I walked the North Downs Way from Dover to Guildford in July 2020. It formed a great start to my walk of the length of Great Britain, from Dover all the way to Cape Wrath.
My five-day walk on the North Downs Way was a very pleasant surprise. It is much more rural than the map suggests, and I enjoyed how often I popped out of the trees to a lovely view across the Kent countryside. I wild camped this route every night, but it was quite tricky to find a suitable spot in places.
Day 1: Dover to Hastingleigh
An early start from Norfolk meant we (myself, my wife, and three of my children) were in Dover by 9am. I was happy just sitting in the car, eating a picnic breakfast, drinking coffee, and watching the ferries trundling about in the port below. Then my wife reminded me that I did actually have to walk somewhere. My eldest daughter was walking with me for the day, and it was great to start with some company.
It was a damp and misty morning, and the rain soon moved in, obscuring our views of the cliffs. I put my trusty hat on and realised it felt a bit loose. It always fits me perfectly, and my first thought was that three months of lockdown had made my head shrink. But no, it was the severe haircut my wife had given me to last two months. Probably best I keep my hat on for the next few weeks until it recovers.
The North Downs Way led from the National Trust’s White Cliffs Country Park down into Dover itself, and I was pleasantly surprised by the town. Parts of it felt very historic.
The route stayed close to the sea and into Samphire Hoe Country Park, which is a new piece of land created from the spoil from the Channel Tunnel. It is built from 5 million cubic metres of spoil, and reclaimed 111 acres from the English Channel. Samphire Hoe is now home to 220 species of birds, 200 species of plants and 30 species of butterflies – although not many of them were evident on my very wet walk through! It was still very interesting though, and you can also see the big cooling towers for the tunnel.
The North Downs Way turns inland just above Folkestone and the countryside was lovely, despite the weather. It was surprisingly rolling, and every so often the views would open up showing the gorgeous Kent countryside.
A lot of the North Downs Way is in woodland, which makes it a great summer walk. However, water for filtering is scarce, as much of the route is up high.
My daughter and I met up with my wife and two youngest children later in the afternoon at Hastingleigh, meaning we had walked about 20 miles. Not bad for the first day. We enjoyed a picnic from the back of the car, then everyone headed back to Norfolk, leaving me by myself. I headed into the woods and found a good spot to camp.
Day 2: Hastingleigh to Detling
I slept really well last night and all my kit worked well. I have brought a merino wool sleeping bag liner on this trip, and it is so comfortable and warm.
After coffee and porridge for breakfast, I set off dry at 5.15am. The weather was overcast and the ground quite wet, so I soon had wet feet. The North Downs Way took me around Wye and was good going. It was quite varied: fields, woods, tracks and very short stretches on roads. I passed some nice villages and properties too.
I must have been a little too relaxed though, as just past Wye the North Downs Way splits into two directions. One branch swings north and heads to Canterbury (forming a loop), and the other continues west (following the Pilgrims Way for a while). In my loss of concentration I followed the wrong sign, and ended up heading towards Canterbury. It was two miles before I realised my mistake, which was quite frustrating.
The stretch from Dunn Street to Charing Hill is just a straight gravel cycleway which was less interesting, but good walking. I spent the whole morning eating just to lighten my pack weight (well, that’s what I told myself). I had passed very little water to filter.
After Hollingbourne the path got interesting again. It climbed up onto the downs and was good walking, although a little overgrown in places.
It got to about 6pm and I made the decision to camp near Detling. My feet were hurting and I was worn out. I hadn’t been able to find any water all day so I couldn’t have my usual coffee. I had to settle for a pasty and a chocolate bar for tea, with some wine instead of water – just for the calories, of course!
Day 3: Detling to Otford Mount
The walk from Detling to Rochester was nice. There was a bit of road noise from the motorway nearby but it was easily drowned out by my iPod.
I crossed the Medway bridge and quickly returned to lovely paths again.
The North Downs Way then took in a couple of stiff climbs circuiting Cuxton. It was a lovely walk through Horseholders Wood, helped by the bright and sunny weather today.
