Today's Ragstones ride begins on a bracing January morning at John and Dydiane's house in Willesborough.
A small group of bewildered neighbours has gathered to witness the departure. Across the busy Hythe Road, towards South Willesborough, for the first couple of miles, the formidable foursome of Peter, Ruth, Norman and John follow the cycle paths by the East Stour through some of Ashford's most breathtaking scenery, past the Designer Outlet centre and nearby Asda, and the International Railway Station from which high speed trains sprint commuters to the capital in just over thirty minutes at 140mph.
Some say that Ashford is one of Kent's best kept secrets, others that, like a delinquent relative, it is just best kept secret. But let us not be churlish dear reader, for Ashford has many sought after delights (even if few have ever been found).
Ashford is a relatively common English place name: it goes back to Old English æscet, indicating a ford near a clump of Ash trees. The town's motto"With stronger faith", is taken from Richard Lovelace's 17th century blank verse poem, To Lucasta Going to the Warres. The relevant stanza being:
True, a new mistress now I chase,
Pretty and most skilled in culinary arts
My latent ardour will grow harder
And with stronger faith embrace
Her plump little cherry tarts.
At this point,I say to readers who may have been in any way offended by this introduction to the latest Ragstones Ride, that England in the Seventeenth Century was a far cry from the prim little haven of political correctness that we inhabit nowadays.
Our odyssey continues through the town's Victoria Park, site of the magnificent eponymous fountain. A little further along the river bank we come to the place considered by at least one local historian - John of Millstone - to be the original ford over the Stour, from which the town takes its name.
As the group pauses to listen to Millstone's disquisition, we are joined by a passer-by who has lived nearby since childhood. This knowledgeable gentleman (to Millstone's considerable relief) confirms that there had indeed been a clump of Ash trees close to the ford, and goes on to share some fascinating geographical history of the locality. We were also indebted to him for pointing out an underpass which took us, via the mysteriously beautiful Singleton Lake, with its Canada Geese and intriguing crescent of Japanese style houses, on to the pretty village of Great Chart.
Great Chart (originally called "Seleberhtes Cert") dates from AD762, when the Angles, Saxons, and more precisely in Kent, the Jutes, had become dominant in England, while the declining Roman empire had pulled out its Legions back in AD407. An early example perhaps of "I'm a seleberhtey, get me out of here".
Meanwhile, the Ragstones are bowling along at a respectable speed beside the old railway line in the direction of Godinton House (Jacobean treasure; excellent website). Up a moderate hill after GH we pass under the relatively new high speed rail link as one of the new trains flashes elegantly, but far from silently, overhead. We are unpleasantly surprised by the noise pollution which the combination of the frequent Eurostar and the new twice hourly Kent to London commuter service are inflicting on these once peaceful corners of England's 'garden'.
At the Hare and Hounds pub on Potters Corner (A20), it is decided that Challock must be struck from the itinerary if we are to reach Wye in time for lunch. So our route now follows the undulations of Sandyhurst Lane to Eastwell Towers, the elaborate and imposing gates of Eastwell Manor, about which Ruth is keen to learn more. Millstone promises to send her his pamphlet on the subject.
Next we stop briefly at the house of John and Ann Hardie on the village green. The door is opened, however, by a complete stranger. For the briefest of moments, Millstone is lost for words. Perhaps he has knocked on the wrong door; or is participating in some bizarre dream? Millstone tries to look over the stranger's shoulder into the house, and strains his good ear to listen for muffled screams. Are the occupants trussed up in the sitting room having their pin numbers beaten out of them? Have they perhaps sold up and moonlight flitted back to Scotland because they just can't face another Burns Night supper in Kent? Fortunately for all concerned, and just before Millstone begins to set about the intruder with his chubby little bicycle pump, the stranger identifies himself as Colin the Kwik Fit Cooker Fitter.
Millstone retreats up the path muttering embarassed platitudes, and makes a mental note to ask John and Ann when he sees them next Friday to make sure that in future they keep him abreast of any further internal renovations they may be planning.
Across the A28 and down Harville Road, past Spring Grove School, to Wye, where the ashphalt road gives way to its iron counterpart. We are forced to take a not unwelcome rest at the level crossing while two local trains pass through the attractive little station, the ticket office of which contains a small library for the benefit of passengers. Norman feels the interval between trains is sufficiently long to justify the gates being opened more frequently, and may write to the crossing keeper with concrete proposals.
Lunch at the Kings Head is a leisurely and sumptuous affair. Copious portions of wild mushrooms, squid, and home made soup are followed by equally substantial dishes of locally sourced organic sausage casserole with sweet potatoes, squash, and butter beans in a rich creamy sauce, and a fine looking stone baked pizza for Norman.
We were delighted to be joined by Ruth's partner Robert for part of the meal. Judith made her presence felt with a texted request to be picked up at Westenhanger station following a puncture incurred on her way to work. Norman's partner Christine also needed collection, in this case from Ashford station, after her journey to Hampshire. Just another typical action packed day for the Ragstones!
The light will be fading soon, so it is time to set off for home, along the lanes out of Wye, via Naccolt and Hinxhill and across a muddy field to Willesborough. No Ragstones ride is complete without a puncture and this time it is Peter's turn. Fortunately the destination is within easy walking distance.
The final encounter of this eventful day is between Ruth and an old friend called Dorothy outside the mobile library. Ruth is relieved to learn that she can keep the book she borrowed and failed to return 20 years ago, provided she pays the accumulated seventeen thousand pound fine.
PS Millstone wishes to offer profound apologies to Rosemary for mistakenly crediting last week's blog to Peter, and hopes to be forgiven.
Footnote: The Deal "Time Ball" pictured in last week's ride has an interesting website (Google "Deal Time Ball Tower") which is well worth a visit (especially the photo gallery "The Ball Drop"), as is the Museum itself; perhaps on a future ride in the summer?