18: Holly Hill, Medway

Holly Hill
Holly Hill as seen on the ascent, from Whitedyke Road.

Date: 9th September 2020.

Weather conditions: A pleasant, warm and mostly sunny day.

County Top bagged: Holly Hill, which is 558 feet/170m above sea level (though see below) and the highest point in the unitary authority of Medway. The Times Atlas of Britain says the summit is called ‘Holy Hill’, but this is obviously a misprint.

The actual summit of Holly Hill is marked by a trig point with a height of 196m in the woods at TQ668627, but this is in Kent. Inspection of the 1:25,000 map shows a path (the North Downs Way, at this point) nursing a 170m contour for a couple of hundred meters, right along the Medway/Kent boundary, north of Holly Hill house. This passage starts at about TQ670635. There might be slightly higher ground in the woods to the east, but even if there is this is on private land so let us not be pedantic about it.

Hedge tunnel
Hedge tunnel, on the way out from Snodland.

Holly Hill is one of the North Downs. This is one of two great chalk ridges (the other, logically enough, being the South Downs) that embrace Kent and Sussex and give rise to such famous geographical features as the White Cliffs of Dover and Beachy Head. It’s my second chalk CT, after Bishop Wilton Wold. By altitude it ranks 122nd of the 172 modern Tops and 143rd of the full list of 196.

[ << The Wrekin, Telford & Wrekin (17) | (19) White Coomb, Dumfriesshire >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Started at Snodland train station, finished at Halling train station. These are consecutive halts on the Medway Valley railway line which links Maidstone and Strood, a station near Rochester also served by trains to London. I fitted the walk between the 10:45 arrival at Snodland and the 13:48 out of Halling (pronounced like hauling, by the way).

There seems no reason why the walk would not work just as well the other way around.

View over valley
One of the walk’s few views over the Medway valley (the river being unseen).

Pub at end: There are two pubs in Halling village, the Five Bells and the Homeward Bound, but sadly neither of them opened today until 3pm (cf. time of arrival in Halling…). There is an off license near the station which slaked my immediate thirst.

I then went to the Crown Inn in Rochester, which is right by the bridge that takes the road and railway over the Medway to Strood. This provided a very tasty late lunch, and good beer.

Distance walked: 6.2 miles/10km approximately to Halling train station. The pubs are a little further on.

Feet of ascent: 525 feet/160m approx. You start nearly at sea level, and the route loses little height at any point.

Path near Upper Halling
Path near Upper Halling.

Difficulty: ★★. In general, the paths are of good quality and dry, characteristic of the chalk beneath your feet. There are a couple of steepish sections but they are short. I’d still wear proper footwear though.

Ease of access: ★★★★. This was an easy day trip from London, although one does need to change trains in Strood, and Southeastern only just made the connection.

Bearing in mind one can travel from London St. Pancras to Rochester in just over half an hour, I could probably have done this from home in Yorkshire on a day trip.

Holly Hill from Rochester castle
Holly Hill as seen from Rochester castle. Identifiable, just about, by its pylons.

Scenic qualities: ★★. As with several of my lowland walks, much of it takes place in woodland, and even where there are open areas, you don’t see very much, even of the Medway valley. I feel the photos on this page are a little drab but that reflects the surroundings. The best thing I saw today, I unfortunately was not quick enough to photograph, this being a grass snake that slithered out of the undergrowth near Upper Halling.

The area: Medway local authority, centred around the towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, is named after the River Medway, which splits north Kent in two. Any army marching from landing points on the Strait of Dover to London, if it does not want to plough through the impenetrable thickets of the Weald, needs to cross the Medway at some point. Both the Roman Emperor, Claudius, and William the Conqueror have discovered this fact, hence the establishment of Rochester and its ancient castle and cathedral, both among the oldest examples of their type in the country. In (slightly) more recent times, the sheltered harbour that the river provides was exploited for the port and dockyards of Chatham. And Gillingham? Well, it has the football team.

Rochester cathedral
The ancient cathedral of Rochester.

To experience these more interesting bits of Medway you will need to break free from my walking route, which doesn’t visit them. But there would be plenty of time on a day trip from London to look around Rochester, at least, in the afternoon. I think I would have rather been dulled out by the day had I done only the walk, but adding Rochester made the journey down from London worthwhile.

Map: Despite very good signposting — at times (see pic below) there are a plethora of suggestions as to route — it would still help to have a copy of OS Explorer 148: Maidstone and the Medway Towns to hand.

Map of walk 17

The summary map almost fitted at the larger scale but I’ve gone with this one to show how the route relates to more of the countryside around.

Route: This is not a particularly exciting walk. It has its plus points: chalk is always great to walk on as you know you are not very likely to suddenly end up wading in sludge. The paths are generally of good quality and there are plenty of signposts. But without a proper summit to culminate it, it feels a little lacking in attainment, and there’s not much to see. Except maybe snakes (see the commentary).

