Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

First of all, I wish all the best to Kent Walks near London readers as we all try to get through this period unscathed in terms of our health, your livelihoods and sense of wellbeing. To those who have had or still have Covid-19, many sympathies – it sounds horrendous in many cases. The countryside is slowly opening up, but we should all be mindful of social distancing and try to make way for each other on narrow paths. Let’s avoid overcrowding in good weather and take wipes for handling gates and stiles if possible.

Second thing, thanks to all those who have donated to this website… entirely voluntary so a heartfelt thanks from me. It’s only a small amount of course but it will help me produce more walks, better mapping and information and some will be going to charities too. There are adverts on the site too, you’ll see, but a niche page like this is never going to pull in the big bucks from the AdWords model so it’s little more than a token gesture towards commerciality. Maybe display ads from dedicated sources – outdoor retailers, pubs, or as you are about to read, apps – may be the way forward.

Oh, and please check out the Kent Wildlife Trust website. KWT manages some of the woods and sites on here (as does the Woodland Trust), helping maintain the paths and creating brilliant areas for flora and fauna. It deserves our full support (and donations right now).

’appy days with wildflower apps

Out and about for the first time in a while at the weekend made me reflect that May, June and July are probably the best times of year for trying to work out what kinds of wildflowers you hopefully aren’t trampling over.

Many wildflowers aren’t that spectacular compared with cultivated garden plants and we sort of take them for granted. But notice how, unlike some of our garden species, they don’t seem to suffer from the dry conditions so much.

Until recently I only knew obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercup, ox-eye daisy, buttercup, pyramidal orchid, etc. I was a blooming ignoramus you might say. But I started adding to my list by asking friends, looking at my dear departed mama’s old, faded book of illustrations (complete with samples turning to dust) and looking at websites. I half remembered things my mum told me as a kid, so pretty soon I could identify scabious, red campion and the like. And the more you keep an eye out and record, the more interesting the whole caboodle becomes. You start to appreciate the shy little flowers of the woods, meadows and margins, their colour and what they give to various creatures.

Common spotted orchid and trefoil, White Hill, Shoreham, on the Fackenden Down walk (in June 2019)

But by downloading the Picture This app on my phone (there are other similar tools too in the App Store, such as the excellent iNaturalist which I’ve also used) I’ve revolutionised my learning. The app compares your photos with its database pictures in seconds to tell you what you’re looking at. This has helped me identify stitchwort, bugle, white helleborine, yellow pimpernel, archangel, ground ivy, vetch, sainfoin, trefoil and milkwort, among others. It does tree leaves too. I’ve been quite oblivious to all this stuff for a long time, so please forgive my excitement.

Soon, an abundance of orchids will appear in places like Polhill Bank, Fackenden Down, Lullingstone, Magpie Bottom (see Walks on the menu above) and I can’t wait to get stuck into working out what’s what. The walks on this site are excellent for flora with chalky soils predominating on the North Downs; sandy soils on the Greensand Ridge and Weald routes.

I suppose flowery stuff is not the most useful information you’ll pick up in life but I find being able to identify wildflowers really does pique my interest and triggers curiosity about other things too… insects, birds and how our ancestors used these plants. It also makes up for the fact I am a pretty useless gardener.

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

So from Wednesday it’s once again OK to drive into the countryside for a walk, but we are being urged to avoid using public transport to keep it safe for key workers. For the many without cars the walks will remain inaccessible but in the greater scheme of things, against the tragic current backdrop of lives and livelihoods lost, it’s not such a huge disaster. But it should be remembered that days spent out in the woods, fields and paths are hugely beneficial for mental health, I’d suggest in ways that the local park just can’t match. We also have to hope that the roads – and air – don’t become increasingly clogged as people jump in their vehicles for all purposes. Social distancing will need to be maintained, of course, and also take care around touching gates and fence posts – it would be a good idea to take wipes or hand sanitiser with you.

Speedwell.

Learning birdsong and wildflowers

This spring’s bluebells will mostly be over but there will be plenty of other spring delights to witness. Cowslips, vetch, bugle, stitchwort, speedwell and buttercups are all flowering and soon orchids will push their way through grassy fringes and meadows along with ox-eye daisies. Warblers have arrived from Africa and are burbling, chiff-chaffing, and whistling away unseen in the woods and hedges. Precious few swallows, martins and swifts are around so far, I hear – a worry perhaps. I’m always astounded at the volume generated by tiny wrens at this time of year, so definitely worth listening out for them. A great bird to see is the spotted flycatcher. They have been seen on many walks on this site, most recently in Knole Park, not by me, but by experts. They disappear back to tropical Africa in August having only arrived this month so seeing one is a relatively big deal.

