Sometimes you just need to get out of the city. Even in good ol’ south east London, with its verdant parks and Victoriana, the urge to swan around in ancient landscapes, free of the roar of traffic, does sometimes come to us all of a weekend. The good news is that there are beautiful fields, woods and villages to walk in just 30 minutes out of town by car or train.
Whether you’ve moved to south-east London for work purposes or whether you are from these parts and just haven’t felt the urge to shift your butt into the woods and fields, my aim with this site is – without wishing to be rude – to tell you where to go. I want to share with you the great places you can walk in without much planning and without dedicating too much time to it. Many of the routes are great to take children on, too.
Being brought up in Bromley alongside crazy, super energised springer spaniels I was lucky enough to get to know the local Kent countryside pretty early in life. Playing a bit of golf, and riding a bike for miles helped too.
For me, many years later, these places are still magical, especially now I’ve understood how they chime with some fairly momentous history. Take the unassuming North Downs village of Downe (just 20 minutes’ drive from Bromley), for example. Here, a short walk will take you through Charles Darwin’s garden and, 20 minutes later, to the perimeter of an airfield crucial to the UK’s survival in the Battle of Britain, where Spitfires can still be heard and seen. This is a village where, in the space of 80 years, the theory of evolution was pieced together and the Nazis were repelled. Slight over-simplification there, but you get the picture. It looks nice too, and has a couple of decent pubs, a superb old flint church, the sound of skylarks and a lovely cake shop.
Down the road there’s Chaucer, medieval pilgrims, historic Formula One racing circuit Brands Hatch, Darwin’s great friend the banker/philanthropist/liberal reformer John Lubbock, the painter Samuel Palmer, a brilliantly preserved Roman villa, soaring birds of prey, saxons and the birthplace of one of my favourite actors, Naomi Watts. But mostly there’s chalk, the odd river, pyramidal orchids, churches and houses of flint, bluebells, yew trees, beech trees, chaffinches, woodpeckers, deer, big views, big skies. OK it’s a bit suburban in parts, and in attitude, but I did say only 30 minutes out of town didn’t I? You can pretend you’re in Devon sometimes, if it helps…
Choose a Kent walk near SE London that works for you…
Here’s a map of all the walks on this site so far. Click on the pointers to take you to descriptions of the walks online or in printable pdf format. Alternatively, use the walk tabs at the top of this page, or the list below.
The best walks on this site for public transport, if you live in SE London are:
Best for public transport: Chislehurst/Petts Wood walk (13): direct train to Chislehurst/Petts Wood/Bickley stations from Brixton/Hither Green/Catford/Herne Hill/West Dulwich/Peckham Rye/Nunhead. Shoreham/Eynsford and Otford routes (walks 2, 3, 5, 8, 12): direct rail to start of walks on Thameslink services between London Blackfriars and Sevenoaks (stopping at Peckham Rye, Nunhead, Catford, Bellingham, Bromley South etc). Trains frequent and take about 30 minutes from, say, Catford to Otford.
So-so for transport: Downe (walk 1): closest route to SE London but involves a (fairly frequent) 25-min bus ride – 146 from Bromley South station
OK for transport: Knole Park (walk 11) – you’ll have to walk from Sevenoaks station (good rail services to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink – see above – or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc) for nearly a mile to the leisure centre and enter Knole from there, joining the walk as per instructions and map.
Bit of a stretch but do-able: Hever (walk 9) actually has a station, on the London Bridge line via East Croydon, so quite easy from Forest Hill, Brockley etc. The walk starts at Hever Castle, 1 mile from the station but there’s a path that will take you there.
Not so accessible: Sevenoaks routes (walks 4, 6, 7): can take train to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc), but then a taxi ride – Ide Hill is about 4 miles from the station; One Tree Hill about 3 miles (also quite close to Hildenborough station).
Car only, although…: I think Chiddingstone is definitely best by car. But, you can take the train to Hildenborough or Edenbridge and get a taxi (more details on walk’s page).
