Walking another section of the Royal Saxon Way

On this cold rainy day in March, it is perhaps nice to remember that we had some glorious weather at the end of February. My wife Diana and I made the most of it to walk a central section of the Royal Saxon Way. The nice thing about this walking route is that you can pick your starting point and choose your distance to suit what you feel like doing. We started at Barham and walked for just over 9 miles to Wickhambreaux, taking about 6 and a half hours including stops. As all but one of the churches were open, we broke the walk up quite a lot. This is very easy walking.

St John the Baptist, Barham

There is parking by the church. Take the turning off the main Elham Valley Road near the Duke of Cumberland pub and follow the road around to the west side of the church where you will find the carpark. Walk through the churchyard and then back down the road past the Duke of Cumberland and pick up a footpath on the right that takes you past some houses and then into fields on the fringe of the village parallel to the Elham Valley Road. At Out Elmstead lane, take a left and cross over the Nailbourne. It was not flowing when we were there but there were masses of snowdrops.

Snowdrops by the Nailbourne north of Barham

Follow the lane to the Elham Valley road, cross over and then follow the path into the wood, then take a right and walk towards Kingston through the wood. You come out on a road where to the right you pass under a bridge, a remnant of the Elham Valley Railway. Then you follow a path on the left across a field to approach Kingston church. This is part of a modern day pilgrimage route that goes from Canterbury to Rome.

Way-marker for the Via Francigena at Kingston
St Giles’, Kingston

Kingston is where the Kingston brooch was found in the late 18th Century in a richly furnished female grave in an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The Kingston Brooch (copyright Liverpool City Museums)

This is a brooch that could easily have been worn in the feasting halls at Lyminge. It is a wonderful example of the kind of bling worn by Anglo-Saxon nobility at that time.

Carry on past the church to the main road through Kingston. Turn left and then look for the footpath on the right that will take you across a field and then into Charlton Park. You have views across to the house. It is a short walk through the park to Bishopsbourne, where you follow the road through the village past the Mermaid pub to the church. This is worth a stop to view the mediaeval wall paintings. There is one that is thought to show the martyrdom of King Edmund of East Anglia in 869 or 870. He is reputed to have been captured by the Danish army led by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba, and when he refused to give up his religion, he was then killed by being shot with arrows. King Edmund was made a saint and his shrine was at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.

The martyrdom of St Edmund was shortly before Alfred the Great became King of Wessex. It was a violent time when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were being constantly attacked by Danish raiders and increasingly by armies that stayed for longer and over-wintered. These posed a great and persistent threat. Kent too was subject to attack and this is the period when the monastery at Lyminge seems to have ceased, probably because it became too dangerous for a monastic community to live in the countryside without the protection of city walls. It was difficult to think of such violent events in the peace of the Elham Valley as we walked along.

St Mary’s, Bishopsbourne
Martyrdom of St Edmund, Bishopsbourne

From Bishopsbourne, the footpath crosses Bourne Park, with the Nailbourne meandering by. The watercourse was dry as we walked along, showing how it is a seasonal stream. The picture in 2015 was taken at the height of summer when the water table was clearly a lot higher than it is right now!

The course of the Nailbourne in Bourne Park, February 2019

The Nailbourne in Bourne Park July 2015

Following the footpath from Bishopsbourne brings you to Bridge. The church has been heavily restored, so appears more Victorian than mediaeval, though it has ancient origins.

St Peter’s, Bridge

Follow the main road through Bridge towards Canterbury, past the road to Patrixbourne and then turn right along a road lined with houses following the Elham Valley Way-marker. At the end of the road you turn right to follow the footpath under the A2. On the far side, you emerge into what is the parkland of Bifrons House, which was demolished in 1948. There is still an ornamental bridge in the park that last month was serving no purpose at all. In July 2015, however, the Nailbourne was quite a wide stream.

Bifrons Park bridge February 2019
Bifrons Park bridge July 2015

Cross the bridge, then the Bridge-Patrixbourne road and follow the footpath in a loop that will bring you back to the road close to the church. The exterior of the church reveals the origin of the present building soon after the Norman Conquest and the wealth of its patron.

St Mary’s, Patrixbourne
The main door, Patrixbourne church

Follow the road past the church and then take a right, following the road along the bank of the Nailbourne to the left rather than crossing the ford. This will bring you to Bekesbourne. This was the only church that we found locked during our walk, but there are nevertheless instructions on how to obtain a key if you want to look inside.

St Peter’s, Bekesbourne

Return to the lane that you followed from Patrixbourne and carry on to the Adisham Road, cross this and walk under the railway line through the arch of a bridge. Beyond the bridge you have a choice. If you bear to the right you will follow the line of the Nailbourne, reaching the place where it joins with the Little Stour that rises close by. From this point, there was water in the river. Alternatively, you can bear left and follow a footpath on the other side of the Nailbourne, a little away from the riverbank. This path will bring you to the remains of Well Chapel. This is a mediaeval chapel close to the source of the Little Stour rises. The chapel went out of use in the 16th Century.

Well Chapel, near Littlebourne

Follow the path from the chapel into Littlebourne. When you reach the road, turn right past the village green to a staggered crossroads. Turn left here and walk along the main road towards Canterbury. By the village hall, follow the footpath to the right past the football field to the church.

St Vincent’s, Littlebourne

Continue on the path through the churchyard and out into paddocks until you reach the road. The Little Stour flows strongly here and powers a fine water mill.

Little Stour by Littlebourne Mill

You have another choice of routes from this point. You can follow the footpath past the mill, and across the field following the line of the road the short distance to Wickhambreaux. If you still have some energy, you can do as we did and follow the footpath through the garden of the mill, crossing the mill-race and then over the fields to Ickham. This is a delightful village and well-known for the Duke William, a gastro-pub.

St John the Evangelist, Ickham

Carry on through the churchyard, follow the footpath across the fields beyond and very soon you reach the outskirts of Wickhambreaux. Turn left and follow the road into the centre of the village. There is a short-cut by footpath to take off a corner. You then arrive at the village green, with the Rose Inn on the right and the church ahead of you. We could not resist the rare opportunity to enjoy a drink outside in February, although that did mean that by the time we walked over to the church after 5pm, sadly it was locked for the night.

St Andrew’s, Wickhambreaux
The Rose Inn, Wickhambreaux

The whole walk is over gentle terrain, with no major gradients. You follow the line of the Nailbourne and then the Little Stour throughout. The deviations to Well Chapel and Ickham take you away from the river bank, but they are worth the effort. There are nine beautiful and ancient churches over the nine mile route. Combined with the stunning countryside of the North Downs, this really is a super walk and heartily recommended.

Rob Baldwin

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