A really good website for learning birdsongs is this oneDon’t be fazed by the huge number of species to learn. Just learn the ones most relevant – for example, wood warblers aren’t present (much) in Kent woodlands but willow warblers are more numerous. Try to learn the basics – say, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch – and soon you’ll be adding others. Don’t be too frustrated if you can’t see the bird you can hear: it’s often incredibly difficult with the trees in full leaf, and many of us find it hard to exactly pinpoint where the bird song is coming from, not only in terms of direction but in terms of distance. Kent walks near London birdwatching correspondent Dave, of course, is a master of not only identifying song but working out where the sound is emanating from him – remarkable talent built on experience gleaned when a nipper no doubt.

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Bluebell fun facts

Bluebell fun facts

For those of us lucky enough to live within a walk of long-established woodland, we can still enjoy bluebells despite the lockdown. Beckenham Place Park is one such area, although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods have their share. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe, Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, but we can’t get there at the moment and the flowers don’t last much beyond the end of the month so I reckon this year is kaput for the cobalt carpet. Anyway, 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. 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 foot damage.

Confined for now, but keep your eyes open

In my wildest dreams did I ever think when I set up this website that I’d be advising people not to take a walk. But current circumstances, like something from a disaster movie, dictate that really we shouldn’t go out into the countryside for our hiking fix. My last walk was in the Ashdown Forest (yes, I know, East Sussex… not Kent) on Sunday 22 March. And yes it was very busy with an atmosphere more of Easter holidays than a national crisis. It’s a beautiful place to be on a fine day but I kicked myself for suggesting it; there was always a high risk it’d be busy. So to reiterate the government’s advice:

  • Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (where this absolutely cannot be done from home)
  • Stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people
  • Wash your hands as soon as you get home

People should not meet friends or family members who do not live with them. Gatherings of more than two people (excluding people who live together) will be banned.

Of course the word ‘absolutely’ is up for debate and ‘who do not live with them’ is not exactly clear either given the comings and goings of adulty ‘kids’. It’s difficult to stay two metres away in a shop too, especially when the brave shop staff decide to check your receipt. But we get the gist. The full government guidance on social distancing is here.

All our sympathy and concern must be directed at those who are elderly, frail, have underlying health conditions and mobility problems. And then there are the self-employed, from musicians, actors to carpenters and yoga instructors, who’ve seen their incomes disappear overnight and little mechanism in place to compensate them at least in the short term. Many have pointed to the plight of the homeless, those living in abusive relationships, in poor quality housing among others. These are tough times.

Garden and street birdwatching

Goldfinch on my battered old seed feeder

Those of us lucky enough to have gardens might enjoy a spot of very local birdwatching: to that end, here’s my latest piece for Guardian Travel, which leans on the great experience, skill and knowledge of my friends Steve Gale and Dave, of these pages. Just prior to that I wrote a short piece on the Ightham Mote estate, also for Guardian Travel, as part of a round-up of National Trust gardens and parklands that at the time were remaining open. I guess the estate is still open seeing as it’s not fenced in but the NT has closed all its gardens now. Maybe this year the bluebells will only be enjoyed by true locals, not us more inner suburbanites.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that local pollution levels have fallen markedly and we can hear birdsong now the whine of jets has disappeared. But I can’t wait for this to be over so we can all get out there (not all at once of course).

Update: Monday 6 April

In the past week I’ve written another piece for the Guardian around birds and wildlife, this time around watching webcams and using social media to deepen our understanding. An inspiration for this was the excellent Facebook (I know, I’m not a huge fan either) page and live show set up by Chris Packham and Meghan McCubbin called the Self Isolating Bird Club. In researching the piece I had a long chat with another Springwatch presenter, Michaela Strachan, who spoke to me from her house in South Africa, where she too is in lockdown. She was as delightful to talk to as you’d expect from her television appearances. The article is here.

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Ever been somewhere on your doorstep that you’d heard about but not hitherto bothered with, then been blown away by it? So after several decades of never going there I headed the way of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. I’d thought it was just a nondescript lake, a couple of bird hides and a few twitchery types in unfashionable knitwear dotted around. Instead, it was a veritable waterworld with one very large lake, four medium-sized ones, lots of bird hides, a large visitor centre, the River Darent, islands, ponds galore, reedbeds, loads of paths to explore and rich damp woodland of alder, birch and so on. I immediately saw lapwing, egret, pochard and curiously large number of long-tail tits. All in all, a more satisfying place to visit than Bough Beech, perhaps. When spring gets going it will be a real treat.

