Walking with Centurions – The North Downs Way.
As Canterbury beckoned my speed increased. Partly from anticipation of breakfast but mostly because it feels exciting, the town is interesting to travel through. For half an hour paths and narrow roads toyed with me, making me think it was round the next corner but each time it kept me waiting. My track was shaded by a tunnel of overhanging trees.
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Its dark brown surface offered a soft foothold and a wonderful mustiness crept up to meet my nostrils. Sunrays found their route too, escaping from a break in the clouds and stealing through chinks in the foliage. A field swept away to my left as vines played with lines of perspective and a solitary crow called.
The North Downs Way is a 156-mile marked path in south-east England starting from Farnham, Surrey and finishing in Dover, Kent. This mileage assumes the loop near the eastern end is taken into account – imagine a length of rope with a lasso on one end and hopefully you get the picture. Much of the route follows the Pilgrims’ Way, an ancient route used by those travelling from Winchester to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of St Thomas Becket. It fluctuates along the line of hills known as the North Downs, toying with the tops but generally skirting along the sun-bathed southern flanks just below the summits. It commands a rite of passage through sweeping fields and burrows through ancient woodland. Apart from the South Downs a few miles away, this is my local playground.
I have walked it before, two years ago with my friends, Nick and Chris with whom I finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In no hurry, we took our time with twenty-mile days, savouring what this wonderful trail offered. I enjoyed it so much I walked it again this year in a quicker overall time, following on with my lighter pack approach and higher daily mileages. I decided that five days, at just over thirty-one miles per day, would be respectable – but would give me time to appreciate my local hills into the bargain.
My dad dropped me off in Farnham one Wednesday evening. As I tucked in to a last meal of fish and chips, a quick check on the weather report had me yelping with joy: wall-to-wall sunshine for six days at least, I couldn’t believe my luck. I hoisted my pack, walked along the A31 for a few minutes before being willingly grabbed by the woods and sucked in away from the hum of town. I strolled along the clear waters of the River Wey, turned right under the railway bridge and disappeared off amongst the trees to camp.
Waking in a tent in the middle of summer at 5am with birds chirping is amazing. I love nature’s alarm clock. Brewing a quick coffee I sat watching a deer skirt around me, stopping every few feet to smell the ground. It watched me with caution and, deciding I wasn’t a threat, carried on calmly. I was walking at 6am, and as I crossed over the occasional deserted country lane, even the locals hadn’t thought about rising yet. The sun was out but June was still clinging on to a chilly wind as I pulled on a warm jacket and walked along sandy trails. The occasional dog walker passed and groundsmen at the local golf course tended to their turf.