Saturday, August 2, 2014

North Downs Way

Sign showing the North Downs Way
Coming back from our Spring vacation in Garmisch, I wanted to hike and explore more of the UK.  I looked up trails and hike and found the National Trails website.  Originally I wanted to do the South Downs Way, but the North Downs way was closer to home and also starts in a area I have done hiking before - near Guilford.

With my new Garmin hiking GPS, I started planning the hike.  The first problem I needed to figure out was how many kilometers I could do in a day.  Sounds easy thinking about it, but with a pack of food, camera and rain gear, I didn't know how far I could go before being exhausted.  I also wanted to complete the hike in the Summer, so I didn't want to follow the guidebooks that break the hike into 10 mile sections.

Next step was figuring out what to bring.  This being England, it would most likely rain.  So rain gear and boots for rain are a must.  I didn't want to start with my heavy Nikon, so I took the small Canon S100.  For food, I packed one of the Sainsbury chicken ready meals and also some Polish sausages and Gouda cheese.  I found the sausages perfect for hike as they are fatty, don't need to be cooled and are full of protein.

I browsed the websites, got books and also had the 25k OS map of the area.  I was ready to go.  I packed everything in my North Face book bag, programmed the GPS and went to bed early.

When morning came around, I hopped in the car and drove down to Farnham rail station with the idea that I would go as far as I can, then take the train back to the car.  On later hikes I found that this was not the optimal solution.

Official Start of the NDW
Parking being a premium in England I didn't know where to park and found a spot down the road in hopes that Sundays they wouldn't clamp my car (a true worry after walking all day!)  I locked the car, checked the GPS and set out.

About 5 minutes into the hike, my legs started cramping.  Did I lock the car?  What would happen if I got lost?  I did have my paper map and compass, but did I really know where I was going?  How would I ask for directions back to Farnham - what if there are two train stations?  What if I forget how to pronounce Farnham and end up going to Kent on the train?  As I was walking from the car leaving Farnham, it dawned on me that this was the furthest I've been from the security of home, car or workplace in England.  An odd feeling, but it's a bit like being in a supermarket in a foreign country.  Granted I speak American English, but when it rains and I mention my pants got wet, I get funny looks.

Crossing the meridian
The North Downs way starts in Farnham and goes south of London, crosses the M25 highway where you can see London City and Canary Wharf in the far distance, then crosses M25 again to reach Rochester in the north east of Kent and then run down the middle of Kent.  Near Ashford, the trail splits in two, one loop going via Canterbury and another down to Dover.

London towers in the far distance

The path I took was down to Dover.  I wanted to see the channel and had a idea that hiking along the white cliffs of Dover would be something special.  As the last bit, I went from Wye (where the trail forks) to Canterbury.  That part of the hike was one of the best along the entire trail.

Along the first day, I was passing Newlands Park, somewhere where I've hiked a few times near Guilford.  I knew that there was a nice cafe with ice cream.  Right before reaching it, it started to rain, so I made a note never to go out without the rain gear (out of all the days, only one did it not rain - but that day the grass was wet and I still had to use the wet pants).

At that point I did around 20km, and was feeling a bit tired already.  I thought that I could continue as I wanted to see further what the tails looked like and also the closest rail station was a bit away.  So I kept going and walked along some nice forest paths with views down to the valley below.  Toward the evening I reached Dorking, going through vineyards to reach the station.  Reaching Dorking rail station, I learned something about English rail networks.  I asked the woman at the counter on how I can reach Farnham - and if it was a direct train.  She explained to me the connections, and gently asked if she could print them out as I had no idea of the places she was mentioning.

First off, the train was not leaving Dorking Station, but Dorking Deepdene, a station that was just around the corner.  Next I had to change at Ash Vale, but get off at North Camp and walk across the town to Ash Vale station.  Mind you at this point I've walked 40km, all day.  My feet were sore.  Then from Ash Vale, I took another train down to Farnham.  Why are there so many station and such a complex system with the rail?  Well, the problem is that it's independent companies and these lines were built many years ago.  So each station is ran (or was?) by the company who owns the lines. Each town that had several companies, and each company would have a station of their own.  For English people this may seem normal and natural, but for someone who grew up in Germany where the rail network is a single system, this system is really stupid.

I got home quite exhausted but did feel quite proud of hiking the long distance and getting to see so much in one day.  I was also impressed to see the variety of nature and parts of England that are remote from the city and industrialization of modern life.

The next leg I planned out a little better.  I knew that this part I would be going past the M25, so there would be tunnels, bridges and cross points that I would have to track.  Luckily I had my Garmin and programmed these points along the path as checkpoints.  The weather was forecasted to be hot and nice.  I decided to go in my lightweight barefoot style shoes.  The last hike I went in my hiking shoes and they were a bit too warm.  I like the lightweight shoes and even hiked the mountains in Germany wearing them.

