(Not that Warren Street. This one’s a tiny hamlet near Lenham in Kent).
The birds were a lot quieter waking up this morning than they were last night, as the light was fading in the woodland by Leybourne Lakes. I wondered if I would be able to sleep through the screeches, squalks, and alarmed flapping from all around, but once darkness fell, it became very peaceful. It was still warm and humid. I started the night, lying in my underwear, on my sleeping mat, with only the fly screen of my tent closed. Later I put one leg under my sleeping bag, then both legs. And at some point, I closed the tent and zipped up the bag. I first woke shortly before six, bathed in perspiration and exhaled moisture. After an hour or so of denial, I waved a wet wipe over myself and changed into my clothes for the day. Thirty minutes later, with my gear stowed and a protein bar consumed, I set off.
I followed a warehouseman in safety boots through the park and witnessed a spectrum of land uses in a short distance. After the wild scrub and wetlands, we parted ways at an industrial park from which trucks were departing with their cargo. Then, I passed a massive, derelict factory, with bridges and pipes that crossed a disused freight railway. It’s in the process of being demolished. At New Hythe, I walked against a flow of commuters coming from the station to the office park. Then, I walked alongside the railway which carries Hitachi express trains to London. At Aylesford, I crossed the tracks and found myself strolling by the River Medway, with picture postcard views of the historic Aylesford Priory.
Aylesford is a quaint, little, village, where you can squint at the narrow streets and imagine yourself transported several hundred years into the past; nothing “new” interrupts your view of the overhanging balconies of wonky-roofed houses, overshadowed by the priory and the tower of the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul’s. The priory website has a calendar of pilgrimages; groups who come from different parts of the world to spend time at the priory on specific dates. Last Saturday was the Goans, and Sunday was the Poles. The site explains that the custom of offering hospitality and accommodation to pilgrims is maintained to this day. It provides an email address for the guest house. Had I known about it, I might have contacted them, but I doubt that the custom of hospitality is truly maintained – not in the way that I experienced it on the Camino Mozarabe or on the evening when I made it to Lalin.
I soaked up the historic atmosphere on a bench, while waiting for the uber-twee Village Pantry to open for breakfast. Here I took a table in the garden and was served a surprisingly low-flavour pot of tea and a bland plate of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Every inch of the cafe and it’s garden was decorated with something. I wondered at the smorgasbord of patriotic posters on the toilet walls – Uncle Sam embracing Britannia to promote an event to support Britain (during the First World War); Dig for Victory (from the Second World War); Beware of scalding hot water from the tap (contemporary).
To accompany my food, the proprietress brought a tightly packed bowl of foil sachets containing ketchup, brown sauce, tartare, salad cream, mayonnaise, and mustard. This made me stop and think, not only because of the paradoxical combination of generosity (a bowl rammed so full that pulling one pack causes others to fall out) and parsimony (the strict control implied by a 30g portion of ketchup), nor because of the incongruity of foil packages in this genteel tea shop, but because I wondered if I was seeing a peculiarly Kentish pattern. This was the third or fourth time since my arrival in Kent that I had been offered a container of foil-packed condiments. In Surrey, with one exception that I can remember, condiments in pubs came in family sized bottles and jars, in a wooden box or on a tray.
A proclivity to notice patterns seems to be hard wired in humans. I find it impossible to avoid seeing patterns when I observe the world at my slow, hikers pace; planting a foot on the ground at every stride between the place where I wake and the place where I rest my head at the end of the day. The challenge is to determine which patterns are real and which are the conspiracy theories, dreamt up by an idle brain, making mischief.
Today, apart from the condiment sachets, I noticed that the houses with narrow gardens at Pratling Street all have two-tiered clothes lines on high masts, that allow the occupants to use a system of pulleys to lift one set of washing (or an extravagantly long, unfolded, sheet) to a height of at least three meters. I wonder if the person who built the houses is a sailor.
