Section 12: 10 miles (16 kilometres) Late february, with son and dog, cloudy and cool.
A man born over the delightfully aromatic curry house next to Aylesford station is a Kentish Man, but a man born beyond the packhorse bridge is a Man of Kent, and I’m told these things matter and have mattered since the time of the Anglo-Saxons. The Men (and Maids) of Kent were Jutes, the Kentish Men (and Maids) were the Angle and Saxon later arrivals. If it all seems somewhat parochial, you’re probably right. If you ask me a clear distinction can be made by the size of the Pringles can, people of Kent’s ones are bigger. For one of us this is all it takes to buy his fealty.
I almost missed my stop, distracted as I was by the train map with it’s bizarre names: Snodland, Bat and Ball, Barming and Beltring. We belted off the train as the doors were closing and made our way down to the Medway. Muddy, very muddy as we look over to Aylesford Priory across a river edged with a slick of fawn coloured ooze. I tell lovely son how they don’t let dogs and idolaters into the priory café and he reminds me we’ve brought sandwiches anyway and I have promised to buy him Pringles. We can do without their hospitality. I make a mental note to come here on silent retreat anyway. I want to listen to the birds, of which there are loads.
The packhorse bridge is delightful, and although its been three months since I was last here on the Pilgrims’ Way, they still haven’t put the passport stamp out in the church. Aylesford looks lovely, but the route we take out of it is not. We walk up incorrectly named Mount Pleasant and into a seedy lane leading to a Waitrose depot, bits of rubbish nestling gently amongst the weeds along the verge. As I write, I’m looking back for some positivity at my voice notes which I make when I’m walking; a fabulous shortcut my son made which works when my phone is closed and switches airplane mode on after to save battery. Unfortunately today’s notes are utter gibberish which makes me wonder if perhaps I was having a stroke. But soon we emerge from the industrial park and spot the day’s first oast house, the old Kentish conical buildings for drying hops to make beer.
Just as the scenery begins to look more pastoral, we’re funnelled across an uninspiring topography under the A229, around the back of a petrol station and over the channel tunnel rail link, accompanied by several warnings about CCTV. As we start to climb an old holloway I spot a scrap of police crime scene tape tied to a tree. This does not bode well. A little way up the holloway we spot some steps leading up to a huge boulder and wonder if it’s safe to stop for a picnic.
Without knowing it, we’ve stumbled upon the White Horse Stone, a six thousand year old megalith which lives in this holloway, part of a much wider neolithic landscape. It is believed to likely be part of a collapsed chambered long barrow and had a sister stone which was destroyed a couple of hundred years ago. It’s one of the Medway megaliths, one of the earliest, and would have been one of the most impressive monuments in Britain, back in the day. It’s still used for ritual gathering amongst neopagan and heathen groups and, according to the Wikipedia page, it is looked after by The Odinic Rite, an extreme right wing, white supremacist organisation who consider it the birthplace of the English nation. Considering there is no ‘whites only’ English nation and never has been I have no idea what these racists are talking about. I guess its proximity to the channel tunnel rail link gets them fired up as well. There’s a huge face on the stone, a greenish brown one I note with satisfaction.
We enjoy our picnic at the neolithic crime scene, musing on Englishness. My son looks like a prime candidate for Odinic membership, tall and blonde, as English as racists like it. You can’t see his gypsy heritage, but you clearly can if you look at his grandparents. You can’t ‘see’ Englishness at all, it’s as nebulous as the logic of a bigot. As we climb higher up the path the neolithic landscape begins to reveal itself. At the top of the hill there’s an elaborate carving of a man (pilgrim?) who appears to be listening to a tree. He’s hidden in the trees, blink and you would miss him.
We emerge onto a kind of plateau with expansive views. The lower fields are all grape vines, fringed with alders, for wine production. This is after all the garden of England. We stop at a bench to admire the view and the crocus bulbs which someone has kindly planted. Then we head down to the church at Boxley to see if there’s a stamp.
There is, and a help yourself to tea and coffee bar. It’s very civilised. As I glance down I notice Shovell is bathed in a golden holy light and I wonder if it will improve his behaviour (it doesn’t).
It’s a straight road and over Jade’s Crossing, a road bridge over the A249 named after a little girl who was killed crossing the road. It took 20 years of campaigning to get the bridge after their village was cut in two by the road. A little quicker and Jade and her grandmother would still be alive.
There’s another stamp in the splendidly named Cock Horse Inn at Detling. Things are now Kentish, quaint and welcoming. There’s a sign for a church hidden in the woods so of course we go hunting. It’s not hidden, it’s extremely obvious and whilst pretty, there’s nothing immediately apparent as to why it is grade one listed.
It’s also locked which is sad, from the Pilgrims plaque outside I am sure there’s another stamp in there. There are more oast houses on the path beyond and I try to explain to lovely son about the hop roasting process but have to stop as I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, although I sound plausible. They look witchy, and as we all know they are actually for trapping small children in and turning them into froth.
It is now getting late, there is just one train per hour so we have to embrisken and cut across a field to reach the back of Hollingbourne train station. It’s something of a sprint at the end but by the skin of our teeth we are crunching up the gravel and as the train pulls into the station we realise the machine is offline, there are no digital tickets from here and we have no ticket home. I sometimes think train travel may have been better organised in the stone age.
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I use The Pilgrims Way by Leigh Hatts as a guidebook, it’s pretty much essential for this walk. You can buy it here or from good independent bookshops.
I also use a GPX file imported from British Pilgrimage Trust into the Ordnance Survey app. It is available from their website and occasionally differs from the book.
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