MEDWAY VALLEY WALK
Stage 1: Tonbridge to Maidstone
Thursday, July 21, 2016
The Medway Valley Walk begins on Tonbridge's wide Town Bridge (picture 1), which spans the River Medway just downstream from the site of the medieval Tonbridge Castle. Before setting off on the walk, I went for a wander around the castle park.
Shortly after the Norman Invasion in 1066, the large castle mound was constructed and a wooden keep was built on top of it. By 1100, the wooden keep had been replaced by one built of stone, but after climbing to the top of the castle mound I discovered that very little of this still remains. The most substantial remains are those of the castle's gatehouse (picture 2), which was completed in 1260 and recently restored. The castle was purchased by the local council in 1900 and the grounds became a public park.
Downstream from the Town Bridge, buildings crowd the riverbank (picture 3), so the Medway Valley Walk sets off for a few steps down the High Street before turning left to follow Medway Wharf Road past the first few buildings to join a paved path on the riverbank, heading downstream past Tonbridge Town Lock (picture 4).
Beyond the lock, the path continues along the right-hand bank, passing a pair of gas-holders before climbing up to cross a road bridge that takes the busy A26 over the river. At the north end of the bridge, signs for the Medway Valley Walk and the Wealdway point down to the left bank of the river, where an enclosed path runs through a narrow band of trees separating the river from a large industrial complex.
After about 300 metres, the path emerges into open countryside, following the river's winding course along the edges of a series of crop fields, separated by shady field boundaries. By the time I reached the side of Eldridges Lock (picture 6), after one and a half kilometres, the sounds of the town had well and truly receded and been replaced by gentle birdsong and the rustle of the breeze in the trees.
The next landmark on the path, a little more than a kilometre farther downstream, is Potter's Lock, which is mostly hidden behind tall foliage on the edge of a large wheat field (picture 7). Hidden in the next field boundary is a sunken World War II pillbox (picture 8).
Beyond a small copse and a low road bridge, the path runs along the edge of a long, narrow meadow of waist-high grass and wildflowers. At the far end of the meadow, the path crosses over a weir onto the lock island (picture 9) of East Lock then crosses a footbridge over the downstream end of the lock to the right-hand bank of the river (picture 10).
Heading downstream beside two fields, the path reaches the end of a bridge, where the Medway Valley Walk and the Wealdway finally part company. The Wealdway crosses over the bridge, heading north, while the Medway Valley Walk continues eastwards. At the end of the next field the path passes through a metal gate into a wood, where the next stretch of the path runs along the shady riverbank to Oak Weir Lock (picture 11).
Below the lock, the path sticks to the right bank, ignoring a bridge over the river before heading into another longer stretch of tranquil riverside woods. After one and a half kilometres, the path passes by the weir of Sluice Lock, the lock itself being on the opposite side of the river, separated from the weir by a small lock island.
The shady path continues along the water's edge through quiet woods (picture 13) for a while longer, squeezing alongside a metal fence before climbing up to Branbridges Road. The road crosses a bridge to the village of East Packham, but the Medway Valley Walk ignores the bridge and crosses the road to find a path back down to the riverbank, passing under the four-lane A228 and a sturdy old railway bridge (picture 14) on the next kilometre to the disused and rather forlorn Stoneham Old Lock.
Another kilometre's walking along the quiet riverside leads to a marina, where a large oast house stands on the opposite bank (picture 15). Just around the next right-hand bend in the river, the waters divide, with the main channel flowing ahead over a weir and under the medieval Twyford Bridge (picture 16), while the Medway Navigation turns sharp left along the Hampstead Canal.
The Medway Valley Walk turns left on a footbridge over the weir, opposite the thatched Anchor Inn (picture 17), following the B2162 Hampstead Lane along the right-hand side of the canal then over a bridge that angles across the navigation overlooking Hampstead Lock (picture 18).
At the end of the bridge the route turns right through a gate and down to the left bank of the navigation. The narrow trail along the riverbank is followed alongside a high brick wall and then into a long, narrow field about a hundred metres east of the same railway line encountered earlier. Here the path is separated from the water by a a strip of long grass and tall wildflowers (picture 19), while out of sight, the main channel of the river rejoins the navigation from the far side.
The Walk continues to follow the edge of the field by the riverbank, running roughly parallel with the railway line for about one and a half kilometres until the river bends left to take the path right up beside the tracks. For another 600 metres the path squeezes between the railway and the Medway to reach the village of Nettlestead, where a long line of caravans overlooks the busy moorings of the Medway Wharf Marina (picture 20).
Beyond the Marina, Bow Bridge crosses the river from the end of Wateringbury Station (picture 21). The Walk crosses the river here, but unfortunately the signpost by the end of the bridge was rather misleading, appearing to point down a path to the near bank of the river rather than across the bridge.
And so it was that for the next couple of kilometres I found myself following the Medway Footpath along the left bank of the river rather than taking the correct route of the Medway Valley Walk across fields a short distance away from the right bank. This route took me through the 32-acre Teston Bridge Country Park (picture 22), which lies between the winding river and the straight railway line, passing Teston Lock (picture 23) to reach the fine medieval Teston Bridge (picture 24), where a signpost confirmed my navigational error.
The Walk returns across Teston Bridge to the left bank of the Medway, following a well-worn trail along the edge of Lower Teston Meadow (picture 25), still parallel to the railway tracks where two-car Southeastern trains clattered along at regular intervals (picture 26).
After about two kilometres the path passes by the metal Kettle Bridge (picture 27), at the end of a lane that crosses the railway tracks from the nearby village of Barming on the western fringe of the sprawling town of Maidstone. The bridge was built in 1996 to replace a wooden bridge of 1914, which was built after the original 1740's bridge collapsed under the weight of a 10-ton traction engine.
A kilometre downstream the path reaches the village of East Farleigh. A large chalet park stretches up the hillside opposite before the river bends left towards another fine medieval rag-stone bridge (picture 28) and heads under one of the low arches and along the side of East Farleigh Lock.
Beyond the lock, the path once again runs along a narrow strip of land between the train tracks and the water (picture 29). The presence of joggers on this stretch of the path and rowers on the river announce the proximity of Maidstone's suburbs, not far away across the railway line, but it's almost two kilometres before development encroaches on the riverbank.
Once in the town, the path passes quite a few blocks of modern riverside apartments (picture 30) which have replaced former industrial sites on the final kilometre to the town centre, where the modern metal Millennium Footbridge comes across the river from the Church of All Saints (picture 31).
The short final stretch of the day's walk heads along the riverside walkway to Maidstone Bridge (picture 32), by which the Medway Valley Walk crosses the river. Reaching the bridge, I left the path for the day, with 26.8 kilometres walked from Tonbridge. It was just a few minutes walk from the end of the bridge to Maidstone West Station, where I had a short wait for a train back to my accomodation in Rochester.