Our spirits lifted from the success of our loop around the Marlow/Maidenhead area, the Idiots resolved to squeeze in an extra hike before the end of the year. We don’t tend to do them later than November because daylight becomes a factor, and your choices are then either to hike in the dark or shorten the route, and really, if you can’t take pictures, and if it’s under twenty miles, what’s the point?
This time we opted to return to Kent where John lives, and we quickly decided that a walk along the estuary and coastal paths would be a good choice for a couple of reasons; firstly, it’s stunning, as the pictures you’ll see will illustrate, and secondly, because for the most part it involves a lot less planning and checking the route than usual. I adored the Marlow hike, but I did spend large portions of it comparing the plotted route with my run tracker making sure we were where we were meant to be.
The inevitable WhatsApp group was set up, and people added to it, a mix of Hike 12 participants and invitees, as well as a smattering of John’s friends from Kent, who were all local and had absolutely no reason not to make it (as far as I was aware, anyway). In the end, Max was the only one from the Kent crew to turn up, but Max was a great success in Hike 12 so we were delighted to have him back. For my part, I was lucky because I was able to introduce Will to the group (he’s my comic artist friend). My cousin Richard asked me if he could join, to which the answer was a resounding yes. (Okay, Mum’s cousin, so technically first cousin, once removed, according to google. I doubt there’s a greeting card for that, which I feel is a shame.)
Some of our non-Kent crew couldn’t make the journey; Mat in particular felt it would be a bit rude to come when his son had been born a week earlier, which we reluctantly accepted. Freddie is probably very capable, but maybe give him a few weeks before he’s left to his own devices.
The Friday before the hike, the majority of the non-Kent attendees descend and meet John and Max in The Man of Kent, a charming pub with the most amazing range of beers, wonderfully curated by the landlady, Heather. Despite our attempts to stop drinking and leave early, we somehow failed at both, extricating ourselves after midnight. (Even my own valiant attempt to get us out was dismissed when the notion of a final half was suggested by Heather and immediately embraced… by me.)
The next morning there are plenty of comments about how the pub was both a great idea and a terrible decision. The feeling was made worse by the fact that owing to our schedule, we don’t have time for our customary fry up.
The Travelodge contingent get to the station for the 7:20 train to Sittingbourne, but we notice that John, Alan and Max are nowhere to be seen. Held up by life logistics, they miss the train, and Rob, Will, Clyde and I board it, facing a reminder of our slowly advancing age when we notice how many people on it are most definitely on their way home after what look like eventful nights out. (The outfits, the smell, and the large number of people trying to curl up into something resembling the foetal position give it away.)
Twenty minutes later we arrive at Sittingbourne, which is… I mean, it’s got… okay, apparently it has a nice steam railway. Maybe it’s for the best that the town is veiled in fog.
The most eventful part of our brief exploration was when Rob and I help up an older gentleman who fell in the road. We leave him to his shufflings and grumblings, his only discernible sounds were swear words.
The upside, for us four at least, is that while we’re waiting for the others we’re able to grab our Wetherspoons breakfast after all. Richard joins us when we reach the pub and is introduced to everyone. It’s not much later that the others arrive and we set off.
Here we go: Clyde, Alan, Max, me, John, Richard and Will, with Rob behind the camera.
We navigate the town for a few minutes, cruelly denying Alan the chance to get a McDonald’s breakfast (okay, he denied himself, for the good of the group) and a short wander through some industrial lands gets us to the start of our footpath that leads us to the estuary.
The estuary footpath was fascinating; a mix of overgrown greenery and industrial equipment, both working and in disrepair. The whole thing was smothered in fog, with dew making the numerous spiderwebs glisten.
More than once did a member of the group look down at the mud flats, revealed by the withdrawn tide and muse aloud, “I wonder how many bodies are buried down there.”
We tweaked the route in planning in order to avoid more of the town and get on the river pathway sooner. This was great in theory but it did seem a little questionable when it came to crossing the river via the bridge. Will in particular expressed doubts about the logic of our route when the footpath seemingly forced us to double back on ourselves.
From here, we walked through the fog along the estuary footpath for hours. And by hours I mean about ninety minutes. Time seemed to move differently. There’s something about being surrounded by impenetrable fog that messes with one’s perception of time. Comparisons were made to Silent Hill, Seventh Seal, the Green Knight, and old, badly rendered video games where you could only see a few feet ahead of you. At points some of the crew further ahead or behind would disappear into the fog, and when that happened I was pretty convinced that they had never existed. No one did. Several existential crises took place.
If you’ll allow me a brief aside (you will, it’s my blog,) the thing in retrospect about this path was that we saw maybe half a dozen people over this stretch of path. It’s not especially accessible, and really, there’s no need for the path to exist. It doesn’t really connect that many useful places. And yet it does. I love that they (whoever they are) decided to make, not to mention maintain, a path along it. They didn’t need to. But they did. There’s something to be said for that.
As we walk, Max points out the amazing things we should be able to see, except we can’t, because fog. Finally, one thing presents itself to us…
Perhaps more importantly, it was a decaying ruin. You know what that means, don’t you?
Rob and I climbed down to the boat too, the path being exceptionally treacherous. As soon as Richard saw Alan pose, he said, “Oh, you’re the one from the WhatsApp group photo,” because we used the picture of Alan poised on top of the burnt out car from Hike 12. We’re setting a new precedent in hike lore now, where Alan has to clamber atop dead vehicles. Or trees. Most things.
