December the 5th. December. I looked at the weather forecast for the weekend. 12°C, It seemed to be a mistake. I checked with another source. The Brits and the Norwegians both agreed. I closed the met office app, and stuffed my summer sleeping bag into my pack along with my usual bivvi gear. I pondered what to do. I wanted a trip out, to be among the trees once more. I’d been craving the forest for weeks. Several times I’d almost gone out, but bottled at the last minute. No this time I must go. But where.
My favourite stomping ground for this sort of trip tends to mean a start from either Wye or Chilham station. From here there are various bits of woodland and downland suitable for a microadventure. I looked at the map again. Back in November I had set out on a 3 day trip involving a 23km loop starting at Wye, and going via Chilham and the Kings wood. I’d done the southern half, but aborted at Chilham after the first night. This seemed like a good opportunity to complete the loop. A simple 12km walk from Chilham station up through the Kings wood to Wye station, bivvying down in a quiet stand of trees somewhere along the way.
Bag packed I left the house with the intention of grabbing some food en route to take with me. An indication of how frazzled my brain was, I hadn’t even got out the end of the road when I’d had to return to the flat twice to collect things I’d forgotten, nothing major, just my sleep mat…
Eight minutes on a train left me standing at Chilham station in a dull grey overcast nothingness. No leaves on the trees, no sun in the sky, not even rain in the air. Just wind. Oh what a wind. The met office had reckoned on 40kph winds with gusts upto 71kph. A bit blustery,
I left the station and headed towards the village of Chilham proper. The wind bit, blowing my hair around, thrashing it against my face. Hat, why hadn’t I brought a hat? Oh yes, 12°C. I put my hood up, hoping to contain my hair, and protect my ears from the windchill. As I walked through the village I now started to overheat. Even with both pit zips wide open it was too warm. I admitted defeat and put the hood down. As long as I kept my orientation into the wind it should be mostly ok.
Warning to motorists that I was here…
I turned onto the interestingly named Mountain Road. I expected this to be named for a reason, steeply inclined. But no, it was pretty much flat, maybe a gentle undulation. I got 10 yards along the road when the phone rang. This was a surprise, I hadn’t expected to have phone signal here, it’s one of the reasons I got my inReach satellite communicator. It was my dad, who seemed to think I was nuts to be out for a walk in this wind. We chatted as I walked along Mountain Road towards the Kings wood. As I walked I explained how he could login to the delorme website and track where I was, followed by experimenting with the novelty of sending messages to me via a multi billion dollar satellite network…
View across the Stour Valley. A month ago we camped in those woods.
As I reached the edge of the Kings wood, we finished the call. It was close to dusk now, and I had what I thought was another 1-2km to go before my intended camp site. I put my head down and plodded up the hill.
I’d left the tarmac’d road behind and this part of the path was a wide trackway. Rutted down the centre where the water had eroded the chalk surface. A month ago in the wet, both myself and the friend I’d been walking with had had traction issues on such exposed chalk. In the rain the chalk is like polished ice and it’s easy to fall over. Thankfully today the chalk was dry, even so I plodded up the hill carefully.
I’d brought with me a new toy, a wood burning stove. So as I wandered I kept an eye out for wood to burn. I had my usual fire kit with me, but beyond few basic tinder tabs (more on that in future post), I didn’t have anything else suitable for making fire. I would have to put my Bushcraft skills to use if I was going to have a fire tonight. As I walked I looked for some fallen birch, the bark of which makes great tinder. It didn’t take me long to spot a dead fallen Silver Birch (Betula pendula). I cut off a 18″ long length, then tried to work out how best to carry it. Taking my pack off would be a faff and I already had a walking pole in each hand. I settled on holding it under the waist belt of my pack. A few yards further on, I added a second piece of Birch to the belt. This should hopefully be enough to get me sorted. I continued up the hill.
