The alarm clock sounds at 6am. Oooh my head I knew Iíd regret those last couple of pints of Gales HSD ! I dozed for twenty minutes before getting up and packing my rucksack for todayís walk with Keith and the Coles. As it gets light outside Iím pleased to see a clear blue sky and frost on the car rooves.
Keith and I catch a 51 bus to Opington and from the top deck we wave to Robert and Eileen as we sail gracefully past them on their way to the bus stop some distance away. This means that we have about 15 minutes to have a cup of coffee at MacDonalds when we get off the bus. Billy is already here waiting for us. When Robert and Eileen arrive on the next 51 we catch a hopper bus to Green Street Green where the walk starts.
Out here in the countryside last nightís frost was quite a hard one and the ground is still frozen solid, which is really useful as it means that we will not be troubled at all by the mud, which is frozen into crispy patches of chocolate brown, pock-marked with hundreds of tiny footprint sized puddles with crispy crunchy iced tops.
We walk through a woodland with broad bridle paths before reaching farmland. I havenít a clue where we are, or where we are going and I donít really mind as long as we donít have to climb any mountains, and we reach at least one decent pub around the middle of the day Iím sure that Robert ( who in navigating with the map) will see to the latter criteria being fulfilled.
At the top of one hill thereís a large fallen beech tree beside a very old yew tree which has also lost a large limb in the incident, I recognise that scene of agricultural carnage instantly, but none of the others do. So when did I pass by here? It must have been on a Plums walk. Yes, it was the one led by David Bailey last Autumn. We were walking in the opposite direction on that occasion though.
We continue on the same route as Davidís walk until we reach Knockholt, where thereís a pub called The Three Horseshoes. It wonít be opening for another five minutes, but a spy through the window at the pump clips confirms that it should be worth waiting, as there is a very good selection of beers to choose from here.
So, we enjoy a drink in The Three Horseshoes, and the toilet comes in very handy too, but just one pint of Adams has an effect on Robertís map reading skills, and we take the wrong road as soon as we leave the pub. In a way that mistake has a good side though, because as weíre walking along the wrong lane we hear a woodpecker, and Billy manages to see it at the top of a tree right above us. It at about this time that Keith discovers that his coat pocket has a hole in it and that he is leaving a trail of whip money in his wake. I think that we spotted it in time, and found all the coins though.
Having discovered the map reading error, Robert plots an alternative route to get us back on track. Weíre all feeling a bit peckish now, we look for a place in the sun, and out of the wind to stop for lunch. We find a field that will do, and everyone spreads capes or other waterproof sheeting on the ground to sit or lie on. Now, this is an item I havenít packed, not realising Iíd be needing it, so Robert lends me a polythene sack to sit on. The other thing I hadnít thought to bring is a thermos flask, so Eileen shares her tea with me.
After about twenty minutes we pack up and press on following a footpath along the perimeter of some form of military establishment protected by a heavy duty fence with razor wire on top, and sentry points at regular intervals. After that, we follow a footpath through someoneís front garden and onto more agricultural land. It is still relatively mud free, and the ground is still frozen wherever it is shaded from the sun. We walk along a long driveway with several houses along it, and then along a lane which takes us to the top of Polehill which is somewhere that I recognise.
Passing the Polehill Arms, we follow the footpath behind the pub, which passes a gypsy camp and leads downhill through woodland to a footbridge across the M25. The next couple of minutes are quite an ordeal for Keith, as he doesnít have a head for heights, and the footbridge spans a very deep cutting that the motorway has been through, so we are about fifty feet above the roaring traffic. Keith grits his teeth, focuses on the far side of the bridge and walks silently and purposefully across to the safety of terra firma on the outside of the M25, where Oyster Cards are not accepted, and in any case, there are only two buses a day.
We walk down through a wood and over a stile onto downland with a marvellous view across the Darenth Valley towards Shoreham and Otford. We follow the footpath along the side of the valley for a while, and then descent along a steep, muddy and slippery path which brings us out into Shoreham High Street, which I hasten to add is not a shoppers paradise! Now, the good people of Shoreham may not have much of a choice of shops to visit, but they do have a good choice of pubs and we choose to visit The Kings Arms.
My boots are quite muddy, so I decide to do the decent thing and remove them before going inside, unlike my heathen colleagues, but the joke is definitely on me when I do go inside in my socks, only to be told that weíre going to sit at a table outside. I enjoy my second pint of Harveys today as we sit outside in the smokersí shelter. By now I am feeling pretty tired and am very glad of the rest. The decision has been taken to head from here to Otford, where weíll be able to catch a train to St. Maryís Cray, so there wonít be any hills to climb between here and Otford.
We set off, and cross the River Darenth at the war memorial and turn right to follow the footpath across a golf course, past trees with big clumps of mistletoe growing in them, then down a track which passes The Old Mill House and across the Darenth again before climbing up to the lane that runs along the valley.
We walk along the lane and then along a farm track where Keith discovers another fault with his coat, oh shit! Before much longer we can see the houses on the outskirts of Otford, which is just as well because the light is starting to fade, and so am I. We walk towards the centre of the village, checking out the pubs on the way and settling at The Crown, which has two bars and four real ales. One bar is showing the England v Wales rugby match on T.V. and is packed, so we sit in the quieter bar where thereís a warm fire burning in an ancient inglenook fireplace. Well, this is nice and cosy. I opt for a pint of Devchars IPA whilst the others go for Otter Bitter, or in Eileenís case a cup of something hot. Bad choice on my part, the IPA isnít nearly as good as it should be.
We're followed into the pub by a smartly dressed woman in her forties, accompanied by a rather frail elderly gentleman with a walking stick who is wearing a suit. They sit at the table closest to ours, and within a few minutes the woman starts to talk to us. Her name is Max, and she is out celebrating her 47th Birthday. Rob comments that itís nice for her to have brought her father out to celebrate with her whereupon she informs him that the elderly gent, Charles is not her father but her husband. Whoops! But she hasnít married him for his money. She was his carer and they fell in love. Oh yes!
Max is a very chatty sort. Probably not all that bright, but clever enough to know a good thing when she sees it I guess. Rob doesnít let on that heís married to Eileen, and kids Max that he lives in his garden shed or chalet as he calls it, and between them Billy and Rob keep the banter going, spinning Max all manner of yarns which are quite hilarious. I donít think that I have laughed this much for years. We have a couple more beers, and the ash tray on the veranda outside belches out a lot of smoke and has to be extinguished by the barman. The rugby match ends with Wales the victors and the banter between Max and us continues until her Ďfriendí arrives to join Max and Charles for a meal. Weíre also invited to dine with them, but Billy declines the invitation, telling Max that I donít know how to use a knife and fork, and eat everything with my hands, which makes a bowl of soup an especially messy challenge, even though I have grown webbed fingers for the purpose!
Unsurprisingly the station at Otford is unmanned so the act of purchasing five separate tickets from the machine takes about ten minutes, and we miss our train, but thereís another one due quite soon, and itís fast to Swanley and then St Maryís Cray.
Thereís a bit of a delay at St Maryís Cray Station whilst Robert enquires how to buy multiple tickets from the machine, and how to get a refund for part of the value of tonightís tickets. It must be a hideously complicated procedure because it takes five minutes at least to explain, and we miss one bus, but thereís another one due quite soon. I just hope my bladder can hold out for another hour.
I make it home without wetting myself, and get some chips on the way. One I've eaten them I fall asleep on the sofa. When I wake up two hours later I can hardly walk as my feet have seized up and are really painful. However, I manage to crawl upstairs to bed, and am out like a light as soon as my head hits the pillow.