Walking to London
At the end of February 2011, we walked to London from home near Faversham. We’ve always avoided such a walk, and skirted London as widely as possible, due to the M25. The fastest road is no pal to the slowest walkers.
And also, perhaps, we were fearful of London’s hard greyness.
But we were invited to sing, and present ourselves and our doings, to a number of high-powered Folk Industry Executives. We are glad such people exist, for we’d like to win some support for our project and our future plans, and we need to make some good allies. And of course, folk in suits are still just folk, and deserve a good sing-song as much as the next bunch…
So this is the story of our London walk, which is the first decent jaunt we’ve made with Holly dog.
Recordings and a little video can be found below…
In inevitable fashion, sundry preparations waylaid us. So on the friday before the gig, we finally stepped out…
We took the Pilgrims’ Way, aka the North Downs Way, from where it met the village of Chilham. This is the third time we’ve trod these paths going West, and they are a mixture of incredibly easy and very tricky. Certain points seem to roll gently downhill for miles, while other parts traverse the sloped edge of a muddy hill, each step forward sliding two sideways. So empty lanes were occasionally taken, instead of the wigglier hillside moments.
We walked on past Lenham, where the great chalk cross is cut into the hillside. As we sat in rest, the M20 roared its dominance over the landscape. It is very full, and very rapid.
Walking this way, we remembered the strange shifts of consciousness that a long walk gives. Sometimes we focussed on each other, on conversation and companionship. Sometimes we watched the ground move beneath our feet. Other times we followed the shifting trees and hedges, and other times again, our eyes were fixed on the furthest horizon. We also found ourselves occasionally walking through an internalized landscape of small aches. Walking makes the world expand, and contract.
The first night we spent in woods near Jack Cade’s hole, where the leader of the (failed) 1450 rebellion hid, after Cade led his ‘battallions’ of ‘peasants’ to complain about the treatment of the poor in Britain.
Unlike the 1381 uprising, looting was rife once the common folk reached London. The King’s favourite officers were killed, their heads lopped off, and put on poles (and made to kiss one another, apparently). Just like 1381, the rebellion was routed, its followers ran away in disarray, and the leaders, including Cade (also named Jack Amend-All), were rounded up and killed. So feudal life in Britain carried on…
The woods were very lumpy, with no convenient bundles of fern to make mattresses. They were also brambled to the max. We were glad we carried no delicate tents nor blow-up mattresses. Our bones, we figure, must have been softened by recent house-dwelling. Holly dog got cold in the heavy wind (which brought the rain in too) and she was forced to retire to within the limited confines of Will’s bivi bag halfway through the night. She needs her own travel home…
On day 2 we crossed some busy roads, and found an acoustic hotspot.
This was an underpass with a fantastic acoustic, although with much background noise and horrible air. Here recordings we made:
The Burning of Auchidoon
Soon after we met Kits Coty Stone, a dolmen-like structure, estimated at 6000 years old. A nasty spiky cage surrounds it, and we were foiled from sleeping in its perfect shelter.
Bluebell hill we met sunset, and rested in the Robin Hood pub, where a strangely uptight family ordered huge plates of food but ate almost none of it. Our eyes bulged, and thankfully the landlady agreed that a ‘doggy’ bag could be provided. So all 3 of us enjoyed steak, bacon, and chicken for breakfast, after a second lumpy night in the woods. We remembered again how important it is to find a place to sleep before resting in the pub, and before darkness falls. And we remembered, in the chilly winds of after-dark, how glad we both were to have a companion with whom to share these challenges and understandings. Alone, this journey would be perhaps more heroic, but lots less fun.
Day 3 we crossed the Medway at Rochester, the only real option. There ought to be ferry-folk, or smaller footbridges. The busy road across half-killed us, our energy boxes suddenly feeling horrendously empty.
Relief was palpable as we climbed the hill away, and found cool airy woods, which led to the fine sunday pub in Luddesdown. Here the landlord gave us an open invitation to his woods in Bexley, and after singing we sold a CD to pay for our sunday lunch, a most necessary luxury…
Then we walked on through Foxenden and Meopham, down the Shipley Hills Road, where we enjoyed such challenges as a 14 year old driving a peugeot really fast.
The few people we met on the path, we greeted happily, but found ourselves slow to offer songs. After but 2 days walking, this is no surprise, but it was still a disappointment, and we looked forward to a time, sure to be soon coming were we to continue walking, where every meeting comes with a song.
As dark fell, we vowed to continue, and walked through Halling, where the air-quality became noticeably poorer. London approached us…
Darkness got thicker, when we discerned a man with a huge dog, whose face we could not see, from whom we asked directions. “Do you know where the church is?” Ed asked. Silence was the reply. “We’re trying to find the pub” ventured Will. “Righto, it’s just over this field” came the answer.
