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Oasting Around in Bethersden

A circular walk along quiet lanes and past oast houses.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 82ft (25m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Tarmac lanes, badly signposted field tracks and one muddy farmyard, 17 stiles

Landscape Agricultural land with oast houses, a good walk in summer

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 137 Ashford

Start/finish TQ 929403

Dog friendliness Number of stiles and poultry farm makes this less than ideal for dogs

Parking On street parking in Bethersden

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the churchyard, follow the footpath, then take the right-hand path over a stile and down a track. After another stile, go straight ahead up to some trees. Nip over a stile and cross the road.

2 Climb the fence by a metal gate and walk through a salvage yard. At a fork, keep to the right and take the narrow track through the trees. Cross a stile, walk straight ahead along the field edge, then go left at a marker post. At the bottom of the field bear right, then immediately left, and walk ahead between two ponds. Go through the gate and cross the farmyard.

3 Follow a tarmac drive to the road (private planes land here and you'll pass a sign saying 'danger - stop, look aircraft'). Turn left and continue for ¾ mile (1.2km) to the main road and turn right. Turn left at the electricity sub-station. Reach a field and walk diagonally left towards the first lone tree, then continue to the hedge.

4 Cross a bridge, go through some scrub and over a stile. Turn left at the high wire fence, then go through the high metal gate - you might have to push very hard to get it open. Another gate brings you into a slimy poultry yard. Walk around the edge of the pond and then go through another gate. Cross two more stiles, and then turn left in pasture where you go right, up the track.

5 Walk to a junction, turn right and follow the road as it bears right then, on the corner, clamber over a broken down stile and follow a public footpath to the left. Walk diagonally across two fields to Wissenden Corner.

6 Turn left, walk to Little Odiam and take the footpath to the right. After two more stiles and a small bridge you reach a marker post. Bear right and walk diagonally towards the woods.

7 At another marker, cross a tiny bridge and two stiles, then walk straight across the field. Reach another bridge and stile where the track goes at a diagonal. Cross a bridge in the wood and then take the distinct track on the left. At another small bridge and stile you emerge from the wood and cross pasture, then head towards the bottom left-hand corner of a field. Cross another field to a line of trees and continue to a tarmac path. Continue ahead over two more stiles to return to the churchyard.

'?everybody knows Kent. Apples, cherries, hops, and women.'

That was Mr Jingle in The Pickwick Papers (1836). I don't know where he got the women from, but there's no doubt that Kent has long been noted for its fruit orchards and hop gardens. And it is the cultivation of hops that has given the county its most distinctive feature - the oast house. With their warm red brickwork and distinctive white cowls, they dot the landscape like foaming pints of beer and you'll pass several of them on this walk.

Hops, a relative of the cannabis plant, were originally grown only as a herb and weren't farmed commercially until the 16th century. In medieval times the favoured English drink was ale, which was thick and sweet and flavoured with herbs and spices. Beer, which gets its distinctive bitter taste from hops, is thought to have arrived in the 15th century with Dutch merchants, who drank it all the time. For some reason the authorities frowned upon it and during the reign of Henry VI the use of hops in drink was made an offence. Even in the 16th century, by which time beer had become a popular drink, people still disapproved of it. Henry VIII forbade his brewer from using hops and one physician wrote '?it makes a man fat as shown by the Dutchmen's faces and bellies'.

The first English hop gardens were established in Kent. The soil here was suitable, there was a ready supply of wood to make the hop poles on which the crop could climb, and the farmers were wealthy enough to afford the high initial outlay required to establish the gardens. Hop gardens are easily spotted, with poles supporting an aerial lattice of strings. The plants produce cones, which are harvested by machine today, although it used to be labour intensive work as they were traditionally picked by hand. Whole families from the East End of London would travel to places like Bethersden to harvest the hops, treating the work as a holiday. Once picked, the cones are dried in oast houses before they are ready for use. You can make a stab at guessing the age of an oast house; the earliest types were rather like large barns, or rectangular in shape, while the Victorians built round oast houses as they thought this helped to dry the hops more efficiently. Modern oast houses are rather severe and rectangular. The local hop industry has declined in recent years due largely to competition from cheaper imports.

Where to eat and drink

The George Inn in Bethersden serves snacks, Sunday roasts and a range of home-cooked food, as well as teas and coffees. Outside the village on the Ashford Road is another pub, the Bull, which also serves meals and real ales.

What to look for

Bethersden was once famous for its production of Bethersden marble, which was used in many local churches and the cathedrals at Rochester and Canterbury. In fact it wasn't real marble, but a stone formed from the compressed shells of freshwater snails. They inhabited this area around 300 million years ago when it was a lush, freshwater swamp. The stone came in many colours and could be polished to look like marble. Local people once laid slabs of it over the fields, making causeways so that pack-horses could transport wool to neighbouring markets.

While you're there

Smarden is a feast of historic timber-framed and white weatherboarded houses, a sight that makes visitors reach for their cameras. If you get time to visit, do stop and look at the pagan carving in the local church. It is thought to be a fertility symbol, or a sexual war goddess, placed there to repel the 'evil eye' and protect worshippers in the church.

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