East Lake, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve

I shall return there; it’s a surprising place, rewilded after years of use as sand and gravel pits, and offers views of the Darent Valley from a perspective I hadn’t really seen before. There was a strange atmosphere though… the coronavirus suddenly felt as if it had got exponentially more serious on Saturday. I dropped by the local mega-Sainsbury’s on the way back; you could tell that the UK was trying to decide what kind of country it was – greedy and panicky, or stoic and rational. I think it’s still undecided.

 

Sunshine and showers

Sunshine and showers

After the watery dip into the Ashdown Forest in midweek it was back to terra-not-so firma today with a squelchy trip to Lullingstone. Up the steps we went, past the Roman Villa to vast flint and chalk fields where several buzzards glided. It’s strange how wild birds of prey congregate near Eagle Heights; I guess they just want to peep at their captive exotic cousins. Storm clouds were fragmenting to the east having a deposited another ocean on our blighted county.

The river was extremely high and the water meadows living up to their billing with Eynsford’s small herd of highland cattle looking a bit hacked off as they nuzzled soggy hay bales and pondered their liquid domain.

On the way home we popped in on Eynsford Castle, basically a bunch of Norman ruins. The place was built within 20 years of the Battle of Hastings on the site of a Saxon tower by William de Eynsford I (for it is he) but was vandalised and left derelict 300 years later after an ownership dispute. Such a shame, it enjoyed a beautiful setting close to the river and would have contributed significantly to English Heritage or the National Trust if it had been maintained. Such a lack of foresight some of these medieval people.

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A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A rare day off afforded me (us, actually) to venture somewhere during an afternoon when it didn’t rain continuously. We settled on the Ashdown Forest, an hour’s drive from my corner of south-east London, in East Sussex between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. A perusal of the visitor centre’s maps online led us to choose Walk 11, Chelwood Gate, in the south-west of the Forest.

The area has got the lot: interesting geology, flora and fauna, views, history and literature, being the landscape for Winnie the Pooh’s capers with many recognisable spots. These include Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, Galleons Lap, the Heffalump trap, for example, all of which can be identified.

The walk was beautifully laid out in printable format, with lots of informative text. But it was very difficult to follow; a “narrow path” beside a ditch was actually a wide path that went through a huge puddle – that sort of thing, but we made it around thanks to careful map analysis. In fact, with a compass, a sense of direction and an Ordnance Survey sheet you can pretty much make it up as you go; there are many paths to choose from and the Forest’s inner Pale is open for exploration in a similar way to Knole Park, for example.

What was immediately apparent was just how much rain has fallen this winter; everywhere there were overflowing ponds, gushing streams, seas of mud. You’d think it was Scotland at times. But in fact the Forest, being easily the highest point of the Weald between the North and South Downs does attract far more rainfall than the lower surrounding areas and really does pep up the local rivers, eventually flowing into the Eden and Medway. The high heath and the Pale melds into wooded valley mires where the pines give way to alder and birch, and planks serve as bridges over vigorous streams, alongside some very old looking stone bridges.

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I love how the Forest has its own vocabulary: there are ghylls, hatches, laps … And the names of the car parks are evocative too: Friends, King’s Standing, Roman Road, Goat, and of course Piglets and Pooh.

After we finished with Chelwood Gate (where medieval hero John of Gaunt used to enter for hunting and a home to Howard Macmillan, who once entertained JFK here) we drove a few miles east past Nutley and up onto the highest part of the Forest, to Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in Winnie the Pooh). Up there the views extend over bright yellow gorse for mile after mile in all directions. We walked down to the memorial to AA Milne and EH Shepherd. I felt quite moved, those stories have a real character and a sense of an innocent time that has been lost.

Our final port of call was the 15th-century Anchor Inn in the small village of Hartfield, a cosy labyrinth of a pub that serves two of the finest ales in all England: Harvey’s and Larkins. As we arrived at dusk a barn owl glided across the road in front of us. Then it was back to the smoke to plonk in front of the telly to watch Chelsea beat Liverpool … who would have credited that?

Getting there on public transport: Train to East Grinstead from East Croydon then the 261 or 270 bus seems to be the best option. At East Grinstead the brilliant Bluebell Railway takes day trippers by steam train down to Sheffield Park, south of the Forest. At the moment a landslip caused by rain means trains can’t reach East Grinstead, but there is a bus service from Lingfield. Boring though… so best wait ’til services are restored, hopefully in spring.
Getting there by car: Drive via Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Edenbridge, Cowden and Hartfield on the rather pleasant B2026.