The phone rings at quarter to seven. It's Keith, asking if I'm walking with the Plums today. I take a look out of the bedroom window. It is grey and damp but I figure that I may as well join them anyway.
Ray drives us to Welling and then to the village of Aylesford where our walk starts. There is a good turn out today, about ten of us are here and there are other groups of walkers getting ready to set off as well.
Our first port of call is the medieval stone bridge that spans the swollen, swirling, muddy looking waters of the River Medway at Aylesford. There is a photo call for us all on the bridge. David Bailey educates us with a bit of architectural wisdom, namely that the stone bridge support bases, placed mid-stream are called "starlings".
All a little wiser we walk along Aylesford's ancient high street and up towards The Priory. From here we follow the course of the Medway as it meanders lazily towards Rochester, passing alongside a sewage treatment works, a paper works and some dense reed beds. We walk on top of a levee with the river on our left and low-lying marshland on our right. Both are home to a wide variety of ducks, geese, gulls and other birds as well as a crafty fox, which is lying alert but motionless on the mud bank at the water's edge. He's hoping for a careless duck to come within striking distance and provide him with a substantial Sunday lunch. Ray points out a couple of Peewits on the marsh and we watch them in flight as they perform their aerial somersaults.
A little further on we come to a memorial stone, set at the river's edge, where in AD43 the invading Roman Army, led by Caractacus, crossed the Medway. They surprised and defeated the Anglo-Saxon Army on the west bank, taking control of the Aylesford papyrus works. From here, they printed and distributed thousands of copies of The Roman Recorder, a propaganda filled tabloid that demoralised the indigenous population and spread fear and panic to such an extent that the Romans met little resistance to their onwards advance until reaching the Celtic strongholds of Wales and Scotland, where the population were illiterate and only ever read The Sun. Some of the last paragraph may be fiction, propaganda (or just lies!).
Near Burham we stop to look inside an old disused church, the village that it once served having moved away, leaving it alone and redundant. The slate memorial tombstones in its floor date from the 1790s. Our walk continues through the derelict industrial area of Wouldham Marshes and past an area used for loading ships on the Medway, perhaps with the material excavated from a nearby gravel pit. We also pass a barn, which has a couple of curved walls, hinting that it may once have been an oast house.
We reach the village of Wouldham, which despite its small size still has three pubs, all of which are open. We pass all of them. Surely there must have been a mistake? We turn eastwards, out of the village and in front of us looms the most challenging part of today's walk – a steep climb up onto the North Downs. The path is broad and stoney, so at least it isn't slippery, and after what seems like half an hour (but is probably only 15 minutes) we've made it to the top of the wooded hill and we stop at the clearing to admire the view over the Medway valley and eat sandwiches.
The path, which is part of the North Downs Way, widens to a track, and the track becomes an unmade, heavily potholed road, with houses here and there, though it is still wooded and very rural. Eventually, we reach The Robin Hood public house, a largish place with a well-kept pub garden. By now the weather has steadily improved and is warm and sunny so we sit in the garden. The Adnams Broadside is in superb condition but only one pint of this rather strong beer passes my lips. Any more and I'd be sunk.
We continue our walk and reach Bluebell Hill where for a while our path runs at the foot of the dual carriageway embankment amidst the roar of traffic. The embankment is dotted with clumps of yellow primroses which contrast well with the iridescent blue of discarded Fosters beer cans! Soon the path reaches a lane that takes us away from the main road. We leave the lane, descending a steep flight of steps, onto a path that leads past a gap in a field hedge. Just the other side of the gap is the Neolithic "Kits Coty" burial chamber. Actually all that is left are the three standing stones, supporting another huge "lid" stone, forming the entrance to the burial chamber, but it is an impressive structure when you consider the resources that were available to construct it at the time.
We continue to walk down into the Medway valley, along a lane with a brook trickling along its side. This gives me the opportunity to wash off what little mud has stuck to my boots, saving me a job later at home!
Soon we are back in Aylesford Village and I am looking forward to a pint of Harveys Bitter in the smallest pub in Kent, The Little Gem. To my disappointment there is no real ale in The Little Gem so we walk along to The Chequers and spend an idyllic half hour sitting in the pub garden, in the sun overlooking the Medway and the medieval bridge. I am particularly pleased as they serve Timothy Taylors (Landlord) here; it makes for a perfect end to a very pleasant walk. Well done again Keith!