The Saxon Shore Way between Sittingbourne and Faversham runs along the water, first along the edge of Milton Creek and then along the bank of The Swale, before following the estuary into the heart of Faversham.
According to my map, the distance would be about 12 miles. More – if I get lost. According to the B&B landlady in Upchurch, this is one of the most punishing parts of the route.
My husband is away, skiing. I have lost my valuable support and there is nobody to rescue me if I want to give up before I reach Faversham railway station. So, being a coward, a wimp and with my determinedly I-am-going-to-enjoy-this attitude to walking, I have decided not to attempt this section in a single day.
I am, therefore, breaking my walk at Teynham station. Although this requires a trek inland of about 1.5 miles, I reckon this is the best plan.
My day begins well. I drive to Teynham station and take advantage of the free car parking. My plan is to travel back to Sittingbourne to resume my walk. Unfortunately, the Teynham ticket office closes at 9:30 am and I have just missed the chance to buy a ticket. There are stern signs on the platform, instructing me not to travel without a ticket, or I will be flung in jail. There is a machine on the platform, but it is broken.
Then I spot a machine I can use to ask for help. I duly push a button, half expecting this machine to be broken too. To my surprise, I end up speaking to an Indian with a decidedly indian accent. I explain my situation. He asks me to spell Teynham. Mentally I do some tut-tutting. I assume he is manning the help line from some distant Indian city. I think of Mumbai, or Delhi, or Calcutta. He is very polite and tells me it is quite alright to travel without a ticket, given the circumstances.
Later I learn that Teynham is pronounced Tenam. No wonder he needed to check the spelling.
As I wait, two young people begin wandering down the platform. They are having an argument. The girl is in front. She is a pretty teenage, but has a sharp face and a smirking grin. I recognise this grin. It is the expression my 5-year-old daughter used to have when deliberately winding up her sister. Behind her, shouting expletives, is a skinny young man pushing a push chair. Well, not exactly pushing it; he shoves it angrily forwards and it runs down the slope of the platform towards the perimeter fence. He grabs the handles, jerking it back, before pushing it forwards again. He is shouting at the girl. She runs ahead of him, tossing her hair.
Then I realise there is a child in the push-chair.
The girl must be the mother. The angry young man is the father. The child is fat, dribbling and lost in a world of his own.
The man catches up with the girl at the end of the platform. They sit on some steps, still arguing. He holds the push-chair with an outstretched arm, a few fingers wrapped around one handle, as though the child is nothing to do with him. The girl is refusing to take the push chair.
A middle-aged woman appears on the platform. The couple, still arguing, get up. They do a little dance around this woman. The girl puts the woman between herself and the young man with the push chair. He circles the woman, trying to get close to the girl. She moves further around, keeping the woman between them as a buffer – a human shield.
The woman realises something odd is going on, the girl being too close for comfort – invading her personal space as she plays cat-and-mouse with the young man. She walks away and stands with her back to a post.
A few more people arrive on the platform. When the train pulls in, I choose not to sit in the same carriage as the young couple. I feel alarmed. They are acting like 5 year olds. But they are out with their baby. Is it safe to leave such a young child with two adults who are clearly little more than children themselves?
The journey to Sittingbourne is very short. I become unduly agitated. The buffet trolley is in my carriage and the attendant stops next to my seat to serve the couple in the seat opposite. They slowly deliberate over choices of food and drink. I feel hemmed in and worry about getting off at the next stop. As the train slows, I get up and push past the trolley, spending the last few minutes of the journey standing by the doors.
I get off the train at Sittingbourne, as planned. I pay for my ticket at the booth in the station. I notice I am the only one who does this.
When I walk through the station car park, I spot the young man, still pushing the push chair in the jerky manner I noticed before; – angrily shoving the chair away from his body and letting go of the handle, walking a few paces and catching up with it, grabbing the handles and then pulling it back, before shoving it forward and letting go again. The baby remains quietly unperturbed by this bizarre ride.
The young man is shouting a string of expletives. His shoulder are hunched up with rage. He is walking past the taxi rank, looking around. I can’t see the young woman. She has run off or is hiding.
I must say, I find this incident very unsettling. It is not clear how anybody could, or should, intervene. I worry about the child. Despite my concern about the safety of the baby, I walk on.
The first part of my walk is along busy roads with lorries hurtling by. Sittingbourne appears to be a town of industrial estates linked by roads. Perhaps this is unfair. It is just the impression I get. I am really looking forward to re-joining a proper footpath and sigh with relief when I see the alley leading off to the left. This should take me to the shore.