A while later, having passed a boat yard (barely visible), sheep and ponies, we decide to stop for a moment. We were hoping to stop sooner, but the pub in question at Teynham had yet to open (it was only 11:30 by this point) so the smartest thing to do at the time was to keep moving.
Seemingly unprompted, Alan whips out quite a nice bottle of Shiraz, John sources a nice block of cheese and a sausage, and a very sophisticated picnic emerges.
The sun finally reveals itself and all of a sudden we’re in what feels like a summer’s day. The change is almost abrupt. If it wasn’t for the promise of eventually reaching a pub we may have stayed for longer…
… except apparently we’ve stopped in the middle of the nursery of baby spiders, because we all seem to have tiny arachnids crawling up our necks. The grass is practically covered in webs. Lovely. Even writing this I still feel them on me. Probably time I washed.
Resuming, we delight in being able to finally see across the river, and we’re treated to views all the way to the Isle of Sheppy.
Proving we’re not the only people in existence, someone finally passes us on the path and Max does a double take when he realises it’s his old maths teacher. Presumably he’s been lost in the mist for years, and we didn’t dare to disturb him.
We carry on, the path weaving around the line of the estuary as we start heading inland to Faversham.
The sun is a welcome change from the mist, and the view remains a welcome sight, but it’s warm now, and after about three hours of walking, the need to get to a pub is strong.
To pass the time (and because we love doing this) half of us long time stalwarts end up doing a deep dive analysis of the hikes where we try to name them, the others saying they can never remember which hike is which based on numbers alone. (I only manage because I blog them, I guess). If there’s one thing more self indulgent than talking about these hikes, it’s talking about these hikes while on a hike. We apologise to Max for this massive level of in-jokery that he’s broadly not privy to, but he just laughs, saying he loves anything at this level of nerdiness, so feeling supported, we cracked on.
Trying not to take it personally, our first choice of pub in Oare, The Three Mariners, is closed, so we stop at The Castle, a pretty decent spot with a nice beer garden and welcoming staff.
Everyone’s moods improve vastly as we take a few moments to change socks, sort feet and drink. Rob goes out of his way to buy a Red Bull just to troll Clyde, I replace my inexplicably wet socks, and Alan decides the best way to waterproof his feet is to wear dog poo bags between his socks and boots. Sounds daft, actually worked. I’m pretty sure the bags were clean, too.
We drink up and leave, aware that staying put would be all too easy. We’re meeting James at the next pub and we’re already running behind. I know he doesn’t mind waiting (he has a book and beer) but I don’t want to leave him too long, because ten miles three pints deep is quite the challenge.
Fortunately for us, the walk between the two pubs is mercifully short, only about half an hour through some uninspiring housing estates, before we reach Faversham, where we meet James at the Bear Inn. He’s very pleased to see us.
The Bear is a delight; a historic pub just off Faversham’s market square, we sat in a wood panelled booth under oak beams enjoying decent beer. Along with the Bell in Waltham St Lawrence from our last hike, this was right up there with pubs we were sorry to leave.
Now, Faversham is stunning. We all loved it. Historic buildings, cobbled streets, quirky shops, what’s not to love? It felt a bit weird to suddenly be back amongst civilisation, and we all felt like the numerous people around us hadn’t earned their beers like we had (chances are most people had driven there, can you imagine?) We marched out of there with pride in our step and a smile on our face…
… which would’ve been great, except as soon as we left, we found a church.
Yeah, we ground to a halt. In our defence, if you’ve ever read any of these things before you’ll know it’s standard practice for us to stop at churches and graveyards. I’m pretty sure it’s in the manifesto.
Think we couldn’t go any slower? Think again. We went in, had a chat with the clergy, had a bit on an explore.
Okay, that additional delay out the way, now we’re leaving!
Nothing can possibly delay us now, and after a false start we’re definitely off again. Right?
We reach Standard Quay, made up of old buildings selling copious antiques, especially tools. Many of the crew fall in love. We tarry for another short while, before finally gathering ourselves and setting off.
Our path leads us out through an eccentric boatyard…
Although it has its charms.
From here our path follows the river for a while before going cross country through farm lands. We enjoyed the salt flats, but the change in landscape is welcomed. It also helped that we were approaching the golden hour, my favourite time of day where the light lends everything a special significance and I can let the pictures do the talking.
Finally, with the sun setting, we can see the sea.
We march along the sea walls, but it’s not long before several of us hop over the wall and head down to the water. The tide is far out, which is a shame as I’d packed a towel and everything.
Having reached the sea at the twenty mile mark, we mistakenly believe we’ve finished, but there’s a way to go til we reach the pub, so we walk along the beach for a further three miles while the sun sets behind us.
Except for those of us with special foot protectors or dog poo bags, the feet are starting to ache now, and I feel every stone I stand on. We opt to take footpaths over beach where we can, until finally in the last of the twilight, we reach our end point, The Old Neptune, a pub whose beer garden is literally on the beach.
A few generous rounds are purchased as we recall hikes past, both the highs and the lows.
After that, James departs to try and avoid a messy train journey home, and we head into Whitstable to search for well earned food.
That, or we’re still walking through the mist of the estuary path, and everything I’ve written since is a mirage-like hallucination. I do hope it’s the former.