The London Countryway – Day 18

May 22, 1988: Sole Street to Borough Green

Harold and Toby amid the bluebells of Whitehorse Woods

Harold and Toby amid the bluebells of Whitehorse Woods

Harold and I left Victoria Station on the 9:20 for Sole Street, using a sunny May Sunday for another outing on the London Countryway. Dorothy was visiting her sister in Japan, Tosh had a little cold (or wanted another day for obsessional gardening) – so it was just the two of us and Toby. The dog had actually completed his morning devoirs so swiftly that he and I had arrived in Victoria early enough to accompany Harold on a stroll of the surrounding streets as he searched for some liquid for his pack. We then bought round-trip tickets to Borough Green, our return station. We arrived in Sole Street at 10:09 and immediately after leaving the station we were back on route (which continued to coincide with that of the Weald Way at a number of points today).

I knew from a study of Chesterton that today would be a complex one for route-finding. In a plastic case I was carrying his volume (which included two maps he had drawn himself) and the East London OS map, but I often had to take one or another of these out of its sleeve for a closer look. Things were straightforward enough as we headed east on field paths. Toby showed his Offa’s Dyke experience with styles by using the wooden steps to leap into the woods at the end of a last field – the lower aperture being choked with nettles.

We emerged on a road and turned south. In front of the Cock Inn they were putting out paper cups for racers, runners or cyclists – it was too early to tell. Shortly after this pub a tread heading southwest offered a route between fields. Some funny little hand-made footpath signs signaled the way forward along the edge of some woods, then through them. Chesterton’s description of the route had made sense up to this point but now I was forced to improvise a bit, using available stiles to pass through some fields on the way to the Oakenden road. Surprisingly, we now emerged at the required spot. Across the road I could see the next stretch of the route as outlined on the first of Chesterton’s maps. It was reassuring to have this map, though, in the event, even if it proved insufficient.

We made a brief descent, using a thin trod in a ploughed field. Then it was steeply uphill, with Toby racing ahead and having to be called back several times by his lagging master. Harold told me about his recent trip to Michigan where, ironically, he had been researching matters of agricultural history near our old stamping grounds. At the top we turned left and a few yards away we found an exit onto a road at a hairpin turning. A Lab and Toby had an argument, but the former was heading downhill with his master and the combatants were soon parted. We continued uphill on a track and opposite the first of several suburban properties we paused for our first rest. I gave the dog some water (he drank a great deal today), while I drank ginger ale and ate shortbread cookies. The sun never ceased and we picked up quite a tan – but it was never beastly hot and there was often a nice breeze.

We continued on a path in a southwesterly direction. It was difficult to figure out where we were, either on the OS map or in Chesterton – new houses, new fences, unexpected ups and downs all contributed to the confusion. Once we were certain we were heading downhill on the prescribed path but it proved very difficult to follow – overgrown at best and in some cases impeded by huge trees felled in the previous October’s hurricane. I decided to retreat – which meant bushwhacking uphill. We continued on the original path – looking for a turnoff that never materialized. I had decided to continue on in search of a road. To my surprise we were still en route – coming out at the little track to Chandlers Lane. With relief we crossed this road and continued south on a track in Priestwood.

We followed the east edge of the wood but our path was soon buried in the fallen limbs of more wreckage. We were forced into an adjacent field and when we reached the end of the woods I could find only one stile instead of the promised two. I did some scouting – leaving a protesting Toby with Harold. I can’t remember using my compass more than on this day. I decided we had to go through a sticky metal gate and uphill across a barely green field. At the top I was quite puzzled, but we continued south, using some old stiles to go from field to field. As we approached Harvel I could see no way of escaping the last field except by climbing a metal gate. To make matters worse Toby had found the cowpies in this last field irresistible – and he had fouled himself: ears, head, shoulders, back and collar. I tried rolling him on his back a bit – poor Uncle Harold had to stick his hands in the manure just to hook the little swine as we got to the Harvel road, strolling past a converted oast house, and marching up in a reeking parade to the Amazon and Tiger. It was 12:15.

Harold remained with the dog while I went inside for the beer. We were seated at an outdoor table – this provided the right distance from other, more fastidious pub-goers and the sunlight needed to dry off the redolent Schnauzer. I tried a few grass clippings on him too. The Amazon and Tiger has a wonderful pub sign (especially the bare-breasted Amazon). A large Sunday crowd was arriving and food (contrary to Chesterton’s warning) was being served after all. I changed OS maps, substituting the Maidstone map for the East London one – which had served us all the way from Waltham Abbey.

We remained for only thirty minutes; then we took to the road again, heading south out of town and following Chesterton’s directions (but no longer on his first map, which had ended) across some small fields in a southeasterly direction to a road. An overgrown Kent public footpath sign pointed the way forward – but the line of any path had been obliterated by wheat. Chesterton advises a 100 meter detour along the road where “right on bend along track” means at the bend of the road turn right on a track. Directions could have been a bit clearer but fortunately we had encountered here a section of the Weald Way and there was help on the ground in the form of arrows and other waymarking. We emerged at a barn of Poundgate Farm, turned right on a road past the farmhouse and took a track into the woods to begin a long southerly stretch.

