Exploring Kent by bicycle in the Fifties

By Brian Hudson

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Exploring Kent by bicycle in the Fifties

At the age of 11 or 12, I became the proud owner of a bicycle, and was soon cycling round the familiar streets of St Mary Cray where I lived. It wasn’t long before I started getting more adventurous, and in the company of the boy who lived next door, I went on my first bicycle excursion into the country. He had already done the ride to Shoreham, a North Downs village in the valley of the Darent, and I was excited by his description of the place with its river and its ‘Cross on the Hill’, a huge war memorial symbol cut into the chalk hillside above the village.


The Darent Valley

It was a sunny day when we set off and, steadily pedalling up the northern slopes of the Downs, we soon left behind the suburban sprawl of Orpington. At Chelsfield village it felt like real country. Beyond, the narrow road was sunk between high hedgerows, below which grew a variety of colourful spring flowers. The road wound between fields and woods until we reached the top of a steep hill. There we turned off onto a side track along a hillside that soon led to a place above the ‘Cross on the Hill’. Here we enjoyed a fine view of Shoreham nestled picturesquely in its valley. A steep field path took us down to the village and the old bridge over the Darent, a river with which I was soon to become very familiar both here at Shoreham and at Eynsford, another village further down the valley.

Between the two villages was Lullingstone Castle which then housed a silk farm. Nearby was the site of a Roman villa, and I made use of the new mobility that my bicycle gave me to watch the early progress of an archaeological excavation begun there in 1949. The chief wonder of the place was a mosaic pavement depicting mythological scenes and three of the four seasons, the fourth having been destroyed.


Lullingstone Castle

Another sunny day, a friend and I cycled to Gravesend on the Thames below London. The trip was a revelation. In my mind, Kent was gently rolling countryside with quaint little villages and towns, merging with London’s suburban sprawl in the northwest of the county. Industry mainly took the form of anonymous looking modern factories, making things such as electric irons and telephones, like those that lined the Cray bypass road near my home. But the industrial landscape between Dartford and Gravesend was very different from that.

Here, on the south bank of the Thames, the terrain was deeply pockmarked with chalk and clay pits associated with the cement works that dominated much of the scene. Land and buildings all around were coated with fine white dust that hung in the dry air, diffusing the sunlight. Other industries, too,

occupied the low-lying strip of land between the main road and the river, paper mills being prominent among them. At a couple of elevated places along the road, we gained particularly good views of the Thames which was crowded with sailing barges, their sails red and brown, with the occasional green.

The sight was as beautiful as it was unexpected. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Thames sailing barges were still so common on the river. Reflecting on this in later years, I concluded that perhaps my cycle trip had coincided with one of the annual Thames Barge Races that brought together sailing vessels from all over, creating the now rare sight of a river filled with lovingly preserved wooden boats in full sail.

Many of my cycle trips were into the North Downs. This chalk ridge has a gentle north slope with a pattern of fields and trees that could be seen extending to the horizon when viewed from St Mary Cray Station. Most of my rides started with the long pull up this gentle rise which was usually followed by a short, steep descent down the southern scarp face of the Downs. Polhill, on the A21 was one such place, Westerham Hill another. Rides beyond, to places such as Tonbridge, Penshurst, Chiddingstone and Hever, involved traversing another ridge, of greensand, not chalk, but with an asymmetry similar to that of the downs to the north. This meant that on the ride home I was faced with two steep ascents, each followed by a relatively long, gentler descent. After a hard day in the saddle, it was good to put the Polhill climb behind me and, with gravity to help, swoop down the Orpington bypass road into St Mary Cray, where my mother would feed her weary, hungry son.

Following the pilgrims

On many of my excursions I crossed the ancient track known as the Pilgrims’ Way, which follows the foot of the steep southern face of the North Downs. Traditionally, it is a route taken by pilgrims travelling to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. One day I decided to cycle along part of this old road, some sections of which are metalled, others just tracks beaten across the fields. Joining the Pilgrims’ Way at Otford in the Darent Valley, I followed it eastwards to Wrotham, a distance of about five miles. The minor road at the start soon narrowed into a country lane, which in turn became an unmetalled track between fields and orchards. Here, the surface of the ground was beaten hard by the passage of innumerable travellers over many centuries, and I thought about all the people who had passed that way in times past.

