Highland fling: hiking in north-west Scotland

Highland fling: hiking in north-west Scotland

As a McCulloch I’ve always been drawn to Scotland. I’ve periodically tramped across the bogs and rocks of the Highlands since I was seven, from the isles of Mull (en famille), Iona and Skye to the peaks of Kintail and Assynt-Coidach further north (en mates). I’ve dabbled, in short. My Glaswegian friend Gav knows every square inch, however, and for a few mindblowing days in mid-May led us to the UK’s highest waterfall, an amazing glacier-scraped plateau, a needle-sharp ridge with views to the Summer Isles and bizarrely shaped mountains from the dawn of time, and an island (Handa) where great skuas reign supreme. Based in the wonderful village of Ullapool on beautiful Loch Bloom we tootled up and down the notorious NC500 road marvelling at the scenery and the occasional boy racer. Among the hiking lessons I’d somehow forgotten was that in this wild terrain any distance takes twice the amount of time it would take on a Kent Walk Near London and walking poles do indeed take a lot of strain away from your knees. Gav also advises that some of the best walks aren’t over Munros (peaks over 3,000ft) but over lower hills and ridges because you can cover more distance and still not miss out on views. Oh, and if you need to come down a near vertical heather-strewn slope, you might as well do it on your bottom; it worked for me. (Pictured: climbing the ridge of Ben Mor Coidach with views of the Summer Isles and isolated Assynt peaks; the road back from Ben Mor Coidach; Handa Island; Little Loch Bloom and the waterfall opposite the UK’s highest, Eas a’ Chual Aluinn.)

Moody blues on the way out

Moody blues on the way out

The bluebells have faded a little earlier than usual this year. It seemed to me on the Ide Hill walk today that the south-facing slopes may be drier than normal for spring, which has affected bluebells’ longevity while those in more sheltered parts of the woods were still full of colour. There’s certainly been a marked lack of rain this year – last month just 18mm fell in north-west Kent, about one-third of the usual April total.

In Meenfield woods, on the Shoreham and Polhill walks, the bluebells, while fading, were still hanging on last weekend – perhaps those woods have retained a little more moisture. I’m no expert. Anyway, instead of bluebells, look out now for wild garlic (or ransoms) growing in profusion in woods on Kent Walks near London. Their brilliant white/cream flowers (pictured above at Rook’s Hill on the One Tree Hill walk) are a sight for sore eyes where there are damp woods and subterranean water close to the surface. The Ide Hill walk is quite unusual for KWNL in having plenty of gorse (near the walk’s start) which is looking brilliant in the spring sunshine, too.

As for birds, things still seem a little quiet with few swallows, martins and swifts making it to the region so far, but I was delighted to see my first whitethroat of the year in one of the many superb country lane hedgerows between Shoreham and Well Hill, a great bird to watch for when on a country cycle. (Pictured in slideshow: whitethroat, Darent Valley view, faded bluebells, Ide Hill view, Scord’s wood, wild garlic in Scord’s wood, azalea in Emmett’s and faded bluebells of Meenfield Wood).

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

It’s that time of year when the cobalt carpet spreads its magic in many of the woods covered in the KWNL area. Bluebells are now fully out on the North Downs chalk hills walks such as the Cudham stroll (in New Year’s Wood particularly), and Meenfield Woods on the various Shoreham circular and Polhill routes. Further south the Greensand Ridge walks at Underriver, One Tree Hill, Ide Hill (perhaps the best bluebells), Oldbury and Hosey Common are awash with blue. Closest to south-east London, Beckenham Place Park, High Elms and Petts Wood-Hawkwood Estate (in the lower, damper parts) has several swathes too. The Downe walk mk1 doesn’t have a lot of bluebell action en route but a quick diversion down to Downe Bank (the west side of the Cudham valley) from point 3 or at the start of the walk should see you in the magical blue realm. Following the Downe Mk2 walk will be kind of blue too, particularly at Downe Bank and Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw woods. I’m sure there are loads on the Hever walk too but I’ve never been on that stroll at this time of year so can’t vouch for them. The Chiddingstone route doesn’t have many bluebells I can confirm, not that this detracts from the superb stroll. (Pictured below: bluebells at New Year Wood on Cudham walk; Meenfield wood, Shoreham circular/Polhill routes; Ide Hill route)

  • New Year's Wood: early bluebells
  • New Year's Wood bluebells 2022
  • Bluebells on the Ide Hill walk, April 25, 2015
  • Bluebells, Emmetts/Scords wood, 2017
  • bluebells Meenfield wood
  • bluebells

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Cudham route firmed up – literally

Cudham route firmed up – literally

The Cudham chalk paths route is a superb saunter through meadows, valleys and woods; its lack of grandiose views doesn’t detract at all. There’ll be plenty of bluebell vistas though from this weekend onwards, but the other day wood anemone and celandine were still the stars, waiting to be eclipsed by the vast swathes of dark green shoots just waiting to burst into glorious dark blue flower. Gamboling lambs, buzzards and the growl of the occasional Spitfire overhead, heading back to Biggin Hill, provided additional entertainment. On entering the wonderful New Year’s Wood, on the second half of the stroll, I was delighted to see the normally muddy path (actually a bridlepath) had been surfaced with mulch and stone – I don’t know the name of that kind of surface – adding to the pleasure of this lovely walk. Great!