• Download Walk 1: Downe circular (near Bromley, 2.6 miles) View on your phone/desktop
• Download Walk 2: Shoreham circular (3.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 3: Shoreham to Eynsford (4.2 miles) View
• Download Walk 4: Ide Hill circular (3 miles) View
• Download Walk 5: Otford circular via Romney St (5.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 6: One Tree Hill circular (near Sevenoaks, 5.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 7: One Tree Hill figure of eight (near Sevenoaks, 5 miles) View
• Download Walk 8: Shoreham/Otford circular (5 miles) View
• Download Walk 9: Hever circular (4.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 10: Chiddingstone/Penshurst circular (4 miles) View
• Download Walk 11: Knole Park’s Wild Side (3.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 12: Eynsford/Lullingstone circular (4 miles) View
• Download Walk 13: Chislehurst station to Petts Wood station (3.7 miles) View
• Download Walk 14: Shoreham’s mystery eastern valleys (5 miles) View
• Download Walk 15: Westerham/Chartwell (5.5 miles) View
• View Walk 16 (pdf to come): Shoreham circular mk2
Train to the Darent Valley
The railway that runs through the Darent Valley from London Victoria/Blackfriars via Denmark Hill, Peckham Rye, Catford, Bromley South and Bickley is great for walkers destined for Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford, each of which has a station. It terminates at Sevenoaks, from where you can get to Knole Park fairly easily on foot (20mins). It’s a pleasant train journey after Bromley South – the train travels through the surprisingly large Petts Wood and some scenic woodland between St Mary’s Cray and Swanley. But the best bit is when you emerge from the tunnel after Swanley, entering the Darent Valley via an impressive Victorian viaduct over the river. The views here are gorgeous. See above for more on trains.
Pubs on, or close to, the walks
Some rural pubs have closed, such as the much-missed Fox and Hounds at Romney Street, but many have reinvented themselves as gastro entities, offering decent food to go with superb Kent beers from Westerham Brewery, Shepherd Neame, Larkins and the like. Each of the following offers proper meals and aim for a decent standard.
I particularly like the amiable Queens Head in Downe (walk 1) with its good beer selection and ciders (the flattish Rosie’s Pig is very refreshing on a warm day), and medievally wonky Ye Olde George Inn in Shoreham (walks 2, 5, 8, 14). The Plough in Eynsford (walks 3, 12) is smart and right by the Darent river (the bank here is wide and grassy, a popular spot for a summer drink – often a bit too popular) and a really old bridge and ford. The bijou and cheery Cock Inn in Ide Hill, large Chaser Inn in Shipbourne, and the White Rock in Underriver – with its superb beer garden – are excellently placed for the Greensand Ridge walks of One Tree Hill and Ide Hill (walks 4, 6 and 7).
The Henry VIII at Hever (walk 9) offers very good food, quick-serving bar staff, Shepherd Neame and guest beers, a large dining area and a large garden. It attracts loads of international visitors stopping for a bevvy after visiting the nearby castle of the Boleyns so has a great cosmopolitan vibe. The White Hart at Brasted (well placed for the Ide Hill walk and en route to south east London if returning from Hever and Chiddingstone/Penshurst) is another large gastro-style pub which prides itself on its food. In 1940 it was the pub of choice for the Biggin Hill squadrons who often let off steam there during the Battle of Britain and was the original site of the famous blackboard with the chalked signatures of many leading RAF pilots of the second world war (now at the Shoreham aircraft museum).
Also in Brasted, off the main road, is the friendly, family-run Stanhope Arms, again which serves much-praised food. As of mid April 2017 the Chiddingstone and Hever walks have gained a great new pub: the Castle Inn which inhabits a superb medieval building, boasts a lovely garden and excellent food from its open kitchen.
The geology of the region is interesting. On the terrain map above you can see how the south-facing chalk escarpment of the North Downs (which runs all the way to Folkstone incidentally) is broken by the River Darent. Then, beyond Sevenoaks, there is another south-facing ridge (the Greensand ridge), of sandstone, from which you can see the Ashdown Forest and the Weald of Kent. Both escarpments face their mirror image in the north-facing ridge of the South Downs, and beyond that the chalk highlands of north eastern France. Most of the walks are among the so-called dry valleys of the chalk hills behind (ie to the north of) the escarpment. Shoreham lies in the Darent Valley, as does Otford and Eynsford. Toys Hill, Knole Park and One Tree Hill lie along the Greensand ridge further south, past Sevenoaks and Brasted.
Wildlife and plants
I’m no expert but there’s plenty of them about; the best places to find out more about local flora and fauna are the Kent Wildlife Trusts (particularly Bough Beech; details on Dave’s bird page), and High Elms Visitor Centre near Downe. I’ve seen grass snakes, slow worms, lizards on the walks and, bird wise, crossbills, sparrowhawks, buzzards, redstarts and turtle doves. There are magnificent trees on all the walks and, in spring/early summer spectacular, explosions of wild flowers. It’s hard to say one walk is better than another for wild things, just as interesting birds can turn up in Catford (they do, all the time), but I reckon Knole Park is particularly good for bird life, especially owls, but again, check out Dave’s bird page.