Snodland cemetery
Snodland’s extensive cemetery.

At Snodland station, the Medway is to the east; have a look at it if you like, because you won’t be seeing any more of it on the walk. Whether you do so or not, then head west, towards the sunken bypass that takes the A228 through the village. When you cross this you have to bear right to get onto the High Street, by a house that is clearly hundreds of years old. Turn left at that and just stick on this road as it heads out of Snodland, going straight on at all junctions until reaching the sports ground and Cemetery Road, where turn right.

Head to the right of the cemetery gates, a public byway that despite various warnings, is not a dead end; it is marked on the 1:25,000 map as Whitedyke Road. After a mile or so it reaches a cross-track, then is continued as a narrower footpath through Crookhorn Wood and its substantial population of pheasants. You won’t go astray on this path as the friendly landowners have festooned each side of it with ample ‘Keep Out!’ and ‘Private!’ notices that shepherd you in the right direction.

A couple of the many pheasants in Crookhorn Wood.

When the path comes out of the woods into an expanse of meadowland, the route goes to the left of the hedgerow ahead — this is not clear at first. It comes out of a gate and crosses the drive of Holly Hill house. Then, at the narrow tarmac lane, turn right. You are now on the North Downs Way, and can let its signposting direct you for a period. Past the house, turn right over a barrier (not a ‘gate’ as such) and into more woodland. At some point on this track you will attain the summit of Medway; you would be forgiven for not noticing this, although there is a definite feeling that after another couple of hundred yards you do start to go downhill.

At the signpost pictured here (more or less at TQ672643), you have a choice of route. Following the North Downs Way into Rochester is possible, this would make the whole walk reach a distance of about 11 miles. The signpost also notes that Sole Street railway station is three miles distant and that would also be a practical terminus. With a full pack on my back (i.e. including laptop, socks, toothbrush, that kind of thing) I decided to head down to Halling.

ample signposting
Ample signposting on the North Downs Way.

The NDW signposts take you through meadows that allow sight of the sky, but not any views of the countryside around. After the third of these, it is time to leave the NDW to the right, down a path that descends steeply and comes out at the village of Upper Halling. It was around here that I saw the grass snake.

There are buses from this village to Chatham, but for the train station, carry straight on and follow the road down the hill. After crossing the A228 once more, turn right and Halling station is a few minutes further on, with the village pubs — if they are open — a little further on still.

Path through meadow
One of the open meadows on the way down.

Snakes Commentary: London has busied up somewhat since I was there at the end of July. But travelling on its public transport over the last couple of days I have been reminded of nothing so much as the scenes at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Everyone is docile, silent, obedient, and because of the masks, dehumanised. Most of the advertising on the London Underground is gone — certainly anything performance-related, so no West End theatre, no films, no gigs — to be replaced by posters oozing their soft, empty slogans, telling us to stay calm and put our trust in Authority.

Yeah, OK. Once again a CT walk coincides with the spasming of Westminster, as it spews out arbitrary restrictions for the sake of ‘public health’, but only because these parasites somehow feel the need to assert their relevance. All ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people are now illegal, yes folks, the UK has banned parties, and please don’t tell me that this won’t be extended to any kind of political rally or protest that you can conceive of. We will be kept fragmented and alone until Brexit hits like a train in the New Year.

Holly Hill house
Holly Hill house, and an old red telephone box trying to stay incognito.

Conveniently hideable is the news that the computer system supposed to stop Kent turning into a lorry park on January 1st is still ‘in testing’ and the Cabinet has basically admitted that international ‘Agreements’ are just something other people sign. Hell, I might be wrong about all of this — but how optimistic do you feel? Whatever your ideology: do you feel these are competent administrators? Trustworthy?

Being down in London again provided a chance to tick off another of the Home Counties CTs, and get in a visit to north Kent before gridlock consumes it. I did enjoy the walk, as I (almost) always do, but it was the third in a row to be somewhat oppressed by woodland, and it’s now definitely time to get up into some proper mountains. The Tops so far bagged have a reasonable geographical spread to them but out of the 49 that are over 2,000 feet high I have only done three so far (Ben Nevis, Ben Cleuch and Burnhope Seat).

In the woods
Woodland…. again.

The most exciting moment was seeing the grass snake in the woods above Upper Halling. I have been to some countries (particularly Australia and Tanzania) where I might have expected to see a snake in the wild at some point, but until today I am confident that I had never done so. I just came around a corner in the path and we startled each other; it slithered out from its sheltered spot and went up over some roots and into the undergrowth before I had time to get the camera out. At first I thought it was an adder — and they really are scarce in Britain — but a later check of online photos showed clearly that it was a grass snake. These aren’t too rare, but still, it was quite a spot and genuinely thrilling. But you’ll just have to take my word for it.


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