‘What is this place?’

‘What is this place?’

A spectacular winter’s day on Sunday. A pale blue polar sky, completely still, with saturated colours in the unfettered low sun. Knole was spectacular, the west-facing Tudor mansion ablaze in the late afternoon.

Despite the various woes affecting travel and holidays there were still visitors from abroad there, which was good to see – a reminder of better times.

“What is this place called?” I heard one man with an Italian accent ask an National Trust volunteer while gazing around the outer courtyard.

It seemed an odd question given that visiting Knole would involve taking a unique route leading to … well, Knole.

“Knole House,” the volunteer intoned with slow, exaggerated clarity, clearly pleased to be asked.

“So, who lived here?” he enquired, gazing at the enormous structure in wonder, perhaps hoping to hear “King Henry the Eighth” or “Queen Elizabeth the First”.

“The Sackville-Wests,” came the reply, delivered in an awed tone deemed suitable for heralding (minor) aristocracy.

“Ah”, said the man, nodding as if he were an old acquaintance of Vita’s, but betraying a false reverence that screamed: “Never heard of ’em”.

I too felt slightly disappointed at the answer, despite knowing what it would be.

Tiny lanes, dry feet

Tiny lanes, dry feet

The mud on these walks is still in the mild-moderate category. Wellies useful but not essential… mostly. But if things get really boggy, which they are bound to do by midwinter, it’s easily possible to devise routes that take in tiny wandering lanes rather than swampy paths – of which there are more than few in these parts. Many such lanes were once paths… others service dispersed houses around villages and become footpaths or bridlepaths. It would be difficult to devise a proper circular walk of decent length using only these trackways – although I intend to give it a shot over the coming months. Two such lanes which intersect with a walk at KWNL are at Underriver. Take a look at the map; you’ll see two lanes roughly north to south acting as shortcut links between points 4, 5 and 8. These are lovely to explore, especially at the moment with the unfurling of the autumn wardrobe. They also intersect with footpaths so you can devise your own bespoke routes. With bird expert Dave I walked them yesterday, stopping often to admire berries and views, and to scan for les oiseaux. We didn’t see a lot (bird numbers have been in decline for years): a few siskins, a gorgeous flock of bullfinches flitting the hedgerows, and newly arrived redwings in threes and fours was about it. Oh, and a fantastic female kestrel which eyed us from a small scarlet tree close to the (excellent) White Rock Inn. We managed about 3.5 miles, half on tarmac, before resuming the Underriver route at point 4, but doing it anticlockwise. A pint of Harvey’s at the aforementioned pub in the autumnal twilight was a splendid bookend to a most satisfactory KWNL afternoon.

Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

I’m trying to add more train/bus walks to the KWNL site; the traffic in SE London is a factor, as is the need to reduce car use and pollution. Then there’s the fact that lots of keen strollers don’t have cars anyway. I’ve got two new routes up my sleeve using public transport to access, but I haven’t quite got them finalised yet. One is Herne Bay to Whitstable (5 miles) which hardly needs a map… you just follow the coast path. Both stations are on the Ramsgate line from Bromley South. It’s quite expensive (£26 return) of course being a British train but definitely worth it. But I want to see if I can continue the walk to Faversham (doubling the length), which is also on the same line, using decent paths. I know you can but I haven’t done it yet. Also it means stretching the ‘Near London’ remit of this website somewhat, though the fastish train makes the trip fairly short in relation to distance and you arrive without feeling worn out by having to drive.

Closer to home would be a walk from Hayes station, the terminus of the London Bridge line via Catford Bridge, to Keston Ponds and then Downe (about 6 miles). From Hayes station you traverse Hayes Common, an attractive area of woods and heath to reach Keston. Behind the village is another woods from where you reach Keston Ponds. Looking at the OS map there is a ribbon of ponds from Keston and Hayes to Bromley Common. These are fed by springs and the Ravensbourne river, which rises at Keston Common.