Stepping Stones
The path took me past Dorking, crossing the famous Stepping Stones and seeing the back yards of some mansions in Surrey.  The trail also crosses through a boarding school campus and horse stables and cow pastures.

One of the biggest challenges planning this section of the hike was the rail connection between the end point and the car.  As I was going from west to east London (crossing the Greenwich meridian) I knew that this would mean different rail companies.  So I planned for the best and figured I would find something at Sevenoaks.

Sadly what I didn't plan for was the weather.  As I was nearing Sevenoaks, with less the 10km to go, it started to rain.  Real rain.  The grass was getting wet and my feet were getting soaked.  With the barefoot's it felt like I was walking with sponges on.  Fortunately the day was hot, so the rain was a welcome cool-down and also had brought with me my red cycling waterproof jacket.

I did reach Sevenoaks, by this time it was getting dark and figured it was pointless to go to Dorking to get the car.  I texted my wife asking her to look up timetables and connections.  They all sounded too complicated and took too long.  So I took the direct train to London where I then took another train to Putney.  At 1 minute past midnight I called the automated parking system and extending the parking in Dorking by another 24 hours.  I knew what I was doing after work the next day.

The third leg of the hike I was looking forward to.  I wanted to get away from M25 and London.  I wanted to see more of Kent and the countryside.  I was also looking forward to better rail connections as this part of the country was under one rail company.  After the last hike, I planned for better connections.  I knew I could do 40km in one day, but felt that was too much.  I also knew my moving pace (around 3.5 to 4 km/h). This was valuable information for planning, as I got 50k OS maps for planning out the path.  I split the hike into 8 to 10km sections where I planned for breaks.  And more importantly, I took the train in the morning and hiked to the car.  That way, I didn't have to worry about connections when my feet just wanted to rest.  This turned out to be a great idea and I did it for all the other sections.

Had lunch under this oak tree
Along this path, I saw a more natural landscape, not dotted with mansions with walls that blocked your view, but here it was more open and with little farms where real things were grown.  There were also less people on the trail, this was a good thing, but also caused problems as the trail was not as well marked as in Surrey. I had to check the GPS constantly and verify that I'm on the path.  A few times I ventured off and had to take side paths to rejoin the trail.

I did cross the massive bridge overlooking Rochester and saw the EuroStar train zipping past.  At one point it started to rain, so I had to put on the full rain gear, but quickly took it off once it cleared as it gets quite hot wearing these clothes.  Near the end I passed an ancient monument that looked very similar to the one I saw in the Burren in Ireland.  I'm guessing that these stones were so heavy that no one bothered moving them after they were built.

The next section was from Maidstone down to the middle of Kent.  I originally planned to go down to Wye, but then figured it was not a race and settled for 30km.  Maidstone is a strange city.  Looks nice on the outside, but then you realize that the massive walled fortification in the middle of the city is an active prison.

After doing a few of the sections and being at the halfway point, I felt quite confident in the distance I could cover and what kit I should bring with me.  Rain gear was essential.  I also found that I could wear my hiking shoes in the morning and have the light barefoots in my pack, so when it got warmer I could change to them.  Food was also easy.  For the morning I would have my sausage with cheese. And I bought a little thermos so I could have instant coffee while I waited for the train to take me to the start point.  For lunch I had a meal pack that reminded me of my childhood eating MRE's (Meal Ready to Eat, US Army field food).  I didn't really take any snacks other than a little can of lemonade for a quick sugar rush.

Dirty Habit Pub
Other kit I took with me was the OS map and the official North Downs Guide that had printed OS 25k maps.  Although later I found the book too heavy to take with me and left it at home.  A compass was my backup navigation device to my Garmin Etrex 30 with the trail maps loaded on it.  The open source maps from are really great and saved me a few times from wantering off the trail.  The Garmin was also a good device, but I found that the software is quite buggy and had it crash on me a few times.  Something that was really annoying because I wanted to have a full log of the hike to see the details later.

I would drink a lot of water on a hot day.  I started off with a two-liter water bottle, but found the shape too big for my bag and bought myself a three-liter Camelbak bladder.  I've used them in the past, they are quite good as you can always take a sip without stopping. The disadvantage is that they are hard to clean.

The next dilemma was what bag I should take.  I started off with my North Face bag that I used for work.  It's great, but with the shoes, camera and the extras it was a bit too small.  The bag started to tear at the top from the 50-300mm lens I took on one of the hikes.  I do have a Camelbak BFM that I bought a few years ago.  It's an Army-style bag, excellent for hauling a lot of gear.  The problem is that it's a bit too big.  But I decided to give it a try.  I've taken this bag flying as it fits in the overhead compartment and also can fit clothes for a week, but for a day hike it's too big as it doesn't have enough compression straps and everything inside sags due to the big size.

