North Downs diary, Cuxton, September 2016
We arrive on Church Hill, the river Medway careering through Rochester under the fresh grey concrete of the bridge. The city looks a toy model from up here, high speed trains crisscrossing, back and forth to London and Dover. The carriages are coloured navy and pale blue, corporate and inoffensive. The howl of traffic comes from Cuxton at the bottom of the hill, possibly soon to be increased by a second major highway, the Lower Thames Crossing that has been proposed by Highways England. The plans have resulted in a campaign against the project, focusing on the impact it will have on the village of Shorne, nearby ancient woodland and Cuxton itself. I’m walking with my friend Pete Beckenham, he shows me on his old OS Map the Tilbury marshes where the Lower Thames Crossing will cut through, some of North Kent’s finest marshland. To our left and in the north suburban homes have crept into the downs, stopping short of the ancient coppice woods we have just escaped from. We have left behind a vast estate owned by Lafarge tarmac, polite signs succumbing to lichen asking walkers to stay on footpaths. In other places, fields and copses leased for grouse hunts, black and white signs warned us: KEEP OUT. Pheasants gathered in harems, their winter feeding stations deposited throughout the estate. The coppices of sweet chestnut appeared ready to fell, either for straining or simple fenceposts. Elsewhere old hornbeams coppiced and left for many decades reflect a trend across the North Downs: hornbeam has little to no value economically anymore, its heritage value to us a reminder of the ancient charcoal industries now long extinct.
On telephone wires spanning the hillside a kestrel perches, looking out across the grasslands. He’s soon joined by a pair of linnets, waiting closely, pressuring him, a reminder that the element of surprise is lost. We make our way down to Cuxton, the roar of traffic growing ever louder. We pass through the grounds of St. Michael’s Church, a plastic monarch butterfly fluttering at the grave of a four-year-old child. Across the intersection, horses graze and groom one another, framed by the concrete bridge. In the White Hart pub we order two pints of Kentish ale – Pete is a true Kentish man – and sit on leather sofas. In the corner men play pool after work, while two regulars sit apart in colourful shirt and tie, one man in breeches, scribbling away at an A4 notebook. Another regular hobbles in from the car park, a plastic support boot on his right foot.
‘I went for a scan and then it turned out I had a fracture,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe ‘em though.’
The barman, youthful but confident in his experience, pulls the injured man a pint of lager and places it in front of him on the bar. ‘Twenty-quid please,’ he says.
We can’t see the man’s expression, but his silence suggests a wry smile. He’s leafing through a Cuxton gazette.
‘What’s happening in Cuxton, then?’ the barman asks.
‘Parking, parking and more parking,’ the regular replies. ‘Everyone’s got three cars nowadays.’
We drink up and head to the train station, a horse with hair like Little Richard, tangled by months-old burdock burrs, chews vegetation on the edge of the lane. Up ahead, in perfect entanglement, shrink-wrapped cheese sandwiches dangle from a twig.