I'd never been to Tunbridge Wells. All I really knew of it was something called the Pantiles and the infamy caused by the fictional right-wing letter writer and nimby activist Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. It was obviously a well-to-do place and all that but it was a nice surprise to find it was somewhat pleasant also.
My journey down had begun by seeing a man cycling in a Carter USM 30 Something lycra get up and two policemen with massive guns loitering with intent around London Bridge station. Not the most auspicious start to the day.
Things picked up when I met Pam on the concourse and then boarded the train to find Shep, Adam, and Teresa already on it. It was a pretty short hop down to Royal Tunbridge Wells. The regal prerogative, thankfully, rarely used.
Those who'd travelled the furthest picked up snacks in Sainsbury's as a friendly chap tried to offer Pam a job assessing hospitals or something. We headed down the gently sloping High Street and into narrow Chapel Place where Shep spotted an insurance broker with a catchphrase he simply has to adopt
Cumblerand Walk lead to Upper Cumberland Walk and the houses were getting bigger. We took a slight wrong turning as we left Tunbridge Wells itself but we were fairly confident there'd only be one golf course adorned with stone cow's heads in the vicinity so we knew we were back on the right track and on The Tunbridge Wells Circular High Weald Walk itself. Which we'd follow for some time. Or at least try to.
Rusting industrial machinery, horror film cottages, and a dilapidated old caravan (dubbed the Shagshack) gave an eerie vibe to Brickhouse Farm. I managed to come across as a misguided city slicker when I attempted to describe a plough as 'pretend horses'. This childlike behaviour was topped a few hours later when Adam boasted of being in possession of 'silver coins'.
It was starting to feel like a proper TADS walk now as we passed through the undulating Chase Wood and out in to the pretty and green village of Frant. An attractive jumble of Victorian, mock-Tudor, and clapperboard houses. Best of all a pub - and a good one too. The Abergavenny Arms (not the first time the TADS had taken stock in such a named establishment) provided a pint of Burrells for me, an American Pale Ale for Pam, and a Harveys for Shep. Adam & Teresa took soft drinks. We sat in the garden for a while but when we felt the first few spots of rain (as forecast, to be fair) we retired to the charming interior.
The rain didn't bother us at first. It was spots, a little drizzle, nothing we couldn't deal with. We headed downhill into Whitehill Wood. The oldest enclosed deer park in the country and with a mention in the Domesday Book. We were advised of a beef sucker herd grazing in the woods but our guidebook said if we encountered them a nimble jump over the fence should be enough to avoid any potential danger.
I'm still not sure exactly what a 'beef sucker herd' is but we assumed it referred to the deer (of which we saw many). That raised two questions. Who's ever heard of anyone being attacked by a deer? And can't deer jump fences pretty well anyway?
Nevermind, it was a gorgeous stretch (as you'll see from the photos above and below) with two serene ponds oddly free of waterfowl.
It was after the second pond things started to go a bit wrong. It'd already been a difficult walk to navigate with some of the signs seemingly no more and directions less clear than on our previous rambles. But somewhere, around here, we took a wrong turn. GPS helped - though not enough - but once you've lost the track you're doomed to continually overcompensate. Which we did.
We finally found a road but it wasn't the one we were supposed to come out on. Nor was it the next nearest one. No, somehow, we'd walked 2.5-3.5km in the wrong direction and to correct it we'd need to do the same again adding a rather hefty 5-7km to a walk that was already planned to be 17.5km. On top of that the drizzle had turned to rain proper. Waterproofs were on (for those with enough executive function to plan such things) and heads were down as we ploughed forward to the village of Eridge Green.
There was a wedding going on and it was quite tempting to crash it and knock the walk on the head but we inched forwards. You could tell people's spirits were down by the fact that we marched in single file barely speaking for some distance. No-one complained as such but you only had to look at people's faces to tell this had stopped being fun a while back.
Knowing we were back on the track made things a little better and the sight of the majestic Eridge Rocks (described as 'distinctive sandstone formations which shelter rare mosses, liverworts, and ferns) pepped us up even more. Both majestic and incongruous on the Kent/East Sussex border. A nearby yew tree led Teresa to propose that this may well have been an important religious site for ancient Celts.
We crossed two fields populated with hay bales. The second seemed vast and, possibly due to the recent baling of said hay, the path wasn't marked clearly. Some of our party wondered if were trespassing. We weren't.
Neither were we when we entered the private road to Pinstraw Farm. It's, apparently, fine to walk down there. Just don't drive. Or try to pass through the field with a bull in it. That's a far more effective way to deter unwanted visitors.
Already tired and emotional (and very wet, my socks were so squishy they were making fart noises) we looped around Harrison's Rocks (popular with climbers by all accounts) and alongside the sort of railway tracks where moustachioed baddies tie up damsels in distress.
A bridge over the railway line finally took us to Groombridge itself. It had shops, busy(ish) roads, street lighting. It felt like civilisation after what had been a rather challenging yomp.
I had a Harveys as we sat in our wet things and I rested my mildly chafed undercarriage on a cushioned seat. We discussed options. We could walk on, only 6k to go, but it was getting dark. We could get a cab back to Tunbridge Wells or we could take a bus.
Shep popped out for a vape (guessing which flavour he's got on now something of a TADS tradition) and when he came back in he told us it was 'hoying it down'. That was enough for us to knock it on the head and formulate a plan. We'd take the bus to Tunbridge Wells, have a curry, and come back again next month and complete the walk. No point in forcing people to walk when they don't want to. It is, after all, supposed to be fun.
Which, as soon as this decision had been made, it became again. Another round of drinks (I had a local Larkins this time) and what Adam described as an 'excellent bus' back into Tunbridge Wells and it wasn't long before we were (with thanks to a fellow passenger) enjoying our Indian food in Junakhi. The poppadoms were a bit stale but my paneer sagwala was excellent. On top of everything else Shep finally got his wish. They had Bangla. Rest assured if you're insured with Sheppard.
A Bangla or two and a curry later we wandered back down the long High Street (its Wetherspoons, The Opera House, probably the glitziest one I've seen, we paused only to pose for photos) and promptly missed the 2051 back to London. Half-an-hour later we finally boarded the train to Cannon Street. The Basingstoke and Bramley contingent took the tube to Waterloo. Pam and I walked to London Bridge to pick up our connections. By the time I got home I was drenched, knackered but still pleased that what could've been a disaster was averted by comradeship, group decision making, and basic common sense. To compare it to a relationship it was like we'd been through our first argument but not broken up. Next time it'll be like making up which, if my memory serves me well, used to be quite good fun.