North Downs Diary, Detling, Kent, July 2017
Standing outside the Cock Horse pub in Detling, a man smoking a cigarette approaches me. He points to the Pilgrims Way across the road:
‘When you do all this walking,’ he says, ‘where do you sleep?’ His step is a little unsteady, speech a little slow.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘We don’t have to sleep in the woods.’ These walks have been mostly in one day, bar the odd night in a B&B.
He’s interested that I’m trying to walk the North Downs over a longer period – ‘that’s commitment,’ he says, launching into tales of life in the village. He points again towards the Pilgrims Way and a Tudor gate on the corner.
‘That’s the oldest structure in Detling,’ he says.
Reading the plaque in front of it, the gate once led to a resting house for pilgrims making their way to Canterbury, perhaps as far back as 1200. But he has more to tell:
‘Two peacocks used to walk around the streets. They were so noisy I would throw out any food I could just to shut them up.’
Now there are no peacocks in the street. Where did they go? He points again across the road, cigarette stub between his fingers.
‘One of them jumped off the wall and into the road. She was run over by someone who works in the pub – she’s not working tonight. It was just a little car but the bird was totally obliterated.’
What happened to the male bird, I ask.
‘He kept on walking around, making this terrible racket because he was on his own.’
We thank him for his stories and cross to re-join the Pilgrims Way.
This morning we began our walk at Rochester station. Stepping off the platform it was not only the river Medway that cut the downs. For nearly an hour our nostrils filtered the stench of muck. Nowhere was safe: Rochester Cathedral with its sprawling Catalpa tree, the river itself and adjacent Dickensian suburbs (Oliver Twist Way). Perhaps only the forlorn sight of a magpie searching for food on plastic grass in a front garden drew our attention away from that invasive agricultural funk.
The escape from the smell only came upon gaining the heights of Nashenden Down, where Kent Wildlife Trust are returning arable monoculture to chalk grassland richness. The work had already made a difference as Peter, my Kentish companion for the day, had found a wall butterfly basking in amongst flowers protected by a shelterbelt of trees. Overhead swifts, house martins and swallows fed on an aerial sea of insects as they migrated south away from our troubled isles.
From Nashenden Down we looked across the Medway to the point where, ten months ago, we had stumbled out of the endless and overgrown chestnut coppices to be met by the bolt of high speed rail and the meandering Medway. At Nashenden Down the fields of wheat were bordered by red poppies with petals torn away by the same winds that earlier had brought the foul smell to Rochester. I pulled out my phone and streamed Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, revelling in the pastoral glory of Albion.
Beyond Nashenden Down, the North Downs Way then turned to the woody ridge with small breaks of chalk downland and random litter and fly-tipping. On knapweed stems Peter demonstrated an unerring ability to find brown argus butterflies, a member of the blue family. This is a skill he has perfected after months of working in Cambridgeshire meadows. At Bluebell Hill the wind whipped the sloe-heavy scrub and flattened the fields of marjoram. It was no land for the comb-over.
The route slips away beneath the A229 and then slaloms to one of several holloways haloed by overgrown hedges of hawthorn and field maple. A right-hand turn in the hedge arrives in a field marked by Kit’s Coty, the remnants of a Neolithic burial chamber, erected some 5000 years ago. The trail rises again after crossing the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Boxley into Westfield Wood, a steep ascent through brown yew woods. The creation of the tunnel resulted in the discovery of Britain’s earliest well-dated Neolithic longhouse, some 6000-years-old. That fact added a further layer of magic and mystery to the deep shade of the yew trees that followed it. That mystery evaporated in the gruelling ascent to the ridgetop of yews, breaking again into the lighter landscape of silver birch and field maple. At the track side stood an old oak with a hollow heart.
To get to this side of Detling, where we met the local man with many stories to tell, we had to cross the A249 on a footbridge named ‘Jade’s Crossing’. It was constructed in memory of an eight-year-old girl and her grandmother who were hit by a car trying to cross the road in December 2000 when no such crossing existed.
‘I knew her family,’ the man outside the pub said. ‘Her grandmother died with her. Jade ran out into the road and her grandmother tried to grab her.’
To know that we could only safely cross the road because a girl and her grandmother died trying to do so, along with two other people before them, is terrible. They brought the A249 to Detling, cut the village in half, and it took 40 years for government to make it safe.
Back on the North Downs, the pub and its tales behind us, we step to the side of the Pilgrims Way as cars pass. We turn off into fields and head back up onto the chalk ridge of the North Downs Way. The light is fading, specks of rain touch our cheeks, clouds loom. In the scrub red and black berries offer warnings, chalk flowers form a mat at the path’s edge: the ever-present marjoram, enjoying a bountiful year, broken by spikes of agrimony, vervain and the fading leaves of yellow-wort. We stop to take in the folds of the downs, creases formed over millennia by water running down into the Medway valley.
In the grey, rain-flecked sky, swallows and swifts feed in the last of the light. To them, it is autumn, they are returning south to Africa. We, too, are moving into the autumn and heading south, but only as far as Bearsted station. Whoever we are, wherever we’re going, we all seek safe passage.