On 20th October 2018 a group of men walked 25 miles from Rochester to Tonbridge. Their motives shrouded in mystery (even from themselves), they made their way in secrecy, telling no one except their friends, family or anyone else who crossed their path, whether they wanted to hear or not.
So pretty much everyone.
That’s right, we’re at it again, this time in Kent.
Regular readers (take a bow, both of you) will know that for the past few years some of my closest friends and I have made the frequent mistake of walking inadvisably long distances, often while consuming alcoholic beverages and generally letting the tone of conversation reach something akin to rock bottom in terms of smut and good taste.
Turns out it works just as well in Kent as it does in Berkshire.
We knew that for Hike number seven we would need to give Kent a go, simply because John (Hike instigator and general route plotter) has lived there for several years and having three small children he can’t easily just nip out for the day and pop back with a hangover and ruined stumps where his feet used to be. No worries. Nice to have a change of scenery.
It did however change a bit of the planning, at least at first. The usual Hike Strategy Planning group (read: WhatsApp group where John gives us options until we feel pressured enough to respond) didn’t have the same initial input when it came to choosing a route, 3/4 of us knowing next to nothing about the area. John resolved this in the way only he can, by taking his maps to his local (The Man of Kent – apparently if I confuse this with the Kentish Man I’ll be burned at the stake) and hashing the details out with his local mates.
Here we go. In years to come it will be thought of like this:
Anyway, John and the Men of Kent (awful band name, bet there’s a band really called that though, and if so I bet they play at real ale festivals and the like) cobble together our prospective route, almost certainly not undermined by the consumption of beer.
Meanwhile, we crack on with the rest of the planning, namely adding anyone we think might be interested onto an ever-expanding WhatsApp group which creates an insane amount of chatter. God forbid you find yourself in a meeting or drive somewhere, for the next time you check your phone you risk coming back to 50+ messages. I’m sure hikers in the Olde Days didn’t have to go through this nonsense.
One of the logistical headaches with planning an event like this tends to be confirming a date, given how busy everyone’s lives are, and we took the democratic option of setting up a google doodle to see who could do when. Thus is it written that all hikes that will ever be will have a doodle, for it is the only way to make a decision when you deal with 10+ people.
The date is agreed: 20th October (although I already told you that, so I’m not sure why the dramatic colon was required.) It costs us a couple of prospective attendees, primarily Swatty, our resident go-to expert in all things nature, and Dave, who soldiers on no matter how grim the circumstances, but it serves the majority so we take the hit and crack on.
John passes the proposed route on to Mat, Rob and I to finesse with him. I can only assume at this point his Kent planning crew (Brad, Russell and Callum) had had enough of looking at maps. There’s a moment of doubt from me when I plot the route into google and am told that Walking this distance is only 14 miles, which is basically a brief stroll.
John assures me it’s not but it creates a seed of uncertainty that leads to reassessing the route, complicated by the fact John has informed us he needs to be home early from this one to put the kids to bed. Fortunately for all of us, John’s able to extend his time out and we restore the hike to its true intended length, which clocks in well over twenty miles.
(The red bit)
Then things start getting interesting. The length of the walk starts to put off some of the Hike Virgins we’ve recruited, and over the course of a week we lose about half of our promised attendees. Most of these are John’s friends that I’m sure are very nice but we’ve never met, so it’s hard to express the sympathy he’s looking for when we get these messages saying “We’ve Lost Russell!!!” when our instinct is to reply “Oh no!!!! …. who’s Russell?”
Things go from inconvenient to downright scary with we learn that Grier, who joined us on our third Hike and was flying all the way from LA to join us, had been in a not-insignificant car crash.
Nice weather for it though.
Fortunately Grier was fine and was able to join. We should perhaps take a moment to appreciate the lengths this man will go to in order to attend these things. Double man points are awarded when we realise he took an eleven hour flight to reach us the day before the hike.
Then (and this one was mildly exacerbating) John’s youngest daughter Lila came up in a load of spots which led him to conclude she may have chicken pox. John was concerned he would have to drop out of the hike, which would rather hamper our progress considering he’s the only one who really knows what he’s doing, the rest of us just pretend. A flurry of links to various maps and routes follow.
