Sunday, January 6, 2008

final thoughts

The first half, at least, of the walk was dispiriting, and would need good company and better planning – accommodation, places to visit – to make it in any sense a pilgrimage. But the last miles over the downs from Cobham to Rochester were wonderful walking, and it is that walk that we shall do again as the prologue to Act Two, Rochester to Canterbury ...

Rochester Cathedral, journey's end

At the Cathedral, the souvenir shop was already closed, but I was in good time for the Epiphany Evensong, and took a seat in the transept as the choir warmed up. Chatted to one of the Vergers – she and her husband had moved over the river to Wickford, but still came regularly to the Cathedral. She was concerned that the trains would not be running, and offered a lift back to Essex. But after the service, peripatetic but very uplifting, I slipped away to the station, where at 16.44 I paid £15.45 for a single to Chelmsford. The stations and halts slipped past with their now familiar names as I sped towards Victoria and a nightmare journey home. But that should be another story.

Sunday morning, the final leg

And so I started on the final leg. Feeling like a real pilgrim, walking the ancient street and lanes of Cobham, in the pleasant January sunshine. Past the avenue leading to Cobham Hall, now a girls' school, and the golf course, already busy. Overtaken by a cyclist as I approach the fascinating Mausoleum, being restored. Then it was down through woodland to the railway, and then onto the North Downs way.

I saw two groups of Ramblers, not going my way. Waited for one of them, who turned out to be walking to a pub for lunch. I imagined that they would eat before I did, and went on my lonely way.

The North Downs Way is clearly marked, and was a wonderful way to approach Rochester. Instead of following the railway into the city, I crossed the concrete vastness of the Medway bridge, a ten minute walk, with motorway traffic flashing by unheeding, as if to emphasise the difference between their pace and mine. And then picked up the Centenary Path into Rochester, through a nature reserve and along the river.

Walked up past the castle to the Cathedral, where I took a photograph before heading off for lunch. Explored the length of the main street, glanced into the Golden Lion – now a Wetherspoon's – but decided on the George at the other end, by the Cathedral. Felt rather grubby and underdressed, but the food was interesting and good value. Took a look at the 13th century vaults before I left.

Leather Bottle, Sunday morning

Back in the Sam Weller room after a Red Onion Tart in the crowded bar, plus more of the ubiquitous Courage. Aston Villa lost 0-2. Smoke drifted past the leaded lights, and occasionally a face peered in, watching the telly through the glass.

Breakfast sitting in the dining room under Mr Dickens' travelling bag, one item among hundreds of memorabilia. An extended family, re-united yesterday, perhaps for a wedding, exchanged news – some of them Australians on their first visit to the old country.

The friendly New Zealander at reception recommended the George Vaults, Bumbles and the pink painted Fudge Shop in Rochester.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Swanley to Cobham

Not a good night. Next to the shared bathroom, I am aware of a constant stream – if that's the word – of night visitors. Who are these invisible men ? Polish workers ?

But this has been a much better day. Footpaths and narrow lanes, better weather, my own itinerary, and no real hesitations.

After breakfast in Asda at 8.30 – Spanish orange juice, croissant, fresh fruit salad and Earl Grey – I set off down the hill at 9, encouraged by the prospect of sunshine on the distant hills. At last, only now did I feel that I'd left London behind me.

Birds fly up as I start across the fields. Distance does not lend Swanley any enchantment. I walked eagerly under the M25. It was not clear how to proceed out of Ram's Wood, but it worked out, though I did miss the station. For most of the day, I was following the railway line that eventually, on Sunday, I shall take on my return by train.

I found the journey much easier with a good map. I paused beside a lovely stream in Darenth. In Longfield for lunch, I found the Railway Arms lacking in atmosphere, but they promptly provided a cheese and tomato bap [Pringles and salad] and Courage Best. The church looked very interesting, but once again turned out to be locked.

Today's walk was mostly roads and lanes, with no footpath often. At the point where my route crossed the Weald Way long distance path, I chatted with a local man out walking his dog. Twenty minutes to Cobham, he guessed optimistically. Later, walking some distance behind me, he rescued my hat [plucked from my backpack by bushes as I made way for a passing car]. The second time I've lost it. Yesterday a red-haired young man in Swanley saved as it fell onto a pedestrian crossing.

Jeskyn's is now a Forestry Commission nature trail, very popular on this sunny Saturday afternoon.

Today's walk has had a lot of ups and downs, and Cobham reserved a last hill approach, past the National Trust property towards the Church and the Leather Bottle opposite.

I reached reception about 15.20, to an efficient welcome. Very Dickensian, slightly shabby and faded, but full of character. I've tried the power shower in the vast en-suite bathroom, struggled to get a signal on the mobile, taken a walk up the main street, but found nothing. No street lights, another pub, the Darnley Arms. Managed to miss the most interesting building, Cobham College, behind the church, now an alms house.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Rosary

There was no-one there when I arrived, just a man with a child in car [her son and grandson, as it turned out. So I walked around a bit, to discover that, the towering red-brick Gothic of St Mary's apart, Swanley is almost entirely soulless, with WalMart squatting like a jewelled toad where the heart should be. A railway town, now run down and quite deprived.

Gran arrived at 3.50. A depressing, small room, dingy carpet, communal bathroom next door. She did not know why it was called The Rosary.

The room did have a kettle, so a welcome cup of tea before returning to Asda for supplies – St Peter's Organic, egg and cress sandwich, melon and blueberry salad. Plus the Guardian, a corkscrew and the excellent Asda magazine.

I got back by 5, and after a rest, some route planning, some radio, I'm now watching the Extreme Pilgrim on the telly. I've put the sports pages down over the carpet.

Swanley Asda

Misled by a fingerpost, I ended up in a dead end instead of Sidcup Hill, but soon righted, and walking down to Footscray.

The detour I'd built in was the only real walking today, past some uninterested horses. The footpath down to Swanley proved very elusive. I walked all the way round the car boot field, before finding my way past the dump and through the nurseries. Then lots of council estate alleys before finding the Swanley Road again. St Mary's Church looked interesting, some job creation people lighting fires in the graveyard, but locked. The people in the Council Offices were very helpful, and as it turned out only five minutes from Park Road.

It's 2.30, and I've decided on a late lunch in Asda. Broccoli and potato bake, sticky date pudding, sparkling water. Very tasty, friendly service, and just over £5. I need the rest, anyway, before setting off down the hill to The Rosary.