So we walked to Hartley, where we found an almost empty pub who welcomed dogs, and took the opportunity to sing and meet. Although but 2 days from our home, this place was utterly unknown to us. The dialect was also very different. Promises of “24 owls” had us totally confused, and we looked and listened in vain, till we noticed the selection of 24 ales…
A chap called Steve, who told us he liked only dance music (“like everyone else…drum n bass and dub-step”), introduced us (when the pub got lively) to the people, and corralled us an audience. He told us he had no interest in folk music, but…”your journey is brilliant. You should make a video every day, put it on YouTube. Everyone would watch it. Trust me…i’m a sign!”
We told him we would take his words quite literally. We met a sign in Hartley. “But why did you come here?” everyone asked. “You’re right on the path to London” we explained, “you’re the main route!”. They were surprised, and proud too.
It got late, when we met a very drunken man called Uzi, who by introduction had turned to Ed and said “I f****g hate hippies”. It took a long while to bring him round to talk with us, Ed’s goodwork being largely repsonsible. Hugs and handshakes followed, and we rolled off.
5 more miles after dark took us to South Darenth, where our map told us (in gothic writing) of St John’s Jerusalem, a National Trust property. We assumed the ruins of a Knights Hospitallers castle, or chapel, who would never begrudge pilgrims, so we went looking. This ancient group are the ancestors of the same gang who provide free ambulances at public events.
But instead of a handy ruined wall, we found instead a manor house with cars parked outside, essentially a private residence. But the hour being late, the land behind us being wet and the land before us urban, we lay low in their parkland, and took our little sleep. It is not the best feeling, to know you are sleeping where you’re probably not welcome. But between the hours of midnight and 6:30, no-one ever complains. So we took the sleep we could.
Sure enough, at 6 in the morning the house labrador was let out, he smelt us, and started barking with heavy rhythmic insistence; so we quietly and tiredly down-tarped and scarpered.
Dartford was our morning treat, some 3 miles north, awaiting us once we’d passed beneath the M25. This was like stepping through a portal to Mordor, where the litter was strewn to the very tree-tops, and living trees were scarred with fire, daubed with futile paint, churned up and made foul. Huge pipes pumped unknown fluids into the suffering stream of the Darent, and we stopped to consider how recently this river path would have been idyllic and delightful, and how extreme 100 years of change has been on England. But too tired to lament too deeply, we headed in for breakfast.
As we crossed the lakes, fruit of massive 1920s quarrying, we met a drunken man, red-capped vodka bottle dangling from his pocket. He slurringly asked us what on earth we were doing. We told him, and he became our town-guide, taking us to the cheapest cafe in town, and afterwards taking us to his house for tea and rest. He even let us use his shower, which helped bones and muscles considerably.
An ex-Royal Marine Commando, he had served in Northern Ireland and Cypress. He was court-martialled for the theft of 1800 rounds of 9mm ammunition, for use with the Colt 45s which many soldiers foraged from the confiscated weapons thrown down garbage shutes of blocks of flats, while the barricades were being cleared in 1973.
He called us scholars, and asked why we were sleeping outside when we could get proper jobs, and make real money. We explained our reasoning, which he grudgingly accepted. He then asked us to write a character reference for his upcoming court-case, for verbal assault. We did so.
Then he walked us to the right path, which would have taken us a long time, and much getting lost, to find. Weeping, he bid us farewell. As he walked away, a red kite flew from the sky and screamed the parting…
We were now tired, but London was ahead, and there would be no more opportunities to surreptitiously sleep the night. So we gritted our teeth, held our noses, and walked on.
Past Cray marshes, we met the Thames, and fields gave way to the urbanity of Erith. Poo was literally everywhere, on each bench and pavement, an incredible ring of excrement on the very edge of London. Next came massive industrial build-up, with about 8 miles of various sewage treatment, from the Victorian to the ultra-modern.
Our singular hope for a sleeping option was a high-fenced dump, on the edge of Belmarsh prison. Was this once a Beautiful Marsh, as the name suggested? We did consider trying to break in, but it looked little better than landfill, and so we thought better. By now, bones were aching from the concrete underfoot, and every rest we took needed 5 minutes of hobbling to regain momentum.
At last we found Woolwich, and got cold. A few phone calls, and we found our way to New Cross, where we stayed in the only purpose built housing co-operative in London, a wonderful community.
Morning, after a most welcome lie-in, we walked to the Cutty Sark, and Greenwich maritime museum.
We met a lady called Tharini, who had contacted us through the website, and walked with her along the Thames path, all the way into the heart of London.
We were not sure why we made this arrangement to meet and walk the last few miles with a stranger, but we were both slightly fractious and sad with each other, Ed from low energy, and Will from painful feet. Tharini, we are pleased to say, brought us right back to good companionship, an effect that some people seem able to summon almost without meaning to.
At Monument, we were arrived in the very heart of London. So beside the river, outside a pub called the Banker, we took our rest, and called ourselves finished. We had walked to London, and it was not so very difficult at all.
Here we also made our final recording of the journey:
Last Verse Ryb and Avon (with whistler at end)
This post is being written in the space between this arrival and our concert, the purpose of the journey. So we must go and practice. (edit – made the concert with 4 minutes to spare before our slot…)
Thankyou. Good evening. and Cheerio.