The London Countryway – Day 20

September 10, 1988: River Hill to Hurst Green

Dorothy crosses Seven Oaks Weald

Dorothy crosses Seven Oaks Weald

Five weeks after reaching Knole, Dorothy and I decided to complete stage twenty, a long twelve and a half mile jaunt from the edge of Knole Park to Hurst Green. Chesterton splits 19 and 20 differently ­– ending 19 at Ide Hill. But there is no train service here – or anywhere nearby; thus my decision to end the previous day’s walk at Knole.

We left the house at 8:15 and, after a short wait at Charing Cross, hopped aboard the 9:00 train to Sevenoaks. We left our train at 9:40 and, after a loo stop, went to the taxi queue. Our driver, a very nice chap who asked us many questions about our walking, let us off just outside the park gates at River Hill ­– giving me his card in case we got stuck today. Toby had been quite well behaved on the journey but he was now anxious to get going. Unfortunately he had to stay on lead for the first few minutes.

We entered Knole Park and walked a 100 meters to the north – just to reach the junction point with the lane we had used to make our way westward into the broiling sun in August. Today it was warm, but not oppressively so, humid, cloudy bright – with much sun, and there were often cooling breezes. I didn’t have to use suntan oil or shorts; Dorothy wisely gave up on the latter because of her bitter experience with nettles last time.

Our packs adjusted (well, Dorothy continued to have trouble with hers), we retraced our steps back to the southern gate and turned west onto the tarmac road (quite busy) that our cabby had just driven us along. There was supposed to be a short cut path down to the A225, but it was completely overgrown and we had to continue by road to this highway – where we turned south to follow it the roadway on a stretch of pavement. This road swung away downhill in a right hand bend and in the middle of this we were instructed to cross to the other side – carefully. Here was a bridle path that would lead us away from the traffic and here, at last, Toby was set free.

We walked along an overgrown lane, with wind-blasted trees on our right and fields on our left. Several young game birds (I never got close enough to see what kind) were hopping about ahead of us, with Toby soon there to speed them on their way. Our task was to find a turnoff into the fields, but it was hard to measure 1200 meters and I never saw a path cutting in from the right. From the position of the elevated Sevenoaks Weald road ahead of us and the busy A21 below I could tell it was time to begin a descent. Ultimately my decision was helped by a footpath marker and a stile – one of dozens encountered this day for the Greensand Way. We edged down a field near a fence and moved onto the other side of this barrier at an open gate. Chesterton tells us to move diagonally across the new field but a direction would have been useful too, for by the time we got to the bottom, up against the fence below the motorway, we were perplexed not to find any evidence of a tunnel. I persevered eastward (contradicting the line of march today) and, after another gate, found the tunnel. It was full of hay bales since we were about to enter the precincts of Panthurst Farm.

We had to climb several fences to continue our march through the farmyard – and we had to lift Toby over many barriers today. The farm seemed inhabited by sheep only. The line to the church at Sevenoaks Weald petered out after a promising beginning, but the field was easy to cross – with the church tower as our beacon. Toby had to go back on lead as we climbed the exit stile (reading the “dogs on lead” sign on the other side of the fence too late). We turned right and had a short march up around to our next stile. I saw no evidence of a promised bus stop.

We could see our next farm, Dale Farm, on the opposite side of a hollow. On the way we found a stream in the bottom and invited Toby to help himself – which he did eagerly. Then we huffed up the steep hill ahead and climbed out onto a track separating several buildings, including another tarted-up oast house. After clearing these structures we descended the next field, passed through some trees and began a complex crossing of more farmland. Sheep were grazing and an eager Toby had to be reigned in. I could not find the equivalent to every fence and stile mentioned in the guidebook, but there were many yellow footpath signs to serve as guides. Finally we reached a field with no obvious exit. The gate to our left seemed unpromising so we traversed the length of a fence and found a well-disguised stile. This put us in line to reach a road junction and the entrance to Wickhurst Manor. Children at tennis were laughing in the sunshine nearby.

We passed the lovely manor house, meeting several dogs on lead and getting waves from the residents. There wasn’t any white gate, but the way forward into the next cornfield was clear. Cows were crossing our route to get at their drinking trough but Toby’s barks helped clear a path. We turned right and climbed a steep hill. At the top we flopped down for some liquid – I had some Diet Pepsi. Dorothy, complaining of energy loss, ate half a tuna sandwich.

