Rain shafts and redwings

I managed to squeeze in three walks between Friday and Sunday – Hosey CommonKnole Park and Underriver – and dropped by at Bough Beech. The weather was mostly grey on the first two days but a quick trip over to One Tree Hill late in the day on Saturday put us into pole position for enjoying a sliver of gold that marked the setting sun and some curious localised showers sweeping across the Weald, producing several rain shafts. Friday had burst into colour late on too, with a glorious rainbow at Bough Beech and ochre clouds layered above that sliver of gold and orange.

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However, Sunday proved the best day of all with blue skies punctuated by dense cumulus once again depositing rain in sheets for 30 seconds at a time leaving the sunlit landscape shimmering. Very unusual weather. I met up with birdwatching guru Dave and walked on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver. He was in top form, picking up the calls of siskin, little owl, bullfinch and treecreeper in between explaining why West Ham were going to have a decent season (for them). We marvelled at the ‘dancing’ beech trees on the sunken path leading up the escarpment.

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Later on, as the day turned red and mauve, we watched in awe as large flocks of redwings and fieldfares tracked west, arriving from Scandinavia or perhaps eastern Europe, no doubt heading for berry-laden hedgerows somewhere in the country. I think I’m getting into this birding lark but I think I’ll need expert guidance for some time yet.

But seeing those flocks on the move was something I felt privileged to witness – the kind of sight we can all see if we happen to look up at the right moment. But when you realise the significance and epic scale of these migratory movements you start to appreciate why some people wander around with binoculars and notebooks.

Where are these walks exactly?

Where are these walks exactly?

Here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map to show you where the walks are. 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. The Google maps are not GPX maps; ie, they don’t show your current location, they are indicators that have extra info embedded in them. They are also a bit rough, being hand-drawn, so please use the GPX maps linked on each walk page or a printed Ordnance Survey map for real detail. 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!

Looking at the map there are plenty of holes in Kentwalksnearlondon.com coverage I can see… Walks are needed from Farningham, Kemsing, between Ide Hill and Sevenoaks and perhaps from Trossley country park. The only problem with these latter places is that they aren’t great for public transport. We’ll see – it’d be nice to get to 30 walks.

I think that’s summer over with

I think that’s summer over with

There’s no point pretending. It’s definitely autumn. It might even be winter. I’m not sure. But it’s not summer anymore. And it’s getting so dark so quickly after 6.30pm. I mean I’ve been through all this before – quite a lot actually – but this year it’s caught me out. The light just seems to go. There’s none of this ‘oh look there goes the sun but we can carry on getting jiggy with it’ malarky now. A nagging cold wind rubs salt in the wounds. Thoughts of a wander in the backyard to look at the tomato plants and their failed crop with a glass of sauvignon in hand seem so eccentric as to impinge on insanity.

Still, there are things worth getting out to see. Migrating birds for example. I was fortunate to be asked to write this piece on the subject for the Guardian last week. I learnt a lot writing it, especially from talking to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Paul Stancliffe; an expert who’s happy to talk to a layman and amaze them with stories and observations. It also gave me the opportunity to pick North Downs and Beyond blogger Steve Gale’s brains and discuss matters with the mysterious Dave of these pages. Who knew that until the 19th century many people believed swallows hibernated in mud in ponds during winter and that we only found proof of their migration in 1912? Well, I didn’t.

Meanwhile, there’s a pandemic going on. The infection rate is rising after a lull in which many of us had kidded ourselves into thinking it was kind of over. Of course it wasn’t. Without a vaccine it can’t be. But treatment of the disease is better now and most people ‘get’ social distancing and modified behaviour so I can’t believe we’re all for the chop quite yet. I don’t want to go on about politics here, so I won’t – there are enough opinions floating around. Let’s just say I’m not quite sure the virus outbreak has been handled too well and, on an unrelated matter, I don’t want Kent to be turned into a lorry or car park.

Anyway, walks are good! Very good for thinking, watching and reflecting and saying ‘hi’ to strangers. I recommend walks!

It might be an idea on walks to take hand sanitiser with you and use it after touching stiles and gates.

The picture above is of geese flying east of Shoreham at the end of August 2019 at the end of one of that year’s last hot days.

 

Blazing saddles through the North Downs

Blazing saddles through the North Downs

One of the vital balancing pleasures of this frustrating, disturbing and tragic summer has been cycling the local North Downs.

There are often loads of cyclists with the same thought at weekends and on weekday evenings in this area but the backroutes I use are almost free of all kinds of traffic.

