By Gillian Smith, Backpacker’s Yonderlust Contributor
Regarded as the oldest County, a Kingdom in its own right since Saxon times and known as the ‘Garden of England’ first coined by King Henry VIII, Kent lies in the South East corner of Britain. Characterised by chalk down land which gives the cliffs of Dover their famous white colouring as Kent meets the English Channel and on a clear day the coast of France can been seen from these cliffs.
The Elham Valley way is a 32 mile walk from the coastal town of Hythe to the Internationally renowned cathedral City of Canterbury; Nestling in the heart of the Kent Countryside approximately halfway along this path is the historic village of Elham, just under a mile to the North is Elham Park and Covert Woods which is where I will start my walk today.
After a repeat performance from the ‘Beast from the East’ had brought Siberian like weather to the UK for a second time this year I was pleased to see the clouds thinning and parting as I set off from the car park in Covert woods, the snow which had blanketed the land earlier in the month had gone and today felt really Spring like. I planned to walk a circular route around the ancient woodlands, so with Canterbury ahead of me I took the right hand trail and up along a gentle incline through pine forest to where the incline levelled out and then into probably the oldest part of the wood, a place known as Collardsill Wood, the pine gently giving way to Beech, Birch and Oak.
The trail continues over the next valley to the hamlet of Breech with its famous Vineyard and Pottery, but I chose to remain in the wood again taking the right hand path which now resembled a small game trail that led me through this enchanted ancient woodland.
The cloud had cleared and sunlight filled the forest, too early for the leafy canopy to obscure, early woodland plants bathed in its light and I saw my first Bluebells of 2018!
Following the tiny path round for a mile or so led me to the Western edge of Covert Woods. This is where in September of last year I had been surprised by Britain’s only venomous snake the Adder, a young male, instantly recognisable by the jet black zig zag stripe down its back had slithered on the path 2-3 feet in front of me! I’m not sure who was more surprised, but with a loud warning hiss continued on his way into the bracken and heather.
I turned left now along a medieval trackway, past Dane Farm, the woodland giving way to open fields, sheep and long horn cattle grazing. Madams Wood was ahead of me and soon I was back into Birch woodland once again.
A small path forked to the left and I followed this down a steep bank that led to a small brook of crystal clear water, the bluebells were more abundant here, probably due to the sheltered steep valley and now mirrored the blue sky above.
This area forms the Park Gate Nature Reserve, with 12 species of rare orchid growing here. It was a steep climb up the other side of the valley and with buzzard’s circling in the air above me, punctuating my journey with their shrill calls I made my way along a muddy trail to 3 ancient Tumuli round Barrows, these late Neolithic to early Bronze age Burial mounds date to around 3000BC. Nestled in a grove of Western Hemlock and Douglas Fir these Barrows could easily be missed yet are the remains of some of the first inhabitants of the area where communities occupied elevated prime spots to set up farmsteads and control trade in goods with the continent of Europe. Many artefacts such as axe heads have been found on these elevated slopes around Elham.
The path narrows again then meets with the forestry road heading East and back towards Covert Wood, on my left and hardly noticeable is a small gap in the Ash and Fir trees, so small it forms a tunnel just large enough for one person to fit and about ¾ of a mile down this path and by a small forgotten pond is the ‘Lovers Oak’ an ancient Oak leaning over the pond, its bark forming a heart shape, many names have been carved in this over the years so old they are illegible now, but legend has it that if you are of pure intent, place your hand on the heart and wish. Within a year and a day you will find your true love, if you have already found your true love then that love will be unbreakable, undying eternal love.
Back on the forestry road I head across the valley, accompanied by male pheasant strutting around their territory as they do this time of year. As I leave Elham Park Wood and Cross back into Covert Wood the boundary is marked by a Medieval boundary ditch and wall with ancient Horn beam growing in twisted shapes, this boundary was constructed in the 1340’s by the then Lord of Elham Manner Willian de Clinton, of Norman descent to enclose the area as a deer park for hunting.
Picking up the trail once again, I follow it through Fir and Beech trees with sun lit glades of wood sorrel and sage, the smell of wild garlic announcing to my nose that spring is finally here.
I decided to spend the night at the far end of the forest; choosing an elevated piece of ground, fairly flat and overlooking the Elham valley this would be my home for the night. I was eager to try out my new tarp a DD 4X4. After a little time adjusting the pegs and using my trekking poles as supports I had fashioned a classic tarp tent structure. I was very impressed by the space I had compared to other smaller tarps I’ve used in the past. I had plenty of room, for me, my kit and to stretch out with space for administration too! The material of the tarp is strong yet light with reinforced attachment points and the coyote brown colour blended in well with the surroundings, ideal for a stealth wild camp.
I managed to find enough dry wood that would catch a spark from my Ferro rod, using my stick stove heated a Wayfarer meal and berry tea just before it started to rain.
I settled down to sleep listening to the soporific sound of raindrops interrupted by barking of Muntjac deer.
It had been a baptism of fire for my tarp, it had rained all night yet had kept me dry, I was pleased and impressed by this tarp, the open front meant no condensation, yet it was large enough to sleep well back and the rain to not blow in.
I packed up and headed off, sheltering under a fallen fir tree, using an old log as a table to prepare a coffee, then a short walk back through the Forrest to my car.
After a lovely couple of days exploring the woodland around Elham, I returned through the village itself, down the High Street flanked by rows of cottages, ahead of the village primary school whose famous alumni consist of Les Ames the English cricketer and the actress Audrey Hepburn. I decided to stop at the local Public house, built in 1614 the ‘Abbots Fireside’ a fine Tudor wood bracketed building, used by the Duke of Wellington as his headquarters in the Napoleonic Wars; I opted for glass of English ale, Sheppard’s Neam, made from the local hops . With that I toasted my wild and historic Kent adventure.