Whitehorse Woods were particularly lovely today. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more abundant display of bluebells. A purple carpet blossomed everywhere you looked. At an open stretch we sat down at a crossing track and enjoyed a nice lunch. Toby drank a lot of water. He was having a wonderful time. I ate my home-made cheese and sliced meat sandwiches (with plenty of mayo and mustard). Then I lay down on my back and had a nice rest.

We continued south, with our path narrowing, reentering the woods and approaching the edge of the North Downs escarpment, where we could catch glimpses of the Kent Weald, before plunging steeply downhill to the North Downs Way – September 17, 1983 had been the date of our last visit to this spot. We turned west along it for just a short distance and then south on a track to the Coldrum Long Barrow, where we detoured past a picnicking family whose contribution to the lovely scene was an illustrated lecture to their youngest child on the necessity of completing the processes of elimination outside the trousers.

With many glimpses back to the top of the downs we continued south, astonished to see that the local waymarkers even included some LCW signs (the only ones I can remember seeing anywhere on the route). We were glad to have them because I could have used more specific instructions from Chesterton on how to get across Ryarsh Woods. There was certainly no sign of an orchard at the end of this path, though we came out at the desired spot, a T-junction where we headed left on the road verge to cross over the M20 into the village of Addington.

We turned right off the Addington road and followed a paved track to St. Margaret’s church. Here we turned right again and walked along the margin of a sports field, where a cricket match was in progress. Our route actually coincided with the boundary and before we left the field we sat down for a rest just beyond the deepest of the fielders. Toby went wild when a strange dog popped up, but the latter retreated over a little bridge and onto the golf course – our own route just a few minutes later. We threaded our way through the golfers and headed uphill, crossing the line of the drive off the first tee (we held up play for a bit here) and on up to the right of the clubhouse – with no evidence of any path but a new Chesterton map to help us move southwards.

We skirted an orchard, some paddocks and some scrub and came up against the side of a railway embankment where we turned west  – from this point on our route was mostly westward and one might almost say that the LCW had turned its final corner. To reach our next road we had a desperate struggle through underbrush – with not much evidence of recent passage. I joined Harold in getting a hand thoroughly nettled. We found the right place to leave the Offham road but it was very difficult to see how to proceed south of a house, across paddocks and fields to our next road. A girl tending to a horse pointed the way to the next stile and we continued southwesterly to a gate, which we had to climb.

On the opposite side was a road. We were suppose to use it for 70 meters but our escape seemed impossible, The “new gate” was padlocked and covered in barbed wire and any stile had long ago disappeared into a hedge. While I was pacing about I noticed a gap in the hedge. We squeezed through here and into an orchard – continuing forward on clear tracks to cross a stile onto another golf course. Here we followed a line of trees and a track to emerge on the B2016.

We followed this uphill, where we had to turn off into a golf course again. I couldn’t make any sense of Chesterton’s directions and in spite of several compass bearings I could find no escape from the course once he had reached the opposite side. We followed the south side of a large field (probably should have been on the north), reached the edge of a woods, turned north along the western perimeter of the field and climbed a wooden fence into a lane. This lead west a few meters and put us out next to Valley Wood, a house we were looking for. Across the road a nice path through rhododendrons began – this was lovely as the bushes were in bloom. Lots of families and kids and dogs were gamboling about. After we had cleared the noisiest of these we flopped down for a rest, my head reclining in a resinous base of pine needles. Both Harold and I took aspirin – the sun and the strain of route finding had given me my headache. Then we continued toward Platt, whose church tower soon showed itself below as a kind of beacon.

Unfortunately when we tried to descend we found our way blocked by hurricane-felled trees. Every variation we tried was similarly choked – I found a transverse track and we followed it north for a while before using another path to descend, but this petered out in undergrowth behind garden fences and we had to re-climb part of the hill. I continued north on the transverse track and found at last a civilized path that brought us down – well north of the church. We reached a road and headed south, passing the church on our left and leaving Platt (with some interesting thatched structures and converted oast houses) to take a track west.  Part of this proved to be paved, surprisingly, but I persevered and came out on our road to Borough Green.

Long ago we had missed our chance to make the 5:02. With all the extra miles we had walked we would now have to maintain a good pace to reach the 6:02. We arrived at the station with about ten minutes to spare. When we got on our train, after a very nice outing on a perfect sunny day, a ripe Toby settled down on my lap – drawing the occasional baleful glance from the passengers of a very crowded train. An Alsatian was being lead down the aisle and when Toby saw the big head looming over him he went crazy and continued barking hysterically long after the dog had left our carriage.

At Victoria, 45 minutes later, we parted from Harold and took the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus. I stood with Toby on the Bakerloo Line – getting rid of the last of the manure smell in the bathtub the moment we returned to Maida Vale.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 19: Borough Green to Knole House