I wake this morning feeling flushed and I wonder if I am running a fever. When I look in the mirror, I discover I am sunburnt from yesterday’s walk.
After breakfast, my host in the B&B shows me the best footpath to take from Upchurch, heading north to pick up The Saxon Way. I set off early (before nine o’clock), knowing I have a long way to walk today. The weather forecast is fine. I am taking no chances and have applied sunblock.
The footpath winds through an orchard, where the well-pruned trees are just beginning to blossom. The birds are singing. The sun is shining. The world is good.
At the end of the orchard, I walk along a track, running alongside a field of sheep and young lambs. The sheep catch sight of me and begin charging towards me, lambs following. They are after food. There is a hullabaloo – deep-throated baas from the sheep and high-pitched echos from the baby lambs. As I walk along the field, the flock keeps pace with me and the noise doesn’t cease until I turn away, towards the shore wall .
The coastal path here is lovely. The morning sun gleams off sea and mud. There are house boats, many clearly being occupied, pleasure boats moored on the bank and further off the shore, in mud and water, an assortment of sunken hulks. Across the water is the familiar view of Kingsnorth Power Station.
Walking across fields, along a way that is seldom used, usually leads me to disaster. And this, today, is what happened – I got lost, twice.
The first farm I cross has well maintained ‘kissing’ gates, allowing me access to the fields. Although the footpaths are untrodden and invisible, I can identify the exit route from each field by spotting the gate on the far side. Nothing impedes my progress, the ground is dry and firm with bare earth and no crops or mud to force a detour. So far, so good.
Then I enter a field, through one of these ‘kissing’ gates, and find the path is bounded by fencing. Now, this is the official Saxon Way, remember; one of our long distance footpaths. But instead of leading directly across the field – as per the official route, marked on the map – the path takes me round the sides of the field. Since the field is indented by a copse, and the path leads around the edge of the protruding copse, I end up walking much further than 2 sides of a triangle.
Worse still, close to the trees, the path is narrow and undermined by rabbit warrens. I am unable to detour onto firmer ground, hemmed in by wire fences, but forced to stumble across this overgrown and uneven terrain. Luckily, as this is March, there are only a few, low nettles growing here. But I can see the route will soon be overgrown with them. Meanwhile, to my right, is a bare empty field with no reason at all for this forced detour – no crops, no animals, nothing.
Having nearly completed this tortuous circuit, I reach a section of the path that is, well, completely impassable. The fence excluding me from the farmer’s field is intact. But the fence on the other side has fallen across the path, where an assortment of brambles, thistles, old gate posts and rubble are strewn across the way. It is hard to believe this is supposed to be a footpath.
So, I jump over the fence and into the field. This is, I think, what I should have done at the beginning. Walking across the field, following The Saxon Way route as marked on the OS map, I reach a broken gate and leave the field easily.
A few minutes later, and I am lost again. I was congratulating myself on good progress and had stopped near some ponds for a drink and snack. I see some Saxon Way signs – so I know I am on the path. It is just not clear where to go. I set off across another field. In retrospect, this is where I went wrong and ended up heading too far South. I end up on a track, and then on a road. A passing motorist stops and asks where I am heading.
“I’m trying to find The Saxon Way,” I tell him.
“It’s over there,” he says, pointing back in the direction I have come. “And if you find any Saxons, let me know.”
I thank him, but, disoriented, I don’t believe him. Later, after losing all the expected landmarks and resorting to the compass on my iPhone, I realise he is right. I have come too far to turn back now, but I see a way to rejoin the footpath.
Cursing the lost time and extra miles incurred by this unnecessary detour, I head towards the village of Iwade. Catching glimpses of the main road and the bridge to the Isle of Sheppey, I realise I am very close to Kemsley, on the outskirts of Sittingbourne. This is one of the destinations along my planned route today and I am almost tempted to cut across country and make straight for Kemsley. But this would pass out a long loop of The Saxon Way as it winds close to the shore. I resist.
Now I find a footpath, leading across a large field of grazing horses, towards a spot marked endearingly on the map as “Raspberry Hill”. It is not much of a hill, and I see no raspberries, but find myself back on The Saxon Way and heading down towards the shore.
The sun is behind me and as the open space of mud and bright water opens up before me, I feel a surge of energy. There is the familiar whiff of rotting vegetation from the muddy marshland, the ubiquitous wrecked hulls that litter this part of the coast and the familiar tower of Kingsnorth Power Station in the hazy distance, across the water. Yes, I am back on familiar territory. Back on the marshy coastline once again.
