As promised in my last post, I attach here a report of my expedition.
On Saturday 30th January 2016, the morning sky cleared and the sun came out. It would be a good walking day.
I had thought long and hard over the various logistical challenges of this expedition, and decided eventually, albeit reluctantly, that it would be wise not to attempt it alone. As much as I was loathe to share the glory of this journey, the sensible traveller realises his or her own limitations, and assesses the difficulties and dangers that they are likely to meet. And so I decided that I would take a companion; not only to make the journey more amenable, but also to help with the navigating, act as a safety back-up, and who could act in need as a porter.
We decided to split the tasks. ‘You’re leader,’ my companion Bob said, ‘so you take the big pack with the emergency stuff, and I’ll navigate. It will make life easier for both of us.’ Somehow, that wasn’t quite what I’d planned.
We picked up our packs, said our goodbyes, and set off down the path to the road. ‘We go left here.’ Bob said, turning right. I hesitated. ‘What are you waiting for?’ He asked irritably, turning round.
‘You said left.’
‘Yes. Are you going to stand there all day?’ I shrugged, and then followed him. The first part of our journey presented few difficulties. We turned left at the next junction (‘I said right!’) and followed the road until we had left the town far behind and were surrounded by a sparsely inhabited landscape. Now we needed to find our way down the hill on the other side of the road.
‘It’s not safe to cross here.’ opined Bob.
‘There’s hardly any traffic!’
‘It comes round the corner really quickly. Let’s go on a bit further and find somewhere better.’
‘The corner’s half a mile away! I’m crossing here!’
‘You cross then.’ He sounded sulky. ‘I’ll catch you up.’ He turned away and stomped slowly along the pavement.
I crossed the road, found a bench, and settled down to wait. Minutes passed, and I took out a chocolate bar and ate it. I had a drink of water. I pulled out the guidebook and went over our route again, and then got side tracked and began reading about the dreadful earthquake of 1734 that destroyed so much of Tunbridge Wells. I had another drink of water. I found a newspaper in the side pocket of my pack and did the crossword. As I finished, I looked up, and my companion arrived.
‘Where have you been?’ He looked sheepish.
‘I turned left by accident. Never mind that, I’m here now.’ He sat down beside me. ‘Sorry, I need a drink.’ He took out a flask and poured a little of the contents into the cup.
‘Oh, just a drop of whisky.’
‘That was meant to be for emergencies only!’
‘This is an emergency!’
When we set off again, we were fortunate to find a track that seemed to be going in the right direction. It was no more than twenty foot wide in places, surfaced with a smooth, black layer, and showing occasional white markings roughly in the middle, as if left to guide travellers. Following this, we worked our way down from the ridge and found ourselves in a fairly steep-sided valley. The road bent around to the right and ran along the bottom the valley, following a stream on one side of the road, and an old railway track on the other. There was a signpost beside us, a pub on the left, and a farm on the right. In front of us a church tower showed clearly above the trees.
Bob took out the map and compass, handed me the map and then carefully lined up the edge of the compass with the side of the map. For a moment or two his eyes flickered between the map and route ahead of us, and then he clicked his tongue irritably.
‘I think we’re lost.’
‘Er, the compass needle isn’t pointing north.’
‘Eh? What…’ he fiddled with the compass for a moment. ‘Oh, you had the map upside down, you fool. No wonder!’ He snatched it from my hands, looked at it suspiciously, glanced up at the signpost quickly when he thought I wasn’t looking, and then handed the map back to me. ‘This way. Come on!’
Half a mile along the road, a track turned off to the left and ran under the railway and into a little wood.
‘This way,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’ I went under the bridge and into the woods, to find that the path was a morass of mud. This area is renowned for enjoying (or otherwise) what can be regarded as fiercely localised weather. Even though it was pouring with rain today in the Lake District and in Southern Hungary, the sun stubbornly shone throughout the afternoon on our little expedition. But it seemed as though that hadn’t always been the case recently. This part of our journey should only have taken us about ten minutes, but it was almost half an hour before we crossed the stile in the fence that marked the boundary between where we were at the time and somewhere else.
The next section of the trail took us down a steep and uncertain track, ankle deep in autumn leaves and with little sections of mud here and there underfoot. It proved necessary to watch our footing carefully, and now and again we had no choice but to hold onto the guard rail for a moment. After a minute or two, however, we reached the foot of the slope safely and paused to catch our breath and have a snack.
We checked the map, noticing that we would have to navigate the next section very carefully.
‘I’ll lead this.’ Bob said, starting to take the map from my hands. I slapped him.
‘No, you won’t.’
We passed under the old railway bridge, which incorporates parts of a still older construction. All that remains now is one end of a medieval banqueting hall, complete with shields. In places it is still possible to glimpse traces of what appear to be the original wall paintings. Judging by what remains of the inscriptions, they possibly depict Saint Darren, patron saint of nearby Tonbridge.
It is a glorious place in the spring, when the wild marsupial trees are in blossom, but now it was a gloomy place. But still it was with reluctance that we dragged ourselves away from this important historical site, and tramped onwards through the woods.
For the next leg of our journey, the path took a great, sweeping loop around a mysterious and secretive area of pipes and tanks and low buildings. The trees creaked ominously overhead. Was it just the wind? Yes, of course it was. It has always had an evil reputation, though. In medieval times, it was a place of alchemy, and rumours still persist that it was in some dark chamber beneath the ground, at this exact location, that an evil sorcerer discovered a magical substance that turned real beer into lager, or false beer as it is properly called, threatening to plunge the whole kingdom into a new dark age.
And at times the traveller of today can almost fancy that a whiff of sulphur or some such odour still overhangs this dreadful place. Several years ago someone tripped over a protruding tree root nearby and hurt themselves, and the rooks call their depressing calls overhead in the gloomy trees.
We were glad indeed to get away from such a terrible place.
Now, on almost the last leg of our journey, our path ran along south-facing hillsides, through one of the small tea gardens that produce our famous Sussex tea, and then dropped down lower to meet the overgrown and largely clogged up remnants of the Bristol to Tunbridge Wells canal. It was still being used to transport coal and gin from Bristol to Tunbridge Wells, with a return cargo of young slaves, as recently as sixty years ago, after which it fell into disrepair as demand for these products fell off.
Care has to be taken along this stretch, as the old towpath along the edge of the canal is quite obvious, but on the other side lies the Great Groombridge Swamp, which has been known to swallow up unwary travellers. Bob was leading at this point, and we were both keen to reach the end, now. I noticed him straying slightly towards the swamp so I called out ‘Just go right, a bit.’
A quarter of an hour later I was enjoying a pint of Black Cat Ale, before catching the bus back home to write up my notes and then make a tricky phone call to Bob’s wife.
Still, all expeditions, like life itself, throw up challenges that have to be faced up to.
Please note that an expedition of this nature is not one to be undertaken lightly. Should you wish to follow in my footsteps, you are strongly advised to ensure that you have adequate training and suitable equipment for the journey.