But no. False alarm. Crisis averted. I shouldn’t have been worried though, the signs that this hike was happening were all around us:
Well yes I am, thanks for asking, London Storage Vaults.
The day before the hike comes and the advance party makes its way down. Rob, Alan and I drive down, successfully risking a post-rush hour M25 and meet Clyde and Grier at John’s. Jessica, John’s wife, kindly assures us he would’ve been able to come even if Lila had had chicken pox (“It’s not like he would’ve been any help”) and we set about preparing for the next day, which means mixing negronis and gin and tonics in plastic bottles that were (on reflection) probably far too strong for this sort of outing.
Also: Alan discovered Playdough.
The next morning the various members of our party convene at the Wetherspoons in Rochester (still the best place we can think of for breakfast) and with fry ups consumed and foot tape applied, we boldly set off into the Kentish wilderness. We’re an attendee short as Brad (one of John’s Men of Kent) fails to materialise without a call or text. Mat expresses some dismay at me ordering a veggie breakfast but with the exception of the veggie sausages being exceptionally dry it’s pretty damn good.
Hike 7: 20th October, 2018.
Attendees: from l-r: Big Al Feltz, Pete Lewis, Chris Hutchfield, John Duckitt, Mat Gunyon, me, Grier Higgins, Clyde Baehr, Alan O’Connell, Ben Holton and (not pictured) Rob Golding, photographer at law.
We make our way through Rochester’s historic town centre, which is stunning, especially with no one around at 8 in the morning.
But it seems too peaceful. Why’s it so quiet? Then it dawns on Clyde: “It’s because no one is using the WhatsApp group!” The group breathes a collective sigh of relief. Makes sense with us being here and all. Nice little bonus, that.
From the town we pass by the cathedral and up around the castle.
Look at Rob with his sexy photos.
We walk along the Medway along various roads and paths, taking in the morning air
(It’s actually cold. I’m not just being well gangsta)
until we reach our first stop, under the motorway bridge.
Also pictured: Clyde’s backside.
Appreciating this rather significant architectural feat (bridge, not Baehr-derrière) we crack on, into the hikes first experience of countryside that day.
We walk along a stunning levy that lines the river, oddly stalked by a heron who continually kept stopping just ahead of us, only to fly off every time we caught up, seemingly irked that we were on his turf.
(I would’ve included the heron but I couldn’t get its signature on the release form.)
It was around this time that members of the group deemed it a good idea to start drinking. (It’s about 8:30 by this point).
Look at them. Caught in the act. Damn their lovable faces.
The justification amongst some of our members is that their bags are weighed down by the drinks, and they serve to lighten the load. Pete in particular has brought his home brew in glass bottles, which shows initiative yet isn’t exactly practical. Good beer though.
The views from the levy weren’t too shabby either.
We follow the river along the levy for a while, and with the exception of Alan’s feet getting wet (spoiler: he pulls through) and the views making a favourable impression, not too much happens.
A short while later we find a new housing development called Peter’s Village. I let the gentle wave of dismay wash over me at seeing yet another seemingly identical development like those all over the country subtly rub out the countryside. Fortunately Kent has countryside in spades, but I still don’t like it.
We make our way through the estate and along a road that leads into our first cross country route. With the hills towering over us we see three riders on horseback in the distance descending. Ben shouts “Injuns!” which they either take in good spirits, or most likely just don’t hear.
This image is the best we could manage. (The riders are literally on the horizon.) It’s not bad but here’s a picture of us leaving the path and disappearing into the wilderness that’s far better for good measure:
From here there’s ample walking through semi rural, semi industrial land. Kent seems to have a lot of it! We managed to pass fields of solar panels, a monastery, sewage works (my phone tried to autocorrect that to “Sewage World” which is a worrying concept) and several farms in quick succession. There’s a long stretch where we don’t see a soul for ages, and then a father and son pass us on a quad bike, which was a bit odd.
Here’s some photographic evidence because otherwise people don’t seem to enjoy the blog:
(Grier asked if the sewage works were a mushy pea refinery which is just the best thing ever, frankly.)