On my map, this area of mud and water is named “Bedlams Bottom”. I must confess, this mile of path is the best part of my walk today. Luckily, I have no idea of the difficulties to come.
The Saxon Way leads me towards some ramshackle farm buildings, not marked on my map. The footpath sign is lying on the ground. I hesitate. Do I go through this farm-yard, or round it? I hear a strange noise. Is that a hoarse cockerel crowing? Further on, I see it is not a cockerel. It’s a peacock.
Once again, I have lost the track. Warning signs (“Private”, “Keep off”, “Nature reserve”) bar my way forward along the marshes. It is not clear to me who owns this land. There is no explanation on the signs.
Yet again, I am suspicious of this “reserve”. Who owns it? Why is it private? Why are white vans and other cars driving across the tracks that criss cross this peninsula, while walkers like me are kept out with rude signs?
I find the Saxon Way again. It runs along a hard, rutted path. Walking is difficult and the countryside is flat and featureless.
It is lunch time. Stopping to have a drink and a snack, I take in the view of across the narrow strip of water towards the Isle of Sheppey. A few boats make their way along the … is it sea or river? There seems to be a fair amount of industry on the Isle and ahead of me, looking along the bank, I can see the arch of the road bridge and distant traffic crossing too and fro.
Now I see plenty of birds – Canadian geese, ducks, moorhens, ghostly heron, oyster catchers, a hovering BIG bird – I wonder what it is – too big for a harrier.
Continuing along the bank, heading south-east, towards the huge bridge to Island. As I draw nearer, I realise there are two bridges. One (the high one – Sheppey Crossing) seems to be carrying hunch back lorries. Then I realise they are car transporters – a constant stream of them, travelling from the Island to the mainland.
The other bridge (Kingsferry Bridge), lower down, is carrying slow-moving traffic from the mainland to the Island.
Running late now, I pick up my speed, walking at a quicker pace than I would naturally choose. So intent am I on making good progress, I fail to stop and check my map. To my surprise, and dismay, I end up at a dead-end. The bank ahead of me is taken over by a huge quarry with a jetty, fenced off by security fencing. A large boat is moored and a huge machine is scooping gravel from the quarry site and emptying it into the boat. I can’t believe the path is blocked. What am I going to do?
Then I check the map and realise the official Saxon Way leaves the bank, shortly before reaching the quarry and heads inland, skirting this industrial area, before rejoining the bank further south. There are, of course, no signs to indicate the deviation.
Cursing, I retrace my steps and, after a short scramble through rubbish and debris, I arrive at a section where a lovely path has been created on the raised bank the follows the peripheral road around the industrial site. There are bushes on either side. The path is reasonably well trodden with short grass and soft ground. I cross over a disused railway line.
Back on the bank, I walk through a VERY industrial landscape. But there is blue water and boats to my left and, ahead, the view of open sea in distance – a promise of things to come – hurrah!
Next bit of the walk is completed in a blur of fatigue. I walk faster than I wish to. Apart from one dog walker near the industrial site detour, I meet nobody.
Tired and irritable, I find a sign nailed to a post. The sign is encased in plastic but is faded by the weather. As far as I can see, the sign is warning me of a footpath closure, due to bridge building.
Yes, The Saxon Way is closed between Gas Lane and a map reference. I find the map reference – just South of here. Where is Gas Lane? The OS map does not have street names, just place names and, of course, map references can be found on it. Damn. Why give a map reference and a street name?
South of where I am standing, the Saxon Way follows the line of Milton Creek, running towards Sittingbourne. The map indicates the path passes close to a railway station and a built-up area of Kemsley. Before that, it winds around the perimeter of another huge industrial structure (I assume this is a power station, but later learn it is a paper mill). I hope the path is open until I reach the end of this industrial site. Then I plan to cut off the path, heading towards Kemsley. There must be a road connecting the station to Kemsley.
I resign myself to walking along roads from Kemsley to Sittingbourne.
If it wasn’t for the fear of finding my route blocked, forcing a long walk back the way I have come, I would enjoy this section. I pass lots of industrial sites – a sewage works, a rubbish tip with pipes rising out of the rubbish (reclaiming gas?), jetties and structures whose purpose I can’t fathom.