Keston Common heathland

Beyond the two main ponds is an important area of heath then, after crossing the A233 you head through woodland to the Wilberforce Oak, where in May 1787 William Wilberforce talked with prime minister William Pitt the Younger (who lived at adjacent Holwood House, the Chequers of its time), about abolishing the slave trade. The spot is marked with a stone bench plonked there in 1862 and now behind the Holwood perimeter fence and a sign. There’s a dead oak still standing but that isn’t the Wilberforce oak. There are also bits of old oak lying about… maybe some of that is from the original. But there’s a nice healthy young oak anyway, planted about 30 years ago. There are also echoes of Roman and prehistoric settlements around this spot.

From here it’s pretty easy to walk all the way to Downe; cross the somewhat hairy Shire Lane, walk past the Holwood Farm Shop then take the footpath on the right which joins up with the Downe circular walk to bring you into the village from where you can get the 146 bus back to Hayes/Bromley South/Bromley North. One further appalling fact about the slave trade that only recently came to light: the descendants of slave owners in the UK were paid compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ from 1835 to, wait for it, 2015. Hard to believe isn’t it?

Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley

Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley

Again we returned to Meenfield Woods and Shoreham to do the Polhill loop at the weekend. There was some lovely light in late afternoon on Saturday. Surprisingly there were few birds around given the migrations taking place. Clearly the route does not intersect particularly with the flightpaths of redwings, fieldfares and various other birds heading into the UK from the continent, although a red kite glided above us as we turned the corner to enter the ‘jungle zone’ beneath Polhill itself in the lower part of Pilots Wood. I’d like those redwings to know there are more than a few hawthorn bushes on Polhill with nice juicy scarlet berries right now. What are they waiting for? Maybe the frost, which makes certain berries more appealing to les oiseaux. Dark cloud combined with a lilac sky and soft sunlight to show off the autumnal Darent Valley at its best. My photography doesn’t quite capture it, but I tried.

No time to dieback

No time to dieback

As I write it’s pitch black outside and teeming with rain. After another year of somewhat unusual weather it’s quite reassuring to hunker down to the sounds and sights of North Atlantic storms swinging past. KWNL paths will be getting a lot muddier though, so it’s time for that wellies purchase. On the Polhill Bank/Shoreham and Fackenden Down routes recently I became really aware of the extent of ash dieback, a disease caused by the arrival (about 30 years ago) of a fungus that species of ash in Asia live happily with. Ash trees here have evolved no defences, however, and it is killing them by the thousand. The Woodland Trust estimates that 80% of our ashes – one of our most beautiful trees – will be destroyed. It’s sad to see the bare dead branches and the spots of dye marking the ailing trees facing the chop.

But among happier sights are the profusion of berries and fruits now dotting the hedgerows with scarlet, orange, purple and orange. Hawthorn, black bryony (don’t eat that one), spindle, sloes, crab apples, damsons, guelder rose, rowan berries and rose hips … they’re all knocking around on these walks, especially in the hedgerows on the Underiver/One Tree Hill strolls and at Fackenden Down. I’m trying to get better at identifying them but I’m not a natural forager or jam-maker; I’m happy to leave the berries to the winter migrants – redwings, fieldfare, waxwings and the like. If anyone could identify the berries pictured in the slideshow below at Polhill please tell me at amac49@hotmail.co.uk. I’m thinking hawthorn but I’m not sure.

A suburban woody world

A suburban woody world

Petts Wood is brilliant for 2-3 mile walks combined with a cafe or restaurant visit to the town itself. The superb National Trust-maintained woodland has a multitude of paths, plenty of birdlife, some atmospheric heathery glades and a field with a nice view. There are little streams, a wonderful variety of trees from chestnut groves to scots pine, tulip trees, yew, holly and stout oaks, and lots of mud I’m afraid. I strongly advise travelling there by train if possible especially at the moment because the west side of town is gridlocked having been hit by petrol queues and major roadworks. It’s only a few minutes on the train out of Bromley South, on the Victoria-Orpington line; or 15 minutes from Hither Green/Lewisham on the Charing X-Sevenoaks route. The woods are a 10-minute walk to the north of the station, as is Jubilee Country Park. I’ve created a GPX map (revealing where you are on the route in real time) that ties in many of the more interesting parts of Petts Wood and its neighbour Hawkwood (see bottom of post for OS and All Trails versions).