We hopped over a stile into a lane and crossed the street to circle around Hatchlands Farm. A track led us along the edge of the woods as farmland was left behind for a while. We crossed several fields and plunged into overgrown woodland – with Dorothy trailing behind at every berry bush. We climbed the stile to escape the woods and headed uphill at the prescribed 300 degrees. There were some missing stiles on this stretch, but I could tell where to head from the stretches of woodland on Chesterton’s map. After skirting the trees the path actually climbed inside and eventually headed steeply uphill to a track just parallel with the road to Ide Hill.

It was cloudy at this moment and there was a nice breeze. After a little rest we headed west through bracken – with much of the route bereft of trees because of the hurricane. There had been no heather as yet but it soon materialized. I had trouble finding the dominant track once or twice – even with Chesterton’s maps – but it was clear we had to keep going west. I have a suspicion that our turnoff was blocked with fallen foliage, because we actually ended up farther north than expected – a lovely viewpoint overlooking the pub and the rest of Ide Hill in the distance. We headed south, however, and found the driveway turning circle. A track led from here down to the road and the pub – no longer the Wheatsheaf, but the Churchill.

We found a nice table in the garden of this posh establishment and I went inside to get us a pint and a half. Then Dorothy ordered two ploughmans, which were brought out to us by the bar lady – who made a fuss over Toby. The latter had some biscuits and some water and a little cheese. With only four miles accomplished in close to three hours, and another eight and a half still to go, it was not a time for a leisurely stay, so after only half an hour we packed up, used the loos, and headed up the highway past the Cock Inn, soon crossing the Ide Hill green to reach the drive leading to the National Trust viewpoint. Some donkeys (including Donkey Hotay) came over to see us and we decided to put Toby on lead. Views were on the hazy side today so, after only a little time on the hilltop, we searched about for the path to take us downhill.

This circled about, first in a westerly then a northerly direction. It soon became obvious that this path too was obstructed by fallen trees. We did a good deal of scrambling, sometimes over, sometimes under these fallen giants. At the bottom we found a spring, then a stream. Toby waded in this while slaking his thirst. Then we followed a narrow path through some woods and a field side, penned in by wire on our left. Panting, I waited for Dorothy to catch up and then we turned west again to descend to another valley bottom on a broad track. A woman with a Budgens shopping bag was ascending.

As we climbed up again on the other side, an alarming incident occurred. A flock of sheep on our right caught the attention of the dog. This seemed okay because there was a good wire fence separating us. What I could not anticipate was a gate at the top. Toby easily slipped under the lowest rung and began a furious charge. By the time we reached the gate the entire flock had rounded itself up and was speeding downhill, our anxious calls having no effect on the delighted dog – and our hearts in our mouths over the prospect of some angry farmer appearing with his shotgun. I was just about to give a blast on my whistle – hoping this would turn Toby around, when we saw him bounding back uphill proudly, his work done, the flock gathered neatly at the bottom of their field.  We didn’t linger long, re-entering woodland to climb past a house in search of a northerly turnoff.

We missed it. Chesterton tells us that it is at the “top” – but the top of what? – certainly not the hill. I sailed right by the correct route – which didn’t seem to be a particularly “wide track” as advertised – still searching for this surface. By the time I realized all this we had come too far. We were within a few hundred yards of a road. We sat down for a rest and I looked at my maps.

I decided it would save a little time if we continued forward to the road and turned right. There was a pub here (just at the spot of the “s” in the Toys Hill on Chesterton’s map), but we decided to keep moving. After a road junction we met up with the original route and left the tarmac on a footpath signed to Westerham. Signs soon exchanged this goal for French Street – though these markers were not exactly in the spots indicated in the guidebook. We had a steep descent across a number of fields. In the last of these there was a lady climbing up with two dogs on lead – one a Lab puppy. Once again we were among the sheep. After a footbridge we crossed a track and headed steeply uphill to collapse in a heap next to the stile opposite French Street’s red pillar box. We had now covered seven miles.

After a rest we continued our walk into the picturesque hamlet and turned right onto a grassy track at Mannings Wood – which turned out to be not a section of forest but only another posh house (more tennis courts than tarns today). As we turned left onto a rutted track, Toby discovered an injured pigeon hopping about among the bushes and we had to grab him so that no more damage could be inflicted. He then drank from the stagnant, oily pool that had survived in one of the ruts  – no wonder there were tummy troubles for several days after this walk. Our track seemed to complete a half circle to the left before reaching a road. Here was a path downhill to Churchill’s Chartwell – more properly Chartwell’s parking lot, which today was jammed with visitors. Our path, which was supposed to go between two fences, was obstructed – so I put us out on the main road – this turned out to be private, but no matter. Toby had to be put on lead because a curious horse and a fat pony were coming over to investigate us. We climbed the driveway fence and sat down for a rest and some liquid just below the parking lot entry road.  This would be as close as we could get ion this long day to Chartwell itself.

