Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

Bats in the mist – dusk at Downe, Keston and Polhill

Bats in the mist – dusk at Downe, Keston and Polhill

Exceptionally mild temperatures have lured bats out into the autumnal gloaming to catch late flying insects. I love watching these animals swoop, flutter and flit around and it’s a bonus to see them so late in the year. Usually you can only pick them out against the sky but at Downe and Keston on last weekend’s strolls I was buzzed by bats so closely I sensed rather than saw them zooming past. Yesterday at Polhill one or two emerged from the mist to pass close over our heads before vanishing into the gloom.

I’d thought we’d set off rather too late for a walk. Traffic was bad on the A21 slowing us further (the train is by far the best option for Shoreham walks) and low cloud had covered the sky. But by Locksbottom the skies cleared and we were bathed in a beautiful golden light. This was a false dawn: by the time we parked up by Meenfield Woods above Shoreham we were in quite dense fog. This magically cleared at Polhill, the walk’s halfway point, to give us unusual views before swirling back in as the sun set. With the mist below we had the feeling we were much higher above the valley than we were. I think this weather effect is called a temperature inversion, where warmer air passes over the relatively cold air on the valley floor, causing condensation.

By the time we finished the walk, visibility was down to about 50 metres and driving home the twisty, twiny country lanes needed total concentration if we were to avoid a close encounter with a hedgerow.

  • Mist obscures Sevenoaks
  • Mist at Polhill looking towards Otford, November 2022
  • Mist at Polhill looking towards Otford, November 2022
Wet, wild and wonderful

Wet, wild and wonderful

I’m intrigued about how many of us look outside on a day like today – drab, cold, raining – and just think that curling up with a book or making a great meal or something would be a far better use of time than a walk. Who can blame those who decide such days are for doing stuff indoors? But judging by the views on this website there is a hardcore who come what may will not only brave the elements, they will relish them. I’m in this camp – although I do have a good book to read. Anyway, lovely autumn colour awaits those who make it out, all the more inspiring against the grey backdrop. Waterproof trousers and good boots will be handy though. Photos are from the Fackenden Down route last weekend on which the weather was actually fine as it turned out. Scroll through the photo gallery below right for autumn colour from all the walks.

A waft of Knole

A waft of Knole

A walk in late afternoon around Knole was superb for autumn colour, acorn-munching deer and beautiful tints of pink and orange in the sky and reflected on the austere frontage of that superb medieval-Tudor house. We ventured off the main path as usual and veered through woods on minor trails discovering yellow and ochre fungi. The walk ended amid wafts of woodsmoke at One Tree Hill. Wonderful.

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

What a superb walk on the Polhill route recently. Superb weather and the trees in their best autumn finery. The views across the Darent valley were at their very best with every little detail sharply visible: the church tower, the oasts, the route of the river … It was a view that would have inspired Samuel Palmer, the brilliant mystical romantic artist inspired by William Blake and Turner who roamed this locale with his equally arty mates ‘The Ancients’ in the late 1820s and early 30s. He was mainly based in a rundown cottage nicknamed Rat Abbey before joining his dad at the lovely Water House – still standing of course. Repros of his beautiful art can be seen in the Samuel Palmer pub. He fell in love with and married 19-year-old Hannah Linnell when in his early thirties while in Shoreham and went on a two-year honeymoon in Italy where his art developed further. But it’s his Shoreham works that seem to attract the most attention. Strangely, his surviving son Alfred (another son had tragically died at 19) in 1909 burned loads of his pieces after his death saying that they were a humiliation because no one could understand them, or something. Odd that.

Darent Valley view from above Shoreham
View across Darent Valley toward Fackenden Down on Shoreham circular and Polhill walks. iphone pic

It’s interesting to reflect when gazing across these lovely pastoral valley, and at Palmer’s beautiful paintings, that all was not well in the countryside in the 1830s. Mechanisation was putting farmhands out of work leading to disturbances and the destruction of agricultural equipment, incidents collectively known as the Swing Riots. In 1830 more than a thousand protesters were transported to Australia or imprisoned while 19 people in Kent were hung for their part in the fire-setting and destruction.