Oh yes, by the way, there’s a major running event in the woods on Sunday October 10 so best avoid then.

Click here for Ordnance Survey GPX map to follow

Click here for All Trails GPX map with waypoints added.

Also, try this site’s Chislehurst Station to Petts Wood Station walk (3.5 miles)

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. Each walk description has a GPX map attached so you can follow your progress in real time – if you have signal. Failing that please use an Ordnance Survey map to check the route (OS Explorer 147 has them all).

Best walks for travelling without a car are those in the Darent Valley – the ones starting from Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford/Kemsing stations. Knole Park can also be reached from Sevenoaks station.

The walks around Shoreham, Downe, Cudham, Otford and Knockholt are on North Downs chalk fairly close to or on the escarpment itself. They have a different character to the more wooded southerly routes around Ide Hill, Westerham, One Tree Hill and Sevenoaks, which are on the Greensand Ridge.

Further south are the Hever and Chiddingstone walks, which are in the Low Weald of Kent… a different flavour again with fewer steep slopes.

Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map displayed here.

Splashes of colour into autumn

Splashes of colour into autumn

Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) is a flower from the honeysuckle family and it looks so cool right now. Maybe not for much longer but it’s currently fairly prominent on the chalky walks such as Fackenden, Polhill, Chevening and Kemsing. Where the grassy hilly slopes are looked after by naturalists, the Kent Wildlife Trust for example, the flower supplants regular scabious – another superb flower and particularly sweet smelling – by mid September. The marjoram is no longer flowering much, and thyme has died down somewhat too so for pollinators the devil’s-bit, which looks a bit like knapweed at first sight, is the main show in town. It is certainly being enjoyed by butterflies and bees on the wonderful ‘wild garden’ path – which in June is great for orchids – leading to Fackenden Down this week. But the star of the walk – apart from the landscape and sky – was a superb green common lizard in a sunny spot near the top of the down. Few birds were in evidence but chiffchaffs called from the hedgerows, a buzzard soared in the distance and being I’m optimistic I’d say I may have seen a pair of late-migrating turtle doves heading south. Apparently devil’s-bit scabious got its name from its ability to treat scabies, a property that the devil didn’t like much (the devil wants us all to be itchy you see). Slightly weird but there you go.

The accompanying photos were taken on my iphone and hence are poor quality – they certainly don’t do the blue-purple sparks of devil’s-bit any justice; my camera is once again defunct at the moment. (Close up of flower photo by Anne Burgess/Geograph creative commons.)

Creatures of the sun

Creatures of the sun

In a largely cloudy wet summer in these parts the sightings of butterflies are all the more precious. As an ‘ectotherm’ these insects need warmth to fly for any duration. So on cooler days they need to open their wings to sunlight and heat their bodies to about 29C before take off. Slopes with wildflowers on them facing the sun are particularly great places to see them.

Populations of these absurdly beautiful creatures are falling the world over because of climate swings and pesticide use – another reminder that apart from robins, goldfinches, magpies, deer and rats, etc, it’s quite hard to write about many facets of the natural world without doom and gloom encroaching, but that’s the reality. Take the small tortoiseshell butterfly: its numbers have declined because its larvae need to feed on wet leaves (mainly of nettle), so the increasing tendency toward drought has really hit its population over the past 40 years or so. The large tortoiseshell meanwhile has nearly completely vanished. Having said that, other species, such as silver washed fritillary, are said to be expanding if anything.

