Sunday, May 31

Shoeburyness to Benfleet by bike

What better way to spend a rather grey bank holiday than cycling along the Essex coast? Yes I know it might sound a bit underwhelming but I'm getting a bit of a soft spot for the northern side of the Thames estuary, a bit like the southern side took a while to grow on me.

With Jon's home being close to the Shoeburyness line we've been out to Leigh on Sea and Benfleet a couple of times for walks, but this time we loaded up the bikes on the train with the intention of exploring a few more miles than usual.

Our plan had been to explore the wonderfully-named Foulness Island but this was abruptly stymied by the fact that the majority of it is fenced off for use by the military, something that wasn't clear from the rather old map I was referring to. We'd been aiming for a pub that was marked on the map in the settlement of Churchend but had to be content with a stretch of beautifully smooth asphalt road through the firing range - open on weekends and bank holidays - that took us down to a typically muddy and mostly deserted expanse of beach. 

I'd already taken this photo before reading the sign about how photography was prohibited, but there didn't seem to be anyone around to mind.

Apparently you can get access into the restricted area once a month to visit the Foulness Heritage Centre - might plan to do so just for curiosity's sake.

Further back in Shoeburyness we happened upon these lovely modern beach huts designed by Islington architect Pedder & Scampton - one's currently for sale at £30k but they do have fitted kitchens! They are made of timber frames clad with plastic sheets that are then infilled with pebbles and shells, and have grass roofs.

Much further along the coast, having survived the seafront at Southend where footy fans were lining the promenade in anticipation of cheering their local team which had secured an unexpected and last-minute promotion, we settled down at Osborne Brother's in Leigh on Sea for a seafood feast. Every bit of it was delicious but the rollmops won the day for me.

We also did a detour to Canvey Island just for the hell of it - notable as having the best beach of the day, presumably imported sand and lucky to have the sea even when the tide is low, due to being in the middle of the estuary. 

The Labworth Cafe on the seafront was very disappointing, having been badly refurbished and looking sad and deserted. The din issuing from the band playing outside the Monico Hotel on the seafront did not help. I'm assured there is a good pub on the island - this one presumably - but we fled the place without seeking it out and took the train back for liquid refreshment closer to home.

Thursday, May 21

North Downs Way - Oxted to Maidstone

Our North Downs Way walking has seen quite a few contrasts, and the two sections described below could not have been more different - although to be fair, mostly because they were several months apart! 

We'd planned in advance that we would do our third foray, from Oxted to Otford, on 4 January - one year exactly since the day we first met. So even though the weather did not promise good things, we decided that we should plough on regardless.

And that was pretty much what happened. 

All we saw all day was fog, ghostly trees, occasionally other walkers, and right on the border between Kent and Sussex, a massive shit load of fly tipping that almost blocked the lane. A few hundred yards further on there was a big sign warning of the penalties for fly tipping.

We'd been slightly concerned about pub options - it not being a great day for a picnic - but this was the most successful part of the day. We stumbled on the Tally Ho Pub, which despite all appearances of being a bit grim, served up huge portions of steak & kidney pudding, and Sunday roast to us chilled and hungry souls.

Then it was back to the gloom and the trees, the only benefit being that the mist damped down the sound of the traffic on the motorway a bit. We trudged our way towards Otford. Probably not the most auspicious way to celebrate our first year!

The most recent North Downs Way walk took place last weekend, and it could not have been more of a contrast! We planned to walk from Otford to Hollingbourne, although we only made it as far as Maidstone on the second day, due to a cock-up on the planning front (too much attention focused on the 15.5 miles of the first day and not enough on the 17.5 miles of the second day, which we'd somehow thought was half the length!).

It was glorious walking weather the whole weekend, and even the fact that it was the start of the hay fever season for Jon, not to mention being assaulted by his hay fever nemesis Oilseed Rape every other field, it could not bring down our spirits.

This field was particularly trying. Luckily the drugs were working by then.

On the first day we had our lunch at Wrotham, a pleasant little village near Sevenoaks which is either plagued by serious crime or full of paranoid anguish - I have never seen so many CCTV cameras in such a small area of public space. Even the children's playground had cameras at each end. Big brother is definitely watching the people of Wrotham parish.

Our bed & breakfast accommodation - the North Downs Barn in Cuxton - could not have been better, which helped counterbalance the fact that Cuxton's only pub is pretty rank. We had a couple of pints of mediocre Shepherd Neame beer to wash down our mediocre food, then bought chocolate and ice cream from the Coop on the way home to take away the taste of the beer.

North Downs Barn
Sunday the weather was just as glorious - we'd planned to come back via Hollingbourne or Bearsted rail stations, but when we realised it was 17.5 miles rather than the 8 or 10 we'd anticipated, that idea got knocked on the head very quickly! It was just as well we did; when we arrived at Maidstone we found that the trains were all delayed due to someone on the line near Bearsted, so at least we missed getting stranded.

Next section I'm looking forward to getting away from the bloody motorways, which also dominated the route today. It will be quite a novelty to have some real peace and quiet for walking.