Incidentally, the Samuel Palmer pub, formerly Ye Olde George, received unexpected visitors on 15 September 1940 when two very shaken pilots from a shot down German bomber were taken there for a stiff drink by the Home Guard. For some reason I had thought the pub they were taken to was the now defunct Fox and Hounds in Romney St, but the very friendly Shoreham Aircraft Museum custodian, Geoff Nutkins, tells me it was almost certainly the George. Geoff himself is an excellent artist; although what the mystic Palmer would have made of his depictions of Spitfires and Hurricanes boggles the mind.

Scenery changes rapidly at this time of year as greens meld into yellows, browns, reds and golds. So many species of tree seem to go their own way, diverging increasingly in colour until they lose their leaves. Ash turns red, birch gold, chestnuts almost yellow.

View from Mariners Hill near Chartwell
Weald view from Mariners Hill on the Hosey walk, in early autumn

Other recent walks have included Hosey Hill, Petts Wood and Cudham. Autumn colours are really becoming apparent now – it really is a great time to get out into our local countryside. Petts Wood was wonderful on Monday 17 October; what a gem that area is for a walk within suburbia.

Petts Wood walk early autumn
Hawkwood Estate, Petts Wood in mid autumn. Birches along the Kyd Brook. iphone pic

The Westerham and Hosey walks are brilliant in autumn too, with huge views of the Kent Weald from Mariners Hill (near Chartwell) and a wealth of woodland, at times tangled and impenetrable and others spaced and stately.

Near Westerham early autumn
Tower Hill, behind the infant River Darent, in early autumn 2022, on the Hosey and Westerham walks

Conditions underfoot remain pretty dry considering we’re past October’s mid-point, as rain remains an unusual event. It also continues to be very mild, thankfully, considering the energy crisis and on several walks lately I’ve felt overdressed. My next sorties will hopefully be further south, to Hever – well overdue – and then the Ashdown Forest.

Gate in late afternoon in autumn
Gate in early autumn on Hosey walk
The difference a bit of rain makes

The difference a bit of rain makes

Interesting to see the effect of normal weather on the colour of the landscape. The first picture was taken on 15 August on the Fackenden Down route with the summer drought at its peak; the second picture on 17 September. It had rained during the week of 4-11 September.

Parched grass, Dunstall Farm
Parched ground near Dunstall Farm – the tree branch was dead years ago
Back to normal after the early September rains – and, below, a silver birch tree on Fackenden Down photographed on the same days
A sultry sortie to Fackenden Down

A sultry sortie to Fackenden Down

As an experiment I ventured out for the 5-mile Fackenden Down walk at 11.30am on Sunday to see just how unpleasant things could get while hiking in the hottest part of the day, with temperatures well over 30C. The answer was, not very unpleasant at all. I had a hat, plenty of water, and took it fairly slowly. The walk starts in cool beech woods but then, up on that eastern ridge of the Darent valley, a hesitant but welcome breeze from the south-east just about took the edge off the muggy swelt. I can honestly say I’ve felt much hotter just sitting around in the concrete dustbowl that is now south-east London; the fairly strenuous walk was not more taxing than normal, though I took the steps slowly.

  • View from Romney Street
  • Samuel Palmer pub
  • Kent walk
  • View across dry valley at Austin Spring
  • Parched grass, Dunstall Farm
  • View across the slope of Fackenden Down into the Darent Valley
  • Meadow Brown butterfly on scabious
  • Knapweed and wild carrot
  • Magpie Bottom in the August heat
  • steps in the woods
  • Thameslink train at Shoreham station

I accompanied part of my walk with Lyle Mays‘s bluesy but harmonically rich Lincoln Reviews on my headphones – the perfect tune for a drowsy, sultry day surrounded by beautiful, still countryside. Mays was an incredible pianist who performed in the Pat Metheny Group for many decades.

The walk was also accompanied aurally by the calls of buzzards and the rustlings of lizards and small mammals dashing off into the leaf litter by the side of the path ahead of me. As usual I did the walk in reverse so descended Fackenden Down rather than climb it. The bit along the side of the hill (Points 1 to 3 on the Google map) were alive with butterflies and bees enjoying the scabious and knapweed among other wildflowers. I capped the walk off with a visit to the new Samuel Palmer pub, which has replaced Ye Olde George opposite the church. What a superb renovation job has been done there and there were loads of staff to serve the many visitors. Quite the transformation, and it was great to see so many Palmer reproductions on the walls – it’s like an art gallery. But not fancying a pint or a soft drink I popped into the church, which was serving cream teas with a friendly welcome and a cool place to sit down. That might seem strange but that’s how I rolled on Sunday.

