Ray knocks for me and I drive us to the clubhouse where we are joined by David, Carol, Dee and Christine. David is leading the walk today as Keith is away. He gives out not only a map of the walk route to everyone, but also a map of the route to get to the start, so no excuses will be accepted for getting lost today.
We drive to Mereworth village for the start of the walk. Before we start the walk we take a look at the church at Mereworth. It has long been a puzzle to me as to why a poor, small, agricultural village came to possess such a grand church, whose tall, ornately perforated spire can be seen for miles around. David has done a good deal of research on this very subject and my curiosity is at last satisfied. The church was built by a wealthy landowner in dubious recompense to the peasant farmers who were thrown off the lands that he seized to build his castle home nearby. They were re-settled in Mereworth village and given land hereabouts to farm, and this church in which to thank God for their 'good fortune'! The church was built in a rather confusing mixture of grand architectural styles, obviously with the intention of showing off the landowner's wealth and power, but in reality it is something of a mongrel, and the cheap sandstone used in its construction is now eroding and crumbling, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to repair and restore.
As we approach the church a fat woman tells us that Sunday service isn't due to start for a while, so we can go inside as long as we take our boots off "as you would when you're at home." Her qualified invitation gets David and Ray nicely wound up for a couple of nice long rants about the arrogance of the upper classes (David) and the frustrations of travelling on buses (Ray) as we walk away from the church and out of the village.
Our footpath passes a hazelnut orchard on our right, and a farm on our left that must have owned a dairy herd in the past, as there is a stone platform with steps next to the track opposite the farm gate. This is where the churns of milk would have been left for collection by the milkman. We cross the Seven Mile Lane and walk along the edge of a large field full of large polythene tunnels. A peek inside one shows that they contain raised irrigated beds of strawberry plants arranged at chest height. I suppose that this is for ease of harvesting, and to keep the slugs away from the plants.
Soon we reach Hurst Wood, an ancient wood of coppiced chestnut and hazel with a few larger oak trees whose purpose we do not know. Perhaps they were destined to be harvested for shipbuilding, but the introduction of iron and steel ships gave them a reprieve. I spot a large patch of wild garlic as we enter the woods, and Ray helps me to dig some up using his penknife. I hope that it will grow in my garden at home. David has researched the history of Hurst Wood and knows that it is at least nine hundred years old. There are broad, flat trackways which would have been used to haul out the harvested timber by horse and cart and latterly maybe by steam traction engines. You can make out some circles of trees several metres in diameter that could actually be one tree sharing a common root system. There is also an avenue of very old conifers which have thick spongy bark, and it's a bit of a mystery as to why they're here. We can hear a woodpecker somewhere out of sight.
The walk through Hurst Wood takes quite a while, and as we near the other side we find a mossy bank to sit on where we can eat a sandwich and have a natter. I spot what I think is an owl pellet. Ray seems to agree with my diagnosis, and after he's had his sandwich he teases it apart to investigate its contents (fur, feather quills and small bones).
Leaving Hurst Wood, we pass a field with about a dozen sheep and one lamb who has a lame leg. I daresay that he'll soon be for the pot, poor thing. We walk along a very ancient track with high banks surmounted by coppiced hedges with partly exposed root systems holding the banks together. There are clumps of primroses in flower here and there, and I find an old iron axe head which I pick up, thinking that it will make a useful digging tool if we come across any more wild garlic.
By some strange coincidence , just fifteen minutes later we're at a stream crossing, and there's loads of wild garlic, so I set about digging up a couple more clumps using my axe head as a rather cumbersome trowel ('John's chopper' as the girls call it!).
Soon we reach Plaxtol Spout, a quiet little village with a puzzling village sign cut from a sheet of metal to make a silhouette of what looks like a lady with her hair on fire. I'm sure that it must represent something else though. We walk uphill along the street that leads to Plaxtol village, which still has a post office, a butcher's shop, and a pub. Not bad for a country village these days!
We cross a couple more fields of soft fruit, probably raspberries, and see a couple of little finch-like birds, which Ray identifies as Yellowhammers. Soon we reach Dunks Green, where we stop at the Kentish Rifleman pub and sit in the pub garden and have a drink, and a surreptitious sandwich. The beer is good, the cider not so good, and my lime and soda is the luminous colour of 'Peckham Spring' water, - quite apt as we're now close to West Peckham! High above in the sky there's a buzzard gliding effortlessly, searching for his next meal on the ground I suppose. He must be at least a thousand feet high, and must have the most incredible eyesight to be able to spot a rat or a rabbit from that distance.
Finishing our drinks, we press on, following the Greensand Way, and passing through a small field in which there are a group of white sheep with lambs, and a group of black sheep with lambs. Each group is staying quite separate from each other, a sort of woolly apartheid arrangement. Suddenly the half a dozen black lambs take off, racing in a group at greyhound speed around the field amongst the white sheep before returning to their waiting Mums. "look - he's nicked that white lamb's mobile!" observes Ray.
We climb a stile, cross a lane, and climb a long incline across a field. There's another buzzard circling high in the distance, or perhaps it's the same one trying his luck in a different spot. We reach West Peckham, and walk across the village cricket green to reach The Swan pub, which I happen to know from many years ago. the place has been 'done up' now, and has its own brewery attached. I have to pass comment that the idea of labelling the toilets as 'cobs' and 'pens' is not a good one. How the hell am I to know whether I'm a cob or a pen? We sit outside, overlooking the cricket green beyond a huge walnut tree at its edge. Along the road there's a modest flint built church with a square tower topped with a shingle clad roof, and some of our party go to have a closer look while were sat here.
Leaving the pub, we walk up a steep lane, at the top of which we are rewarded with a panoramic view across what I believe to be the Weald of Kent. It's a view that we share with the occupants of an extremely ugly post war building that surely no one could have designed as their residence. It must be some sort of municipal building. Perhaps a hostel for failed architects! We turn off the lane and walk along a footpath, alongside which there is a paddock with a couple of ponies in it. The ponies seem to recognise David as he approaches, and we kid him that this is because he has walked past the paddock every day this past week, rehearsing our walking route until he knows every turn to take, and every point of interest to take in. Indeed David is to be congratulated at his meticulous planning and knowledge of our route. At no time has he been unsure of where we are or which way to turn next.
We pass amongst the outbuildings and cottages of Yotes Court. The main house is unfortunately shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting for refurbishment, which is a shame for me, as Helen and I held our wedding reception there, and I'd have liked to have seen the building again. We cross the seven mile lane and return to Mereworth. There's an open day in the garden of Mere House, though with only twenty minutes to enjoy before it closes it is not really worth the admission fee, so we give it a miss. We stop to look through the windows of a vintage motorcycle repair workshop and admire the pristine looking machines inside before heading back to our cars.
It has been a lovely walk, and I really can't fault it in any way. I don't feel as though I've walked a huge distance, although the red line on our maps is quite a long one. Perhaps the comparative flatness, and lack of mud and stiles has helped. Well done David.