An Interview with Peter Morris, North Downs Way Trail Manager


CHALKUP21 speaks to Peter Morris, who manages the North Downs Way trail; much of which coincides with the CHALKUP21 trail. The North Downs Way is a 153-mile journey from Farnham to Canterbury and along to the White Cliffs of Dover, through a beautiful landscape rich in heritage and areas of outstanding natural beauty. 

After an initial early career in fitness and sports facilities in inner London, Pete moved down to Kent and has now been working here for around 15 years. He shares his knowledge and insights on the protection of green spaces, the recent revitalisation of interest in walking and pilgrimage, and the varying and numerous reasons that people have for going on walks. 

Are there parts of the Kent countryside that you particularly like, or that you feel are particularly beautiful?

I think that the area from Wye down to the Folkestone area is particularly stunning. Lots of orchids, bees and chalk grasslands in this area. It’s a valley that was ploughed out in the last ice age and it has some really rare orchids and fantastic views: Dungeness, across the channel, Romney marsh. You can get there from St. Pancras. Around Chilham as well, I like. And I love coming to Canterbury; the cathedral makes it special. I like the stark difference between the very remote countryside and the urban areas.

I like Dover as well; coming into Dover from Folkestone and seeing Shakespeare’s cliff and the castle – everything opens up in front of you. When we did the Google Trekker project we were just coming around the corner and we took pictures of it – those are the views that have the real impact.

Do you feel like there is a revitalised interest in using trails, or going into the wild?

Yes, you’ve got your traditional mainstream TV that’s always been there, your Countryfile and that sort of thing. But then there’s also Ray Mears, Bear Grylls – these people have probably engaged a slightly different younger audience or people who are slightly more adventurous. I think life generally has got a lot more hectic, digitised, urbanised. And I think people like escaping, switching everything off and going out into the countryside. Where we are, where there are such big urban populations that don’t have access to green space, I think that we become a bit of a playground for the beaten up young professional that just needs to get out and walk for a couple of hours. Not have their phone on, not be bombarded with adverts etc. Even when you’re not at work we’re still bombarded with phone calls and all sorts – where we work it’s great because often people can’t get hold of you, which means that you tend to focus on what you’re doing. You’re not thinking ‘oh I need to tweet this’. I tweet when I get back, but I’m not always connected.

Out of Canterbury or Dover or Folkestone, you walk for 10 minutes and suddenly you can lose yourself. I think of the idea of pilgrimage and ‘back to nature’; disconnect from the manic, modern life, it pushes people into the countryside. And people are becoming conscious of the countryside being eaten up as well – people want to walk it, use it and enjoy it.

I go back home to see my folks and my primary school and infant school are both housing estates now. I can say ‘I remember when this was all fields’  because they were the football fields that I played in the holidays, but they’re all housing estates and we weren’t in a conservation area, but we had considered that we lived in a rather rural environment. 20 or 30 years prior to that it was probably time to go ‘hold on! All of this is going!’

We had space where we could kick a ball around or ride our bikes in the woods, but that urban spread has eaten up all of that space. And I would consider my childhood a fairly rural one – always near a field or a stream. So when you notice that your childhood things are disappearing under a blanket of concrete, it does get slightly concerning for the future. In the Kent Downs AONB we’re constantly replying to planning applications, but on the other hand, there are more and more people that need somewhere to live, so where do you put them? I wouldn’t deny that we need more housing because obviously, we do.

But then you become in danger of falling in the nimby category. We’re all protective over our own little patches and the bits where you live and work. We get planning requests for things that are close to the national trail, like housing developments or retirement villages. Once you say yes to one thing it’s hard to stop the follow through; if a large number of houses are built, there of course needs to be accessibility and shops.

The CHALKUP21 route provides a point where the urban spaces and the green spaces collide. What are your thoughts on architectural landmarks being amalgamated with the trail?

With the structures and buildings on the CHALKUP trail, they’ve obviously been carefully planned to fit into the landscape and are in keeping with the landscape. They’re all quite isolated – they’re not huge housing developments with 800 houses on woodland. Places like Deal, for example, are already built up so a place like the Deal Pier café isn’t really going to have a huge environmental impact. The White Cliffs visitors centre helps bring tourists to the area and support the local economy. There’s a payoff and a balance there. A lot of the structures have won awards because they do look nice and they do meet the environmental green issues, and all of those things that tick boxes; they look nice, they’re functional, they contribute towards local authority and they’re efficient and sustainable in the way that they operate. As stand-alone buildings, they’re not the issue, but the issue is the big housing developments – that we obviously do require because of the sheer number of people that need housing.

I think that we look at buildings sometimes and we take them for granted – we think ‘Oh okay, they’ve built that because they want a café on a pier’, or because they want a war memorial or a museum to celebrate the battle of Britain or because they need a learning centre at Samphire Hoe. We don’t think about the wider picture; that the architects have designed it in a sympathetic way, or made it out of local materials which were designed so as not to have a negative impact. We often don’t; we just see it as a building. But CHALKUP21 draws you in makes you take a step back from the straight lines, the four walls and the roof and look at it in terms of materials and how it functions and what it looks like and what it’s surrounded by; can you see it from this aspect? And then you start considering it in a deeper way; without getting too philosophical, you start asking ‘well, if they did have to have a building there, if it did have to serve this purpose, then that was probably the very best that they could do’.

A lot of the stuff that I do is very countryside-focused, very walking led. So I guess looking at art and specifically architecture in a countryside context is a bit leftfield. We’ve been involved other art projects; some installations and sculptures that are functional benches and shelters and things like that. They are good and meaningful in a different way. Whereas people that walk the trail want a walk, a day out with a good old rustic pub – that kind of family day out experience.

So looking at it from a perspective of ‘I want to see what the buildings are like’ is a really different way of looking at it and I think it brings a different audience. I’ve got friends who are architects and if I said to them ‘lets go for a walk in the countryside’ they would say ‘yeah, whatever’. But if I said let’s go on a national trail and look at a series of award-winning modern buildings’, they’d be like ‘oh okay yeah, that sounds quite interesting!’. I guess it’s all about how you package it – the people who walk this trail will not be die-hard ramblers with bobble hats, they’ll be a different sort of walker. They will look at the trail slightly more different from the way that maybe I would and the people who I deal with on a more regular basis do.

I walk with people that will say ‘See that bump in the ground over there? That’s a Bronze Age burial chamber. This is a long barrow – this is an old burial site, etc’ Ten minutes ago, it was just a lump in the ground, and now it’s something completely different. You turn around and you see them all in a straight line – the biggest is right next to the trail, and it’s the best BMX ramp you’d ever see, but it’s protected by English heritage. Kids aren’t going to understand that it’s a Bronze Age burial chamber, and if you look through the trees you can see that there’s a series of them in a straight line – you follow that line through to Sherpherdswell, there’s more. These things haven’t just been plonked in situ, there’s some process and structure to them. But to the local kids, it’s a great jump on a bike. And for that generation, that’s what they want. The historical people want it protected, but you can’t stick fence in there as you can’t dig around it. There’s not a great deal you can do apart from put a sign up, but how many kids are going to read it and say ‘fair enough’? It’s all how differently people see things.

For updates, pictures and more insights into life on the trail, follow the North Downs Way on Twitter at @NorthDowns Way.