I’ve been really enjoying exploring the lanes between Downe, Cudham, Knockholt Pound and Brasted; to improve fitness and stamina, because they are beautiful and in the hope of ‘creeping up’ on wildlife. Well, I’ve become a bit fitter – though not lighter – and, yes, I never tire of the area’s aesthetic qualities, but the wildlife has been somewhat elusive. The escarpment near Chevening is always good for buzzards, however, and the odd red kite, but my birdspotting by bike adventures have fallen generally flat. Yes there are deer, and I’ve had close up encounters with bats, tawny owls and dragonflies. But that’s about it.

I’ve cycled around the area from my front door in SE London but also take the bike by car to Downe or Cudham and cycle from there for 90 minutes or so. Clear evenings, such as those we’ve had lately, are particularly atmospheric as the skies to the west turn orange and pink and long shadows are punctuated with the gold of the setting sun. And with hardly any traffic there’s quite a profound silence much of the way, with only the odd bit of birdsong and the occasional growl of a Spitfire cruising back to Biggin Hill at the end of the day’s joyrides to break it.

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One of my favourite parts of the ride, although I only deviate my route to take it in if I have extra time, is the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs west to east towards the bottom of the escarpment. The views to the east are superb as is the view back up to the ridge. The hill I take to get back up the escarpment is Sundridge Road, a never-ending lung-buster of a climb, and yet as you stand at the foot of the North Downs the ridge seems mild and shallow. Appearances can be deceptive, believe me.

Since lockdown started at the end of March I’ve seen bluebells come and go, birdlife spring into action then go silent, trees turn from brown to emerald and now to all shades between yellow and black, peacock and red admiral butterflies fill the lanes and now berries ripen, lining the hedgerows with scarlet and midnight blue.

Some of this gently rolling landscape routes appears bland in photographs, which tend to flatten it out. You need the wider perspective of the naked eye to really appreciate these surroundings – but here is a pictorial record anyway.

• You can follow my recommended cycle routes in the area here

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Another new route. Walk 26, Underriver and Budds, cobbles together the optional scenic extension to Walk 6 with the Wilmot to Budds path of Walk 7. It’s a brilliant walk with a superb hedgerow-lined path currently full of berries, a sunken trail with amazing trees growing out of its embankment, atmospheric oasthouses and far-flung views of the Weald. The woods at One Tree Hill are always a pleasure to walk in, especially the ‘tropical’-feeling bit east of Rooks Hill lane and there are myriad springs and little streams that trickle out of the sandstone ridge at various points – mostly around where the farms are, their positioning being no accident. It’s a two-hour round-trip hike starting and finishing at Underriver village.

For those who do these walks with younger children, I wonder if any of them find the appearance of oasthouses a bit disturbing; I certainly used to when I was small. I still find them fascinating and this walk takes you close to some of the best.

‘Walking’ beech trees on the sunken path near Underriver

The only blot on the landscape is the temporary (we hope) closure of the White Rock Inn, one of the nicest pubs on these walks.

The farms encountered have attractive old houses attached and pasture for horses, sheep and cattle, plus a few alpacas. However, around Budds, the fields are for cereals and can be quite barren depending on time of year. They lack wildlife/wildflower margins too – a slight blemish on what is a tremendous afternoon’s stroll. Check out the interractive map below and, as ever, on the walk’s page there are links to GPX (real time location) maps – including a nice short cut variation too.

 

Summer’s lease

Summer’s lease

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date…

Any weather that isn’t warm and sunny feels like a major disappointment at the moment with autumn round the corner, Covid-19 issues and some fairly other horrendous news going on around the world. We need the compensation of mood-lifting sunlight. But even in these cold, cloudy conditions walks work wonders with wellbeing. Last week, with a few days off work I tried a new route starting from Underriver – in pouring rain as it turned out – that joins on with the One Tree Hill routes. It proved excellent and featured some really interesting farms with lovely old buildings as well as the familiar Greensand Ridge views. I’ll write it up soon but if you do Walk 6 in full (with the western extension past Romshed Farm) you’ll have done it anyway. But maybe I’ll work it into a shorter route too, so time won’t be such a pressure.

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The next day proved equally splashy, so failing to find anyone who wanted to join me I set off down the A2 in teeming rain to the Hoo peninsula. I’ve done the walk there, starting at Cliffe, several times but this was probably the most spectacular occasion yet, with huge storm clouds to the north and south and slivers of sunlight illuminating the bleak marsh. I heard cetti’s warbler, saw a whitethroat, lapwings, avocet and various unidentified waders. A marsh harrier glided across the track at one point; very thrilling if you like that kind of thing. My luck ran out on the final mile, however, as the heavens opened. It’s an hour’s drive from Sydenham but Cliffe is a good place to visit, particularly for bird watching, picking blackberries, elderberries and sloe and gazing over the Thames estuary. You can park at the RSPB reserve or in the car park by the main village church and just wander the marsh paths and tracks. There is a train service to Higham (three miles away) or to Strood – a Thameslink service that can be picked up at London Bridge, Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Charlton. There are local buses (the 133) from Higham/Strood but a taxi might work better.

