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Bowled Over in Sutton Valence

A popular walk ending at the grave of the man who changed the modern game of cricket.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 148ft (45m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field edges and quiet lanes, 12 stiles

Landscape Orchards, oast houses and rolling fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 137 Ashford

Start/finish TQ 812492

Dog friendliness Good, though they'll need to be kept on lead

Parking Village streets - it can get pretty crowded

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the converted church in the centre of the village, turn right down the lane, then left at the bottom to pass the ruined castle. Dating back to the 12th century, it was built to guard an important medieval trading route. Continue to the end of the lane, and then bear right. Where the road bears downhill, continue walking straight ahead along the lane. There are plenty of orchards here and it's a lovely sight in the spring when the blossom is out.

2 Come on to a surfaced area by College Farm. Keep walking ahead until you reach the road and then turn right. Go downhill passing a pond on the right-hand side. At a bend, nip over a stile to follow the footpath on the left.

3 Stroll along the top of the field to another stile, passing a pond on the right-hand side. Go through a gap in the hedge, over a metal gate and on to the road. Turn left and, after a few paces, take the footpath on the right.

4 Cross a stile into the field and follow the fence line past a tumbledown wall and up to the woods ahead. Continue to some iron railings, which you follow into the woods. Pass a pond on your left, cross a small bridge and continue ahead until you pop over a stile into a field. Bear slightly left, go through a gate, then head towards the treeline and turn right to cross a stile on to the road.

5 Cross the road, climb another stile then continue ahead over two more stiles to the next road. Turn left to follow the lane uphill for 600yds (549m). Just past a house turn left by a wooden gate onto a public bridleway.

6 Your route sweeps down now, over a stile and follows the field edge to take you on to Charlton Lane. Hop over a stile, cross the road and walk up the road ahead - signed 'Sutton Valance'. Follow the road past East Sutton church and, at another road, climb another stile into a field.

7 Take the obvious path towards some trees and at a waymarker go straight on along the clear track. Continue to the treeline in front of you, then cross a stile in the corner of the field to join the road. Walk straight on now and back to Sutton Valence village. To reach St Mary's Church walk through the village, cross the busy A274 and take the footpath immediately ahead. Return to the village centre to finish your walk.

You might expect a man who revolutionised the sporting world to be buried somewhere grander than a sleepy little churchyard in rural Kent. But you'll find just such a grave at the end of this walk; it's the grave of John Willes. Never heard of him? Listen in then.

John Willes was a local man and a keen cricketer. Kent has always been at the forefront of English cricket and the first recorded inter-county match was played between Kent and Surrey in 1709. Willes, keen to perfect his batting skills, used to practice in a barn, getting his sister Christina to bowl to him. It was then the convention to bowl under-arm, but Christina used to wear a crinoline and the hooped skirts got in the way, making it difficult for her to send the ball very far. She came up with the idea of flinging the ball over her head instead and Willes was surprised to find that it travelled about twice as fast.

Willes decided to adopt the style himself and, in a match at Maidstone in 1807, he bowled over-arm for the first time. The spectators were horrified and invaded the pitch, apparently pulling up the stumps to prevent him continuing. After that the MCC ruled that balls should always be bowled under-arm, but Willes refused to give up his unconventional style.

In 1822 in a match at Lords, Willes bowled over-arm and was given 'no ball'. He threw a rather undignified tantrum, chucked the ball on the ground and flounced off the pitch, declaring that he would never play cricket again. In the end of course, the style was adopted and Willes continued to play, acting as coach to another great Kentish cricketer Alfred Mynn. Willes died in 1852 and is buried in St Mary's churchyard in Sutton Valence, which you reach by crossing the busy road at the end of this walk. His is the first grave you see when you enter the graveyard. It's inscribed with the words: 'patron of all manly sports and the first to introduce round arm bowling in cricket'. His sister isn't mentioned.

The Willes were not the last Kentish people to play a part in cricketing history. When the Ashes were first brought to England, they were initially kept in an urn on the mantelpiece, in the home of the captain in Cobham. One morning a maid apparently knocked them over and the Ashes spilled into the fireplace. She grabbed a handful of ash from the fire and popped it into the urn. The ashes from that Kentish fireplace are still said to sit at Lords today.

While you're there

Sutton Valence isn't too far from Leeds Castle, a gorgeous fairy-tale affair that should please all the family. Parts of it were built in 1066 and Henry VIII later converted it into a palace. The grounds are extensive and include a vineyard, greenhouses, a maze and a wood garden. There's also a Dog Collar Museum (that's collars for dogs not vicars) with collars dating back to the 16th century. In private hands until 1974, the castle is now owned by an independent foundation.

Where to eat and drink

For such a small village, Sutton Valence is remarkably well served with pubs. The Swan, next to the post office, serves bar snacks and main meals and specialises in fish dishes. Other pubs in the village are the Clothworkers Arms and the Kings Head.

What to look for

Ulcombe is just a short distance from this walk and All Saints' Church there is well worth exploring. When it was being restored in the 1980s hundreds of human bones were dug up. Although no one knows how far they date back, it is likely that the church was built on a pre-Christian burial site.

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