Luckily there is a detailed sign and a map. It appears they are building a bridge across the river at this point; responsible for the closure of the footpath on the other side (and the detour I was forced to make yesterday) as well as on this side.
I pull out a notepad and write down the detour instructions. I check my OS map. Yes, the instructions and my map both concur. There is an alternative route. And it is a public right of way.
Now I walk along beside an industrial estate (where I notice an upside down sign – one of the perils of attaching a sign while standing on the wrong side of a fence!).
Next, I cross over a busy dual carriageway and walk down a track towards a scruffy caravan site. The instructions tell me to follow the track as it skirts the caravan site and leads onwards.
But the track appears to lead into the centre of the site. And stops.
This is not one of those holiday caravan sites of the type I have met before on my coastal walks. This is a domestic trailer-park site for people who cannot afford anywhere else to live. There is rubbish, abandoned cars, chickens and dirty men with greasy hair.
“You can’t get through there, mate.”
“I’m looking for the path.”
“Where you heading?”
“To the coast. To the sea wall,” I say, not sure that I want to tell this disreputable looking man where I am heading.
But if I scramble up a bank and down the other side, I can rejoin the track.
“It’s a long way to the sea wall, mate,” he warns me.
I scramble up the rubbish strewn bank. This is not only supposed to be an official footpath, but is also one of our national long distance cycling routes (National Route 1, indeed). Nobody could cycle here. There is so much broken glass on the bank, you would have to carry your bike or risk punctures.
I meet a man on a cycle – not a touring bike, but more likely to be resident of the caravan site.
I see nobody else for miles. Then I join a narrow road and am passed, bizarrely, by a dustbin lorry. It returns a few minutes later, having collected bins from the only house I come across on this section of the walk. Beyond the house (with the usual “private”, “keep out”, “you are being watched” signs) the track leads through fields towards the sea wall.
Across the fields, and across the water beyond, I can see where I walked yesterday; the tall chimneys of the paper mill, the jetty of the gravel works and the sweep of the bridge beyond, leading to the Isle of Sheppey. The air is clear and the sun is shining.
Although I am still in the shelter of the Isle of Sheppey, I am nearing the open sea again. I feel a surge of blissful happiness. Progress at last and the sea is ahead of me.
With some difficulty, I remember how to use the timer on my camera and take a self-portrait.
The tide is coming in and the mud flats between my bank and the Isle of Sheppey are soon covered.
I am following the path along the side of the creek, as it winds through fields of sheep and baby lambs.
People are out walking dogs, the first people I meet since the man on his bike. A small group, clustered around a car, are flying model planes. The planes whine and whirr – and dive bomb the sheep. Women with dogs tut-tut at this noisy intrusion into the rural scene.
When I reach the road, there is a bus waiting. It is showing “Teynham” as its destination. I am tempted to get onboard. But take the public footpath instead.
I walk down a narrow gravel road, that runs straight as far as the eye can see. This is an official bridleway and takes me directly to Teynham station. There are orchards of fruit trees to my left, paddocks of horses to my right. The way is lined with trees and it is very pleasant walking. There is no danger of getting lost. I have nearly reached my destination.
At the end of the bridleway, I walk through an orchard. There is a roaring sound and a small motorbike, ridden by a young man, races past me. The bike is one of those off-road types, so small that it forces the man to sit hunched up with his knees close to his ears. It bounces over the uneven ground. He roars away, following the perimeter of the orchard.
A few minutes later, and I come across his companions; another young man, waiting impatiently for his turn and a girl. The girl is very pretty. She is sitting on a large stone, her knees drawn to one side and her legs together, like a mermaid on a rock. She is wearing a short skirt and has long hair. With one hand she is grooming her hair, running fingers through it and flicking her head backwards, so that her hair cascades in a long straight waterfall down her back. She looks beautiful.
I notice there is a collection of lager cans at the base of the stone. Neither of the young men is wearing a helmet.
As I pass them, I think of the freedom of youth. There is a brief time when the world is young, you have no cares, and you can sit, preening on a stone, while young men show off their skills on mini motor bikes, oblivious to the danger of broken bones and brain damage, in a sunny orchard, in early spring, enjoying a cold lager.
Then I think of the young couple with their public quarrelling and the unwanted baby caught up in the middle of their childish squabbles. Yes, there is the wonderful freedom of youth – but it is a fragile thing and easily lost.
The footpath crosses the train tracks and emerges at the end of Teynham station. There are a group of young lads loitering in the car park. I feel a pang of anxiety. But I find my car, unscathed.
Miles walked = 7 miles.
Foot paths blocked = 1
Number of times got lost = 0