And here’s a photo of me, Clyde and Mat smiling. Presumably at this point we’d made a start on the whisky/gin or said something disgusting:
Its around this point we add a new dimension to our hikes. As a motivational aid, Rob purchased a rather snazzy speaker which clips into his bag. He and I had spent the better part of a week discreetly adding tunes to a Hike playlist, trying to find a mix of motivational hits (the Rocky theme tune, Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins) song’s about walking (Zeppelin’s legendary Ramble On, Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac) and then songs which either reflect us or our legion of in-jokes (Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes to homage our ruined feet, Enya for reasons we are unsure of but over an overly developed long running joke has led us to believe that all of John’s children were conceived to Orinoco Flow.)
Unfortunately some the quality of some of the in-joke songs leaves a bit to be desired, as this brief exchange between Clyde and Rob will attest:
Clyde: “Is this Simply Red?”
Clyde’s response was not suitable for publication.
Anyway, motivation provided with a song in our ears and our hearts, we crack on, until we reach Aylesford.
Aylesford is a bit nice.
We make our way halfway across the bridge before briefly pausing. We’re making good time, and the Chequers Inn (the black and white building in the first picture) looks a bit nice. And is open.
Ever the benevolent dictator, John heroically runs back to see if they’re open (it’s barely noon by this point. I know: at this rate you’ll be reading this post for the next week) while we wait on the bridge. We wait for long enough for someone to ask whether we’ll know if they’re open or not. I reply saying presumably we’ll see John in the beer garden, and as if by request, we see John appear in the beer garden and give us a wave like when Where’s Wally used to reveal himself. (Too niche a reference? Possibly.)
Anyway, the Chequers Inn is a great pub. Beers? Yep, good range. Historic? Grade II listed building from 1511, sucker. Character?
It’s got this guy, Boy Boy, so yes.
Boy Boy seems to take a shine to us, Alan in particular, although we can’t convince him to join us. He’s a busy boy (Boy) with customers to entertain and table legs to sniff.
We leave the Chequers, briefly appreciating the local names of houses
– Alan trolling Aylesford there – and leave the rather scenic village behind.
We pass round the back of a monastery
And then our route takes a turn for the uneventful as we cross the motorway (not literally running in front of traffic, just so you know) and follow some roads on our way to East Malling. Rob briefly makes us hang around for a bit to watch a train pass which is about as exciting as it sounds. Some of the team – myself included – were unable to buy lunch beforehand so we swing by the local One Stop to pick something up.
Bit of a mistake this. I struggled to articulate why I took such a dislike to this particular establishment so I asked Rob what he disliked about it. His response?
“Everything. The people. The layout. The lack of space. The useless guy behind the till. The fact they also tried to cram a post office in there too.”
Can’t fault that. For my part I can’t work out if everyone in there were channelling The League of Gentlemen or whether there was a carbon monoxide leak.
John and Alan, former One Stop employees in another life, probably think this is slander. Here’s them looking proud of their roots in a past wander:
After a bit more ambling –
– and some juvenile humour – we reach East Malling, where we stop at our second pub (which feels very soon after our first pub stop) and eat our lunch.
The King and Queen has good beers and a nice vibe. We didn’t get too invested, not just because of the absence of Boy Boy but also because we sat outside and scoffed our packed lunches with a cheeky pint. Our lunch preparations were perhaps not as well considered as they should have been, as John took to hacking up the lump of cheese he had brought with Alan’s significantly large hunting life. There was also an awkward bit where Clyde, Alan and myself stood outside the loo for the better part of ten minutes until I realised the door was just stiff and not locked, but I don’t feel we can hold the good staff of the King and Queen responsible for either of them.
As we get through lunch Brad finally arrives. As mentioned earlier, Brad was meant to have joined us from the start but… beer, apparently. Our numbers augmented, we head on as John is impatient to keep the pace going and not fall behind our agreed checkpoints (Yep, we had checkpoints. This rather strict form of managing the team may have been what led to some of the lads shouting orders at him in German. I can only speculate.)
This happened too. I can’t find anywhere to fit it in, but Rob really wanted a pic of this so indulge him:
Brad is not the only person to join us part way through. James (who joined us for the last hike) is now a Kent local but doubted whether he’d manage the whole thing. Wanting to finish the hike (it’s the best bit) and a fan of lie ins, he opted to meet us at our next pub stop. In principle this is fine, if we’re keeping to time. We’re not really, so several messages from me are sent over the next hour or so saying we’ll be there in half an hour. Rinse repeat.
