It was hardly the ideal start to a day I'd been looking forward to and I was worried I'd find the October TADS walk along the Sussex/Kent border from Wadhurst to Bayham Abbey and back a bit tough. The book had, despite the walk's comparatively short distance of 11.5km, rated the walk as 'moderate-strenuous' and suggested the 'possibly muddy and definitely hard-to-follow woodland paths' would require some Girl Guide/Boy Scout skills to stop us getting lost. I'd taken the precaution of pinging the map over to Adam so he could plot our route on his Garmin in advance.
I arrived in Wadhurst, via Crofton Park and Sevenoaks, just after 11am and had an hour to wait for all my friends. The fact that they all came down together on a separate train had me wondering if they were trying to tell me something. There certainly wasn't much to do around Wadhurst station while I waited so crosswords and sudokos were summarily dealt with as I pondered my unwise decision to travel in advance of the troops.
Once Adam, Teresa, Shep, Pam, Rachael, Neil, Bee, and Eamon arrived (Kathy was in Lundy of all places) we headed off for our walk - in the wrong direction! Correcting ourselves we immediately took another wrong turn by the first of many many white clapperboard cottages. It was beginning to look like the book's warnings were not an exaggeration.
Once we finally got on to the path though, it was fairly straightforward for a while. We passed a tree of huge juicy red cooking apples and a gipsy caravan caught the rapt attention of the Tadley contingent. Both Eamon and Shep were setting a fairly blistering pace and, after a field full of sheep, we turned into Great Shoesmiths Farm. Marked as private the book told us to ignore that and carry straight on so we did, whilst discussing the difference between shoesmiths, cobblers, and farriers. We know how to party.
The field was marshy and after a couple of stiles we passed by a 'curious circular pond' full of quacking ducks and a field of brown cows and on towards Bartley Water Mill. Here the main attraction was a quartet of spotted, hungry, pigs. They were cute if you looked at their faces but, alas, I caught a glimpse of one of their arses just as it was curling one out. Happy as a pig in shit? You decide.
Not far after Bartley Water Mill, and Bartley House, we took a sharp turn down an overgrown pathway, stamping the brambles and bracken down as we went. Pam picked up a minor injury and I nearly tripped over in the undergrowth a handful of times.
From here on in there wasn't really a path at all. We were told, and did, locate a weir and follow, roughly, the course of the small river. It felt like nobody had walked down here for years, or perhaps ever. We didn't see a single person but we did find some black fungus growing on a tree. Adam correctly identified it as King Alfred's cake and Wikipedia tells me it's also known as cramp balls and coal fungus. It's mainly used as caterpillar food and for accelerating the decomposition of fallen ash trees.
It wasn't just the trees that were long dead down in the Bartley Mill Woods. We found the skull of what we assumed to be a deer. The teeth were still connected but the eyes, the brain, anything not made of bone basically, had been either pecked out by birds or eaten by insects.
There was another skull nearby so I hung it on a tree in the childish hope of freaking out future foragers. We also found a dead bird of prey. We think it was a kestrel but we didn't get too close. It looked like it hadn't been dead long and the sound of shooting from nearby fields suggested that, perhaps, a local poacher had got tired of killing pheasants and gone for something a bit more challenging.
Remarkably, considering the sketchy terrain, we arrived back on the busy road exactly where we were supposed to. By the Kent county sign and the road leading up to the Bayham Abbey Ruins. We knew Bayham Abbey was closed for the winter but the gate was open so we thought we'd have a look anyway.
Alas, a stickybeak in a nearby house poked his head out to tell us we weren't allowed to. Noseybollocks also spotted my Rough Guide walking book and mentioned that he didn't approve of the fact the Rough Guide sent people through private property. He was more passive-aggressive than out and out rude but he still scuppered our look at the ruins so we thought of some rude things to say about him behind his back and wandered on to the pub.
The Elephant's Head (or Ellie's as they seem to style themselves) in Hook Green was a lovely boozer. Despite the bizarre sight of a bicycle hanging from a tree and the offer of 'a pint of mixed sausages' on the menu it was everything a country pub should be. Welcoming, unpretentious, comfortable, and with a roaring fire for winter nights and a large beer garden for summer afternoons.
I had a couple of pints of Harvey's Old Ale, a dark and fairly strong winter warmer. We sat in the conservatory and ordered 'snacks'. These snacks turned out to be considerably more substantial than we'd expected - which was great but ruined our appetites for later. I only had cheesy chips but Teresa and Shep's bread/veg combo was enormous for £3 each!
The route back to Wadhurst was considerably less dramatic. Often along roads, we were full of food, we'd had a couple of drinks, and it was very hilly. Like a rollercoaster. Not how you'd imagine Kent at all. Put frankly we were all pretty knackered.
Rachael headed back to the station and the rest of us went to find a pub in Wadhurst. The Greyhound was comfy and friendly. Surprisingly lively too. It felt a bit Christmassy in there if that even makes sense. Having only recently eaten a large snack for lunch few of us were ready to try either of Wadhurst's two Indian restaurants which went against the whole TADS ethos but, after a fair bit of umming and ahhing, we decided we'd get drinks for the train and head back to London.
Shep still asked in the off-license if they did Bangla (they didn't) and we all headed back to Wadhurst station. It was about a forty minute walk in the dark and we caught the train with seconds to spare. A friendly guard said we could sit in first class and we commenced a few rounds of Heads Up.
Pam changed in Orpington, Adam and Teresa headed back to Basingstoke, and then the Uxbridge contingent departed too. There was just Shep and I left. We had a pint in London and we, too, knocked it on the head. It was a pity that the night fizzled out but it was a tougher walk than anyone had really expected and we were all both stuffed and exhausted. We'd gone looking for ruins and at the close of the day we'd discovered that we were the ruins.
In a brilliant years of TADS activity that's seen wonderful walks and days out in Blenheim Palace, Hastings, Cambridge, The New Forest, and an epic two day trek along the Ridgeway our trip to Wadhurst won't rate as one of our best of the year (if the year was an album this wouldn't be one of the singles from it) but I think that just goes to show how much we've raised our game in the last few months of walking. We'll be back in November walking along the Thames Towpath from Richmond down to Hampton Court and I, for one, will be sad that that walk will bring the curtain down on a fine season of strolls.