The Walking Idiots, Part 9

When we were teenagers, my mate John Duckitt had the foolish notion that we could walk (we didn’t think of it as hiking back then, we lived in Berkshire, for goodness sake) from Crowthorne, the village we were from, to Windsor, a distance of approximately 20 miles and further than any of us had every considered walking on foot. For various reasons this never happened, but in our early thirties, where we were all far too busy with lives and jobs and families and never saw one another as much as we should, the idea started to appeal. Especially when the idea of pub stops was thrown in.

The hike was a great success (well, we got to Windsor, so mission accomplished) and we repeated the route before trying other hikes to places such as Silchester, Henley and Farnham. We’ve managed eight of these in total, with an ever expanding list of attendees as our enthusiasm (or passive-aggressive nagging depending on how you see things) has persuaded others to join our group.

We have merchandise and everything now, thanks Rob.

A little while ago we tried our first hike in Kent (mostly because John lives there now) and it was deemed a great success, so we thought another was due. The Pilgrims Way seemed like a fascinating and worthwhile opportunity for Hike IX, although obviously far too long for a single hike, so we chose a stretch from Lenham to Canterbury (we’re sort of starting at the end) which looked like it would make for a pretty good walk.

In hikes gone by we (John, Mat Gunyon, Rob Golding and myself)) would have spent weeks emailing links of routes to one another, probably in work time, fixated on the best way to get there. That all changed when Mat found plotaroute, which basically did all that for us, finding the best footpaths and so on. (There are probably other services out there, but this is the one we use). To be fair, it’s probably best we found something to help us, seeing as in hikes gone by we’ve found ourselves getting stuck crossing private land, walking along main roads or considering wading across rivers, so really it’s just preventing us coming to grief.

Not that Alan cares. He’s just happy to be outside.

Anyway, our route was decided, the date set (you kind of have to treat these things like a stag do or wedding and really limit the choices of dates to the attendees or nothing gets chosen) and we drum up interest over our WhatsApp group. As with every hike, we attract a good number of people who haven’t really thought this through, and as the day draws closer and the weather forecast grows progressively bleaker, people start to drop out.

 
Bunch of fair weather dropouts. They probably would’ve died anyway.

Our numbers reduced to fourteen (which is still pretty good) and various repeat dropout offenders blackballed – promising to come on a hike is not the same as attending a hike – we make our respective ways to Kent, some of us the night before.

Alan, Jack and Henry had a particularly unfortunate incident where, having returned from the pub, they realised the key cards they had been given for their hostel didn’t work, and neither did any of the contact numbers they were given. I’m not entirely sure of the details of how they got in, and if I did it probably wouldn’t be best repeated here, but I gather it involved scaffolding, a twig, a letter box, some light breaking and entering, and upon entry, whisky and Lucozade. All I do know for sure is that none of them got much sleep.

The morning of the hike came around and our elite group converged on the Dog and Bear in Lenham. In a move of organisational inspiration, John had informed them of our arrival the week before and placed our orders, meaning we were all treated to full English breakfasts upon arrival, like kings.

I quite liked the Dog and Bear. The food was good and it had an unusually well documented bias concerning non-locals, which, as a League of Gentlemen fan, tickled me.

Insert: “are you local?” joke here.

Twelve breakfasts inhaled, our final attendees Paul and Aleks (both new additions) arrive from London, having gotten up hideously early that morning. Some of the team pop down the road to the little Co-op to grab their lunch, and foot tape and powder is applied by those who are prepared to take no chances.

Goodness knows what any Lenham locals thought of this, especially when Pete cracks open his home brewed beer before 8am. (It’s tradition.)

We pause for our obligatory start of hike group photo, set our various runtrackers (which of course we don’t refer to as paedo-meters, for that would be most insensitive) and off we go.

 

(Attendees: Mat Gunyon, Grier Higgins, me, James Winfield, Aleks Mladenovic, Alan O’Connell, John Duckitt, Pete Lewis, Big Al Feltz, Ben Holton, Jack Adams, Henry Jeffries, Paul Sifter. Rob took the photo, hence why he’s not in it. Most of the other photos are his, FYI.)

So normally on a hike you have to leave it a good few hours before the weird bits start, often brought on by exhaustion and mild delirium. We’ve found abandoned churches, experienced profound, other-worldly sunsets, and one time found a woman in a bath along the riverside. Nothing quite so strange happened here, but as soon as we got to the end of the path, we reached a field which seemed to have more in common with quicksand than anything else.

We power through, but it’s tough going, our boots almost magnetically attracting enough mud that our legs feel twice as heavy as usual.

This is actually footage, not a photo. We’re actually that slow.