My other bag was my Lowepro 450 AW camera bag.  This is also is a big bag; I took with me when hiking in Garmisch.  I like the solid look of the bag, but also it's a bit big.  The plus is that things don't sag and the bag opens like a suitcase, so everything is visible when you stop to take a break.  Overall it's a great bag, but heavy and also too big.

I think I'll go back to the North Face bag and once it breaks then I'll look and see what's on the market.

I enjoyed hiking though Kent, with the farm lands and the open nature it felt more natural, not as manicured and without the grand mansions as Surrey.  The one problem was that it was a bit far away.  Getting home added almost 2 hours with the traffic on M25.  One thing that I did find funny with the smaller rail stations was the Permit to Travel that was sold.  As the stations didn't have a full touch-screen computer as you would expect, they have a little machine where you add a few coins and buy a "Permit to Travel."  With this you arrive at your destination and then buy your ticket.  If the conductor verifies your ticket on the trail, you show him the permit and then buy the full fare ticket minus what you paid for the permit.
NDW trail fork
When I was going from Ashford to the Charing, I had one of these Permits to Travel.  What was annoying was that there were two trains that I had to take, both once an hour.  So when I got to Ashford to get the second one, I just missed it.  Then when I was nearing my destination on the train, the ticket guy comes around and I have to buy a full fare ticket.

For cameras, I mostly used the Canon S100, it's small, compact and supports RAW.  Plus it has a built-in darkening filter, perfect for the cloudy landscape photos.  On some of the hikes I brought my Nikon D90 with my zoom lens.  Some of the photos here are taken with that camera, but it's heavy and takes time to setup.  I'm still thinking if it's worth taking the big camera on longer hikes.
Dover in fog

I was looking forward to the hike to Dover. This is one of the endpoints of the North Downs Way and I wanted to walk along the cliffs. I thought about this hike when I came to visit England  for the first time many years ago.  I brought my Nikon, with the extra lens in hopes that I would get some nice shoots.  Sadly, English weather is not something to ignore, and the fog was as thick as soup, so the only cliffs I got to see were just a bit near the port.  I'll have to walk this section again when I know the weather will be nice and clear.

Dover as a city is quite interesting, it has a castle, walled defences and a citadel that is currently used as an "Immigration Removal Center."  Obviously PC does not apply to the "Unwanted."  There are also the foundations from a Knights Templar chapel that I found quite interesting.

The last bit that I walked was from Wye to Canterbury.  The North Downs way follows some of the original pilgrim paths that lead to Canterbury.  There are many stories and books written about the journeys people took to England's version of the Vatican.  The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer written in the 14th century is the most famous.  When I studied it back in school I had the idea that someday I'll walk along this path.  Come to think about it, I'll have to re-read.

This hike was very nice, the weather was perfect, it didn't rain (the only day day from the entire hike) and by this time I knew better about how to hike longer distances.  Plus I knew I would be done with the North Downs Way and be able to celebrate the hike.  Along the way I passed some very pretty villages and a wild apple orchard with a sign indicating that the apples were free for those hiking the trail (unfortunately the apples were not ripe yet).  I also passed the location of a pre-roman fortress.
Canterbury gate to the old part of the city

Nearing Canterbury didn't feel like I expected, somehow I thought it would be a bit magical, like in the movies with the cathedral rising through the fog.  I reached the town following the trail, passing kids playing and eating ice cream, then crossing roads.  I did walk along roads called Pilgrims Way and saw hostels with signs saying they welcomed pilgrims.

Approaching the old town, I stopped and bought myself a ice cream at a corner shop.  The guy at the counter asked where I was coming from with my big bag.  I explained that I was walking along the trail from London and had mostly clothes and camera stuff.  Not surprisingly he looked at me if I was a bit odd and wished me luck.  I cheated and ditched the bag in my car and continued to the old town.  I didn't want to attract odd looks in the town center.  I did reach the cathedral and managed to get a few photos.
Selfie with a horse

Having made it this far, I texted my wife and went to a cafe to have a treat.  Sadly the iced coffee in the busy cafe full of German tourists didn't taste as good as the instant coffee I had in the mornings, in the fog-filled parking lot, waiting for the train to start my hikes.

Total distance walking: 243.91 km
Total time walking: 63 hours over 7 days
Average speed: 3.85 km/h
Elevation gain total: 3,650 meters

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

Location of all the photos taken along the trail

View from Box hill

Dover cat

Apple orchards in the distance

Path cutting through the fields

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Gate leading to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury main street

Canterbury Cathedral residence




First view of Canterbury Cathedral

Dover beach in fog

Dover castle
Dover citadel 

Dover cliffs

Dover port

EuroStar tunnel exit

Eurostar terminal

Trains waiting to leave for France

Fog in the forest

Cows in the fog

Kent country side

Cat resting along the trail

Knights Templar church

Hearing mirror for aircraft from the war along the coast

Yes, there is a Lower Bush

Snake sculpture in a apple orchard