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In Search of Elham's Secret Stream

A varied walk through open countryside that takes you over an elusive stream and up to a hidden church.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 115ft (35m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Well-marked field tracks and footpaths, 9 stiles

Landscape Fertile fields and lush green valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 138 Dover, Folkestone & Hythe

Start/finish TR 177438

Dog friendliness Dogs on lead through grazed areas

Parking By Elham church

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From the church walk down Duck Street, then head uphill to a footpath on the right. Cross the stile and continue uphill, then nip over another stile at the top of the field. Walk straight ahead and cross two more stiles to the road.

2 Cross here and follow the footpath ahead, through a gate, then along the field edge - if it's just been ploughed you'll see plenty of flints exposed. The path goes downhill, and into the next field past a pylon.

3 Go past a small wood, through a gate and follow the guide posts over the next field. Cross another stile into an army training area, then walk around a wood. Go straight over to a yellow marker by a stile, on to a road and up to the crossroads (you can make a detour through the trees to Acrise church).

4 Otherwise turn left and continue until you pass an old oast house. Turn left just after this, then take the right-hand path to the Old Rectory, signed 'Private Road'. Go over a stile immediately in front of the house, then cross a meadow. After a gate your route leads diagonally over a field. After another gate, turn left and walk along a field edge. After another gate the path goes steeply downhill. The path now descends steeply to the valley bottom, then rises again, just as steeply, to join a concrete track up to the farm. Where the track bears left, you go right and through a gate and up to the farm buildings. Go through a rather rusty gate and turn left when you reach the road.

5 At the house turn right and go along the road under a line of pylons. Just after a copse the lane bears left. Go ahead down a footpath and then downhill along the edge of a field. Walk across another field following the clearly marked path and at the bottom left-hand corner go over a stile with a rather a long drop.

6 Head along the edge of the field, keeping the fence on your right. Follow the fence and at the corner follow it downhill and over another stile. After another field go left along the field edge. You'll come to a gate which takes you over a stone bridge. Walk diagonally across the field in the direction of the church. One more gate brings you up to a lane and back to the church.

Although you'll cross the course of the Nail Bourne on both the outward and return legs of this walk, the chances are that you won't be aware of it - for this is Kent's most elusive stream and it only flows in the wettest winters. The waters (bourne is an old local word for stream) used to be known as the Woe Waters, for their flow was once believed to herald death or disaster.

The Nail Bourne has strong associations with the conversion of Kent to Christianity. Although some Britons became Christians during the Roman occupation (ad 43-406), the country gradually returned to paganism when the Romans left. When St Augustine came to this part of England in ad 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the county had experienced an extended period of drought. Crops had failed, animals had died and the local people began to feel that their interest in this new religion had offended their pagan gods. The Christian priests, sensing trouble, hastily began to pray for rain. Legend has it that, on the spot where St Augustine knelt to pray, a spring miraculously - and conveniently - appeared and flowed through what is now the Elham Valley. Furious at this display of Christian power, the pagan gods were said to have dried the stream, which God, just as promptly, made flow again.

This supernatural struggle is said to explain why the stream still disappears in dry weather. In fact, the Nail Bourne is an example of a winterbourne - a seasonal stream that is a distinctive feature of chalklands. They occur because chalk is porous and rain quickly seeps down through it and disappears from view. However, if there is a thick layer of clay further down, a spring develops. This spring will only turn into a stream if it is extremely wet - so winterbournes appear and disappear as if by magic. The wildlife that lives in these streams is especially adapted to survive drought, then reproduce and colonise rapidly as soon as water returns.

Just as mysterious as the Nail Bourne was the 'dammed elusive' Scarlet Pimpernel, the fictional character who saved so many French aristocrats from the guillotine. It is said that the man on whom Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) modelled her swashbuckling hero, used to stop at the Rose and Crown, an old staging post in Elham, before galloping off on his way to France to save real life aristocrats from the revolutionaries. The Baroness, a Hungarian who settled in the Kent village of Bearsted, was a slightly eccentric character. She liked to travel around in a coach and four, and expected local people to show their respect by curtseying or doffing their caps. If they didn't she would react by throwing an undignified tantrum.

Where to eat and drink

The New Inn at Elham is a friendly pub, whose owners are happy to make you a pot of tea after your walk and are amazingly tolerant of muddy boots. In winter there's a small wood burning stove to snuggle round.

What to look for

The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Elham is well worth a look. It dates back to 1180 and has some unusual 19th-century stained glass, in which contemporary figures are portrayed as characters from the Bible. Look closely and you'll see Thomas Carlyle, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

While you're there

At North Elham, a short distance away, you can visit Parsonage Farm Rural Heritage Centre. It has many rare breeds of farm animals, including several types of sheep. There are displays on wool and cereal production, as well as ancient crafts such as hedge laying.

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