I do get some endearing replies like “I got here early as I didn’t want to miss you lot. Three pints deep. Might be drunk when you arrive.”
Our route then takes us through some forest land, which is a welcome change.
Including this tree which I think I last saw in Sleepy Hollow.
We then find some vineyards:
(Complete with a posing Alan)
And then pass through a small village which was obsessed with creative ways of addressing dog fouling:
Seriously. There were loads of ones like this.
We reach a mill pond on Love Lane where everyone is momentarily depressed that it wasn’t a pub stop, although the floating duck house does open the door for some jokes about MPs and their expenses:
Deciding the time was right for a brief morale boost, I reveal my now- standard Lord of the Rings hike prank on John, which this time takes the form of this rather ridiculous t-shirt I found online.
To be fair, I did warn him back in January.
This comes in handy when, a short while later we pass through the church graveyard at Nettlestead and find our only way through is down a steep and short hill where I try to recreate the shot of the hobbits hiding from the black rider. Also by this point I had been wearing my hoodie for around six hours of walking in the sun and there’s only so far you can stretch a joke before you start wondering why you’re doing it.
Clyde remained unimpressed by this.
Anyway, once we’ve descended the hill round the back of the graveyard we cross the railway line where some of us responsibly pause to grab a quick photo
And then some of our number decide to stretch out a little.
Don’t try this without an adult present, kids.
Despite pausing to stretch out, time is against us, and Herr Duckitt orders the troops to move on.
From the railway line to the Boathouse pub in Yalding we proceed along a really calm and beautiful stretch of river that seemed to work its charm on all of us. We’re at least fifteen miles into the walk by now and it’s showing a little, but the serenity of the countryside seems to undo the damage.
Or the negronis. It might have been the negronis.
(Clyde decided to channel the style of JJ Abrams for this pic.)
The stretch of river leads us to the lock before the Boathouse where James has almost certainly finished his third pint by now. I pause to grab this picture, which nicely highlights Grier’s height, which I haven’t discussed on this hike yet because he’s more than just a tall guy:
– I like it. Makes me feel hobbit sized –
and finally we reach the Boathouse, our last pub stop before our journeys end.
The Boathouse is a rather modern establishment on the river at Yalding. I’m not sure how much of a fan of it’d be in winter but in the very last of the summer sun it’s a delight.
Anyway, James joins and we’re very pleased to see him. Turns out we were as worse for wear as each other by this point.
Although we gain an extra member, Brad departs, having places to be. His parting gift was to expand on the German orders schtick we had been doing with John for the past few hours. As it turns out, Brad speaks perfect German so under John’s orders he barks at us to hurry our lazy selves up and get to Tonbridge (it’s less polite than that.) Unfortunately the volume Brad communicates this instruction to us in attracts the attention of some local lads who glare daggers at him, clearly still holding a grudge older than they are.
(Not picture: Brad or Boathouse fascists.)
We head off with our new addition for the final stretch.
The next nine miles are long, as fast paced as we can manage, and both beautiful and intense.
We’re racing against the sunset now, which isn’t the worst thing in the world but it is a bit of a bugger hiking in the dark. The fifteen miles already walked are taking their toll, as is the slowly accumulated effects of the day’s drinking.
Still, there’s some good things to see:
A hobbit hole (how could I resist?)
And a Girl in the bath. (No, we don’t know why, either. By this point this could have been a shared group hallucination.)
According to John we reached a fork in the road and one of them was full of brambles. He said it was that way and asked Grier to push on through. He couldn’t and he’s still complaining about it apparently.
Alan and I didn’t care. We were utterly winning at life. Just look at us.
The upside of the sun setting is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sunset, and boy did this one deliver:
I suppose this was probably the profound moment we experience in the last stretch of all our hikes. Previous hikes have included deer running across our path, discovering abandoned churches and so on, and the rather impressive Big Sky shamelessly instagrammed before you probably fits the bill here.
Also possibly the greatest hike photo you’ve ever seen was taken:
Take a moment. Worth it.
Unfortunately around this point the combination of negroni and other accumulated booze teams up with exhaustion on us. And by us I know I mean at least me. Whether the rest of our crew were affected is hard to tell because from here it got really dark
(Picture this but without the yellow bit. Or hope.)