Only Chesterton’s assertion that the path continued across the main road propelled us up an eroded bank, where we did indeed discover a path. This improved as we followed a bearing of 240 degrees over another hill – it was nearing four o’clock, a lovely time for walking if you are not in too great of a hurry. We descended to the B2926, leaving behind the last of OS sheet 188 and beginning 187. Chesterton also has a map beginning at this point. On this day it not seem to help much.

We entered the lovely drive to April Cottage (our third today) and began looking for our path into woods – Chesterton mentions three choices but I saw only two and took the right hand fork initially, but I wasn’t at all satisfied with its direction (the compass was in constant use today), and we had to retrace our steps. I then chose the left hand fork, and this proved to be correct – taking us uphill in the northwesterly direction that was to be our line for some time now. We passed a house called The Warren, and continued on a series of paths and tracks through lovely but featureless woods, arriving at last on a dirt road at rugged Kent Hatch Lodge. I was quite relieved to have come out of this passage at the right spot – I don’t believe that the advice “when in doubt take right forks” would have been very useful here. We continued around the Lodge, took a path to the left and used a dirt track to emerge on the Westerham road. We crossed this and continued on a bridleway. At a cross track two horseless young girls rushed over to tell us that galloping was about to take place on this spot – so we hurried forward on our path (no sign of a forestry hut) and sat down for another rest.

We continued in a northwesterly direction on a succession of paths – I tried to keep a bearing of 310 degrees, but I must have gone slightly too far to the left at the end because we emerged on the next road a few hundred yards south of the cricket pitch at Moorhouse Bank. Walking behind the old pavilion we reached a descending path to a valley bottom, but here I could find no way forward – every route I tried petered out in underbrush or in fallen limbs. One felled giant had a blue arrow pointing to the right but, before the tree had fallen, this arrow had simply indicated a move forward. We were now quite tired, and it was somewhat dispiriting to have to retreat, climbing back up the hill to the cricket ground for another stretch of detour along roads.

We headed south and took a turnoff to Limpsfield Chart, passing through the village in a westerly direction and turning northwest again on the B269. This detour must have added at least half a mile to our original goal, getting us closer to a thirteen mile total. There was not much traffic and the B269 had a pavement past the golf course – where the original route of the LCW must have joined us.

Back on route we crossed over to a NT memorial stone and sat done for a last rest on a bench just vacated by a magpie. Toby had some water. We crossed a side road and started to search for a path through Limpsfield Common. Chesterton has a map and some specific instructions for finding this path, but nothing seemed to work. After wandering about a bit in the woods, I finally found a path heading in the right direction and we took it. Soon things began to make sense again, but the exit from the bottom was also hard to find and we rejected one path because it took too northerly a line. I was greatly relieved to find a gravel drive. Summarizing the day’s frustrations and triumphs, Dorothy said, “I don’t know how you found this route from that guidebook’s instructions.”

We walked along a road and climbed a hill path at the end. This too seemed unpromising at the start but it did seem to be climbing on a bearing of 270 degrees, and so I persisted. At the top there was a bare scrape many yards wide running at the back of some houses. Many details in the guidebook seemed not to materialize, and I had no way of knowing if we had reached Pope’s Cottage – since we weren’t on the street where there might have been a sign. My instincts had proven sound, however, because a promised track between wooden fences beckoned us downhill. We were soon leaving the LCW at its junction with Icehouse Wood Road and descending into suburban Hurst Green via Rockfield Road, Wolf’s Hill and Hurstland. Earlier trains had been scheduled to leave at 40 past the hour so we put on some speed, hoping to catch the 6:40. We made it – but now there was no train until 7:05. We had enjoyed an excellent day, in spite of its difficulties, and everyone had done well.

On the platform a simple lad on his own for the return journey to East Croydon began telling us the story of his day but, fortunately, he switched on his walkman and went into a trance. We had a chilly ride – with a lovely sunset – as far as London Bridge, where we switched trains for the short distance to Charing Cross. By now I had my sweatshirt on. We paused for Turkish takeout on the way home.

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

Day 21: Hurst Green to Merstham