Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 31 August 2009


Inertia has a lot to answer for, in my case, not that it (or I) can usually be bothered to. I won't tell you how many cookery books and magazine recipes I have yet to put into practice; and it's much the same with me and guidebooks to walks within a commuter's train ride out of central London. I have a nice collection, of which I suppose I have done three or four walks.

Having some days off, and no plans, I thought I really ought to make some use of my boots. Arriving at Penshurst station, the clouds were looking more than a bit funereal, but I was brought up in the spirit of "I brought you all this way to enjoy yourself, now get on with it", so off I set.

It's amazing how, within a few yards of the railway station and a village centre clogged with cars, a few yards into a field took me into such quiet that all I could hear was my own breathing. Even a model plane performing acrobatics some fields away made no sound.

This is the gentle landscape of many a picture book, with undemanding ups and downs (nothing too strenuous for me) and docile cattle and sheep ignoring any passer-by, and even a fearsome-looking cockerel deciding I was no great threat to his plump and fluffy harem.

The route passed through Chiddingstone, a single street of Tudor cottages, the entire village now owned by the National Trust (and couldn't one tell: the backyard restaurant where I had a sandwich lunch had Radio 3 for its muzak), a church with a "vinegar bible" and plaques recording that one local family lost their elder son in the Boer War and the younger in the First World War. The village also has its "Chiding Stone", a rocky outcrop possibly - or possibly not - used as a place to reprimand local wrongdoers: someone had thrust a bouquet of flowers into the fence around it, like those impromptu shrines one sees at the site of road-accidents, so perhaps it has some special local significance still.

Along the way there were plenty of signs of the seasons about to turn, although the wetness of the summer has left everything lushly green.

Eventually, the route arrives at Penshurst village, with more higgledy-piggledy Tudor houses round the church. Presumably it's miles from the station of the same name because the resident bigwigs didn't want the railway line too near their stately home: Penshurst Place.

This is a handsome old house, home to Sir Philip Sidney, one of the stars of Elizabeth I's court, but also much quoted as a moral example in the inherited Victorian books I grew up with. There's an impressive mediaeval hall and the usual complement of long gallery and ancestral portraits - many others in the family have been in court and public service over the generations, which is one reason why one of the gardens recreates the Union Flag in roses and lavender.

It is, of course, practically the law that a stately home sells cream teas, so that was some welcome extra fortification for the walk back to the station, past a reminder of more recent troubled times, and with one last, classic view - of a cricket match:

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