Rob and John notice a WW2 era pillbox. Foolishly going closer to investigate ( they’ve seen horror films, they must have known this was idiotic) Rob switches on the light on his phone and shines it through, spying a pile of blankets, a sleeping bag…
… and a pair of eyes staring back at him.
They swiftly rejoin the group.
From here on we basically plough on in single file, but every 20 yards someone would discreetly break ranks to relieve themselves and rejoin near the back, meaning the whole line sort of revolved people around. It’s hard to articulate how this looked but for sone reason it sort of summons to mind an image of classic 90’s videogame Lemmings, if the lemmings in question had bladders.
It’s hard to accurately summarise this period of the hike, mostly because each of us was experiencing their own personal hell/purgatory/mild discomfort with the exception of Big Al who doesn’t feel any of these things and could probably hike 50 miles in a day if the rest of us weren’t there to slow him down.
Two incidents however do nicely articulate the experience of walking The Long Dark (discreet Tolkien reference there):
Here’s Pete to really lower the tone:
“So the reason I was powering ahead after the naked chick in Bath part was because I was absolutely dying for a dump. Not because I was full of boundless energy but because you May recall there were zero facilities beyond this point.
I thought I might be able to make it to Tonbridge but about three miles from the end it became clear that this was wishful thinking.
So allow me to set the scene: picture a harvested field to the right of the path (this was well into the part on the north bank) and a row of trees 50m or so ahead perpendicular to the river.
I inform Chris that d(ump) day is upon us and so adjust my direction of travel by 45 degrees such that I end up by the trees at the edge of the field and Chris went on and waited on the path.
So I proceed to befoul the field and then, much relieved, walk back to the path whereby I loudly proclaim my satisfaction with the aforementioned events. It’s pretty dark by this time so I can’t see Chris wildly gesticulating.
Turns out I had loudly proclaimed what a great dump I’d just had right next to the people camping by the river!”
… Wow. Thanks Pete. If I ever get a regular publication I’m making sure you get a sidebar. Astonishing effort.
Another way of expressing our trek into darkness can be articulated through this brief exchange between John and Ben. Ben, for the record, was our Hike Virgin (as far as I can tell he is a dad from John’s daughter’s school that he somehow talked into coming on the hike, the rube.) The exchange went something like this:
John: “Hey Ben, how are you getting on?”
Ben (muttered): “This is such bullshit.”
Can’t fault that.
Eventually our riverside route becomes slowly urbanised until it gives way to Tonbridge. We gather ourselves briefly before pressing on, and as if by design (it wasn’t, I checked with John) our riverside walk metamorphosis into an actual pub. The Graze kitchen and bar. Our end point!
There’s a charming moment where, at the tiny group of stairs we declare a roll call as each of us make our way up (this sounds like a Mat initiative to me) and there we indulge in some well deserved but probably by this time utterly superfluous beers. There’s a point where a waiter brings a round out on a tray, which makes me feel like we’re a group of utter heroes.
General silliness like this follows:
And apparently a very nice lady who is also the editor of Kent Life Magazine gives me her business card having engaged Rob and John in conversation, intrigued with what would convince a group such as us to pursue such a hobby and interested in the blog you are presently reading. Over the next fortnight I proceed to write up our account of the hike, torn between an accurate account of what happened (complete with anecdotes such as Pete’s contribution) versus something that might actually see print.
I’d like to think that the above is worthy of publication, given that it’s about the account of a group of lifelong friends doing something most people wouldn’t face, but I also know it features these walking idiots:
The same idiots who – our hike concluded – gradually part ways as the evening wears on. Some of us make our way to the nearest Pizza Express, which was great, but I don’t think I need to blog about that, do you? For my part, I fell asleep on Rob on the taxi ride back to the hotel, offer Clyde the spare bed and wake up in bed next to Rob. Ah well. I could do worse.
Over the next week the hike seems to stay with us. Various WhatsApp groups buzz and messages are exchanged as if the group are reluctant to part ways. We plot Hike VIII in less than a week (Crowthorne to Farnham in case you’re interested) which is testimony to the fact we’re just eager to get back on and do the next hike, when our feet grow back, at least.
On the approach to Halloween I decide on a final Lord of the Rings prank/hike homage and carve this thing:
So yeah. Hike in Kent? Smashed it mate.