Reaching the other end of the field we’re treated to The Cross at Lenham, first cut into the Downs in 1921 as a memorial to those who died in the Great War.

Our mood is sobered somewhat by the rain, which doesn’t exactly fling it down, but stops Kent looking less like the Garden of England and, well, the Garden of England if it was drizzling a lot.

About ninety minutes into the hike I get a notification from my news app to say that someone has broken the record for completing the marathon in under two hours. The distance is comparable to what we’re intending to do today (a little longer, in fact), but if we want to achieve it in a similar time, we’d better get to Canterbury in half an hour.

I think we knew that wasn’t going to happen from the start though.

Around 11:30 we reach our first designated pub stop, the Flying Horse. This is probably a wonderful pub but I can’t give you a comprehensive review on the grounds that it was shut. Clearly the daytime alcoholics of the village of Boughton Aluph have to do their morning drinking somewhere else. John tried calling the landlord but to little avail. We decide to crack on, the (admittedly slim) silver lining of cutting out a pub stop being that we have been given an hour back of our walk. (Well, except for James who had always planned leaving at this point, knowing he probably wouldn’t be able to hack the whole thing.)

Moving on, we leave the village and return into the countryside.

We pass a church, and I remember that as part of the hike prep, I had purchased something called a Pilgrims Passport which as far as I could tell is a throwback to the Olde Days where pilgrims would carry something similar to seek food and shelter and (hopefully) put vagrants off kicking the stuffing out of them. In modern terms it’ll probably achieve none of these, but it does apparently get you some discounts along the way.

It only cost £2, but I’m gonna get my money’s worth from it.

The church is locked, and slightly peeved, I leave, resolving to get it stamped at the next church. There’s a silver lining though:

The Church is pretty stunning, if you like that sort of thing

… and I still can’t get over the Vicar’s name. Funny on multiple levels. Take your time, I’ll wait.

Shortly after this we cross another field and climb a hill of some significance. I say climb because it really did seem that steep.

Paul bounds ahead, disappearing upwards and out of sight. We follow, ascending for about ten or fifteen minutes (I think, it’s hard to tell when you’re marching up something like this.) About halfway up, me, Pete and Big Al hear a blood curdling cry like Arnie calling out the Predator, and realise Paul must have reached the top. Clearly John recruited a lunatic for this hike.

Eventually we all reach the top and people decide to reward themselves with snacks. Mostly this consists of whisky but John brings out a rather nice block of cheese, which I must say I wasn’t expecting.

You can decide for yourselves whether this is the sort of thing seasoned athletes do when they need to refuel.

We progress, walking through rather beautiful forest (Rob says it looked like something from Prince of Thieves, I was picturing the ending of Fellowship of the Ring) walking along the hill’s peak. With the exception of some enormous mushrooms, there’s not too much to report here. Alan poked one despite everyone telling him not to, but Big Al, ever responsible, had brought along some hand sanitiser, which spared Alan an unpleasant fate should he scratch an orifice and die. If anyone could, it’d be Alan.

There’s a fleeting glimpse of Canterbury cathedral on the horizon as pointed out by a very nice church group we crossed paths with and who did a lovely job of masking their revulsion of us, but given the leaden sky it mostly seemed like a dark blob in the distance. More importantly, Rob was unable to take a photo of it, and given that’s the only reason anyone reads my hike ramblings, we’ll move on.

Around 25 kilometres (15 miles in old money) we realise we’ve still not made it to a pub stop. And by realise, I mean it’s all anyone’s really talking about until we notice we’ve been walking along a very nice wall for a long time.

John points out that the house behind the wall is owned by the founder of IG Index, which raises everyone’s expectations of what lies behind it enormously. When the wall briefly dips into an iron fence, we are suitably impressed with the sight.

You know you own an impressive property when it a) has the keep of a Norman Castle as an extension, and b) has its own Wikipedia page.

Following the wall around leads us into the really rather stunning village of Chilham, as well as the gates of Chilham Castle. I think it’s fair to say I’ll never be able to afford to live here, but it’s nice to stop by.

And here, 16 miles in, we reach our first pub stop.

The White Horse is one of those lovely country pubs you’d only find in Britain. The building dates back to the 14th century, it has a good range of beers, the door is opened by a rope you have to pull, and the staff were perfectly happy to let thirteen sweaty, soggy idiots eat their packed lunches in the beer garden.

Wins all round.

Much banter is shared with all sorts of things mentioned that I wouldn’t dare to include in this post (there’s a rule about lads in groups bringing out the worst in each other, isn’t there?) but we’re very sensible and decide to keep it at one pint or we’ll never get going again. Alan in particular takes umbrage to this notion, but you can’t please everyone.