Now I am walking along the perimeter of the large paper mill and, as I reach the end of the high perimeter fence surrounding the mill, I notice there is no obvious route inland. My heart sinks. What should I do? Continue on and be forced to turn back later? I have to reach Sittingbourne. My car is parked there and I have a bed booked for the night at a B&B in the town.
Then I notice an unmarked pathway, leading inland from the Saxon Way, hugging the perimeter fence. Is it a proper path? I have no idea. But it is well trodden.
I follow the path for a short distance. It runs with the high fence on my right and tall bushes on my left. I can’t see far ahead. Scrambling up a bank I find, to my horror, I am on a railway line!
Where is the railway station? I can’t see any sign of it. To my right, the line ends in some buffers. To my left, it stretches out in a slow curve, heading towards Sittingbourne. Straight ahead are bushes, a steep bank and high fences. There is no way to cross. If there are roads and houses on the far side of this, I can’t see them.
Looking at the map, I realise I am a long way from a road. There is the bulk of the paper mill ahead of me, fenced off and inaccessible. The only real access point here is the footpath I have just left.
Just then, I see a boy walking away from me, along the line, in the direction of Sittingbourne. He is wheeling one bike and carrying another one. Maybe he knows what he is doing. I follow him.
As I walk along the edge of the line, I notice the line appears to be used. It is clear of weeds. There are no missing sections. I can tell from the map it is a “Light Railway”. That means steam trains and tourist rides, doesn’t it? Nothing will be travelling along here on a weekday in March, will it? I notice there are no signs saying ‘do not trespass’. And there is room at the sides of the track for me to stand aside if a train comes.
It still feels odd, and very wrong, to be walking along a railway track.
I speed up to keep up with the young lad ahead. If he turns off, I want to see where he goes. I have to follow him. I can’t follow this track all the way to Sittingbourne. In any case, I suspect the track will be fenced off by security fences when we reach a more populated area.
Passing a building site, workmen in yellow jackets nod and say hello. If they think it is odd to see a middle-aged woman walking on a train track in the middle of nowhere, they are too polite to say so.
The boy turns off the track, just where gravel roadway crosses line. I follow him, relieved to be away from the railway, and find I am on an industrial road. I get the feeling this is part of a construction project. The road is made of loose gravel and there are speed restriction signs.
Then, I see a church ahead. At last, a landmark. The map says I am in a ‘country park’ – very new park with baby trees, tiny trunks surrounded by anti rabbit protection fences. There are a few people walking here, some with dogs, so it must be public land. I head south-westerly, across the park, to join the road that leads to Sittingbourne.
To my horror, I find the way ahead barred. There are temporary structures, offices, building materials and, worst of all, a big gate with security men, separating me from the road. This is a giant building site after all.
It is five minutes to five o’clock. The workmen, in high vis jackets and hard hats, are congregating around the gates, loading vans, preparing to go home.
“Can I pass through here,” I ask, hoping I look suitably tired, lost and pathetic.
“You’re not supposed to love,” they say. “Where have you come from?”
“Somewhere over there,” I wave vaguely in the direction of the railway line. “I didn’t realise I couldn’t get through.”
It is five o’clock. They are going home. They are in a good mood. They let me through.
Now I walk along busy roads towards the centre of Sittingbourne and the comfort of another B&B. Thank goodness I arrived before they closed and locked the site. I could have been stuck there – trapped.
There is one more odd experience on this strange day.
To my left, I pass a ramshackle mobile home. It looks like some temporary structure, belonging to the building site. Then I notice the NHS sign.
This is an NHS surgery? It can’t be. It is!
Yes, this horrible shack is one of the much vaunted Darzi Centres, officially entitled “GP-led Health Clinics”, where instant access to a GP and a range of other services in a one-stop shop will be provided for the convenience of patients and because us humble GPs are, apparently, incapable of providing a decent service. The last government promised the public would have one of these wonderful clinics (a “Super Surgery” or “Polyclinic”) in every area.
This is one of those clinics? Dreadful. Truly dreadful – like a third world health facility.
I assume it is disused. Then a small car pulls up beside it and a large man makes his way, leaning heavily on a stick, toward the door. It is being used. What a disgrace. Surely the people of Sittingbourne deserve better than this?
I am almost too tired to be angry. Almost.
Miles travelled = 15 miles (felt much longer).
Railway tracks walked along = 1.
Getting lost = three times.
High points: orchards and Bedlams Bottom.
Low points: seeing the Darzi Polyclinic.
Scenic value? 3/10 due to the dominating, everpresent, industrial scenery.