Ear pressed to the pale bark, I listen. It’s March, the month when the sap of the silver birch rises. “You can hear it,” says Lucia as I close my eyes to concentrate. “It’s a gurgling, the tree’s lifeblood.”
Sadly, I hear nothing apart from a low traffic hum and Lucia rummaging in her basket. She produces a bottle of birch sap tonic that she’s made earlier. I take a sip. Refreshing. “Good with vodka,” Lucia notes.
I hadn’t expected cocktail advice in the middle of a small Kent coppice on a chilly spring day. But, with Lucia Stuart of The Wild Kitchen and Hannah Nicholls of Natural Pathways, I’m learning that, when it comes to Mother Nature, you work with what’s on offer. We collect catkins to steep for tea; pluck cleavers (AKA sticky willies) to make a cucumber-y tonic; and harvest primrose leaves and alexander heads to mix into salad. The air is halitotic with wild garlic – the fresh leaves go into our yogurt dip.
Both forager Lucia and bushcrafter Hannah are keen to get people looking differently at the outdoors, especially in their pocket of Kent. They are just two of the providers offering a new menu of more than 30 sustainable, nature-based experiences within the Kent Downs area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) for 2023. Each experience – from floral crown-making to sustainable agriculture sessions with Ed , tea rebel farmer – is designed to be doable year-round and to offer a sensory immersion in the AONB’s chalk downs, ancient woods and white-cliff coast.
Lucia and Hannah are giving me a literal taster, and imparting some life skills: next, Hannah teaches me how to collect dead wood, build a proper fire and light it with birch-bark tinder and a fire steel. It’s harder than it looks, but my pile is soon ablaze, offering an opportunity to sit and talk while the lunch pot simmers. And I could chat to Hannah for hours – aeons of quiet wisdom lie under her bush hat. “Our ancestors were much more in tune with nature,” she tells me. “They would sit with a plant and ask it if it was edible; we’ve just forgotten those skills.”
Hannah also runs staff-making workshops. You hunt for a piece of wood – “or perhaps the wood chooses you” – then learn to strip and shape it into a hiking staff. This would have been extremely useful in the days when Kent’s filigree of hiking and pilgrimage trails were regularly trodden by people from all walks of life. Tea Via Francigenawhich runs to Rome, passes right by the door of 7 Longport, my Canterbury B&B (a cozy 15th-century cottage). And that afternoon I’m off on another of the AONB’s new experiences – a mini-walk with Creative Pilgrims.
The founders of Creative Pilgrims, artist Alexandra le Rossignol and photographer Liz Garnett, meet me in Canterbury’s St Martin’s, the oldest church in continuous use in the country. I’m only getting a snapshot of what they offer, but their idea is to lead people on short art walks between Kent churches, sketching as they go.
“People slow down when they’re creating, so see more,” Alex says, handing me paper, pencils, chalk and charcoal. You don’t need to be an artist, she assures me. It’s about mark-making. So I sit in a pew and try making some marks myself, letting my hand be guided by what appeals: the altar’s curlicues, the chaotic stonework of the exposed Saxon wall. Alex encourages me to experiment with pressure and patterns, but most of all to play.
After a little scribbling we leave the church, wander the graveyard – “so full of stories!” – and make our way, slowly, towards Canterbury cathedral. “Every artist sees something different,” Liz tells me as we pass between a half-timbered building dated AD1550 and a Wetherspoon’s. “It’s about the mindfulness of the journey.”
It’s a shame to not make more of a journey with Liz and Alex. They’re lovely company, and they feel strongly that good pilgrimages should include good teashops. But the following day I do take a longer stroll, hiking a section of the North Downs Way with one of its freshly appointed ambassadors. The National Trail, which runs 153 miles from Farnham to Dover and overlaps in parts with the Pilgrim’s Way, turns 45 this year and a group of passionate experts have been recruited and trained to share their particular specialisms, from fauna to folklore.
My ambassador, Andrew Whiteley, seems to know everything. An ardent quizzer, he picked the history of Canterbury as his specialist subject when he appeared on Mastermind. As we walk the eight miles from Chilham’s pretty medieval square back into Canterbury, via hibernating hops and gnarly old apple trees, he regales me with stories. He tells me about Chaucer’s pilgrims and the glowworms that ignite Chartham Hatch woods on early summer nights; he explains the regional variations of morris dancing (another of his hobbies) and the odds of being executed or murdered if you’re archbishop of Canterbury (one in 21).
He also takes me to the leper church of St Nicholas in Harbledown, the oldest parts of which date from 1084. Caretaker Ken opens it specially, and points out the huge old almshouse keys and the slope of the floor, designed to aid the regular washing and disinfection of the church.
“I’m fascinated by the history of the North Downs Way,” Andrew tells me later. “The idea of the ambassadors is to encourage others to use it – it’s such an enormous asset.”
And it’s not only a historical journey, but potentially a mode of healing – some ambassadors combine walking tours with bereavement processing and other aspects of wellbeing. Ambassador Victoria Field is a poetry therapist, which she weaves into her North Downs Way walks. “We might stop in a church, read a poem together, discuss it, write our own,” she tells me over coffee. “Key is creating an atmosphere of permission and enjoyment.”
Victoria talks about the benefits walking and pilgrimage can bring to the rural economy, but also the benefits it brings to the walker or pilgrim. “Being out in the world takes your focus outwards,” she says. “It makes you think about life’s journey, welcoming whatever it brings.”
train trip to Canterbury was provided by southeastern trains. The trip was organized by Kent Downs Ambassadors. Natural Pathways’ Drilling and Fire course costs £90ppWild Kitchen experiences from £129pp, Rebel Farmer sessions from £50pp and Creative Pilgrims walks from £50pp. Book on kentdowns.org.uk. The cottage at 7 Longport sleeps two from £125 a night B&B.