Pilgrim statue, near Hollingbourne
“I can assure those townsfolk who send forth a cry that wild nature and scenery are becoming difficult to find, that any amount of both still exists, within a short railway ride from London.” Denham Jordan, author of On Surrey Hills.
The first thing one tends to remember about the North Downs Way is the motorways. The M25, M20 and M2 – the trail stalks them, hugs them, goes over, under and around them, and generally stays within earshot of them for many, many miles. And we haven’t even mentioned the A roads that can be just as huge and noisy in this crowded corner of the country.
Now maybe I’m peculiar here, but I didn’t think this was necessarily a bad thing. I’m from round these parts (from Chatham, to be precise, not too far from the trail, and schooled in Rochester, which is very close). So I have travelled on these same roads many, many times; and each time I have looked out of the window at, to give just one example, the tree-topped ridge that runs alongside the M25, and I find myself thinking: I wonder what it’s like up there?
Well, this is the trail for doing just that: to explore what life is like in the quiet bits in between this web of motorways and A roads.
It’s no coincidence that the North Downs Way is shadowed for much of its length by these major roads. Because for several millennia it was the major transport route between Dover on England’s eastern shore and the major trading and population centres of Canterbury, the Medway towns and on into Surrey.
If you want to get an idea of just how important this route was, just look at the buildings that you can see along the way. No less than eight castles and three cathedrals lie on or just off the trail, not to mention several archbishops’ palaces (now, sadly, all in ruins), an assortment of WWII defences and one folly.
It is the cathedrals – and, in particular, Canterbury Cathedral, arguably the most important Christian building in England and certainly one of the oldest – that did much to popularise the trail that we now call the North Downs Way, as pilgrims flocked to the cathedral to pray at the tomb of Thomas Becket. Indeed, for much of its western half the North Downs Way follows the so-called ‘Old Road’, also known as the Pilgrim’s Way that worshippers followed from Winchester to Canterbury.
Now this may sound a bit pretentious but I actually felt this ‘spiritual significance’ as I was walking along. Maybe it was the chalk cross carved into the farmer’s field at Lenham, the pub names (the Dirty Habit pub in Hollingbourne being just one memorable example) or the wooden statues of pilgrims dotted along the trail. Whatever the reason, as I approached Canterbury it really did feel like I was on a pilgrimage myself, and I got a real sense that I was walking in the footsteps of thousands of others who had walked before me.
I’m really not particularly religious, but I still felt it. And I defy you not to feel it too.
But there’s a lot more to this trail than holy men and hard shoulders. For this is a trail that is full of surprises. For one thing, I can’t think of a trail that has more woodland and forest on it than the NDW, particularly the first section in Surrey.
Secondly, while the cathedrals along the way are sometimes jaw-dropping in their magnificence, I prefer something older even than these. The prehistoric monuments along the trail, though often little more than a bunch of stones standing higgledy-piggledy in some corner of a field, are to me far more spellbinding. And sure, they may not be as impressive as the ancient stone circles on The Ridgeway, but they are no less enigmatic for that.
What is it about them that I, and so many other people, find so fascinating? Maybe it the sheer age of them that knocks me for six every time I visit one; maybe it’s the mystery of them, and the fact that we are still not 100% sure what they were used for, that I find beguiling. Or maybe it’s the fact that – to judge by the amount of ribbons, charms, bracelets and other knick-knacks adorning the surrounding trees – the stones still resonate with many people thousands of years later.
Or maybe it’s simply that the people who built them, while largely ignorant in matters architectural, did at least know the importance of location, and often chose lovely, peaceful places for their sites.
Whatever it is, the North Downs Way has some fine examples of prehistoric monuments, including the Coldrum Stones near Trottiscliffe, and Kit’s Coty and Little Kit’s Coty near Aylesford, and they are a real highlight of the trail.
So what’s the worst part of walk? Well, I didn’t particularly enjoy the day after Canterbury, the section that takes walkers to Dover and the end of the trek. There were some highlights but overall it just dribbles on a bit, and is a bit of a let-down when you consider the lovely scenery you encounter – a quintessential Kentish landscape of oast houses and orchards – on the way into Canterbury.
But let’s concentrate on the highlights, because there are plenty, and we love the surprises this path regularly throws up. For example, how, at one point, you cross a country lane and are confronted by a large, overgrown folly, Whitehill Tower, before Oxted. Then there’s the chimney of an old lime kiln that suddenly emerges from the woods near Box Hill Village; the line of pillboxes on the Surrey Downs, strung along the escarpment like pearls on a necklace; the ducks living in a pond in the centre of a very busy roundabout in pretty Otford; and the stepping stones across the River Mole before the steep climb to Box Hill…. These little gems add so much character to the trail.
Furthermore, we also found the walking pretty straightforward, the gradients fairly untaxing (with the climb up to Box Hill by some distance the steepest) and the signage pretty good, particularly for such a little-used trail.
But, I hear you ask, has the natural beauty of the North Downs Way been compromised by all these motorways? Not really, in my opinion. For one thing, the path actually takes you through two sizeable Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Surrey Hills and North Kent AONBs. Furthermore, the roads, where they are visible, are often far enough away to render the noise of the traffic to a barely audible hum – a hum that serves to emphasise rather than detract from the sense of tranquillity at the top of the Downs.
And besides, if the traffic does put you off, just think of the flipside: the proximity of major roads means that transport along the way is, by the standards of the fifteen National Trails of England and Wales, fairly plentiful – allowing you a lot of flexibility when planning your trail.
So there you have it: a splendid two-week jaunt along the course of a spectacular geological feature, following a trail that’s replete with history, ancient buildings and beautiful scenery – and all within a short train ride from London. What, as the phrase goes, is not to like? I walked this path in 2017 – and I think it’s the one long-distance trail I want to visit more than any other.