Farnham - Dorking
The Old Road from Winchester to Canterbury that became the Pilgrim's Way coincides with the North Downs Way eastwards from Farnham and is a road much travelled.
It is a road that has held a compelling fascination for many writers and, as we walk the North Downs Way today, the landmarks and villages that they recognised and described can still be seen and are surprisingly very little changed.
John Bunyan lived in Shalford and would have been well acquainted with the annual Becket's Fair where the drunkenness, exhibition fighting and side shows were regarded with horror by this sober Puritan and could well have been the model for the Vanity Fair that Christian and Faithful pass through in The Pilgrim's Progress.
Lewis Carroll first rented the house called The Chestnuts in Guildford in 1866 as a home for his six unmarried sisters and their housekeeper but it became the place to which he escaped from University life for weekends and long vacations. The first and last chapters of Alice Through the Looking Glass were written at The Chestnuts and so were many books on logic and mathematics.
Dorking - Westerham
'I can assure those townsfolk who send forth a cry that wild nature and scenery are becoming difficult to find, that any amount of both still exists, within a short railway ride from London.' Denham Jordon, naturalist, writer and artist.
The North Downs teem with wildlife and the hills and valley are rich in wild flowers. Small wonder, therefore, that they have been a favourite place for naturalists.
Landscapes rich in flora and fauna, offering both wide vistas and small secluded spots are always an inspiration to poets. The North Downs are no exception.
In November 1817, John Keats stayed at the Burford Bridge Hotel at the bottom of Box Hill. One moonlight night he walked to the top of the hill and came down with the last five hundred lines of Endymion in his thoughts. It is a long narrative poem, studded with glimpses of woodland, flowers and hills:
"For by one step the blue sky shouldst thou find,
And by another, in deep dell below,
See through the trees, a little river go
All in its mid-day gold and glimmering."
Westerham - Trottiscliffe (aka Trosley)
From 1842 until his death in 1882, Down House near Biggin hill in Kent was the home and workplace of Charles Darwin.
Darwin had already made his famous trip to the Galapagos Islands on HMS Beagle during which he had begun to work out his theories of evolution. The countryside around Down House gave him the opportunity to make observations of flora and fauna and, often aided by his children, he set out each day to study, among other things, bees, worms, pigeons and orchids. Every day, Darwin contemplated his theories as he walked along the sand walk in the grounds of Down House, which he called his 'thinking path'.
His work culminated in the publication, in 1859, of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It shocked the Victorian world but has been the basis of the study of evolution ever since.
Down House, which houses many of Darwin's books, instruments and notebooks, is in the care of English Heritage and is open to the public on certain days.
Trosley - Detling
"It was along the greensand ridge of South England that Neolithic man had his principle seat." Hilaire Belloc.
In early ages, the hills were 'safelands' where camps and settlements could be built with the knowledge that any invading force could be spotted well before they arrived and that the contours of the countryside would be a natural defence.
Just south of the North Downs Way as it goes past Trottiscliffe, are the Coldrum Stones. Originally, there was a circle of upright stones, about 15 yards (13.7m) across, surrounding a chalk mound, with more stones arranged inside. Now, because of chalk quarrying, many of the stones are fallen, but it is still an impressive monument.
Near the Coldrum Stones there is a smaller ruined burial chamber called the Addington Stones and, just down the road from Kits Coty House is Little Kits Coty. It is also called Countless Stones because, when you count them, you never arrive at the same number. There is a legend that a baker once tried by putting a loaf on every stone, but he was thwarted by the devil, who came behind him, knocking them off.
Detling - Boughton Lees
Walking from Boxley to Hollingbourne, you follow for a few hundred yards the road that eventually descends into Thurnham. You realise that you are walking round in a half circle and may wonder why. Look upwards through the trees to your left and you will be able to see tall, flint walls rising steeply above the road. These are the walls of what was once Thurnham Castle, built by Robert de Thurnham in the reign of Henry II.
There is little left of the castle, but here and there you may find the remains of walls, occasionally, as you push your way through ancient woodland the ground is littered with broken flints.
In complete contrast, carry along the Way and you will see the thickly wooded grounds of Leeds Castle, which is celebrated still as the most beautiful castle in the world. Standing on its lake, surrounded by well-kept grounds, it remained completely unsavaged by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War.
The preservation of Leeds was due to loyalties chosen by the Culpeper family who lived in the nearby village of Hollingbourne.
Boughton Lees - Dover
"the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay."
Mathew Arnold, 'Dover Beach'.
Dover is the gateway to England and writers; travellers and troops leaving for Europe have all been inspired by its white cliffs which are at the very end of the North Downs Way. It is also the place that is closest to France and therefore the most vulnerable to attack. Since the Iron Age, there has always been a guardian fortress on the cliff tops. In the 13th century, Mathew Paris called Dover Castle 'the key of England'.
Within an Iron Age fortress, the Romans placed a lighthouse to guide their British Fleet and the Saxons built a fortified town. King Harold had a castle there and the present building was begun in Medieval times.
The cliffs around Dover and Folkestone have also inspired artists. Turner's pictures of coast include The Straits of Dover; Coast from Folkestone Harbour to Dover; 'Folkestone from the Sea', depicting smugglers; Dover; Dover Castle, which celebrates the coming of the age of steam; and Dover from Shakespeare Cliff, showing the military connection.
The Canterbury Loop
This section, known as the Canterbury Loop, is one of the more diverse along the Trail. Orchards, Beech Woods, Bluebells, Chestnut coppices and ancient forts are all part of the scenery between Boughton Lees and Canterbury. The walk into Canterbury may well be along the route of Chaucerís Pilgrims and is surrounded by history. The city has a very European feel to it and it is well worth taking time out here just to relax and watch the world go by before departing and heading off towards Dover. The final stretch to the coast is fairly level walking through strawberry fields (well worth buying some direct from the field!), more orchards, the Kent coalfields and large country estates before once again descending into the hustle and bustle of Dover.