I had brought a map with me, intending to rely on it alone, without resorting to my phone or GPS. I need to improve my navigation skills. But with dark almost complete, I chose discretion as the better part of valour, and pulled out Viewranger on my phone. As I homed in on my intended campsite for the night, I grabbed a couple more bits of dead standing to fuel the fire. Fifty meters short of the camp, I turned right off the path towards a stand of Yew trees. In the dark I discovered that what looked to be a direct walk to the Yews, was interrupted by a three meter wide ditch. The sides where steep. It must have taken me 5 minutes to slowly easy my way down the side of the ditch. Using my poles almost like ice axes. Fortunately the other side of the ditch was easier to climb up. A few more meters and I was there. Camp.
I’d spotted this stand of Yew trees on a walk earlier in the year, and thought they would be a nice spot to bivvi. What I hadn’t quite taken into account was how not flat they were. I put my pack down with my little pile of fire wood, and sat down. Breathe. I needed to find a flat spot big enough to roll out my bivvi bag without any dead branches above it that could fall in the night. I scouted around looking for a perfect spot. I couldn’t spot anything ideal in the near darkness, and I didn’t want to shine my torches main beam around too much. I try not to draw too much attention to myself when in the woods, and was using the red beam on my headlight. I found something that looked pretty flat in the dim light, it didn’t have any over hanging dead branches. It would do. I moved my pack up here along with my firewood bundle.
Before I make camp a habit of mine is to just sit and listen to the woods, get used to the area I’m in. I listened. The woods were a cacophony of noise. Branches banged, trunks squeaked, and it all set on a base line of white noise from the wind. A gust of wind shook the trees, and I felt a footstep. Adrenaline shot through my body. I was on high alert. I turned off my torch and listened. I couldn’t hear anybody to connect with the footstep. Another gust of wind, another footstep. I looked around. Sheer terror the only way to describe it. I didn’t feel alone, something didn’t feel right. I reached out to touch the nearest tree, and on the next gust, I felt the tree trembled, the vibration propagating through the soil. There was noone here, the wind was making the ground shake. Breathe.
As soon as I had my heart rate under control I decided to pitch my tarp, this would give me some shelter from the wind, some visual shelter from anyone mad enough to be walking the woods in these conditions, and would give me some sense of security. Here is where I discovered the slight downside of my chosen pitch. The trees didn’t lend themselves to a proper pitch. I thought about the options, I played them through in my mind, before deciding on pitching my tarp with the ridge along the short axis, in an open sided lean to. There wouldn’t be much room, the gap between the trees on this axis was barely more than the width of the tarp, but if would do.
I ended up with a ridge line in a triangular config round three trees with the tarp in a sort of open sided lean to arrangement. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do to get me going. I sat under the tarp slightly out of the wind and thought what to do next. Fire.
I took the various bits of dead standing and birch bark I’d collected, and with my little folding saw processed it down until I had a pile of sticks varying in thickness from a couple of millimetres, upto thumb size. I filled the stove with sticks of various sizes, packed in some birch bark and added a lit tinder quik tab. At first I didn’t think it had caught, I was just about to light another when the flames started to grow. Success. I spent the next half hour feeding sticks into the fire, bathing in it’s warmth and glow. Alas when I looked away for a couple of minutes to make a sandwich, it seemed to die down and I needed to start again to get it going. It worked. Twice in one night. I fed twigs into the stove and nibbled on my dinner.
The wind was showing no signs of easing up and the tarp pitched the way it was, wasn’t giving me as much protection as I had hoped. I’d need to reconfigure it. I let the fire die down, and turned my eye to the shelter. In the end I dropped it down into a half open pyramid type lean to type setup. I lay down inside the shelter. The fabric of the tarp was just inches above my face. Hardly optimal. I was exhausted, it would have to do. I rolled out my bivvi bag, inflated my sleep mat, and crawled into my sleeping bag.
Various layers of heavily distilled essence of dinosaur stood between me and the elements. Gust after gust blew through the trees, with each a crescendo of white noise filled the air. Trees groaned, branches squeaked, the ground shook. Every so often the staccato crack of a branch giving way would break through the noise. I lay in my bivvi bag, nose inches from the tarp, my locator beacon clutched to my chest, listening. I have never been more terrified on a night out in the woods. Even when visited by wild boar and strange dogs.
