We were invited to preview part of the new North Downs Way Art Trail in the Kent Downs AONB (area of natural beauty) that spans Surrey to Kent. If you follow our Instagram page or have read our other articles you’ll know we are always ready for an adventure we can do as a family. When we travel abroad or anywhere in the UK, we walk everywhere. We think its the best and only way to truly experience the place your visiting. So when this opportunity came up we jumped at the chance!
Initially, I thought this was going to be a story of views, walking trails and exploring an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, once I got there, it seemed to develop into something more.
As I got to know Kathryn from Kent Downs AONB, Charlotte the Art Trail Project Manager (plus her wonderful dog Betty who was just a brilliant addition to the day as far as the kids were concerned) and walkers on the route through Chilham, I soon came to realise this was actually a story of community. A story of how walking is a lifeline and how projects such as the North Downs Art Trail are vitally important. The more I walked, the more I came to realise that the North Downs Way Art Trail not only encourages sustainable year-round tourism, a requirement of the project brief, it also helps makes the North Downs accessible for everyone in whatever capacity it is needed.
Starting the North Downs Way Art Trail in Chilham, Kent
The day started wet and grey. Not ideal conditions for walking and sightseeing. However, we dressed to embrace the weather and drove to the medieval village of Chilham in Kent.
Chilham is a small and very pretty quintessential Kenitish village. It comes complete with tudor builds, fifteenth century pubs and its very own castle, which is still a private residence. As we walked up into the square from the Taylors Hill car park, the Church Mouse Tea Rooms encouraged a small pause so we could appreciate the charm of the name, the sweet promise of what could be inside (i’m a real sucker for a good cream tea) and the fact it wasn’t a coffee shop! I could think of no better way to start a walk in the Kent Downs AONB.
The trail took us on a 5 mile round trip through the Kent countryside. We followed meandering lanes, hilly chalk paths and woodland trails. The wet weather was a joy for the kids. They used the muddy puddles as an opportunity to really test out their welly boots. They also used them an excuse to see how much mud they could stick to their trousers. The boots fared pretty well, the trousers, not so much.
Our favourite part of the walk was as we entered the Kings Wood. Blue skies seemed to evade us on this particular day. But the promise of spring was in the air with excited sightings of the occasional bluebell emerging from the March chill. Colourful daffodils also waved a cheerful hello as we ambled past. In early April the woodland floor would become an explosion of colour as a blanket of blue and white bells take over for a few weeks. It really is quite the setting for our first installation, the Coppice Oratory.
The main focus of the day was to experience two of the art installations that make up the new North Downs Way Art Trail. This project has been four years in the making and covers 153 miles of the North Downs from Surrey to Kent. Artists from all over the world made bids to have their work included in the trail. However, it was important to the organisers that those chosen could make themselves local to the area. This was so they could oversee the construction of the sculptures, and so they could get to know the area they were building in too.
Each Sculpture along the North Downs Art Trail has been designed to be sympathetic to the location or community it belongs to. It was a prerequisite that each sculpture included a seated area. This is to encourage visitors to sit and appreciate the build or the views. With the Kent North Downs being an area of outstanding natural beauty and a nationally protected landscape, there’s a great deal to look at.
The Coppice Oratory
The Coppice Oratory sculpture is nestled in amongst a working chestnut coppice and made from the same chestnut trees that grow around it. Inspiration for the piece came from the columns and the soaring height of Canterbury Cathedral. It seems rather poetic that England’s oldest Cathedral built in 597 would most likely have taken inspiration from the nature that surrounded it. Now, 1400 years later, the Coppice Oratory takes its inspiration from the Cathedral. As with most things in life, it seems to have gone full circle.
The site of the Coppice Oratory has also been carefully chosen. It is in this exact location you can see the first sighting of the cathedral from the Downs.
Feel Our Voice
The second installation in our itinary was called Feel our Voice. This sculpture is situated in front of picture-perfect views of the Kent countryside. The walk takes you through apple orchards, Oast Houses and views of the Stour Valley on the way to Canterbury.
The sculpture is an audio wave of the people from the local community saying the word ‘together’. The soft undulations and the peaks and troughs of the word have been fashioned into a very comfortable bench made from disused apple boxes from Rickards Farm.
The ‘Feel Our Voice’ sculpture borrows parts of the local community, literally and metaphorically. By doing this it has become something more meaningful than just a bench on a hill. It has become a symbol of the community.
Other Points of Interest in the Kent Downs AONB
Arriving back into Chilham square with three sopping and muddy children, the open fire of The Woolpack pub was a welcome sight. We used the hearth to dry trousers and wellies and ordered from the Sunday lunch menu. The food was wholesome and again very welcome as we were all famished!
The Woolpack had a lovely atmosphere and dogs were welcome in the bar, which was good news for Betty!
Why the Kent Downs AONB North Downs Way Art Trail is about so much more than the views
As we were walking back from the Coppice Oratory, we met a lady called Jean. She was making her way up the chalk paths we had just descended. Charlotte, the Art Trail Project Manager, and I gave her a friendly fellow-walkers ‘hello’ in passing. This polite two second exchange then became an opportunity for a much needed chat.
Also dressed for the wet weather and wrapped in her hood, scarf and gloves, Jean told us that she had lost her husband five years ago. To help with the loss and the loneliness she now faces, she told us she walks the Downs everyday. “Walking here makes me feel close to him. When I’m having a bad day and things get on top of me, I come up here where I can breathe. Then when I come back, I realise how lucky I am”.
This was the moment I realised that North Downs Way Art Trail is about more than art. It’s about more than walking trails and countryside of outstanding natural beauty; even though these things are all true. These trails are also a lifeline. They offer companionship, release, freedom and hope in a way I did not appreciate before I met Jean.
Maps of the Kent Downs AONB Walking Trails
To find out more about how to start any of the walking trails visit https://kentdowns.org.uk/art-trail/. Here you can plan your walks by sculpture or area. Each art installation has its own dedicated web page with information such as how to get there, postcodes, where to start and what to expect.
There are also details of nearby train stations making this a very doable day out from London too. Kentdowns.org also provide recommendations of places to eat in the area, other experiences to take part in and even suggests things to do while travelling with children!