My reverie was disturbed by evidence of a contemporary occurrence, a 20th century plague that was afflicting Britain’s large rabbit population with slow and painful death. In the news I had read and heard much about myxomatosis, and I had already encountered dead and dying rabbits on my cycle rides in Kent. Flattened rabbit corpses were common on the roads and dying animals hopped painfully out of the way of my bicycle as I pedalled through the Kentish countryside. Here on the hard beaten ground of an unfrequented part of the Pilgrims’ Way I saw an afflicted rabbit, not yet dead, but too sick to move away.

I looked with pity at the immobile creature. Its heaving sides showed that it was still breathing, its head monstrously swollen by a disease that was killing it with cruel slowness. I felt that, to cut short its suffering, I should kill the animal there and then. But how? I could not bring myself to stomp on its head. Anyway, my footwear, appropriate for cycling, was not suitable for killing rabbits. I looked around and found a small piece of a branch that had fallen from a tree.

With great effort to overcome my distaste for the task, I eventually tried to bash the dying rabbit’s swollen head with my improvised weapon of mercy. After one or two blows, the rotten piece of wood broke

and the rabbit remained alive. I continued on my way, feeling guilty that I had not succeeded in ending the poor animal’s suffering.

Adventure and mis-adventure!

Most of my cycling was done for the pleasure of seeing the countryside and visiting places of interest, such as quaint villages, old churches, historic castles, stately homes and the like, which abound in west Kent. Other

trips, however, were undertaken in order to indulge in some special activity, such as catching minnows in the Darent at Shoreham or canoeing on the Medway at Tonbridge. There was also a time when friends and I used to cycle to a disused sand pit near Sevenoaks, where the attractions were the abandoned railway track and rusting wagons.

We managed to lift one wagon, or at least the base of one, complete with four small iron wheels, onto the track, and push it up a gentle incline. Then we all piled on and, holding tight to our gravity propelled metal chariot, sped down the rusty track to the bottom of the incline. At the end of the short line was a mass of old machinery and we all had to jump off the wagon before its short journey came to a crashing end.

Time and time again we lifted the wagon back onto the track, pushed it up the incline and enjoyed the thrilling short rail ride with its last moment leap to safety. Sometimes, however, the wagon derailed before it reached the bottom. Part way down there was a set of points on the track, and if this was not properly set, the wagon would either go down a spur to the left or derail. Shortly after the start of one ride, the wagon came to an abrupt stop as it left the rails at the points and we were all hurled from our precarious perches – but I was the only one to come to grief.

I felt a sudden sharp pain in my ankle and I feared that my foot had been crushed under a wheel. As the foot began to swell, I suspected that bones may have been broken, but despite the pain, I managed to limp along behind my companions who found the whole thing highly amusing. Soon it was time to return home, and I dreaded the thought of cycling back over the hills with my foot painfully swollen. Nevertheless, that is what I did, and I got home without further problems. When I took off my shoes, I could see that my swollen foot was badly bruised but no bones had been broken. My mother filled an enamel bowl with cold water in which I bathed my aching foot, a treatment that eased the pain and swelling. I walked with a limp for the rest of that day, but there was nothing much wrong with my foot the next morning after a good night’s sleep.

Most of my cycle trips into the country were day or afternoon excursions. More often than not I went alone, using the weekends or school holidays to escape into rural Kent. Only rarely did these trips take me over the Kentish border, but one of them, a ride to Bodiam and Hastings, Sussex, was particularly memorable. Bodiam Castle is familiar to many cinema goers as a favourite location for historical films set in the Middle Ages. Externally, it is picture perfect, its well preserved crenellated walls and towers reflected in the moat that surrounds the ancient building. Having made good time to Bodiam, I decided to continue to the seaside resort of Hastings. This would be the first time that I had ever cycled to the coast, and the first time I had ridden more than a hundred miles in one day on a bike. Confidently, I continued my journey, entering Hastings where I made my way to the sea front. It was with a sense of triumph that I returned home to announce to my parents that I had cycled all the way to the coast and back.

Brian Hudson recounts more of his travels, in Britain, and overseas, in his two memoirs, Whe’ Yu’ From? and How I Didn’t Become a Beatle, both available from Amazon and other online retailers