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Peace and quiet on Kent's warpath

Stephen Goodwin follows a trail opened after a revolt against the lord of the manor

Sevenoaks as a hotbed of militant ramblers? Surely not. The Kentish town is archetypal stockbroker belt: leafy suburbia dotted with villas and paddocks. Even the Blair landslide of 1997 failed to make any significant dent in its Tory mindset.

Sevenoaks as a hotbed of militant ramblers? Surely not. The Kentish town is archetypal stockbroker belt: leafy suburbia dotted with villas and paddocks. Even the Blair landslide of 1997 failed to make any significant dent in its Tory mindset.

It is hard to believe that more than 1,000 people once marched here to save their favourite footpaths from closure by the local baron. They not only marched but broke down barriers with picks and hammers and dumped the broken posts at the door of Knole House, home of Lord Sackville.

I doubt you could raise such passions in Sevenoaks today, certainly not over a footpath. The direct action to preserve public paths across the Sackvilles' 1,000-acre Knole Park estate took place in 1884 and seems to have bordered on farce - men dressed as women pushed prams along the threatened tracks. Knole abuts the town and its paths were popular with mothers and infants.

Several of the cross-dressers were prosecuted for trespass. Today, though, the public has unfettered access to the park on foot. And while the 1930s mass trespasses in the Peak District are celebrated as a "right to roam" milestone, the direct action in Knole is largely forgotten and uncommemorated, even in Sevenoaks. It's as if the town would prefer not to be reminded of this militant aberration.

At least the Surgeon, my walking companion, and I said a belated "thank you" to the 1884 activists as we strolled across Knole's glorious deer park at the end of a 13-mile summer walk through Kentish orchards and along the wooded Greensand ridge.

Knole House, built in 1456 by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, enlarged by Henry VIII and given by Elizabeth I to her cousin Thomas Sackville, is now in the hands of the National Trust. The Sackvilles still inhabit some of the palace's 365 rooms and manage the park with its herds of fallow deer.

The scene could hardly have been more tranquil as we passed the house. The gabled west front with its gatehouse tower is built of local ragstone and takes on a honey hue in the evening sun. A party of stags, new antlers still covered in felty skin, were grazing by the palace wall. But despite the park's proximity to the town, there was virtually nobody about. Perhaps it was because it was Monday and those Sevenoaks folk who had missed out on August in Tuscany were not back from City offices. If so, we rejoiced.

Our choice of a weekday for this Kentish excursion had been deliberate. It is undoubtedly a "walk for all seasons" but pick the right day in high summer and it can be an almost sinful indulgence. The Garden of England becomes languid in the heat, there's a heady aroma of sun-baked wheat stubble and the route is punctuated by real-ale pubs. It is so much better enjoyed while everyone else is hard at work.

Importantly, it is a walk that can be done in a day's outing from anywhere in greater London using public transport. We caught the 9.30am train from Charing Cross, started walking an hour later from Yalding, by the river Medway; strode, drank and dawdled our way to Sevenoaks station and were back in west London in plenty of time for a curry. The Surgeon, for whom Monday usually means endless clinics, kept chuckling over the unreality of it all. The kind of holiday escape he pays hundreds of pounds for had been telescoped into one day in hitherto unknown countryside virtually on his doorstep.

Most of our route followed a section of the Greensand Way - a 108-mile long-distance path from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet, not far from the Kent coast. Well-signed in Kent with a distinctive "oast house" logo, the Way was devised by local members of the Ramblers' Association and completed in 1989. For much of its length it runs along Greensand ridge, a wooded, sandstone escarpment.

Yalding station seems, at first sight, an inauspicious start. Crossing the station footbridge you skirt Zeneca agrochemicals works, pipes spanning the road, and follow a path hemmed between the factory and a canal. But after re-crossing the railway on foot-boards the scene is transformed. Ahead lie cornfields and pastures, rising through orchards to low hills.

And of course there are oast houses topped by cowls - funnels to let through the warm summer air and dry hops ready for beer-making. The buildings are quintessential Kent, though most seem to have been converted to Country Living-style homes. Hop vines are part of a fecund panorama from the steps of St Michael's Church, 2.5 miles along our way. The church itself stands forlorn on a hill, abandoned by the village of East Peckham which decamped centuries ago to the banks of the Medway.

The Surgeon and I slipped easily from musing on a landscape of oast houses and hops to thoughts of refreshment. The Swan at West Peckham met our needs to perfection. It presides at a lane's end, overlooking a village green complete with cricket pitch, a fruit farm to one side and a Saxon church to the other.

Last spring the pub was taken over by a herbs and spices importer and a management consultant, both looking for a life change. False beams and brewers' Victoriana have been banished, the menu brought into the 21st century and a micro-brewery opened behind the pub.

A pint of Trumpeter Best bitter was followed by a plate of English cheeses - try Hereford Hop - and then another Trumpeter. Back on the trail, any breeze had died, the air along the field edges had a woozy softness and woodpigeons seemed intent on coo-cooing us into some hedgerow sleep.

English history slumbers here. The Knights of St John of Jerusalem provided aid and hospitality at West Peckham until suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540. Roydon Hall, which we had passed, was once the home of Sir Roger Twysden, an ardent Royalist imprisoned in a hulk on the Thames during the Civil War. And Fairlawne, a little further along, lost a lord to the Parliamentarian cause. Samuel Pepys witnessed his execution on Tower Hill.

As a bell in St Giles Church by Shipbourne common tolled four o'clock, the Surgeon and I were on the veranda of The Chaser sampling a pint of Harvey's hoppy Sussex bitter. Two horses idled at the other end of the veranda while their braying riders lolled at a bench, discussing the merits, or otherwise, of their misguided suitors.

The Way leaves Shipbourne through a gate behind the church and crosses the fields and woodland of the Fairlawne estate to Ightham Mote, an early 14th century manor house surrounded by still water. When I first visited the house 20 years ago it was a dilapidated jewel with an aged owner in a Sussex nursing home. Since then it has been taken over and merchandised by the National Trust.

The three miles from Ightham to Knole are a treat, following the sharp escarpment of Greensand ridge with wide views across the Weald. It is almost cliff-like in places with sandstone boulders bursting through. Perversely, the grubby rock doesn't look like sandstone and certainly isn't green.

We parted company with the main Greensand Way just inside Knole Park. It headed off to Surrey while we crossed the park where Sevenoaks flirted with militancy and made for the station. A commuter train was just disgorging a regiment of sweaty suits - and the Surgeon chuckled again.

Getting thereBy rail from Charing Cross or Waterloo East. Return from Sevenoaks station (tel: 0345 484950).

The hikeYalding station, walk by chemical works to join signed Greensand Way alongside canal; Nettlestead Green, West Peckham, Shipbourne, Ightham Mote, fine ridge walk via One Tree Hill to Knole Park; by

Knole House to Sevenoaks; down London Road to station. Approximate distance: 13 miles.

What to see and doKnole House (tel: 01732 350608) and Ightham Mote (tel: 01732 811145) are worth visiting.

The Swan on the Green, West Peckham (tel: 01622 812271)

The Chaser, Shipbourne (tel: 01732 810360).

GuidesThe excellent 'Along and Around the Greensand Way' costs £7.95.

Further informationSevenoaks tourist information centre (tel: 01732 450305).