First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cold day over the North Downs of Kent at the cusp of the seasons, with winter proving reluctant to move over in favour of spring. Along the lane on Holly Hill snow drops still hunt their heads, grubby at the end stage of their flowering. But dog’s mercury had spread its green leaves and tiny blooms all over the floor of Greatpark Wood, and among the silver birch and pines we heard a familiar introit to spring, the tentative tsip-tsap, tsip-tsap of a newly arrived chiffchaff.
Sweet chestnut coppice forms a large part of these woods on the chalk and greensand escarpment, the long-unattended shoots grown house-high and as thick as individual tree trunks. The toothed spearblade leaves of last autumn, crisp and grey, shuffled underfoot as we dropped down to the valley road and hop fields at Great Buckland.
From the Weald Way path in Tranquil Wood we looked down on the red tiled roof and flint walls of the thousand-year-old Church of Our Lady of the Meadows. The village of Dode was depopulated and abandoned during the Black Death plague of 1349, but its humble little church still stands under the wooded hillside.
The Weald Way, doughy with dark mud, forged south through hazel and chestnut coppiced tangled with lianas like thickets in a fairy tale. Fat green buds were bursting from hawthorn twigs, and sheaves of green shoots showed where bluebells would soon be carpeting these woods.
At the southern edge of White Horse Wood we crossed the wet ditch of an ancient ridgeway and dipped sharply down the face of the escarpment among yew trees. At the foot of the slope ran another ancient route, the Pilgrim’s Way path that brought penitents and not-so-penitents (Chaucer’s adventurers among them) to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
A pilgrim shrine that predates Becket’s by perhaps four thousand years stood on a knoll in the field beyond. The great uprights of Coldrum Long Barrow form the centrepiece of a circle of recumbent standing stones. Joss sticks were smouldering in the turf, and a pagan celebrant stood singing to the stones, a stick in either upraised hand.
We left her to her devotions and went quietly away to join the Pilgrim Way and the homeward path.
How hard is it? 7 miles; easy; one short climb with steps; muddy in woods.
Start: Holly Hill car park, Meopham, Gravesend DA13 0UB (TQ 670629). NB Closes at 5 pm.
Getting there: M20, Jct 3; A227 Gravesend road; car park signed from White Horse Road, 1 mile east of Vigo Village.
Walk (OS Explorer 148): From Holly Hill car park, left along road. Beyond Holly Hill House, fork right (670634) past metal barrier. In ⅔ mile, left (673643, blue arrow/BA). At road, right (670642); in 150m, left (670644, ‘Vigo, Harvel’). 150m past Great Buckland Farm, left (668641, ‘Tranquil Wood’, ‘Weald Way’/WW). In ⅔ mile, at gate on right (662634) don’t go right (WW), but keep ahead (WW, ‘BA NS 246’). At road, left (659632). In 350m, on right bend, left (658629, WW) along field edge, then follow YA 235. At road (656623) dogleg right/left (WW) into Whitehorse Wood. In ½ mile (654616), descend escarpment. At Pilgrim’s Way/North Down Way/NDW, right (653613); in 50m left (’Coldrum Long Barrow’). Follow path to Coldrum Long Barrow (654607). Return to NDW; right for 1½ miles to road (671624); ahead to car park.
Lunch: The Villager Inn, Vigo Village DA13 0TD (01732-822305, villagervigo.com)
Accommodation: Bull Hotel, Wrotham TN15 7RF (01732-789800, thebullhotel.com)
Info: Sevenoaks TIC (01732-450305)