The final day
I had a mixture of feelings going on inside of me as I stepped out of the front door of the YHA in Canterbury to start my last day on the North Downs Way. There was the anticipation of the accomplishment, but also a certain sadness that the adventure was coming to an end.
I was also glad that it was a fine day, and I had just eaten a full English breakfast, so I was feeling really ready for the twenty miles that lay ahead of me and the enjoyment that the days walk would bring.
Staying at the YHA Canterbury
The Canterbury youth hostel where I had stayed the night after my previous days walking was a great building, very warm and comfortable with good facilities, inexpensive and the staff were great. However I must say that my visit left me feeling a little sad.
When I was a teenager I did quite a bit of hiking staying at youth hostels because they were cheep, and had all the essential facilities needed for a nights stay. In those days if anybody turned up in a car you got turned away, they were quite strict about that; you had to arrive by foot or bike. The hostels were there primarily for young people actively exploring the outdoors.
There were various characters at the Canterbury hostel but my overall impression was that most of them were simply using it as cheap accommodation, I think possibly I was the only genuine hiker there. When I turned up for breakfast in the morning wearing my walking gear I got some inquisitive looks that kind of said it all. Perhaps it was the time of year or maybe it was because it was a city hostel, my memory though of my visit years ago arouund this time of year was of a very different clientele.
Back on the trail
A five minute walk through the suburbia of Canterbury and I was back on the trail. The North Downs way heads south-east out of the city on a well formed farm track. On this January morning the low winters sun was shining straight at me almost blinding me. Playing with the clouds the sun made it feel as if it was much earlier than it really was (about 9) as I walked along.
It was an easy start to the walk, no great climbs and the freshness of the morning made me feel vibrant and alive enhancing my anticipation for the day and all it that it promised to be. On the verge of the city there were many joggers and dog walkers that crossed my path all of them offering a cheerful good morning.
Through orchards and wide open fields
After the village of Patrixbourne I passed the last of the famous Kent orchards with their rows and rows of bare fruit trees.
The landscape for most of the rest of the walk was large open fields full of winter cabbage or the stubble from last years harvest. I think it was in the late 70s that some farmers started ripping up the hedges that surrounded small fields to create the larger prairie type arable land. It was done for better economic reasons by the farmers but it has proved to be a negative move for our wildlife. Many smaller animals, birds and insects have been deprived of their habitat causing the population of some species to decline markedly.
Walking across these fields became a little tedious following straight paths that disappeared into the distant horizon. The lack of hedges and trees did offer large views which was a welcome distraction. Personally though I prefer the intimacy of the smaller fields and the hedgerows. It is more interesting and it also breaks up the walk into small bite size chunks.
Lunch at Sheperdswell or Sibertswold
Approximately half way between Canterbury and Dover is the small village of Sheperdswell, which is a convenient spot to stop for lunch. There is a pub there but again like the previous day I had a packed lunch, so I headed to the little local church of St Andrew which lies just off of the trail.
It is said that this small grade 1 listed church was built by a local nobleman as a thanks offering when he nearly lost his life in the forest, although a church building has stood on the site from Anglo-Saxon times.
The small flint church that is neatly tucked behind some mature yew trees has an entrance porch which was an ideal place to sit and eat my sandwiches. I had not been there long when an older man appeared supporting a long grey beard. He was one of the locals and was quite happy to stop a chat with me for a while. As he was leaving he hailed another patriarchal looking man across the road who turned out to be equally as friendly. We talked for some time and he kindly offered to refill my flask and told me I could use his loo if I had the need! I was impressed with the warmth and generosity of the two older men, meeting people like this it is one of the pleasures of walking.
Ever since I had left Canterbury all the way markers had a pilgrim sign on them which totally confused me, because I thought the pilgrims way was from Winchester to Canterbury. One of the men I talked to at Sheperdswell solved my dilemma. There is a pilgrimage route that runs from Canterbury to Rome a distance of about 1200 miles known as the ‘Camino to Rome‘. He said that in the summer months they often have people many of them foreign stopping off at the church on their pilgrimage to the City of Rome.
Entering into Dover
As I crossed the A2 it started to rain, up until this point the weather had been very kind to me it was cold but the summer sun had maintained it’s rule in the skies. This is not the way I want to finish the walk I thought, fortunately it only lasted for around 20 minutes, the sun soon regained its authority over the skies.
Crossing the A2 felt like I was entering into the borders of Dover even though there were still a few fields to pass through. There were no distant views of the sea or even of Dover itself as I had hoped. Instead the path descended into a sunken pathway with thick hedges on both sides which came out onto a metalled road that was equally hidden. As I made my way down the hill towards the town the sunken road suddenly burst into the suburbs of Dover, only to disappear again into another sunken path which this time resembled a military trench way heading up the hill opposite.
My walk was coming to it’s end. As I walked through the centre of Dover I was surprised how quiet if was, it was about four o’clock in the afternoon on a week day but there was hardly anybody around, the shops looked almost deserted. I have walked through villages that have been busier – maybe it was seasonal? Thankfully the end of the walk at the edge of the sea front is a little bit more inspiring than the town centre.
I think it is really hard to try and explain your feelings when you have finished a long distance walk. That which you have been working towards for days or months has suddenly come to an end. As they say ” it is about the journey not the destination”, and the journey is over.
I think I was happy and thankful, with a sense of nostalgia, as I stood on the beach thinking about the highlights of my journey along the North Downs Way. The logistics to make it happen, people I had met along the way and the amazing countryside I had seen. The North Downs Way had been much better than I had expected it to be. There is a great variety of landscape, massive views and plenty of places of interest. It is also fairly easy to access many of the points along the route by train, making it easy to break the walk up into stages. I had really enjoyed it and as I walked away from the beach to find the station there was a tinge of sadness that it is over – guess now I need to be thinking about my next long distance path!