Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stag It

As I said when I got home, I didn't stay in Essex long - I've recently come back from Nick's stag weekend. Since far more of my peers have PhD than spouses, this was my first stag night/weekend, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but it turned out very enjoyable, even though the only other person I really knew was Steve, with most others going back to school with Nick (and, presumably, therefore his fiancee too).

Getting into London Friday was no trouble, although I'm glad I allowed plenty of time as the Circle line at Liverpool St was closed both due to a suspicious package/bomb scare. We lunched in the Iron Duke pub at Victoria station - although I only actually had a couple of pints as I'd brought sandwiches (which were certainly cheaper). At this point there were only four of us, but we caught the train down to Bearsted (Kent), with others due to meet us later.

On arriving in the village the first thing we wanted to do was locate some sort of shop - which turned out to be a Tesco Express on the other side of the village (and up a hill, as almost everything was). Perhaps we should've got some food, but we loaded up on alcohol, before heading off - back past the station and up yet another (bigger) hill - to find Coldblow Farm, where we were staying.

It turned out it was quite a way to the farm. From the Black Horse pub, the directions told us to go along Pilgrim's Way, take next left and they were first farm on the right. It turned out that was still about a mile and a half (maybe more) and almost all up, sometimes steep, hill. Nonetheless, with a bottle of cider to keep us going, we pressed on with all our bags - I'm not sure the woman who greeted us at reception really believed that we'd walked from the station (not to mention via Tesco).

The barn itself was more modern than expected. Although it had rough stone walls and an old wood-burning stove, it also had radiators and a modern (if compact) kitchen, that actually compares favourably to mine in Oxford. We were told we were welcome to use the pile of manky old mattresses, which we did - firstly, as crash mats for a high jump competition, then later as bedding. While we were getting unpacked, Tim and Steve (who'd taken a later train) joined us.

In the evening, we set off back to the Black Horse pub that we passed earlier for dinner, where we were also due to meet the seventh member of our party. Walking down the hill, in the dark, was quite an adventure and made me wish I'd brought my bike lights to use as a torch. It was a good job we'd made reservations on our way up too, as the place was packed (I suppose it was 9:15 on a Friday night). I didn't have a starter, just the pasta in pesto with olives and tomatoes, but it was ncie and some of the other options looked very fancy (three of us had duck!).

After another long walk up the hill back to the barn, we spent the rest of the evening talking, drinking and playing poker (I only watched), before finally turning in around 3:30am. Unsurprisingly, we weren't really early risers the next day (at least we slept well in our sleeping bags!) so, after some discussion of what to do - not helped much by leaflets featuring attractions as far away as Southend (closer to home for me) - we ended up walking back into Bearsted for breakfast/lunch in a pub.

We had discussed going to see Leeds Castle but, finding it was a coach ride away, that possibly wasn't running, and charged £15 admission (for a yearly pass!), we decided against that. We'd seen, on a map by the Black Horse, that there was a Thurnham Castle much closer, though someone we asked in Bearsted denied its existence. After topping up with drink and food, we decided to set off again towards it, stopping again at the Black Horse to meet Mike (the worst player of the game I've ever met) and refresh ourselves with a quick drink.

The walk to Thunham Castle was quite eventful itself - we started off along a footpath that I think was part of the North Downs Way, before turning off to climb straight up a bramble-covered hill that we thought might be part of it. It turns out it wasn't, but this gave us a good view of the surrounding fields and another hill, this time with steps. Up that and we were almost there - we'd climbed the remains of the old earthwork defences and we now saw the remains of an old wall. To be honest, there was very little to see there, but we had the satisfaction of having discovered the castle, from the opposite side to the official entrance, and took the chance to engage in some climbing and frisbee (throwing the frisbee to people sat on the wall adding an element of risk to the game - perhaps moreso after the frisbee broke).

The walk back from the castel was almost as interesting as that to it. We detoured through a newly planted wood, to an iron age enclosure (not sure what that was) and then over a field in what we thought was roughly the direction of home. The paths weren't well marked, so it was mainly down to Chris and Michael's sense of direction that we were able to cut a more direct route back to our barn, though it did (as ever) involve some hills. (The Downs are definitely better described as ups).

When we got home, the carnivores set up a barbecue to cook sausages and bacon (which I'm told were very good), while I had some salad rolls I'd bought from Tesco earlier. It rained quite heavily that night, but thankfully there was a carport-like roof we could use as shelter, and we had by this pointed started to use the barn's fire exit as a shortcut to the toilets. Later the evening again turned to drinking and poker (I joined in this time, and came 3rd I think - helped perhaps by not always knowing whether I was bluffing), before finally ending with drinking games (circle of fire). It probably says something about our demographic that when I suggested 'current Premiership goalkeepers' as a category for people to name, it was deemed on a par with Chris' 'moons of Saturn'!

The second morning we managed a slightly earlier start, to check out by 10am, although sadly we failed to make it to the station in time to catch the hourly replacement bus, so had to stop off at another pub. It seems half of Kent's trains don't run on Sundays, so we needed one bus to Maidstone and another from there to Sevenoaks (about an hour) before being able to get a train to Victoria - the total journey almost two and a half hours, although at least well co-ordinated. I took leave of the others in London and made my own way home - unfortunately there were some engineering works there too, but I was able to get as far as Marks Tey and have my mum pick me up there.

The weekend may have cost about as much as I'd spend (excluding rent and college meals) in three weeks in Oxford, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable time - much like Scout camp, with alcohol - and a fitting way to mark the end of Nick's single freedom.



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