Day 8: Wrotham to Aylesford via Rochester (34 km) Walking on sunshine and diet coke

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

The Windhover – Gerard Manley Hopkins

What ended up as probably the most satisfying day of the walk so far, didn’t get off to a particularly promising start.

I had enjoyed a fitful night’s sleep the previous night, as the sound proofing in the rooms of the 14th century Bull Hotel left a lot to be desired. For much of the night there was a cacophony of noise from passing traffic on the road outside, creaking floor boards from the floor above, and discordant singing from the downstairs bar, where a female crooner was serenading a wedding group!

Having a shave and a shower also proved somewhat challenging. The shower had definitely seen better days and emitted a trickle of lukewarm water while the hand basin looked as though it had been designed for a doll’s house!

Basin in my room!

Breakfast was a rather trying experience. The morose looking lady who was taking orders, seemed completely distracted from the task at hand. I had to repeat my request for coffee and brown toast, not once, not twice, but three times! The lady, who was supposed to be serving me, spent the majority of time chatting away with a similarly doleful looking colleague, with both of them periodically gleefully announcing that a guest had already checked out and wouldn’t therefore be troubling them for breakfast. That is what you get nowadays for £115 a night in a UK hotel at the weekend!

The restaurant walls were covered with World War 2 memorabilia commemorating the Battle of Britain, which all looked slightly incongruous. I noticed on arrival that there was even an OS map at reception with the precise location of all the bombs and doodle bugs that had landed in the area during the War!

Having checked out of the Bull Hotel, I was heading up the hill in the direction of Trottiscliffe when I suddenly realised that something was missing – my staff! I sprinted back to the hotel to retrieve it. One upshot of this mishap was that I discovered that I can run for considerable distances carrying my rucksack. This could prove useful once I cross the Channel should I be accosted by savage dogs or disgruntled locals!

The morning passed uneventfully apart from a slightly disconcerting detour through a place called Vigo Village that suddenly appeared from nowhere and consisted of endless blocks of identical looking houses laid out in a grid like pattern. It felt like entering a maze! The one person I did encounter (a jogger wearing earphones) didn’t have a clue how to get out of the place and onto a road/footpath to my next destination, Halling.

Having turned to the GPS app on my phone as a last resort, I did eventually manage to navigate my way back onto the PW and find my way to Halling.

Whitehorse Wood

I met an old chap in a fleece in the convenience stores at Halling who claimed to have walked every major long distance path in the UK. Offa’s Dyke and the Cleveland Way were his favourites. I told him I was walking to Rome. ” I’d love to join you” he said, ” but I’m getting a bit too old for that sort of thing nowadays”.

The church of St John the Baptist in Halling was closed, despite it being Sunday. In contrast there was a steady stream of arrivals at the 5 Bells pub opposite for lunch.

As I sat on a bench outside the church eating my lunch, a battered Ford Focus sped past and a tattooed youth shouted out of the window at me “GET A LIFE!”

Crossing the Medway after lunch, I noticed a Samaritans sign on the bridge. ‘Talk to us, we’ll listen’ it said. I paused for a while and thought about the closed church at Halling.

Crossing the Medway

For hundreds of years there used to be a ferry which connected Halling to Wouldham on the opposite bank of the Medway, but it closed in 1963. Pilgrims would have crossed the Medway from Halling to Snodland. The last ferryman, who was called Mr Stephens, said he was glad to be made redundant after having worked 18 hour days for over 30 years!

The village of Wouldham on the banks of the Medway comprised a row of two up two down workers cottages.

Car in Wouldham High St – may struggle to pass its MOT!

The Peters portland cement works, which were the largest in the world in the early 20th century, supplied most of the work in the area.The company founder lived at nearby Wouldham Hall. At their peak in the early 20th century, Peters Cement employed over a 1,000 people and operated over 80 barges. The new housing development I passed enroute to Wouldham is called Peters Village.

Peter’s Cement

I popped in to the Church of All Saints, Wouldham where I got chatting to Martin, the clock winder, and Mike, the Rector.

All Saints Church, Wouldham

Martin offered to give me a tour of the clock. It was installed in 1899 to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1897 and paid for by the Peters family. The Derbyshire firm which installed the clock, still exist and service the clock once a year.

Martin the clock winder and Mike the Rector

Having climbed up a narrow circular stone staircase, Mike showed me how the clock operated. It only loses 4 minutes a week, which is pretty impressive. There are also 6 bells in the belfry and an active team of bellringers.

The 1899 clock

Mike, the Rector, kindly gave me a tour of the church once he had stamped my pilgrim passport. The church was originally Saxon and dates back to 1058. Mike showed me the last surviving bit of the Saxon church – a teardrop window, one of only a few surviving in this country. He showed me the way to the path along the Medway to Rochester and bade me a safe journey.

En route to Rochester along the Medway

Rochester Castle boasts the tallest Norman keep in the country. Built in 1127, in 1215 the castle was seized by rebel baronsxand endured an epic siege by King John garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John.

Rochester Castle

Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. Even then the defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.

As I passed the moat of Rochester castle on my way to the Cathedral, I noticed a brass plaque commemorating the last ‘ Justice Tree’ in the county – the ‘justice’ being meted out by the Court Leet – and consisting in the most serious cases of hanging on the gallows or Justice Tree ( Also known as the ‘Grief Tree’, the ‘Gallows Tree’, the ‘Justice Tree’ or simply ‘The Tree’.) On the 3rd February 1820 the last public hanging took place in Rochester – that of a busking bagpipe player Duncan Livingstone who murdered his 10yr old assistant. His body is interred under the castle walls.

Site of last Justice Tree in Kent

I managed to make it into Rochester Cathedral (founded in 604AD by St Augustine who reintroduced Christianity to these shores) by the skin of my teeth – they were closing to tourists for the 3.30pm choral evensong service.

I had a quick look around and left to find some replenishment and also look at the Gordon Hotel which I’d booked but then cancelled when the owner told me that they no longer did breakfast for guests. ( WHAT? NO BREAKFAST???) Clearly they aren’t targetting the ravenous pilgrim market.

Rochester almost seems like a giant Dickens theme park. In the high street I noticed a ‘Little Dorrit’ sweet shop, an ‘Oliver Twist’ bakery and a pub which claimed to be the last place that was mentioned in Edwin Drood.

I’d jettisoned my water in the morning in order to increase my speed and make it to Rochester and back to Aylesford in time for evening prayers at the Carmelite Priory at 6.30pm. With the mercury hitting 70 degrees, I was feeling pretty parched. Having necked a 2 litre bottle of diet coke I legged it back towards Aylesford along the banks of the Medway.

Fuelled by diet coke induced caffeine rush, I managed to make it back to Aylesford in record time, locate my quarters after flagging down a Carmelite monk called Father Jed. On arrival at the Priory I’d noticed a large crowd of Indians emerge from the chapel in a state of high animation. I asked Father Jed about them. ‘ They are on a youth pilgrimage from Gillingham”, he told me. “We get a lot of Indians coming to the Priory”, he added.

Aylesford Priory

Evensong was a simple affair. There were only 4 monks in attendance including Father Jed, clad in the brown hooded vestment of the Carmelite order of friars. The service was conducted in plain song and lasted just 20 minutes. Besides me there were only two other attendees. I could hear seagulls squawking in the distance as the monks melodiously intoned the Lord’s Prayer. It had been a long day, but a rewarding one, sparked in large part by the previous day’s chance encounter and the suggestion that I should spend a night at the ‘Friars’ with the Carmelite monks of Aylesford Priory.

The chapel

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