Monday, 22 December 2014

North Downs Night Walk

How did I celebrate the winter solstice this year?

With a night hike, of course!

After spending a weekend in Cornwall and Dartmoor (which I still can't be arsed to write about) I took advantage of clear skies and a full moon for to get my night-legs on- the mood reflecting off the water meant sleep was not an option, along with roommates that sounded like they were sawing a fence in two.  I do love the idea of night hiking- the quiet, the endless privacy, all the creatures that come out once the sun is down.  My love of walking doesn't really gel with the tiny amount of daylight this time of year.

A plan was made.  After being up way too late and eating way too much the night before (thanks, Christmas!) I got a relaxed late start to walking a lonely 16 mile stretch of the North Downs through Kent from Otford to Cuxton.  Normally, I would be horrified at the idea of finishing a hike in darkness, but with a new braveness, I packed a torch and powered up and down the steep, rolling downland and quiet forested paths.

For a trail so well-traveled for centuries and so very close to London, I rarely see anyone on it.  A dog walker here and there. Newland's Corner and Box Hill are both kind of packed, but once you get out of the car parks, you are by yourself on the outskirts of 8.3 million people.

I didn't even break for lunch- it wasn't terribly cold, but cold enough that the chill set in if I lingered.  As the woods darkened under clouds and the sun disappeared to usher in the longest night of the year, a beautiful stillness took over.

The sounds of owls calling greeted the dark, along with the loud squawks of pheasants roosting in the trees and their panicked flights to a safer patch of trees than one invaded by me.  But the owls!  I love them only because they are so elusive- I see them rarely, so hearing them is always thrilling for me, and hearing them in the quiet woods outside of London was even more fun.

Oh, and it never really got truly dark in the open...I could see the eerie pink glow of London illuminating the clouds in front of me, and the city of Rochester lit up the other direction.  The woods were proper dark though.  One foot in front of the other, I slowly made my way through mud and over tree roots.

I used my torch rarely- to check to make sure the way-marks were being read correctly, and to check my compass.  Going through fields proved challenging as it was easy to lose the trail, so I would find a spot on the horizon that lined up with the compass and follow it until a fence was hit.  It's hiking in England!  I was more concerned about having a torch so that cars could see me if I did a stretch along the roadside, which I did.  The one time I did lose the trail in woods, the crunch of deep leaves underfoot alerted me to the fact that I was on A trail, but not THE trail, and I was quickly able to correct (rather than take a more direct route to the train station, it turned out).

In the end:  success.  I found a pub (!) and while waiting for the train back to London, I had myself a glass of wine and some chicken liver pate to celebrate my newly found night vision.  I was exhausted.  16 miles with a couple steep climbs and I was knackered, and the last four miles were in the dark and by far the slowest I've walked in a while, but I found the concentration needed on a moonless night taxing as well as I had to really look for every step.  In total, it took me 6 hours and 20 minutes from station to station, which isn't bad time at all on a muddy winter trail, and a happy peaceful walk is the anecdote to a plethora of seasonal maladies.

Hope you had a fantastic solstice, and enjoy the return of the sun.  Oh, unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case: enjoy the waning daylight, suckers!


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