushes the capital. A handful of architecturally unlovely homes lurk in these edgelands, their back fences pinned with warning notices and requests for planning permission. Joelands Wood contains the most southeasterly point in London - look for the concrete sign set into the earth directing the NDW right into Kent. What follows is a rutted farm track, then the top of Hogtrough Hill, then copious cowpats confirming you're sharing a field with cattle (and some inquisitive horses).

Across the farmland ahead I could see a plume of smoke rising into the sky, thin and white. I initially assumed it was nothing untoward, and that the distant sound of sirens was entirely unconnected. But the neenaws grew louder, then ceased just out of sight behind a phone mast, towards which the fastest tractor I've ever seen was storming. When I finally caught up I found a group of helmeted men attending to the seat of a small fire, two engines parked alongside, and farmhands attentively looking on. Thanks to the wonders of the Kent Fire and Rescue website I now know that this was "a fire involving an agricultural baler and some straw alight in a field", cause unknown, and with no reported injuries. Amazingly this turned out to be the only reported fire in Knockholt in 2017, and I just happened to have rambled through during the twenty minutes the incident was live.

The village of Knockholt is a couple of miles long, and the North Downs Way shadows it in parallel across a field or two. It was here that I met my first rambler of the day, or rather dogwalker, because not many people hike long distance paths on Tuesdays. The towers of Docklands occasionally poked up clear as day above the treeline, even though they were 15 miles distant, and from other angles the Gherkin was almost as distinct. But all the best views across the Weald were blocked off by a thick screen of trees, apart from one brief slot deliberately cut through, too deep to be able to funnel anything but leaves.

What's obscured immediately below is Chevening House, a stately home in landscaped grounds, bequeathed to the nation in 1959 and traditionally the Foreign Secretary's country bolthole. Perhaps it's just as well those trees ensure that that Boris isn't sniperable from above. But eventually a footpath or two is allowed down, and then the North Downs Way makes a break for the top of a glorious swooping field. Now I could see for miles back along the ridge of the Downs, and over the Chevening estate with its perfectly managed trees, and across the hump of the Greensand Ridge rising in the distance.

I rested awhile on a convenient bench in twenty-five degree heat. Blackberries ripened on the bushes behind me, not quite yet ready to pluck. A bird of prey hovered beneath a sky of fluffy cumulus, its eye on potential lunch options in the thick grass below. On one bank the wild flowers were liberally scattered with butterflies - I've rarely seen quite so many - dancing from one purple head to the next. I hope my flashbacks aren't making you feel too wistful for the summer, but rest assured what's currently grey and brown and waterlogged will before too long be green again, and and ripe for a pleasurable short-sleeved stroll.

Time to head down, steeply down, past hedgerows and fenceless stiles to the flat valley floor. An abrupt change lay ahead, beyond a mess of farm outbuildings, the footpath ending on a busy pavementless road. The M25 runs immediately behind, the seething orbital I now had to cross for the final time (just before the carriageways split at Junction 5, the intersection with the M26, if you're counting). If felt odd to be back down in an actual village, namely Dunton Green, now more a commuter cluster with a few old cottages at its heart, plus the kind of big pub you drive to for a steak.

Escape came up the side of a hotel with ideas above its station, including a plaster elephant out front and a grinning buddha water feature in the car park. It was good to be back out in rolling fields, even if they'd have looked finer before the crop was harvested and the earth left closely cropped and cracked. I was aiming for the bridge over the railway to Sevenoaks, beyond which the remoter residents of Otford hide away. Telston Lane conceals a peculiar secret just beyond the post office, a pillar representing Uranus, part of the wonderfully-realised scale model Otford Solar System.

This mirrored dome at the edge of Otford Recreation Ground, plagued by tiny flies, represents the Sun, and that's Mercury in the background. I was pretty much at the end of my walk by this time, so had time to deviate and explore the inner planets without all the distractions I endured the last time I was here. Most visitors to Otford prefer the tea shops, pubs and village green, this being a particularly attractive settlement nestled in the historic Darent valley. It's also easy to get home from, there being trains, a luxury rarely repeated on what lies ahead of the North Downs Way. Time to hibernate the project for the winter, five months on.

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