Basking case

Basking case

Most of the time the wildlife on these walks is pretty elusive, the small birds skulk in the undergrowth, lizards and amphibians dart away as you approach. Badgers are asleep. But every now and then something odd happens. They forget about us and say ‘I want to bask in the sunshine, I can’t  be bothered with all this hiding’. Clearly, this grass snake spotted by the legend that is Birder Dave (and photo courtesy of Dave) near the River Medway at Tonbridge, wasn’t too bothered about the prospect of a bird of prey swooping down or a fox pouncing. But then it was rather big and may have learned not to worry so much – Kent’s very own anaconda. 

Grass snakes often hang out close to water; they are good swimmers and have a liking for amphibians among other things. I’ve only seen them once; at Lullingstone where there were at least two similarly long ones slithering in and out of grass cuttings. Adders are all also present on the walks but are even more rarely seen. Lizards are a wee bit less elusive – I’ve seen them on the Knole, Ightham Mote and Fackenden walks.

The sand paths of Oldbury

The sand paths of Oldbury

What a wonderful walk today. The Oldbury-Ightham-Stone Street jaunt is a bit of an epic by KWNL standards at 6 miles, but every metre is worthwhile. I started badly, however, by telling a group of mountain bike riders they were wrongly cycling on a footpath. I was sure I was right but it turned out I was wrong. It was a bridlepath and they were fully entitled to ride on it. It wasn’t an unpleasant exchange and it was quite funny that I had to admit I was wrong after being shown the map. I ended up saying “Well I haven’t seen any horses, have you?” but I was trying not to laugh. I’m a country lane cyclist myself; I can’t understand cycling down paths and bumping over roots and being brushed by nettles. And I can’t understand cyclists steaming or wobbling down main roads with queues of nervous car drivers behind them. For me, the whole point is a bit of peace and quiet. But that’s me. Live and let live I say; each to their own.

I hadn’t done this walk since Covid. My friend Steve introduced me to it in July 2020. The lavender has been largely harvested but as a result, on that section of the walk I didn’t pass a soul. Interestingly the springs of the Greensand Ridge seemed to be unaffected by the dry and hot weather, so ponds were looking healthy-ish, and the little streams near Ightham tinkled beautifully.

One of the oddities of the walk is that despite being on the Greensand Ridge you don’t get the same extensive Weald of Kent views that you do further west, at One Tree Hill and around Ide Hill. There are just too many trees in the way! But I did get great views of the Spitfires from Biggin Hill on their joyride flights; they seem to use this area to break away from the accompanying photo plane.

Pond at Point 1-2

Oldbury woods cover an iron age fort. It’s easy to see how this would have been a fortification in the centuries leading up to the Roman invasion but surely the Britons must have chopped down loads of trees to give themselves a field of view.

There is a similar feature at Keston, just south of the ponds. Navigation is not so straightforward at two points: between Stone Street hamlet and St Lawrence’s Church, and on Oldbury Hill itself, so check the GPX. Despite going slightly wrong twice (but quickly getting back on track thanks to the OS GPX) I was back home for the very enjoyable England v Germany football final – an excellent end to the afternoon. It’s a great walk, I really recommend it.

Mitchell and Peach lavender, point 3-4 pictured in early July 2020 – it’s harvested by August (earlier, if it’s been hot)

Record heat and some home truths

With temperatures peaking at 40C and no immediate prospect of rain it’s a good time to ask all Kent walkers to be particularly mindful of fire risk when out and about. I would also like to add that long walks in our nearby countryside is a great substitute for travel further afield; travel which we now know is immensely harmful to our environment. You can feel refreshed, in the same way you do by a short break, by immersing yourself in the valleys, meadows and woods of the North Downs and Greensand Ridge for an afternoon. Let’s hope the damage done by this arid summer is not profound on our verdant landscape, but in the long-term we must accept the rising temperatures will be.

Cycling home from London this week, in what felt like the inside of a convection oven, I could see the smoke of fires off to the east; in valuable wildlife habitats such as Dartford Heath and in east London – an apocalyptic scene. There are not even thunderstorms in the offing to bring relief. Things have to change; we must make better environmental decisions. But don’t expect our politicians to lead us – certainly not those in power at the moment – and don’t expect our media to treat it seriously enough. It’ll have to be us, the people, who act.