“We’ll be walking all day, probably eighteen to twenty miles,” I said.
She looked at me as if I had suggested I was considering stapling my tongue to the wall.
“It’s going to rain,” she said.
“All the better. It will make the pub lunch so much more enjoyable.”
I then sought to explain that I had planned the Kentish country walk around a specific village pub, which has its own brewery. To Nicola, beer is beer, so it was hard to share my excitement at the prospect of walking all morning in the rain to reach a pub serving six real ales that can be found nowhere else. To her, that was like making a long journey to buy postage stamps in a distant post office, because they might have different pictures on them.
So I struggled to convince her I wasn’t just wasting my day. And it was only the next morning, as Jerry and I walked away from the town of Tonbridge, following the river Medway, that I appreciated exactly what it was about a day hiking in Kent that gave me so much joy.
It isn’t so much what you do and see when you leave the city to walk in the countryside. It’s what you stop doing.
As we walked through the wet grass beside a river with a surface as still and smooth as polished glass I could feel everything slipping away behind me: no email, no time-wasting meetings, no crowded commuter trains to work; all the things that normally crowd in on you and squeeze out the thoughts and feelings that are truly your own. Everything that seemed important and pressing on Thursday afternoon faded away. Ahead of us were unbroken miles of damp fields and hills and a steady rhythm of boot on muddy path that step by step eased us out of the cluttered landscape of our everyday lives and into a more spacious and empty world of whispering trees and secretive muddy river.
And rain. I can’t escape mentioning the rain. The forecast was for light rain from about two in the afternoon, getting heavier as the afternoon went on. The forecast, you will not be shocked to hear, got it a little wrong. Around mid-morning it began to rain in that peculiarly English way; apologetically, timidly, tiny flecks of moisture in the air only a few degrees up from mist. For a long time it hardly felt worth the bother of stopping to retrieve waterproof jackets from backpacks, but over the next couple of hours the rain thickened slyly, conspiratorially, until we began to get seriously wet. We got lost for a while around noon, which made us a bit later reaching the pub than we’d planned.
By the time we walked into the excellent Swan on the Green, in the village of West Peckham, rain was dripping from our hair and I had discovered that my boots were not unambiguously waterproof. Which made our omelette and olives and cibatta bread – not to mention the two pints of the Swan’s own beer – that much more welcome.
So welcome that we maybe stayed longer than we should, encouraged to sip our beer and read the newspaper by the steadily growing weight of the rain visible through the window.
And it rained pretty much the whole of the afternoon, as we trekked, increasingly leg-weary, west into Sevenoaks. We missed our train by minutes and had to hang around the sterile hanger of Sevenoaks rail station for a bit too long. But none of that could dent the sense of satisfaction and peace that we had built up by the end of our nearly twenty mile hike (which was a bit too long, but there you go). All the stuff that was oppressing me at work the day before melted into the drizzle and sank into the muddy path behind me.
So if you feel too busy at work, stressed and overloaded, if your mind feels too cluttered with too much to worry about or think about, running faster on the treadmill doesn’t work. Sometimes you need to step off it and let all that crap fall away. Go for a wet walk in the Garden of England (or anywhere else that’s green and quiet). Always works for me.
Postscript: my absolute favourite sight of the day was this tree alone in a field near the Medway.
As we were walking past, we couldn’t help noticing that it had a couple of notices pinned to it. These could not be read from the path. Intrigued what they might say, we took a detour off the path and up to the tree to check them out.
Naturally, we would not have gone anywhere near the tree if it hadn’t been for the notice on it!