There has been a hiatus.
After November’s expensive one-day wallow (which not only cost me two nights’ stay in a hotel for a mere 14 miles, but also finally killed off my beloved ASBOs*), I have been somewhat reluctant to fork out for another fruitless trip. I watched the weather throughout December, but it didn’t ever seem to stop raining. I did not particularly want to meet my maker by slipping of a cliff-top path. I resolved to hold out for fairer weather.
If it sounds like I’ve lost interest, then I’ve given you the wrong impression. I am obsessed with walking. I fantasise about the way it makes me feel, and I’m squeezing it into every corner of my life that will accept it. I’ve taken out a gym membership so that I can elongate the muscles in my calves with yoga, cross-train with swimming, and, three times a week, set the incline on the treadmill to 12%, and imagine I’m yomping up a hill while listening to Robert McFarlane audiobooks through my earbuds. It’s surprisingly effective, if you ignore the queue that forms behind you after 45 minutes.
I have also started walking a different path to tide me over. The North Downs Way is beguilingly close to my house, runs to a compact 153 miles, and throws the odd hill at me to keep my mountain-goat hooves in practice.
I set off from Dover sea front on 20th December, and amble up through the town while I find my bearings. It’s a down-on-its-luck sort of a place, but there are glimpses of smart Victorian prosperity still to be found here and there, and they become more evident as I rise up towards the Downs through streets of genteel redbrick villas. I nearly slide through an old railway arch, and pass a disused mine shaft before finding myself on bleak fields, the A2 never far away.
I don’t see a soul – not in the residential streets, and certainly not on the path. It’s an eccentricity to be out walking so near to Christmas, an extravagance; the winds are high enough to make it all feel like hard work, and the skies are low, grey and featureless. Several times, I find the path so churned with mud that I have to make a detour around the far edge of a field. I am waiting for vistas, for the land to open up, but it never does. Eventually, I stagger into Shepherdswell at lunchtime, just in time for a roast lamb dinner and a pint of bitter shandy in The Bell.
Just over a week later, I’m back, but this time with H in tow. My mother is staying with us, so we take the rare opportunity to walk together for once while she looks after Bert. We start again outside The Bell, and immediately find ourselves in a field with a country fox darting in front of us, ignored by two horses. This time, we pass through a series of picturesque villages: the genteel manor and thatch of Womenswold; across the A2 to Kingston, where we discover the brilliantly-named Black Robin, to which we vow to return; through Bishopsbourne and Bridge, where I begin to say, I could live here, you know, quite happily, out in the country…
Eventually we take the final hike across flat fields towards Canterbury at dusk. H, has never walked this far in his life, is exhausted, but we’re on the pilgrim’s way now, and the cathedral is always in sight, lighting up as dusk falls.
The next week, we’re back for more, but this time the rain pours on us all the way from Canterbury to Chartham, where we give up at a road junction after a particularly treacherous skid down a muddy hill, which leaves H wailing about his lack of adequate footwear, and me furious at the weather for denying me my walk. We think of going home, and feel desolate, but then decide to ignore our soaking clothes and wet shoes, and to drive back to a pub we passed on last week’s walk (The Mermaid in Bishopsbourne) and then on to another (The Duck in Pett Bottom) for a very late lunch on willow pattern china.
We might walk again next week too, if the weather’s a bit more cooperative, pressing on to Wye, where the Downs become vertiginously steep. If I get the chance, I might stray from the path and scale those steep chalk escarpments, just to keep my hand in for the climbs I’m really craving.
*If I’m being entirely honest, I drove the final nail in the coffin by leaving them wet in a carrier bag for a fortnight.