WALKING: Travelling back to the future in Kent: This week, Roy Woodcock completes his coast-to-coast journey across southern England

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FROM Salisbury, the onward route leads to Winchester, linking two cathedral cities by 27 miles of a recognised long-distance footpath called Clarendon Way. The name is taken from the medieval palace just outside Salisbury on top of a chalk hill, now covered in woodland.

Once a hunting lodge for Norman kings, it became a huge palace in the days of Henry II. It was here that he held a council of bishops and barons over relations between church and Crown, which eventually led to the death of Thomas a Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Clarendon Way passes the villages of Pitton and Winterslow, homes of country writer Ralph Whitlock and essayist William Hazlitt respectively. At Broughton, three miles further along and just in Hampshire, the churchyard contains a famous dovecote dating from 1340. Up to 482 pairs could live in this dovecote, providing almost four tons of meat, to give a constant supply of fresh food throughout most of the year.

We walked on through fields and around the edge of the Farley Mount Country Park, to reach the outskirts of Winchester in the district of Oliver's Battery. This was named after Oliver Cromwell, who threatened the city from this hillside, and succeeded in obtaining its surrender.

The cathedral, the college, and Wolvesey Palace are some of the most magnificent buildings in the city, but one of the most interesting is the Hospital of St Cross. Founded in the 12th century as a charitable organisation, it has preserved its tradition of the Wayfarer's Dole, whereby any traveller can request - and will be given - a small glass of beer and a thin slice of bread.

Winchester was a former capital of England and has many links with the royal families, notably King Alfred, whose statue stands at the east end of the High Street. Another important figure in Winchester's history is William Walker, a diver, who saved Winchester Cathedral. It had had been built in a bog on a raft of logs which was decaying, and by 1900 the cathedral was sinking. William Walker worked for five years in black water, removing the rotting wood to enable the building to be underpinned by concrete.

We left Winchester alongside St Catherines Hill, an Iron Age fort with a small maze on the top and a nature reserve around the slopes. The most modern battlefield of Winchester is here, as this is Twyford Down where the M3 extension contractors encountered conservationists protecting the downland.

The South Downs and North Downs both start from the mass of chalk near Winchester, and this route followed the South Downs Way for a short distance, before moving past Hinton Ampner House towards Selborne and Chawton. This is the heart of the literary section of the walk. Jane Austen died in Winchester, the Domesday Book was written there, and John Keats wrote his 'Ode to Autumn' while visiting the town.

We entered Surrey just before Farnham, with its castle and theatre as well as the real beginning of the North Downs Way leading to Canterbury and Dover. The noise and sight of the M25 became constant companions for a few miles, as we passed Reigate and Merstham, then entered Kent near Westerham. Here the chalk outcrop becomes wider, and although hops and orchards are not as common as in the past, peaceful farmland and picturesque villages remain.

Shortly after the village of Wrotham, we passed close to the Coldrum Stones, a Neolithic burial chamber. Then the path made a large detour northwards to cross over the river Medway by means of the M2 bridge. We turned back south again beyond this river, to pass Detling, Harrietsham and Charing on the way to Canterbury.

At Boughton Lees, one of many delightful villages which still has its cricket pitch on the green, the North Downs Way splits, but as true pilgrims, we forked left and headed for Canterbury. The cathedral is perhaps the most impressive building on the entire walk.

Beyond Canterbury, the walk leads across more farmland to complete the 305-mile route to Dover. Walk up to the Western Heights, where fortresses and gun emplacements are on a much larger scale than at Brean Down, where we started. William Cobbett visited Kent in 1823, and estimated that these fortifications contained enough bricks to build a cottage for every labourer in Kent and Sussex.

These days, the defences are no more than an interesting museum piece. From the cliff-top you can see into the harbour, still important for ferry traffic, despite the entrance to the Channel tunnel a couple of miles to the west. We looked across at Europe and our future, a fitting finale to the walk which has taken us through so much British history.

(Photograph omitted)