He was a bit thirsty.

Also, we learned that Aleks really needs to start cleaning his flask better, as it’d turned his whisky black. He didn’t drink much more after realising this.

Foot tape and powder reapplied, we resume our march. I notice a church through the beer garden and try and get my pilgrims passport stamped there too, but they’re shut as well, dammit.

We’ve made such good time (owing, for once, to our limited alcohol intake) that we decide to deviate and follow our route along the river.

The rain has patiently waited while we had our break, and merrily starts up again as soon as we resume. We cope in our own ways. John, for instance stole one of his daughter’s princess-looking hairbands to keep his hair out of his eyes, and looked lovely. You’ll just have to picture it though, as no evidence exists that this happened. But it did. Instead, here’s some pictures of some of the rest of us enduring.

Still better than your weekend though. Unless you’re Clyde, who bailed on the hike to attend a lecture by Martin Scorsese, which is about the same.

We get a little confused by our route as we’ve decided to deviate from our intended way to go by the river (mix it up a bit) and there’s a point where Mat has to actually make sure we’re going the right way.

I mean, we knew we weren’t going backwards, but that’s about it.

Our direction is confirmed (there’s a left hand turning we need to stay on top of) and with Pete’s noxious wind providing all the motivation we need to not sit still, we’re on our way.

We pass through this amazing red field on the way. We came this close to convincing Rob it was a coleslaw field, but he saw through it.

Finally reaching the river, we cross paths with scores of sheep, some of whom seem more frustrated than others.

It’s around this time that two things become apparent. 1) It’s finally stopped raining, thank god, and 2), Jack’s pace has slowed to a near halt. This basically means we stop every mile or so to let the poor guy catch us up, but with Canterbury nearing and Jack’s discomfort becoming apparent, we decide it’s time to help him out.

It’s worth remembering Jack was one of the three that was locked out of the hostel, and who replaced a significant part of his sleep with whisky, so he has an excuse.

This broadly consists of yours truly (with help from Rob, then Mat) grabbing an arm around our shoulders each and marching him the last mile into Canterbury City Centre.

We pass this awesome graffiti under a riverside bridge though.

It’s been a good few years since I’ve been to Canterbury and the timber frames buildings and cobbled streets have a delightful charm, especially as the sun sets and the promise of an old pub is imminent.

Our progress is halted only when John spots a hobbit hole themed house to let in the window of an estate agents (reports afterwards from the boys inform me that in my excitement I slung poor Jack off me like a kid dropping his backpack having got home from school) but it provides only a fleeting distraction and we’re soon at our journeys end.
There’s a few moments of confusion when we realise we’re short a member, as Ben has disappeared, perhaps unsettled by his return to civilisation. He hadn’t realised that our pace had dropped so much, and marched on, presumably guessing the rest of us were only a few steps behind him. Which really is a far more reasonable assumption than the reality that we were stood peering into the window of an estate agents’, but there you go.

Our arrival at The Old Buttermarket, a beautiful five hundred year old pub, is as euphoric as you’d expect, with lots of cheers, clinking of glasses, and manly, knowing looks. This euphoric feeling is pretty standard issue for our hikes and one of the many reasons we do them.

(Light disclaimer that this excludes our first hike in Kent, where I drunk enough to fall asleep in Pizza Express. On Rob.)

Sitting for the first time in hours, by the way, is a wonderful and novel experience, as represented in this picture.

Although according to my wife, who is a primary school teacher, this level of standing at a time is a daily occurrence, so I’ve nothing to complain about.

After a few drinks Paul and Aleks depart, having to return to London, and we’re sad to see two of our newest additions leave. They’re definitely welcome to come again.

Our evening progresses from there, with Mat, Rob and Big Al making it part of Hike Constitution that from now on we eat where we finish unless there’s an outstanding reason why that doesn’t work. The Old Buttermarket does some pretty good pub grub, and we’re not fussy by this point. The waitress who takes our order has an outstanding memory as eleven meals are ordered, and the pub is very decent to put up with our generally unkempt and, shall we say, aromatic nature.

The evening comes to its inevitable end quite early as everyone is pretty beat, and we go our respective ways, over half of us to the comforts of the Premier Inn or hostel (fortunately they could get in it this time). There are various messages exchanged over our WhatsApp group congratulating ourselves on our day, and several photos of bloodied feet, which probably aren’t the best photo to end this post on.

That’s better.

So in conclusion, the Pilgrims’ Way, and Kent in general, is excellent to hike. But we knew that from the start. It’s why we’re coming back to do more of it. My one request for next time, is can I get my bloody pilgrims passport stamped somewhere please?

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