I stopped for tea (a dehydrated meal) at Wrotham, then carried on walking to Otford Mount. Then the rain started, so I put the tent up in the field I stood in. I got a little bit wet pitching the tent, but my luck was in, because as soon as my tent was up it rained really hard for over an hour. My lucky streak also included the fact that my glasses and head torch were still both in working order, as I had managed to roll both of them up in my tent this morning. I forgot they were both in the inner pocket – a lesson learned for next time!
After I had cleaned myself up I made coffee and ate the last of my chocolate brioche buns before turning in for an early night.
Day 4: Otford Mount to Brockham
After such an early night I was awake early – up, packed and ready to go by 4.45am. It was a lovely morning but the ground was soaking so I got very wet feet. This is one reason I like walking in trainers rather than boots though, as my feet soon pushed all the water out. My socks feel a bit damp, but they will dry eventually.
As I walked through Otford I saw a fox in the village – one benefit of such an early start!
In Otford I finally came across the River Darent so I was able to filter some water. I was able to fill both of my water bottles for the day, which was a relief, but I didn’t enjoy the extra 4kgs in my pack.
9am was breakfast and coffee time. I needed use up some of the water in my pack to ease the weight. There was a good view down over the valley, and towards the M25. I have been able to hear the motorway traffic all the time, but I’ve rarely seen it. The walking has felt surprisingly remote, especially when you look at the map and realise how built up the area around me is.
I managed to follow the wrong path again today – navigation is more difficult here than it is in the hills, as there are so many different footpaths. I am using my GPS phone for all of my navigation for this stage of the walk, but this means that I can’t see the bigger area.
By about 2.30pm I was ready for a break, so I stopped for lunch at Gravelly Hill (a viewpoint). I dried my tent, shoes and socks in the sun and chatted with a lovely local couple from Surrey who told me that the next section of the North Downs was nice. The walk from Otley to Gravelly Hill had been fairly up and down, mainly through the woods but with some lovely views from the tops of the downs.
From Gravelly Hill I crossed the motorway a couple more times and reached Reigate Hill and Colley Hill. Both were really busy, and the National Trust car park was full. I could see the police there, but they didn’t seem bothered by me and my full pack.
It had been a long day and I wanted to camp from about 6.30pm. However, I couldn’t find anywhere and there were far too many people around. I carried on plodding and eventually found a spot just before 8pm. As soon as I had pitched my tent, the rain started again. I made dinner and a coffee, and really appreciated lying down!
Day 5: Brockham to Guildford
I woke as it got light – the hazard of summer walking. I still felt tired though so I went back to sleep for a while, finally getting away by 6.45am. My dyneema Notch Li tent has been fantastic so far. There has been no condensation problems, just rain. I can fold it up and the inner stays dry. It has also been the perfect size for a couple of tricky spots on this walk.
The North Downs Way has been a very enjoyable walk, but it is always on my mind that I have to get to Cape Wrath. This means I’ve got to get some mileage done. I thought I would be in Guildford by lunchtime today, but looking at the map again I realised it was further than I thought. I set off from the bench I’d been sitting on feeling a bit down, only to turn the corner and find a coffee van. A coffee and a hot pasty made everything OK again. The ups and downs of a long distance walker!
I was suffering today and felt like I was walking really slowly. Every step felt a bit of a slog, ever since I realised Guildford was further away than I thought. Still the scenery was still lovely and being a weekend, there were plenty more coffee vans to keep me going. I just had to dodge all the bikes – there were absolutely loads of cyclists out today.
I finally reached Guildford at lunch time, and it made a good finish to my walk of the North Downs Way. It has been a very wooded route, with more rolling hills than I expected. The route stays up high quite often, and there was less road noise than I expected. It often felt very remote and quiet – only the Saturday was busy.
I was able to re-supply in Guildford, and even found a free water bottle fountain which was extremely welcome.
Now it is time for the next stage of my walk from Dover to Cape Wrath: the Wey Navigation Path. Finally I will be heading north!
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