I noticed that Kent appears to be particularly observant in its remembrance of the First World War centenary. After crossing the A229 and the railway line to the channel tunnel, I stopped in Boxley, where the pub provided a gourmet chicken and pistachio salad (I declined condiments, so I don’t know if they would have come in sachets), and I paid a pound to observe a spectacular set of floral tributes at the church of St. Mary and All Saints. I was impressed by the bouquets in the colours of countries that fought on our side. (We haven’t reached a distance from the Great War that would allow us to dispassionately consider the “enemy dead” in the way that we can, for example, when we see the Bayeux tapestry). There were also displays of letters from soldiers to families in the village, an autograph book from the period, a stretcher on wheels, and tea and cakes.
I noticed that farmers have taken to blocking gaps in hedges with large pieces of farm machinery. I imagine this creates an obstacle for criminals seeking to drive onto farm land.
I noticed that some of the fields between Boxley and Detling, full of hops in the old photos on the wall of the Kings Arms, are now planted as vineyards. This, in itself, doesn’t qualify as a pattern that I’ve observed for myself. But I have noticed people telling me for at least 20 years that the chalky soil of the south of England is as suited to wine as the great wine growing regions of France, and that English wine has finally “arrived.” My own observation is that it hasn’t arrived at the price that I need it to arrive at. It reminds me of the pattern of Microsoft’s assurances through most of my career, that the latest release of its software was finally user friendly.
Finally, I noticed a pattern of footpath signs being broken or missing. I wonder if there’s particular resentment here about rights of Way.
There are also patterns that one should be wary of noticing. The oast houses in Kent are a good example. The remnants of these agricultural buildings have been converted into dwellings all over the county. We think we see a pattern and we delight in seeing it, when in fact the guidebooks and other media primed us to make this observation. Some people travel for the express purpose of making such observations that other people have, in fact, made for them. When I find myself noticing the things that I’m supposed to notice, or the things that I expressly want to see, I remind myself of my conversation with a colleague who had just made a speech in Singapore. His trip there and back within a week was his first, brief visit to any part of Asia. When I asked him about his impressions of Singapore, he told me with satisfaction that it was “clean but dull.” In the short time that he was there, I doubt that he had time to find it dull. But I guess he wanted to notice that, because it’s what people say about Singapore.
I crossed the busy A249 on Jade’s Bridge at Detling – a bridge that wasn’t built until four people died, while attempting to cross from one side of their bisected village to the other. From this point, I struggled to get onto pleasant paths. The “Pilgrim’s Way,” and “North Downs Way,” signs all seemed to direct me onto narrow, twisting, tarmac roads that I had to share with motor vehicles. Cars often drive too fast on these roads, and farm vehicles are so massive that they scrape the hedges with their sides, leaving no room for me. What’s more, walking a long distance between high hedges that impede all views, starts to feel like a chore. I made some heroic efforts to get up onto high ground; climbing over barbed wire fences into patches of thistles and nettles to reach paths whose proper entrances were hard to spot. But every time I made a break for freedom, I found that I had to return to the lower Pilgrims Way to continue. In the end, I patted the statue of Brother Benjamin on the head and resigned myself to trudging the last few tarmac miles to my destination.
I felt very clever when I found and reserved this room. The Harrow in Warren Street is closer to the Pilgrim’s Way than the accommodations in Lenham, which are listed on the Pilgrims Way website. But on arrival, I realised why the Harrow Inn might not have made it into the guide. It’s a forbiddingly lifeless, zombie pub. The pink, 1970s vintage bathroom suite in my room is the least scary aspect of it. The bar looks like it may have seen riotous nights in the distant past, but no locals were drinking here tonight – just three spooked out business travellers, placing orders for dinner with the Bulgarian landlord who sat behind the bar all evening, reading something on his computer screen. There is no mobile signal here. I’m keeping my door locked.
For dinner, I had chicken pie and vegetables. I assume the pie was cooked from frozen. It came with a bowl of condiment sachets.
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