‘Many Vile Earthlings Munch Jam Sandwiches Under Newspaper Piles’.
Even as our primary school teacher had us reciting this mnemonic to remember the order of the planets, our eight-year old self wondered what use it would ever have in our day-to-day adult lives, future NASA career not withstanding. Never, in a million (light) years did we imagine we’d be muttering it under our breath in an attempt to navigate around a small village in the Kent countryside.
Yes, we’re old enough to remember when Pluto was a planet, and so is the Otford Solar System. Built as a millennium addition to the Kent village of Otford, the model solar system consists of markers representing nine planets, plus the sun. It’s a very serious construction — the scale of it is a staggering 1:4,595,700,000 (so 1mm = 4,595.7km), and it captures the positions the planets were in as the new millennium began. Furthermore, the size of the engraving on the top of each pillar is in scale with the size of the planets, relative to each other.
Where to find the Otford Solar System
Detailed locations of each of the planets on the Otford Solar System route are hard to come by, probably intentionally, to encourage wandering and exploration of the village. You get the feeling that locals are used to space tourists around these parts — a couple of knowing glances are thrown our way as we intensely photograph what is, to all intents and purposes, a concrete pillar.
The official Otford Solar System map is light on detail, and assumes a prior knowledge of the village. The action centres around Otford Recreation Ground, which is home to Otford Football Club, and five of the nine planets, plus the sun, and a solar system information board. Following the whole route is not just a walk in the park though, as Pluto is situated next to a farm field almost a kilometre away from the sun. Forget space boots, it's walking boots you'll need for this route.
For eight of the planets, you’re looking for a concrete pillar, about 3ft high, topped with an engraved metal disc. But for Mars, you’ll need to look down, and hope the grass has been cut recently — it exists as a plaque sunk into the floor. Presumably the idea of a 3ft tall piece of concrete emerging from the centre of Otford Football Club’s pitch was deemed a bad idea by the spoilsports at health and safety.
Let's begin. From the recreation ground car park, head north towards the hedge at the back of the field. Four stone pillars should soon come into view. The sun stands out by virtue of being topped with a shiny dome, rather than the flat plaques atop the other plinths, and here is where your journey begins.
An inscription around the edge of the sun points you in the direction of each of the planets. Mercury, Venus and Earth are all easily visible, located just a few metres from the sun in various directions. For Mars, head in the direction indicated for about 50 paces, then keep your eyes down on the ground. From here, Jupiter is visible too — cast your eyes over to the eastern side of the field, and look for a wooden bench with a pillar to its right. That pillar is Jupiter.
For the final four planets, you’ll need to leave the recreation ground. First, head east along the High Street, passing the duck pond roundabout for which the village is known, and turn left onto Leonard Avenue, immediately after The Woodman pub. Saturn can be found in the car park of the doctor’s surgery (not a sentence we ever thought we’d write) at the far end of the road.
Next, double back on yourself, and head in the opposite direction along the High Street, back past the recreation ground and car park. This is where things get a little more spread out, though there’s plenty of interesting scenery to enjoy along the way, including the timbered Pickmoss, a partly Medieval building which seems to groan under the weight of its history.
Just as you’re beginning to think you’ve walked to the next village, you enter into the orbit of Uranus, situated casually among the usual debris of suburban life, next to a bin and a wooden bus shelter. From here, continue along the main road up the hill, pausing to look back over your right shoulder and see the North Downs piled up behind you.
Turn left into Telston Way, and a couple of houses in, on the right, Neptune sits, half hidden behind the brick staircase of someone’s house. You'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a wayward bollard and passing it by completely.
That's eight of the nine planets down, just Pluto to go. The remoteness of the ninth location seems apt for the demoted planet, allowing those who no longer consider it worthy to simply bypass it on this tour around the solar system. Completists, however, have two options for reaching it, both involving tackling cross-country footpaths. We took the footpath behind Uranus, which leads diagonally across an open field, before joining a fenced-in trail, from which it's impossible to get lost.
The wind is funnelled down the valley, making for a fresher temperature, and horseshoe prints, babbling brooks and the 2pm appearance of a curious fox create a sense that you're heading into very remote territory. Eyes north for a distant glimpse of the chalk cross of Shoreham War Memorial. That rumbling noise to your left? Oh, that's the M25 — we're not so remote after all. In fact, if you look closely, you'll see the roofs of juggernauts whizzing past among the trees as they take part in their own, more earthly orbit around the capital.
The occasional waymarker keeps you on the right track, and finally a naive wooden sign mounted on a tree signals a right turn for Pluto. Just as we're fearing that the white blob still a couple of miles off in a farmer's field is our destination, a clearing appears on the right, with Pluto awaiting our arrival.
After trekking across fields, through farm gates and over bridges, it's a bit of an anti-climax to come across a dull, concrete bollard, much like the others we've just seen. What is notable though, is the size of the dot representing Pluto, a mere pinprick.
Underwhelming Pluto may be, but there's a sense of satisfaction knowing that we've taken a trip around the solar system in a couple of hours, and ticked off every planet on the way — all within the sounds of the M25.
Other things to do in Otford
Though small, Otford is a beautiful village, with many historic buildings. A roundabout with a duck pond in the centre is the main focus, distracting drivers with wildfowl as they whizz through the village. Stay a little longer though, and there are other sites to enjoy. The remains of Otford Palace can be see by anyone who cares to venture through the trees to find it, while walkers can follow the North Downs Way through the village. Two pubs and a couple of tea rooms keep visitors fed and watered (in normal times), a millennium mosaic is mounted on the wall of the village hall, and various information plaques dotted around the village detail the history of individual buildings.
Visiting the Otford Solar System
The Otford Solar System is at Otford Recreation Park, TN14 5PH, and is free to visit. It’s just a few minutes drive from Castle Farm Lavender in one direction, and the town of Sevenoaks in the other direction. Otford railway station is a 10-minute walk through the village, or there’s limited, chargeable parking in Otford Village car park. It's recommended that you allow around two hours to visit all components of the solar system, though that of course depends on your walking pace.
Take a look at our map of attractions near London for other things to see and do on a day trip from the capital.