Just as I started to drift off towards sleep, a gust picked up the corner of my tarp and blew it loose of it’s peg. I couldn’t leave it to flap in the wind all night, I’d have to leave the psychological safety of my cocoon. I took the opportunity to re do the pitch of the tarp so that it was slightly further down the ridge line, meaning that I was no longer falling out from the lower edge. I also took the opportunity to rig up a stick to try and lift the tarp off my face a bit. I crawled back into my bivvi bag and tried to sleep.
Not the best pitch I’ve ever done, but it protected me for the night.
I slept the fitful sleep of the hounded, every so often a large gust would shake the whole tarp, waking me up. Throughout the night the wind moved around so occasionally it blew into the front of the shelter, billowing it out like a parachute, at others it blew onto the lower angle, pinning the fabric against my body.
The view from my bivvi bag.
0700 came bringing with it my alarm. It was still dark, the wind still blew. I hit snooze. A grey dawn slowly broke across the forest. I hadn’t exactly slept well, and in my groggy state I hit snooze three more times. By 0900 my bladder was telling me it was time to get up, I was just about to hit snooze one more time when I heard the first drops of rain on the tarp. Sod it, time to move.
Venturing forth from my warm sleeping bag, I stood up and stretched. Looking out through the trees, I could see drizzle being blown by the wind. Sheltered in the stand of Yew trees, I hadn’t noticed this.
I broke camp in a matter of minutes. Using a 60L pack rather than my usual 30L meant I didn’t need the usual faff of cramming everything into small stuff sacks. It certainly sped up breaking camp. I shouldered my pack looked around to check I hadn’t left anything, then looked out of the trees into a clearing. Everything was blurry. Glasses. I swore. Loudly. My glasses were in the little zip pocket on my sleeping bag… in the bottom of my backpack, underneath everything else. I unpacked, found my glasses bent them back to the shape they should be, and repacked everything. Grrr.
Knowing of the ditch I had traversed in the dark the previous night, I took a slightly different route back to the path, this one was more direct, but steeper. As I did I found a couple of game trails, one of which had a mound covered in deer scat. I continued up the hill past mounds of white chalk. From a distance I wondered what they were, but as I got closer I realised they were the spoils from a badger set. I didn’t see any prints or scats from the badgers, but their excavations were visible throughout the rest of the day.
I rejoined the North Downs way and headed west for Wye. The path here was the best I’ve had on the North Downs Way so far, wide, and of a sort of compacted grit that made relatively easy going. In places the grit gave way to mud, and in this mud the hoof prints of deer stood out beautifully. Nearly every patch of mud I passed had clear deer sign in it.
I continued on for Wye. At one point I passed a information board and stopped to read it. The board explained that this was the first point on the Pilgrims way where you can see Canterbury Cathedral. Walking in the opposite direction, I never would have thought to look for it.
At the edge of the Kings wood the North Downs way hangs a left and heads down hill to Boughten-Lees, where it diverges, to either Wye or Farnham (eventually). Alas the sign saying this is missing at this point. I climbed over a stile into a field expecting a path to my left. No path. I pulled the map out and studied it. I’d gone wrong. I climbed back over the stile and retraced my steps 20 yards to a junction. Yep, this is it, or at least this is where the sign should be. I headed downhill.
The wide compacted grit path of the last 4km was replaced by eroded and polished chalk as I descended towards Wye. As I went I started to think about my route. By now my feet were more sore than they should be and I started to wonder if there was a shorter route to Wye. I looked a the map, and there seemed to be a path across fields that came out near the station. Deciding once again that discretion was the way forward. I left the North Downs Way, and headed across the relatively flat farmland. Out of the protection of the woods or hedgerows, here I got the full brunt of the wind and once again pulled my hood up to keep my ears and neck warm.
Crossing the Canterbury Road, I had just 2km to go to get to Wye. Alas the fields here are the flood plane of the River Stour, and the recent rain had water logged the soil. Large areas of the path where nothing more than bog that I gingerly stepped through, thinking carefully before placing each step. Twice the mud tried to steal my shoes. When not outright bog, the path was in places a polished clay that led to slipping and sliding. Fortunately I stayed on my feet.
Eventually with sore feet and aching legs I reached Wye,. I hobbled into the Tickled Trout for a well earned Roast Dinner and a pint of Ale.