Stage 7 Rochester to Harrietsham
Comment of the day, 'why don't you go back to bed for a few hours' -
from a lady at Catford Station as we sat watching the rain lash down. Following a week of showers we had watched the BBC weather forecast with interest on Friday night - no rain in the South East until later in the day. The cloud hanging over the station must just be a mirage then!
As must the lashing rain that was teaming down. Train arrived and we headed off towards Rochester with the promise of blue skies on the horizon and the last few spots of rain falling just as we got off the train.
To avoid walking along the roads and having another 'Strood' experience we took a taxi to the Medway bridges and resumed our walk. The early stages showed great promise, although a little industrial we enjoyed fantastic views over the Medway valley and the ridge we had walked along on the past few stages. Eurostar trains shot past at speed looking sleek and impressive, amazing to think that the passengers would be going past our destination in a matter of minutes whereas it would take us over 6 hours to cover the 17 miles to Harrietsham.
We were taking things easy and it was slow going, mainly due to the mud but also because we were both weary after climbing the evening before and I had a bit of a head cold. Normally I usually have time to get the camera out and catch Lizzie struggling up the hills, today though I turned around and she was right behind me, maybe it was the cold or Lizzie getting a bit stronger. This didn't last though and by the end of the day we would both be drawing on our energy reserves to keep our feet moving.
This was definitely the most physically demanding stage so far, combination of the heat, mud and rolling hills - if you descend you know that you have to go back up again and some of the ascents were just as demanding as Boxhill. By the end of the day we had both finished our water and the bottle of electrolyte energy drink and it felt like we were walking on empty. The toasted tea cakes I had for breakfast and Lizzie's new gluten free diet weren't quite enough even with a bar of chocolate and energy bar on the way.
After the initial storm it ended up
being a day for lying on your back looking at the clouds in the bright blue sky listening to the skylarks, the primroses were finally opening up and the ground covered violets, lambs bouncing around in the fields and we even noticed an early butterfly.
Dickens described the walk between Rochester and Maidstone as one of the 'most beautiful in England' no doubt at the time the views were not blotted with urban development and the industrial trappings and oddly enough early Victorians didn't find mountains at all fashionable so it is not too difficult to get an impression of what he was referring to.
I now believe that whoever devised the North Downs Way had a thing for woods, the feeling of walking in an expanse of country side was soon quashed as the way headed towards another wood, I am thinking of renaming it the Muddy Woody Way,
The route redeemed itself later on with some of the finest 'lowland' walking you could ever experience. Thankfully just as I started to feel like I could be walking in Dulwich someone was out clearing a lot of the trees opening up nice views - well Maidstone and bringing light into the wood, like us the bluebells were straining up to get the sun. Even when there is little need to go through woods the little waymarkers seem keen to send you into the dark - particularly at Westfield Wood where the marker - clearly in error points you back into the woods rather than taking a good path around the edge and then further on another waymark - this time correctly points you towards the official route amongst the trees, 20 feet below what has become albeit illegally, an extension of path around the edge. We stayed in the sun and kept to the unofficial track.
Unfortunately we missed out on the opportunity to visit the Neolithic burial mound at Kit's Coty, due to flooding, the way is diverted and the new route takes you away from the site.
Generally, given the proximity to London, motorways and urban areas the walk has been extremely enjoyable, much better than either of us had expected, one sad observation though is that whereas on most footpaths you can normally tell that you are nearing a road or car park by the sudden increase in numbers of people, on the North Downs Way the approach to a road is generally marked by a burnt out car.
The final few miles from Detling to Harrietsham were wonderful but tiring.
A sombre moment as you cross the new bridge across the A249 into Detling, that was built following the death of a young girl and her grandmother crossing the road.
Watching the cars speed along the dual carriageway you are thankful for the bridge but reflect on what a shame it was that it took the deaths to eventually bring about the construction of a safe crossing for pedestrians. After Detling the path takes you up and down rolling hills with wonderful views - rolling fields and little villages, classic English views. with the energy slowly draining from our legs we dropped down off the hills into Harrietsham, Lizzie managing a last minute spurt shooting past me. I could tell that she knew the train was due soon and didn't want to miss it.
Second comment of the day came when we arrived at Harriestsham station - "are you lost then?" - "nope" came the response, "not if this is a train station!"
The rain never came. We could safely have taken off our jackets after all!!!!
A few minutes later we were sitting down looking out of the train windows across to the North Downs which gave some perspective to the distance we had covered.