From top left clockwise: peacock in Downe feeding on marjoram; female silver washed fritillary; gatekeeper in Polhill; red admiral in Catford; marbled white in Downe; comma near Shoreham; male silver washed fritillary in Downe; chalk hill blue – photo by Steve Hart –Fackenden Down

However, Kent walks near London are graced at the moment by a variety of lovely species: on the chalk North Downs you’ll see silver washed fritillaries, the small but smart brown argus (actually classed as a blue), dark green fritillaries (if you’re very lucky), gatekeepers, marbled whites and meadow browns, plus many of the common names such as the incredible migratory painted lady, red admiral, brimstone, tortoiseshell large and small and a host of others. Chalk hill blue, the common blue and the adonis blue (very rare) are particular favourites. It might just be me but I tend to see more orange tips, peacocks, commas, brimstones and large whites on the Greensand Ridge walks around Sevenoaks, but I’m not being scientific here – they are widespread.

To see wonderful butterflies you might not have leave your garden or park as we all know – now the prolific south-east London buddleia is in flower, the migratory red admirals are often seen a-flutter in the suburban streets. Small species, like skippers, I don’t know much about. But I often see gem-like butterflies on the walks – I’d need to be with an expert to identify them.

It’s hard to photograph butterflies because they are rather skittish unless in the mood for a bit of showing off, or just super drunk on nectar (is that possible?) but I have managed to take a few shots over the past couple of years, which I’ve compiled in this montage above (the chalk hill blue centre right was taken by a friend though).

Not a butterfly but the very smart looking cinnabar moth, pictured at Romney Street while on the eastern valleys stroll
Superb North Downs railway walk

Superb North Downs railway walk

It’s good to avoid using the car when possible – the traffic at the moment heading out of town seems pretty bad – so I’m hoping that when I add new routes there are viable public transport options.

That’s certainly the case with the 6.5 mile Otford Station to Kemsing station route, which is mostly on the North Downs Way on the crest of the chalk escarpment. It’s easy to navigate, being well signed all the way from Otford, then descends the downs at the St Clere estate, Heaverham. (Read full directions here.)

At Heaverham hamlet you emerge close to the super Chequers Inn. There’s still a good mile walk to the eccentrically positioned Kemsing station though on some quite indistinct footpaths through pastures. You have to cross over the M26 on a bridge (making navigation a bit easier) then cross the railway line 200 metres west of Kemsing station at a foot crossing hidden in woods (making navigation a bit more difficult!).

Now, here’s the twist; trains back to SE London from Kemsing are infrequent (usually once an hour, with an easy short change at Bromley South) but they are fast. So timing the inevitable beverage at the Chequers can be tricky. If you overcook it, then it’s a 15-minute walk straight down Watery Lane (no pavement so frankly dangerous) to the station. But allow 30 minutes at least for the far more attractive footpath route. If in doubt, just stay for another drink and take your time.

  • Wheat above Heaverham
  • St Clere estate house
  • Meadow on North Downs escarpment
  • North Downs Way near Kemsing

Thanks to Steve for getting me out to walk much of this route recently (and telling me about the friendly pub), and thanks to Will for agreeing to join me on a chaotic romp through the molehills and long grass of the last mile as I attempted to ‘pioneer a route’ on vague footpaths to Kemsing station in a doomed attempt to catch the 17.50.

Find directions for the walk here. In the meantime, if you are confident enough to give it a go without a description, here’s a GPX map, but I’d recommend taking an OS Map. I haven’t been able to embed a Google map for the walk thanks to WordPress’s new restrictive new rules. I’ll do a PDF soon.

For that last awkward bit, cross the M26 by a footbridge (easy to find) then head across a grassy, lumpy field aiming for a stile leading into woods close to the railway line. Immediately after climbing over the wonky stile you will see the foot crossing over the railway lines themselves. Cross then turn left along lovely Honeypot Lane to walk 200 metres to Kemsing station, which is opposite (wait for it) the Chaucer industrial estate.