diamond geezer

 Friday, June 26, 2020

On this date one year ago I left the house and went to the Darent Valley. My target was a minor National Trust property in Sutton-At-Hone, a medieval chapel called St John's Jerusalem, which was only open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. My subsequent write-up focused on the destination but gave short shrift to the journey, so I thought I'd write about that journey now, because I'm not likely to get back to rural Kent any time soon. Better to travel vicariously than not at all.

I could have got the train. Sutton-at-Hone is served by a tiny station called Farningham Road on the line to Canterbury, but a ticket would have cost £8 and I fancied getting there for nothing. So instead I caught the 233 bus from Eltham, because this was included in my Travelcard, and this carried me two miles beyond the Greater London boundary into Kent. The 233 terminates at a godforsaken layby on the far side of Swanley overlooking the start of the M20, normally nowhere useful but ideal for striking out into the wider countryside.

My first target was the village of Farningham, via a walk which might have been pleasant fifty years ago but now meant negotiating junction 3 of the M25. This mega-interchange marks the point where the A20 gives birth to the M20 and was carved out of peaceful orchards in the mid 1970s. Pedestrians were very much an afterthought, with the only pavement forced to twist across thunderous slip roads on the central roundabout... and no alternative footpaths provided for a mile to either side. The subsequent descent of Farningham Hill was equally miserable, slogging alongside a dual carriageway alongside a motorway, occasionally dodging past lay-bys where truck drivers milled outside tachograph-expired lorries.

Thankfully Farningham itself was lovely, as it ought to be, having been bypassed for motor traffic as early as 1925. The narrow High Street led down to the river between characterful cottages, a Free House and a Traditional Family Butchers, which isn't something you normally find in a village this small. The prime watering hole was the Lion Hotel, once a stabling point for Dover-bound traffic, now the ideal pub to sit outside on a hot day. It overlooked what used to be a ford across the Darent, still delightfully shallow but now properly bridged. What looked like an older arched bridge is actually a cattle screen added to prevent curious cows from wandering too far upstream.

It was now time to follow the Darent Valley Path, or at least a short middling section (rather than the full Sevenoaks to Dartford). If I was expecting fine scenery I was initially disappointed as the stream ducked through an arched tunnel supporting the A20. But on the far side the path swiftly opened out to reveal a poppy-bedecked meadow with a green field rolling beyond, and suddenly my entire journey had been vindicated.

Admittedly a few minutes later the river was back underneath the M20, crossing the valley on jagged concrete teeth, but once that was out of the way the sylvan stream continued untarnished. It would have been nice to be able to follow it, but at the next bend the path veered off to follow the boundary between two fields, almost parallel but edging ever further away. Eventually I reached the empty outfield of Horton Kirby Cricket Club, founded (some distance from the village) in 1882, before heading up a quiet lane to cross to the left bank. Progress was once again most pleasant... weirs, lakes, butterflies, the encroaching menace of Himalayan balsam.

The next village was South Darenth, as opposed to actual Darenth which would have been next if I'd continued a mile further. Its most striking feature was a lofty railway viaduct, 20 metres high and 10 arches wide, built in the 1850s by architect Joseph Cubitt. At its foot is a pub called The Bridges, its name changed in the 1990s when it was bought by retired professional wrestler Wayne Bridges and his body-building wife Sarah. Its second most striking feature was the big brick chimney at the heart of a Victorian papermill complex (now, obviously, 200 homes and a Co-Op supermarket).

I took a photo of the village noticeboard, in case its contents might ever be of use as blog filler during an upcoming pandemic. Weight Watchers, Thursdays at 7. Himalayan balsam working group Saturday 22nd June. Medical Pedicure Service with Julia, for appointments please call. Bingo at the Royal British Legion (£1 a strip), Friday 5th July. Grand Fete with 100 Classic Vehicles, Dippy Duck Puppets, Xtreme Falconry and Bottle Stall, Saturday 6th July. Alas not this year, sorry, because South Darenth is on pause.

Beyond the village was one last treat, a ripening cornfield brightened by occasional poppies. In December the path might be a muddy groove, but in June it was just heaven. Several retired gentlemen had assembled off the trackway and opened their hatchbacks, and were busy lining up a row of model aircraft for a co-ordinated buzz. Reaching my goal required locating a minor footpath across the river, which I initially missed, but eventually I forced through a patch of woodland to discover an austere concrete footbridge and ploughed ahead to emerge beside Sutton-at-Hone Library. So that was nice.

St John's Jerusalem was also nice, but you've already read about that.

Unable to face the same trek back I got the train.

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