Thursday, 11 August 2016

Greensand Way, Knole House

Kent landscapes

Borough Green to Sevenoaks
Distance: 16 kilometres
Time:  4 hours

Trips to London usually involve a visit to one of the multitude of national museums, walks around the city sites as well as lots of time taking grandchildren to parks and visiting family members. We were invited by our daughter on this occasion to partake in a long distance walk along part of the Greensand Way in Kent. We were given several options and eventually chose Borough Green to Sevenoaks section, not least because rail connections to other stations had been cancelled. This section was accessed by South Eastern trains that have escaped the opprobrium heaped on the neighbouring franchise, Southern trains.

I was a bit sceptical of a walk without real hills but happy to escape the city on a day the Rio Olympics began. As we set out from Brixton on a perfect summer morning the blue sky above London was perfect, disturbed only by airplanes descending towards Heathrow with police helicopters augmenting the decibel level. As always in London we were staggered at the frequency of trains, the newness of the carriages and the speed of travel. It felt like a different country than the rest of the UK with its clapped out rolling stock, docile speeds and irregular timetables.

Alighting at Borough Green our walk was a a south and then west traverse across the Kent Downs. There was little evidence of way-marking so we relied on our daughter's memory assisted by the app on her phone, a combination that is more foolproof than any map, to guide us along the intricate network of paths. We escaped the small sleepy town before negotiating our way through woods, fields, and crossing streams to gain views of the garden of England in full bloom. It was a bit of a revelation for me. There was always a new perspective and challenge. As we tramped our way through half a kilometre of nettles, a farmer called out cheerily that it should be an Olympic sport. Why not I thought, it is a far more natural sport and a lot less commercial than golf or football. It would fit well with equestrian events and trap shooting and I am sure that Clare Balding could find the right words for a commentary.

We emerged from the early sections of the walk into the glorious Kent landscape, an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), of rolling countryside dotted with oast houses, now converted to expensive houses, hop fields, wheat fields, orchards, parkland with grazing deer, lavender fields and well preserved villages from centuries past. We arrived at Ightham Mote after a couple of hours and found a picnic table to partake in some healthy refreshments that had been brought along for us. We had met few other walkers on the Greensand Way but at Ightham we encountered hundreds of visitors arriving in cars to visit the house and gardens. We continued the walk passing the medieval house and its moat and then circling above its gardens alive with the throngs of visitors delving into their picnic hampers.

We were alone again and the next few miles were a real treat as we walked through the garden of England. A well tended Bramley apple orchard with a density of fruit as bunched as brussel sprouts was followed by wheat fields and then some dairy cows. I was salivating at all the indigenous ingredients for my favourite sweet course. Next a few fields of lavender, soft fruit was being grown in polytunnels in nearby hollows and what looked like a vineyard was baking in the heat. A craft brewery was in a converted barn and the brick huts for the hop pickers made the terraced houses of industrial Britain look large.

We had not seen another person as we entered the heathland as we approached Knole House. The famous parklands had been hunting grounds for Henry VIII after he had commandeered the 400 room house from an archbishop. The grounds now host fallow deer, a golf course and thousands of tourists. The National Trust claim that the deer are wild but they seemed oblivious to the dogs, children, cyclists and photographers that trespassed on their territory. We walked across a school playing field and rested on the perfect grass soaking the sun and admiring the well tended grounds of a private school that had more land that it wasn't forced to sell than would accommodate a dozen urban comprehensives.

Sevenoaks was pretty much as I expected, Waitrose and Sainsbury with their massive car parks full of german engineered cars and then a pedestrianised town centre. There were no vacant shops, just a mixture of high end retailers, banks and building societies, independent shops and a smattering of well tended pubs with tables spilling onto the squares and streets. A perfect place for a drink to end the walk. It was only 4pm so we absorbed the atmosphere of this well heeled town before marching down the hill to the station.

On the way to the station every other car seemed to be an open top coupe complete with a pair of well dressed pensioners. We passed a dealership that had more Bentley convertibles on display than in a premier league football team training ground. The train to London flew through villages and towns that reminded me of famous by-elections like Orpington. We returned to Herne Hill station and decided to walk another 3 kilometres (to keep the fitbit ticking) through the leafy streets of Dulwich to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate the day out with a healthy meal although I did crave an apple pie.

Kent had surpassed my expectations, if you leave your wheels at home you can escape the crowds and there are some steep inclines along the way to keep the thighs in trim.

Saturday morning waiting for the train
Bramley Apple orchard

Oast Houses
Ightham Mote
Wheatfields for the pie crust
Knole House
Fallow deer

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