Over the weekend I returned for the second time in a week to one of my favourites: Fackenden Down, this time in good company – I love a social walk even more than a solitary one! I never tire of this route, one that always delivers in terms of views, rustic atmosphere and so on. It’s still pretty colourful too with ripening berries, scabious and trefoil flowers aplenty on Fackenden Down itself and many chalkhill blue butterflies lingering in the sheltered spots. Very few birds around, however, just a solitary buzzard and a kestrel with a few lingering swallows speeding over the meadows.

Party time for buzzards

Party time for buzzards

Yesterday I was lucky enough to emerge from the trees at the top of Fackenden Down just as eight – yes, eight – buzzards soared in the updraft together overhead, calling out and engaging in mock battles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearby Magpie Bottom was also a picture with mauve scabious flowers and purple knapweed giving the pollinators a real treat. On a small sandy lump, made by burrowing insects I guess, I spied a tiny, dark lizard which shot off as I reached for the camera inevitably.

Fackenden Down, near Shoreham and Otford stations, is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve of rare and superb value. The trust is trying to encourage reptiles, butterflies and more varieties of wildflower to return to the spectacular site but needs money so please donate to them if you can.

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Sky highs

Sky highs

I’ve always paid a lot of attention to sky. Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations. I remember bugging my geography teacher about it: “So why did it rain for 40 minutes yesterday afternoon… was it a cold front or just a convection shower?” He’d study me with a bemused expression that said “yes, I know I gave a lesson on cloud identification yesterday but how the hell am I supposed to know?”, before giving me an answer in a tone of voice that suggested he was guessing.

I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather and hold in my memory particular freak weather moments from years ago.

I think an interest in clouds and meteorology (“I am a meteorologist not a weather man!” – sorry, Larry David reference there) adds something to the walks. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed. Here are some cloud photos from down the years from the walks and from south-east London.

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Something to chew on in Cudham

Something to chew on in Cudham

Here’s a new circular route not far to drive from SE London that’s great for a bit of quiet contemplation and is fun to navigate. Sadly public transport options for getting there aren’t great, though the R5 and R10 buses from Orpington station do drop by from time to time and Knockholt station is a couple of miles away. The Cudham/Knockholt area is rich in paths and sleepy lanes, linking up its chalk valleys and lovely woods. With lots of old hedgerows, meadows and pasture it’s not bad for birdlife with buzzards and finches aplenty.

The walk starts at the recreation ground car park just off Cudham South Lane, close to the hamlet’s lovely church and attractive pub, the Blacksmiths Arms, and takes about 1.5 hours. As car parks go it’s a really pleasant one, too, with playground and huge cricket pitch backed by trees. I’ve called the route “Cudham chalk paths” because it sounds nice and early on there are a couple of trails where the North Downs chalk comes right to the surface. It also differentiates it from the many Cudham circular walks on various other websites.

Being close to walks at Downe, Knockholt and Andrews Wood/Polhill, it’s an easy route to combine with others for a full day out. It also is a bit of a marker as it is the 25th walk I’ve added to Kent Walks Near London. I’m sure there’s another 25 I can rustle up… and I’m open to ideas.

I’ve only ever done this four-mile walk on dull drizzly days so my photos are lacking dazzle but, like I say, it’s a walk that seems to suit quiet reflection and I wouldn’t want to oversell it.

Full instructions with PDF, GPX maps and all the trimmings here.

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Greenwich in the murk

Greenwich in the murk

What a strange period of weather. And how odd that the many thunderstorms that have battered parts of London and the rest of the UK have managed to miss SE London. As Thursday became murkier and murkier and the hail downpours rumbled away to the south and west, I set off on my bike to Greenwich to capture on camera the curious evening light turning orange over the Thames. I failed. But the cycle was great, along the rivers (the Pool and the Ravensbourne), which had been swollen by the storms.

I hit the Thames next to the Oystercatcher restaurant then cycle past the Cutty Sark, stuck my head in at the Navy College and pedalled up to the fantastic Flamsteed House and through the Greenwich Park Flower Garden, returning over Blackheath then through Hither Green and Ladywell. My pictures failed to capture the light but I still like them… On returning I caught the Atletico Madrid v Leipzig Champions League match – a great victory for the German side, as indeed was tonight’s amazing game between Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And what’s the relevance of that you may well ask.

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