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 ...
Sunday, January 6, 2008
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
The town was nice in parts, and, aware of a shorter journey today, I walked around, went into one or two Charity shops – bought Orchard on Fire, by Shena Mackay
Opposite the church, I passed a horse-drawn hearse preparing for a funeral. And a milestone, dating from days when a pedestrian might have needed to know ...
Very few churches are open. Saint Lawrence, Sidcup an exception, though I am aware that the parishioners are really waiting to lock up after cleaning, doing the flowers, praying, or whatever. But they let me take my time – a crib like the ones in Cologne – and as we leave I explain what I am doing.
Very friendly, they see me hesitate outside this Caffe Nero, and recommend it.
I'm having coffee at 11 – an hour ago I was at Eltham Corner – since it is too early for the Sidcup lunch I'd planned.
I am the only guest at breakfast at 8 this morning – excellent service; full English – toast [white] Anchor and Golden Shred. They mostly cater for working people – their trade is helped by the proximity of the A120, along which I watch National Express and red buses heading south. This, probably, is the old pilgrim route, but I shall keep to byways and footpaths as soon as I can.
The Green, such as it was, it obliterated by a roundabout and a large MacDonald's, once a road-house, judging by the architecture.
The child is off to school, and is brought in to say hallo/goodbye – and I must set off too, up the hill to Eltham proper, the bus maps will be a continued reassurance in a largely featureless suburban landscape.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
[I kept an eye on the clock for this first day]
14.15 one hour into the main walk – the road changes its name to Evelyn Street
15.15 leaving Greenwich Park
16.15 should have arrived by now, but still in Kidbrook
17.15 safely on the last stretch – Eltham Green Road
On the day everyone else went back to school, I took my staff, my rucksack and my pilgrim's badge, and took the train for Liverpool Street. The idea was to meet Hugh and Ann on the train, and travel to Southwark [and lunch] with them.
But late running trains caused confusion, and despite mobile phone calls, we didn't manage to meet up till Shenfield.
We walked across London Bridge to Southwark Cathedral, where the walk was due to start. After a quick look round inside, I finally set off form St Mary Overie at 12 minutes to 12.
Across Borough Market, onto the High Street, and the George – London's only surviving galleried inn – for lunch:
George ale, fish and chips [ale batter] and spotted dick. Chaucer's pilgri
ms, at the Tabard just along the street, would have understood.
I left there at 13.15, watched on my way by Hugh and Ann. Past the queues at the London Dungeon. London pavements, and drizzle most of the way through depressed, depressing areas. Greenwich predictably the exception, the park deserted in the chill and the damp. Two mounted policemen just outside the north gates, letting their mounts have a canter as soon as they got off the road and onto the common ...
Shooters Hill and into Kidbrook, mostly posh, getting dark now, and took a wrong turning onto Rochester Way, eventually losing over an hour.
A lad on a bike asked me if I'd seen his friend, and then returned to wish me a Happy New Year. When I finally consulted a bus map – a very useful check on progress – I decided to follow the 286 back over the same ground, past the same discarded Christmas trees. I was tempted to take the bus to make up for lost time ...
The start of the short cut I'd planned, Birdbrook Road, had its name obscured by a sizeable makeshift shrine – soft toys and cellophaned flowers, messages like playbills – faded now in the dark and the drizzle, the accident some time since. Touching faith in the sacredness of that second when life was snuffed out, or a mute desire to express what can't be said, or just the exhibitionism of public grief: not just anyone, anywhere, though. Young, usually, and the pointlessness of the death – a careless moment, a drunk driver, whatever. Not at A&E, or in the hospice ward, or in the aisle at Safeways, someone struck down by a fatal heart attack between the soft margarine and the artificial sweetener.
The route down to Eltham Green worked well in the end, and I arrived at the Weston House Hotel about 5.30 to a very friendly welcome from the [?] Thai proprietor, plus wife and small child. He couldn't believe I'd walked from London Bridge, and nor could I really.
I've rung home, answered a text from Hugh, been out along the main road to find a Coop where I bought something to eat and drink, planned tomorrow's route and now I'm listening to a repeat of the Michael Tilson Thomas prom I was at on September 1st last year ...