Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The North Downs Way

Since spreading the maps on my parents' dining room table, early in our visit, I had wanted to run to Deal from my parents' home in Canterbury via the North Downs Way. My first attempt didn't get out of bed due to jet lag. With a busy holiday schedule, New Year's Day was going to be the last and only chance to get it done.

Much of the North Downs Way has been used for centuries as a pilgrimage route to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. It currently covers 153 miles west to east from Farnham, on the Surrey/Hampshire border, to the famed port town of Dover in Kent, via Canterbury. My route would cover 17/18 miles of the trail, with a detour to Deal.

True to form, I managed to lose the trail a couple of times even though I had a very detailed photocopied ordinance survey map of the route with me on the run.

The trail took me through Canterbury, past the Cathedral, to the picturesque village of Patrixbourne by way of a paved bike trail. Once in the village I made a premature left, which resulted in my first wrong turn of the day. After having run on tight country roads from the village for approximately 20 minutes, I was beginning to get that sneaking feeling I was heading in the wrong direction. After consulting the map at an intersection with named roads, I was able to confirm my fears and set about righting them by heading to Gypsy Cottage (a random house named on the map), where I would make a right to reconnect with the trail close to the busy A2 motorway.

Once back on the trail, I realised that I would have to step up the pace if I was going to come anywhere close to making my arranged rendez-vous with my dad, who had kindly agreed to meet me at Deal Pier at noon. Any more wrong turns, I surmised, would ensure a tardy finish to the run.

The trail took me across numerous farmers' fields, most of which made for tough going and heavy mud-laden shoes: not ideal conditions for moving efficiently and quickly. But they offered great views of the Kent countryside, while also offering rolling hills and glimpses of Kentish wildlife. I saw four or five red foxes, in addition to flocks of game birds. I also heard many farmers out hunting and saw evidence in the form of dead rabbits and game feathers. Having just eaten a delicious pheasant meal the night before I was envious of those bagging birds for the dining table.

The trail continued through more picturesque Kentish villages, with names and thatched roofs from an entirely different era: Womenswold , Wollage Village and Sheperdswell to name a few. I also passed Waldershare House, a megalithic stately home which was once apparently the seat of the Earl of Guilford. A quick Google search suggests it has since been cut up into apartments, a three-bedroom version of which is going for 450k (pounds).

A few miles past Waldershare House I reached the small village of Ashley, and after a time-check realised that I was going to have to take roads to Deal or risk being very late for my pick-up. Inexplicably I mistook Ashley for a different village when I consulted my map and headed off in entirely the wrong direction. It wasn't until I reached the A2 a mile or two later that I realised my mistake, which was confirmed when I stopped a lady to ask for directions to Deal. She laughed at me and told me to turn around and go back the way I had come. It was now a certainty that I would not make Deal Pier on time.

By the time I got to East Studdal, running past a pay phone, I made the decision to bag the run and call home to my mom to ask if she could call my dad and ask him to come pick me up. However, nobody was home and I realised that everyone had probably joined my dad in coming to pick me up. By this time it was about 12:20 and I had four and half miles to Deal, according to a road sign in the village. I put my head down and raced the roads on tired legs, finally reaching Deal Pier at 12:50. Thankfully, my cold family, including Dana and Alistair, were there waiting.

A fine start to the New Year. One of my goals for 2009 is to significantly reduce the number of times I get lost on the trail.


  1. Hi Nick,

    Great post. I just found your site after searching for friends results in Barr Trail this year. You were probably running close to them as they got 8th and 16th. I am from Deal but now living in Longmont and working in Boulder so liked to see your England connection here too. They always did make some great, tough trail runners. Congrats on WS and good luck for the rest of the year.

  2. David - thanks for the note. I was actually following Tom Zirbel the whole way up yesterday. Looks like he took it easy on the way down though. Tough break for him with all the BS he's gone through recently. I don't have a great deal of sympathy for the dopers in bike racing, but Tom is one of the few that I believe has been dealt a raw deal. He had a fat smile on his face as he finished, which was pretty cool to see, as he quite clearly enjoys being out and competing whether finishing first or 16th.

    I'd never heard of Tate before, but he clearly had a very solid run.

    Incidentally, I finished a few seconds behind Martin Cox who is also from the UK and has been out training in Boulder for the last couple of months.