Section 13: 10 miles (16 kilometres) May, sunny and warm. Solo.
It’s been a while. In fact it’s been three months since I was last on the Pilgrims’ Way and I don’t really have an explanation as to why that is, although it’s not yet a year since I began back in Winchester which for me is rather good going. (In the past I have glossed over why it took me 7 years to complete the Thames Path, the partial answer is a small, heavy and badly behaved baby). I guess I’m not a terribly dedicated pilgrim. I doubt that anything much has changed, it’s been sitting here quietly for hundreds, probably thousands of years, but I can tell you that everything has recently gone green since I was here. Very, very green.
I begin at Hollingbourne station, with exhausted memories of cantering over the hill after a long walk to catch the train home in the rain. Today all is warm, peaceful and sunny. And I have an inferior cheese pasty from Greggs which turns out to be a big mistake, but nothing, as they say, is perfect.
I immediately find a pheasant feather and stash it in my bag like I’ve found treasure, which I have depending on how you look at it. I also find a dead baby chick which has presumably fallen (or was pushed) from its nest, but I don’t put this in my bag. To my delight I next find a fresh owl pellet full of tiny feet and beaks, and I wonder what sort of party was happening here last night. Sadly I do not find a fresh owl.
I pass through the village with an amazing manor house built in the 16th century; it has a wobbly looking ancient wall but it hides a decent view of the house. All Saints church is close by, and I’m very happy to add another stamp to my passport. It’s a particularly lovely churchyard, full of lichenous headstones and mountain cornflowers.
Then onto the Pilgrims’ Way. It’s a loose weave of footpaths on this stretch, off to the left and right, running parallel, you could walk for days and not tread the same path twice. It’s good to be back.
There’s a spectacular hedge to one side of me and a wildflower meadow to the right. The hedge is a great mix of plants. My favourite tree, crataegus monogyna, the may (hawthorn) is well and truly out now so as the old saying goes, we can take off a layer of clothes as the warmer weather is here:
I’m getting hungry so I am surprised to come across another pilgrim sitting by a picnic bench and in the spirit of amity I sit next to him. This one is silent and made of wood, the kind of companion I find highly agreeable. The same cannot be said for the cheese pasty I bought in St. Pancras station. It has lost all structural integrity (the pie, not the station which is a fabulous piece of Gilbert Scott architecture). It may well have been considerably cheaper than all the other pies, but that’s because it is full of sadness and regret. My wooden companion doesn’t care, he has his eyes averted from my pie, tightly closed and a hand over his ear. Brother Percival is aloof.
Included in the hedgerow mix here is viburnum, the wayfarers’ tree, as well as speedwell. Both excellent choices for the PW and the North Downs Way which share the track on this stretch. I’m sharing the walk with a trillion insects, all manner of butterflies, an incredible number of flying midgetty things and crawling creeptures. Spring is busy, just as it should be. I’m on an insect superhighway. In the fields are red poppies, quite early I’m thinking, and there are wildflowers at my feet: comfrey, stitchwort, yellow archangel, white deadnettles and cow parsley. No wonder the insects are out.
When the fields turn to rapeseed the insects die down a little. There’s a sign commemorating the Lenham millennium hedge, so this lovely hedgerow has been planted and maintained by the local community. What an excellent way to celebrate a new thousand years. Lenham volunteers: just look at what it’s become.
The horse chestnut flowers are already turning to pink. These trees use flower colour to signal to the bees whether their flowers have been pollinated yet, turning flowers from white to yellow or pink so the bees don’t waste energy. An excellent example of mutualism. I pass a small stand of young walnuts, looking fresh and leaf-peachy, they should be grown more often. Then I find the Lenham chalk cross.
This is a huge chalk monument in the side of the hill, a monument to the Lenham soldiers who died in the first world war, 42 men from this small village which seems an unbelieveable sacrifice. It’s a melancholy and touching tribute. Another set of names were of course added after World War II, and there’s a handwritten note remembering the 52 men of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade Workshop (REME) killed when their workshop in Kent was hit by a flying bomb as they waited to go to Normandy. There is no one around and I wish I had more time to rest and reflect. It is a pilgrimage after all, although as a non-believer I’ve never been entirely sure what the purpose of it is. My pilgrimage seems to bring me close to nature and hold me there for a few hours. It’s enough.
Somewhere nearby in the waist-high wheat I can hear a bird which sounds exactly like someone twanging a ruler in a desk (perhaps you have to be a certain age to bring that sound to mind). No idea what kind of bird however, please enlighten me if you know. But then my peace is suddenly shattered by a stream of motocross bikes, each apparently not having need of a silencer. They seem to be enjoying themselves, probably having too much fun to say thank you as I’ve stepped out of their way but this is life when you’re young and exuberant so I don’t hold it against them. It looks big fun but they don’t stop to offer me a croggy.
After some beautifully bucolic scenery and a long straight path through the wildflowers, near Charing the field to my right disappears and for the next mile is replaced with huge trenches dug by huge diggers. It looks ominous and I worry where the hares will have to go now. It also means my sidetracks down the hill and across the gallops to the station have both been thoroughly roadblocked. Sadly, but not sadly at all, I am compelled to walk on.
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More walks on the Pilgrims’ Way
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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