Harrietsham to Bearstead, Kent
20 June 2020. Last weekend Daphne and I were due to lead this walk in reverse, starting at Bearstead and ending at Harrietsham– as you will see from the programme. As we had to recce this walk – from Harrietsham to Bearstead – three times before we got it right it seemed only sensible to lead you through it again.
The first time we did it we got lost in the station! This was quite a feat considering it has only two platforms and we both have degrees in geography.
After bumbling about for nearly an hour on the wrong side of the tracks we went over the footbridge for the third time and eventually found the waymarked track which follows the railway for a short distance. The path is beautifully shaded – perfect for the sort of weather we have been having recently. Turning left we walk gently uphill through some dispersed woods until we reach the Pilgrim’s Way. It is a straight, wide, even and flat track with more delightful shade and good views over the Len Valley.
Pilgrims took this route from Winchester to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas a Becket. A friend who is the vicar of a church in Kennington told me that the clergy of her Diocese walk the Pilgrim’s Way as a walking lunch (as it were) each year before Lent.
We leave the Pilgrim’s Way at the village of Hollingbourne, pausing for a drink stop outside the Dirty Habit pub before heading uphill then left up some steep steps signed to the North Downs Way. There is a rustic gate at the top and the signed path leads into more woods.
It had been our intention to follow the recommendation on our printed directions and wend our way to The Blacksmiths Arms near Wormshill for luncheon. However when we ‘phoned to check they were open the publican was brusque and short – they did not serve food during the week, closed at two and no children are allowed on weekdays. We enquired if there were any other hostelries in the neighbourhood that might serve food and he mentioned The Ringlestone Inn. We rang and were given every assurance of a welcome.
This absolute gem of a pub dates back to the time of Henry V111 and retains all its Jacobean fixtures and fittings – the high, dark oak settles, the tables crafted from the timbers of an eighteenth century Thames Barge and the original oak beams. The computerised 21st century till fitted perfectly in the space in the original sideboard behind the bar. In addition to an impressive array of real Ales they served a complete selection of country wines –plum, elderflower, hawthorn etc. – and the food was superlative. So good that we had to have puddings – and I mean good old British Puddings, not mamby pamby deserts. There was even a little pets’ corner for the children – welcome indeed in this Inn. So excited and full were we at the discovery of this outstanding hostelry that on leaving it we turned the wrong way and got lost again! We turned back to get on the intended route.
As the Ringlestone was an experience not to be missed, we decided the walk must be remodelled to incorporate it. So we did a second recce the following month, starting this time from Eyethorne Street, with the intention of arriving at the Ringlestone in time for another splendid lunch. We were running late of course – after another unintended detour the wrong way round a chalk pit – and were salivating at the prospect of a Ringlestone Steak and Kidney pud. Imagine our horror on arriving, hot tired and thirsty, to find it not only closed but boarded up, abandoned and forlorn. We had only a bottle of water and one cereal bar between us to sustain us for the remainder of the walk. By the time we reached Bearstead station – no sign of sustenance in sight – we were so desperate for food that we got off the train at the first station in zone six – which happened to be Swanley. But thereby hangs another tale…..
SO, to reprise the walk, where we had reached the North Downs Way. Emerging from the woods we are confronted by a short, steep hill. We stagger up the hill; good practice for us now as I should think none of us has walked anything steeper than Primrose Hill or Crystal Palace during the last 14 weeks. This is the scarp slope of the North Downs and there are great views. The well- trodden path crosses chalk downland and eventually takes us into shade by way of gates and fields into Smokes Wood, which is managed by the Woodland Trust and is apparently one of their top ten bluebell woods.
On leaving the wood we cross more chalk grassland and come to the Wild Boar Sculpture Park; a rather eccentric collection of gently decaying wooden sculptures. The name reminds us that wild boar used to roam freely in Kent.
Finally we reach the Hook and Hatchett pub for lunch. While not a patch on the Ringlestone it is a pretty decent pub with a pleasant garden providing both sunshine and shade. One can see they are trying hard to bring the punters in with different activities every night. I hope they have survived the lockdown –which has been especially hard on country pubs.
After leaving the Hook and Hatchett we turn left and walk up the road past Stanhope Farm. We have to climb over stiles between three fields before reaching a wheat field – which should be ripe by now – where the path zig zags to reach a dispersed settlement with some enthusiastic pigs in an enclosure on the left.
We turn right up a quiet road for a hundred yards or so before cutting through a woodland path on our left which takes us back to the North Downs Way. The Downs fall away steeply to our left – there are good views but watch your feet as the path is narrow and the flints are sharp and obtrusive. The Way emerges onto a typical chalk downland hill – steep. We pant up the hill then follow the path through more woodland with many ups and downs – which is why we think next time this part of the walk is better done before lunch. The views are lovely and make the climbing worthwhile. After half a mile of so we leave the North Downs Way and head further uphill to enter the White Horse County Park.
This was another of our forays into the unknown. There is a road clearly marked on the OS map – but it comes to a dead end with an earth mound and vegetation in secondary succession absolutely blocking the way. Now abandoning all pretence of following any printed matter we followed our noses to find the entrance to the park. There are more great views from the trig point at the highest point.
From here it is downhill all the way. We pause in the linear village of Thurnam to look at the unspectacular ruins of the C12 castle – a good example of a Motte and Bailey.
At the bottom of the hill we turn left into a byway, passing some posh houses with verandahs on our left. At the very end there is a stream in a verdant trough. We follow it, crossing over on a wooden bridge. We pass under the railway and the M20 and take a footpath sharp on our left to cross a wheat field diagonally. On one of our recces we encountered a woman on horseback approaching from the opposite direction. She shouted and waved at us frantically. It was clear that were – for once – on the right path, so although perplexed we plodded stubbornly on. It transpired she wanted me to fold up my sunshade, which she said would disturb the horse.
We leave the field through the gate at the far end, turn left and continue downhill to Bearsted Station. Trains are only once an hour, but thankfully there is a pub with a garden in sight of the station yard.
I realise this walk, with its many twists and turns of recces, may not inspire confidence in those of you joining us on the holiday; but we make up for it in enthusiasm and always make sure we get home safely in time for tea.