Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.
Surprising downland tranquillity in sharp contrast to the busy motorway and rail infrastructure overlooked by the path. Splendid views over The Weald to the South Downs and peaceful woodland paths make for very pleasant easy going walking. The path is shared with cyclists and horseriders, but during the week it will be quiet and peaceful. Lovely villages are frequently encountered as you pick your way through the busier towns of South East England, leading into the port of Dover. The path follows an ancient route known as The Pilgrims Way, which optionally, leads you through the historic City of Canterbury.
Time of year
The route can be walked at any time of year, perhaps avoiding the summer holiday period. If you can, avoid weekends, when the cyclists and horse riders come out to play. Be wary of fast-moving cyclists, particularly on downhill tracks. Keep your ears open. Muddy sections are not as common as for other National Trails.
I completed the walk in late July 2014 in 5 days, counting the travel days as half days.
Length of walk
125 miles from Farnham to Dover, although quoted as 153 miles at the start, which includes the Canterbury loop. It is 131 miles long if you take the Canterbury route. As the path was level, I travelled light and maintained a good pace of 25 miles per day, but rested at lunchtime out of the summer heat.
Official Camping sites and Youth Hostels are infrequent, and not necessarily on the path. You will often have to descend the downland way into the towns and villages, walking along sections of road to reach Hotel, Inn or B&B accommodation. As it was peak summer holiday period for me, I chose to take a bivouac and chance my luck with accommodation booking at the last moment. I only managed to secure two overnights in a bed, the rest was wild camping.
As an alternative, you can use public transport from London, to sections of the path, returning home each evening. I am sure this would work well, augmented with taxi journeys at some points.
The train from Victoria was seriously delayed, “due to a fatality”, so I arrived into Farnham much later than expected with no accommodation booked. The going was easy, but very warm, but I could maintain a good pace, powered by several litres of water. I could forage for delicious small plums, that were perfectly ripe and tasted wonderful. Stopping for lunch at Newland’s Corner, I rested a while, knowing I would need time my bivouac as the sunset. A suitable spot found I settle down for the evening. As dusk set a red deer stag ran close by, followed by a swooping owl that passed me within a few metres of by disguised bivouac spot. Then the stars popped out one by one as I fell asleep after a long day.
Up at 05:45, to meet someone almost immediately. A bit of a shock, I thought it was another bivouac walker, but it was a man my age who had lost his wife and had a habit of waking very early to walk the downs. Good therapy I would argue. After a brief chat, I walked to Box Hill for refreshments and wash up at the bikers cafe. I ordered breakfast, lunch and the evening snack for the day ahead and took on more water, knowing that I would consume 4-5 litres per day in the hot weather. The 2-litre platypus water pack and 1-litre bottle were important items in my pack. I later heard some American walkers had abandoned their walk when their Platypus bottles sprung leaks and they became dehydrated. Another great Bivouac spot close if you don’t mind views of the M25, strangely soporific procession of juggernauts to and from the channel crossings ran all night.
Up early again, to walk to Otford. A superb cafe stop and an opportunity to restock supplies and water. After a relaxed lunchtime break, I set off for my first B&B near Cuxton, taking it easy, knowing that new comforts await. Stunning rural cottages and manor houses look so comfortable in the Kent landscape. The last 100m proved to be a disaster as I walked through a field of grass with sharp arrow-like seeds that embedded themselves in my socks. I am still removing them to this day, pesky things.
Wonderful B&B and FEB (full English breakfast) and plenty of water to start the day hydrated. Soon crossing the HS1 rail link and site of the UK Rail Speed Record of 208 mph, set in July 2003. Crossing the M2 over the River Medway, with wonderful views of Chatham and Rochester, I meet a hiker keeping at my pace. We walk together to Jade’s Crossing, a bridge built after a long campaign, following the death of Jade Hobbs, and many others as they crossed the busy A249. My companion turns around to return to Rochester, and I progress, grateful for the bridge to Hollingbourne, where I stop at the local for several pints of J2O and water/ice, my drink of choice for this trip. The locals warn me there is a loose Panther in the woods! So I am pleased the walk ends in Lenham and a wonderful Inn, complete with local Morris Men for entertainment and superb food.
Suitably rested I wake later than usual and progress towards Wye, stopping for a while in a lovely air-conditioned supermarket, buying lunch. Difficult to leave. The views on this section are very pleasant and I stop to rest before reaching Etchinghill. As I get up to walk a Spitfire passes directly overhead at low-level. I get goosebumps and a free airshow, which lifts my spirits. My expectations of a meal at the local pub are thwarted, it is closed, so I sneak into a golf club for a snack and water stop. A few more miles and I find a wonderful bivouac spot and settle for the evening to a beautiful sunset and skyscape.
Only 12 odd miles now into Dover, so I rise early in hope of catching an early train home. It had rained overnight, but the bivouac was very effective at keeping me dry and warm. Quite a few dogs walkers as I approached the cliffs overlooking the Channel Tunnel entrance. Unusual trig points are everywhere, as used to survey the construction of the huge complex. Onward to the coastline and the Battle of Britain Memorial, which opens just in time for a very pleasant cup of tea and cake. The new building, under construction and in the shape of a Spitfire wing, should be fantastic when it is completed. Further stunning view across the channel as I arrive into Dover. I feel like a bowling ball, as I pass through the shoppers (skittles) as I arrive at the finishing plaque of the North Downs Way. A full-on festival is in progress and the place is packed. I do not stay for long.
The ticket lady at the station asks if I want fast or slow to St. Pancras. I select the former which whisks me past the landscape I have just walked through in an hour, barely enough time to reflect on the journey. Phew.
- Day 1 – 19m – Train to Farnham (delayed), near Gomshall – Bivouac
- Day 2 – 27m – near Oxted – Bivouac
- Day 3 – 27m – Cuxton – B&B
- Day 4 – 21m – Lenham – Inn
- Day 5 – 20m – near Folkestone – Bivouac
- Day 6 – 11m – Dover, train home
The plan at this point was to travel to the start of the South Downs Way, but severe thunderstorms and heavy rain are forecast and I decided it was probably a good idea not to be up on the downs.