Farewell winter woods

Farewell winter woods

Before we start waxing lyrical about spring, wildflowers, birds and bees etc etc let’s salute the beauty of woods in late winter, particularly in March, which tends to be sunnier than February and reflects all kinds of subtle auburn nuances in the leafless trees. Around Bough Beech reservoir near Ide Hill the woods have been partially flooded by high water levels making for scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening parts of that excellent film The Revenant. On the final Saturday in March the first bluebells, generally those in sunny spots in hedgerows, were showing, along with primroses, cuckooflower and so on but those trees around the north lake at Bough Beech in the late afternoon sun in their best end-of-winter finery stole the show. What a superb place that is to watch the sun go down. Pictured below: swamped woods at Bough Beech, silver birches in Stock Wood on the Hever walk, a stream though light woods at Bore Place, and a view back to the Greensand Ridge and Ide Hill across fallow fields from near Bough Beech on a perfectly serene late March day – winter’s last knockings. Finally, an iPhone pic of Shoreham and the Darent Valley on the Polhill/Shoreham Circular walk on Sunday 27 March… a rare day of low misty cloud and sunny patches.

A suburban saunter around Petts Wood

A suburban saunter around Petts Wood

The Chislehurst station to Petts Wood station walk via the Hawkswood Estate might be ‘just’ a suburban saunter surrounded by 1930s mock Tudor, but it has loads going for it: it’s obviously great for public transport being between two stations with links to inner SE London; it’s near to London; it has surprisingly good views at points as far as Biggin Hill and Croydon; the woodland is beautifully managed by the National Trust with a huge variety of trees and restored patches of the heathland that was once common here; there are loads of paths to explore often crossing mysterious little streams running down to the lovely Kyd Brook river (which later becomes the Quaggy and joins the Ravensbourne); and it’s big, so makes for a decent workout. You can go off piste without really getting truly lost because the extensive woods are enclosed by suburbia. On the other hand you can adapt it into a much longer walk taking in Scadbury Park nature reserve and Jubilee country park, both adjacent to the Petts Wood/Hawkwood hub. There are usually plenty of people around, in my experience mostly very friendly and with docile pooches. Owls can be seen and heard at dusk and woodland birds proliferate here.

Today, in glorious late March weather, it was a picture. My route is intended as a guide to some of the best bits: the heather areas with their raised path embankments; the central fields with their long views; hidden ponds and mires; chestnut groves; the Willett Memorial glade; pine clumps and bluebell vistas. And once you leave the woods to get to the station, there are quite a few interesting inter-war houses and gardens, and the town of Petts Wood doesn’t disappoint when it comes to food and beverages.

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

The Hever walk isn’t the most spectacular of the routes in terms of views but its unspoilt, remote-feeling woods, undisturbed meadows, and clay-tiled houses melding into the countryside give it a rare charm. Its position on the Weald of Kent between the high Ashdown Forest to the south and Greensand Ridge to the north means its topography is dotted with mires (woodland bogs) and ghylls (mini-ravines concealing vigorous little streams), each with its own distinct character and sense of mystery. Throw in the area’s prominent place in English history, what with the Boleyns’ fantastic castle and the area being a stamping ground of Henry VIII in the 16th century, this route has a special atmosphere. A wonderful holloway through the middle of a sandstone outcrop comes as a surprise after the gently sloping serenity of the rest of the walk. But a warning: the mud is horrendous at points until about mid-April. This is compensated by the walks’ multitude of wildflowers beginning to stir, the colours of silver birches in the wan late winter sun, the beautiful Hever church with its medieval tombs and brasses, and the Shepherd’s Neame Masterbrew in the excellent Henry VIII pub, now adorned with the flag of Ukraine.

A wintry reminder

A wintry reminder

The gloom of December and early January has lately given way to bright, often mild conditions.
Great tits are blasting out their rhythmic calls optimistic that spring is around the corner and thrushes have been showing off at dusk with their varied, almost tropical-sounding tones. But this time last year all was silent: we were in the grip of a rare icy blast with heavy snow on the 7th and freezing conditions for the following week. If you’d stayed in south-east London you might have thought the snowfall was very light. But out in Kent, beyond the M25 and on the escarpments of the chalk North Downs and the Greensand ridge, the storm struck more powerfully. It seemed a good time to get out and get the feel of things, so here’s a photographic reminder of what real cold actually looks like. And believe me, the top of Fackenden Down on 12 February was bone-shakingly cold. Enjoy the photos! (Pictured are scenes from the Knole and Fackendon walks)

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

Personally I don’t mind ‘busy’ walks. Anyone who’s hiked the Samaria Gorge, climbed Snowdon or sauntered along the Amalfi coast’s spectacular ‘Walk of the Gods’ trail, will be familiar with routes’ long lines of dehydrated tourists in frankly inappropriate footwear. These Kent walks offer comparative splendid isolation and are undertaken by people who are generally dressed for the conditions. But if it really is solitude you are after you might find that the Shoreham circular isn’t the best choice on a sunny Sunday, and Petts Woods main paths are much frequented by families and dog walkers – unsurprisingly considering its suburban location. Lullingstone is particularly busy around the visitor’s centre and river and Knole around the house – but both are big enough country parks to escape the crowd. There were snaking queues of day trippers on the One Tree Hill routes before the winter mud arrived on sunny weekends. Personally I like to see everyone out and about; it’s great to see people of all ages enjoying the local countryside and greeting strangers as walkers do. But if you want a quieter walk the best routes are Shoreham’s eastern valleys, Otford to Kemsing, Hever, Otford circular and Fackenden Down. The Cudham and Knockholt walks aren’t exactly choc-a-bloc either usually. Don’t get me wrong, there are always people around on these walks – you won’t feel like Cheryl Strayed in Wild (as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film). By the way, if you do choose a Shoreham route and happen to be hungry, the Mount Vineyard does great pizzas I’ve found recently – and it’s a great spot for a drink if you’re waiting for the train (the station’s an eight-minute walk up the road).